Following his write-up of George Miller’s Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior, I present here Danny Peary’s look at Merian C. Cooper’s million-dollar monkey movie, King Kong – first published in Cult Movies 1, in 1981, which examines the film from a Freudian standpoint, although not the one that many would expect, surprisingly –
“With the exception of The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Citizen Kane (1941), no picture has been the subject of more critical writing than the original King Kong, an irreplaceable part of twentieth century American culture, the greatest, most popular, most intriguing horror fantasy film ever made. As King Kong is a testament for those who believe film is a collaborative an, the majority of articles have dealt with the various achievements of the numerous individuals who worked on the project, with the tremendous contributions of special effects genius Willis O’Brien and composer Max Steiner (who understood that Kong should be scored like a silent picture) being singled out most often. Because there is so much available material that documents the technical wizardry of Kong, I will confine myself to two other areas.
An Interpretation. Like most producers, Merian C. Cooper insisted that all his films, including King Kong, were strictly “entertaining pictures,” but Kong is so rich in implication that few critics haven’t read added significance into it. It has been interpreted as: a parable about an innocent, proud country boy (probably a muscular, uneducated black) who is humbled and finally destroyed when he comes to the cold, cruel city; an indictment of “bring ‘em back alive” big game hunters; a racist visualization of the fears a white woman has about being abducted by a black — or, as Harry Geduld and Ronald Gottesman suggest, “a white man’s sick fantasy of the Negro’s lust to ravish white women”; and a parable about the Great Depression, an interpretation I have never understood.
Numerous critics contend that Kong was intentionally filmed as if it were a nightmare. (If the picture is indeed a dream, this would explain the frequent changes in Kong’s size, according to scale.) B. C Dale writes:
“The film manages to bypass the critical, censorious level of the viewers consciousness and to secure his suspension of disbelief with what appears to be great ease. A number of French critics have attributed this phenomenon to the film’s oneiric qualities, its pervasive dreamlike control of some subconscious, uncritical pan of the mind. Indeed it does succeed in dreaming for us.”
I agree that King Kong is dreamlike — in fact, our first view of Skull Island is an exact reproduction of Arnold Bocklin’s dreamlike painting “Isle of the Dead” — but I don’t think that it is our dream we watch on the screen. The film begins in the real world, in dark, cold Depression New York where unemployed, hungry people stand in soup lines; but from the moment The Venture leaves port for uncharted regions, I believe we are on a journey through Carl Denham’s subconscious. Just as Pauline Kael described the landscape of Altair 4 in the Kong influenced Forbidden Planet (1956) as being .the caves, plains, and the towers of Dr. Morbius’s mind,” Skull (as in cerebral) Island’s expressionistic landscape — fertile, overgrown, reptile infested, watery, cave filled — is Denham’s fantasized sexual terrain.
And Kong, I believe, is a manifestation of Denham’s subconscious. Much like Morbius’s Id monster. Whereas Morbius conjures up his monster to kill off the men he fears will take away his daughter (likely his lover in his subconscious), Denham conjures up Kong as a surrogate to battle Driscoll for Ann’s love and to perform sexually with her when he has never been willing (or able) to have a sexual encounter himself. Although young and virile, misogynist Denham has traveled to the far corners of the earth with an all male crew to avoid intimate liaisons because he believes women will strip him of his masculinity (“Some hardboiled egg gets a look at a pretty face and he cracks up and goes sappy”). Kong is Denham’s female lusting side — his alter ego, which he keeps in the dark recesses of his mind, as remotely located as Skull Island, behind a figurative great wall. Kong is evidence of Denham’s desperate need to possess Ann; his birth is a result of Denham’s continuing to suppress his sexual/romantic drive even after he meets, and immediately falls in love with, Ann.
In New York, Denham tells Ann, “Trust me and keep your chin up.” A few seconds of screen time pass, and Ann, now on board The Venture, is struck accidentally by Driscoll — on the chin. This is a sign that Denham can’t be trusted to protect Ann’s physical well being even if he wants to. As his secret (even from himself) love for Ann increases, his Kong side overcomes his desire to protect her. He betrays his lack of concern for her safety (from Kong): for her screen test aboard The Venture, he dresses Ann in white — with her bee stung lips and hair style she looks like one of D. W. Griffith’s virginal Victorian heroines — as if preparing her for sacrifice, or perhaps a sexual initiation rite; then he takes Ann onto Skull island before he knows if it is safe. Just as Denham saved Ann in New York from jail (for stealing an apple), unemployment, and starvation, Kong continues Denham’s gallantry toward Ann on Skull Island, saving her from a tyrannosaur and a pterodactyl. But the difference is clear: the civilized Denham (the man) believes his interest in Ann is “strictly business,” while the primitive Denham (Kong) has placed no such restrictions on himself.
Since Kong is a side of Denham, Kong needn’t follow the movie formula of having Denham and Driscoll vie for Ann’s affections. Denham can allow Driscoll free reign with her because, in truth, the schizophrenic Denham is moving in on Ann from his Kong side. Also, through Kong, Denham tries to eliminate Driscoll and all other men who “pursue” her. When Driscoll’s kisses bring Ann to her height of sexual passion, and her breathing is heavy and her body is like jelly, he is conveniently (as far as Denham is concerned) called to a meeting with Denham and the captain. Suddenly natives, who to Denham probably represent the link between civilized man (himself) and his simian ancestors (apes), climb aboard The Venture at the very spot where Ann stands, at the first moment she is alone, and kidnap her to be Kong’s bride. Is it the natives’ lucky night? Or were things so easy for them — being part of Denham’s dream — because Denham’s subconscious orchestrated the whole thing in their favor?
That Denham and Kong are rarely in the same shot further gives one the impression that Kong is being directed by some external force, namely Denham’s subconscious, At one time Kong is on one side of the tree trunk bridge that holds Driscoll (who climbs off to safety) and several other men pursuing Ann (who fall to their deaths) — while Denham is out of sight on the other side of the bridge and only emerges after Kong has left. Not coincidentally, a later scene in New York shows Kong reaching into a hotel room (to which Denham’s subconscious must have directed him), snatching Ann, and knocking down Driscoll — while Denham is out of sight in the hall and only appears after Kong has left.
Denham and Kong do confront each other (the visualization of Denham’s internal struggle) when Kong breaks through the supposedly impenetrable door of the great wall (Denham’s mental barricade) — just as the Id monster breaks through the supposedly impenetrable laboratory door in Forbidden Planet. Confronted with his bestial side, the civilized Denham — a model for Morbius, who at this point denies his Id monster, thereby making it cease to exist — puts it (Kong) to sleep with gas bombs. Back in New York, Denham still tries to control his sexual side by literally chaining up Kong. However, once Kong breaks out of his supposedly unbreakable chains, Denham’s last barrier, we never see Kong and Denham together again until Kong lies dead.
Denham’s words “it was beauty killed the beast” makes sense only if the beast he’s referring to was part of himself. It is an understatement to say that Kong is too big for Ann, but we could overlook this except for the fact that Kong’s size prevents him from considering her a beauty. That he can’t even recognize Ann by her looks is evident when he pulls the wrong woman from the hotel and can only tell she’s not Ann by hair color and smell — not by beauty. That Kong reacts so violently when the photographers take pictures of Ann is not because he thinks they’re trying to harm her — Kong probably doesn’t recognize her — but because filmmaker Denham, a voyeur (as many critics have acknowledged), becomes filled with jealous rage because others are taking pictures of his actress / woman / property / beauty; and it is his subconscious that wills Kong to intervene by breaking his bonds and chasing the photographers away. Once loose, Kong is out of the civilized Denham’s control and goes all out to succeed in his mission of having sex with Ann. On Skull Island, a snake (a Freudian sex symbol) attacks Kong — a symbolic act that shows Denham is trying to suppress his sexual instincts; however, in New York, Kong attacks the snake — the Third Avenue El — making it clear that nothing will get in his way this time. Having no penis — is impotence the reason Denham avoids women? — Kong has symbolic intercourse with Ann when he takes her up the world’s greatest phallic symbol: the Empire State Building. Once this sexual act has been carried out (consummated), Denham is no longer sexually repressed (or a virgin). As his sexual self can surface at last, he no longer has to enjoy sex vicariously through a surrogate — and Kong, now obsolete, can die. Therefore, it makes sense that in the Cooper Ernest B. Schoedsack sequel, Son of Kong (1934), where Denham is the romantic lead and has a love affair with Helen Mack, the gorilla need not be and is not a sexual being.
Kong as Hero. That Kong is regarded as a hero rather than the prototype for all monster villains is quite extraordinary, considering how many innocent people he kills and how much property he destroys, all done with the emotion of someone eating a melting ice cream cone. His hero status is even more unusual since the recent reinsertion of scenes censored in 1938 from all prints of the film. These scenes of Kong partially stripping Ann (touching her and smelling his finger), viciously trampling and chewing on helpless natives, and dropping the woman he mistakes for Ann to her death from high above the city streets, make Kong’s “beastliness” much more pronounced.
Kong is a hero, I suspect, because he is a great fighter, capable of beating Tunney or Dempsey with his pinky, or the entire United States Air Force if it fought fairly; he gallantly risks his life for his woman; black people see him as a black character who fights White America; the poor see him as their champion who wreaks havoc on New York City, home of Wall Street and the least popular city during the Great Depression and not much more popular since; women see that he doesn’t hide his feelings as most men do. And Kong is certainly sympathetic. We feel sorry for grotesque characters whose love for someone beautiful is not returned — Fay Wray earned her reputation as the screen’s top screamer by shrieking every time Kong came near her. He is taken forcibly from his homeland, where he was god, to be, as Denham tells the theater audience, “merely a captive to gratify your curiosity.” He is destroyed by airplanes, something he can’t understand, for reasons he can’t comprehend. As his last act, he puts Ann in a safe place so she won’t suffer his horrible fate — what is truly upsetting is that Ann doesn’t verbally acknowledge the nobleness of this gesture. Kong dies so tragically and so theatrically (as a hammy silent movie star might) that we forgive and forget all that he has done. But for all this, as Robert Fiedel writes in The Girl in the Hairy Paw (Avon, 1976), “Most critics have always been at a loss to give adequate explanation for the great feeling of tragedy evoked by Kong’s death.” When the airplanes start firing on Kong we suddenly feel we are losing our best friend, when up till now we have thought Kong our enemy. I believe Fiedel pinpoints the reason for our dramatic reversal:
“The answer lies, in fact, in the musical score… Nowhere is the score more manipulative than in the death scene. As Kong realizes that his death is immediately impending, we hear a lamenting variation of the “Ann Darrow” motif played passionately by the strings… Then as Kong finally dies and loses his hold atop the Empire State Building, his motif is resolved by rest chords… signifying his acceptance of defeat… Kong’s actual fall is accompanied by a sustained blaring dissonant chord, and finally resolved by an orchestral outburst. It is interesting that his fall is resolved only by the score, and not by the visuals… The score serves the vital function of resolving the tension of the actual fall and denoting the precise moment to trigger our emotional responses… As Denham muses philosophically over the body of Kong… a celestial statement of the “Ann Darrow” motif is played in the upper string register which makes a final tragic comment on the death of Kong. A final recapitulation of the resolved “Kong” motif ensues, concluding the film on a negative, disturbing theme.”
King Kong is an institution, a folk hero, certainly more real to us today than the defunct studio that created him. Kong has been resurrected so many times — initially by major studio releases in 1938, 1942, 1946, 1952, and 1956, and then by impossible to miss television and repertory theater screenings — that he has become immortal. The King is dead!”
– by Danny Peary, published in Cult Movies 1, 1981.