The Passion Of The Kong: A great ape, purged of his life, for the sins of man.
“And the prophet said: ‘And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day it was as one dead.’ ‘Old Arabian proverb.’”
Over the Easter weekend I watched my wife cry as both Jeffrey Hunter and Max Von Sydow were crucified in their respective Jesus movies. I hadn’t realized the New Testament was a tearjerker. I thought of the first movie that made me cry, King Kong. We all cried when that big ape died. We rooted for Kong. We wanted to be Kong. Naomi Watts wanted to know Kong in the biblical sense. Kong had that kind of power. He embodied the symbols of oppression, injustice and unrequited love in a way we could see and feel immediately. The myth came alive fully formed. Kong was the ultimate outsider, “not man, not god, but king of his world.” Kong was an ape, an innocent animal, a sexy beast that was ripped from his kingdom and sacrificed. Martyred. King Kong was Christ. Or at least he was a Christ figure in the 1933 RKO picture. Not the peace-loving Christ of St. Matthew, maybe more like the warrior-messiah promised in the Old Testament, but he was no conqueror, he was protecting his and what he loves. His motivation was love. Every death was a wonder for Kong. The Kingdom of Kong is within.
King Kong was produced and directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack in 1933. Daring and innovative in all aspects of filmmaking, it still informs today’s special effects, with its use of camera angles and forced perception and live action against animation. The special effects were the eighth wonder of the time and in many ways still remain unmatched, especially when you consider the work that went into perfecting the illusions. The look was painstakingly created long before such effects were routinely created and a world apart from today’s computer-generated effects. Amazingly minute attention to such details as the animated seagulls that cross when the ship arrives at Skull Island; the blood that drips from the mouth of the Tyrannosaurus Rex; the blinking of the eyes and the waving of the tail of the stegosaurus in its death throes; how the brontosaurus snakes its head around the tree to pluck the sailor for a quick nibble. The movie also broke sexual, thematic and spiritual ground.
King Kong was ripped from a far-away prehistoric land, not in our reality, where the extinction of species has been passed over. Dinosaurs live among giant beasts, which live among what must be early man, who has walled himself off from the dangers. Kong was revered as a god. Kong was brought by evil capitalists to Radio City Music Hall where he was exhibited in chains. His arms outstretched on a huge wooden cross with a big neon sign reading “The Eighth Wonder of the World” over his head. Jesus had the words “King of the Jews” (INRI: I’m Nailed Right In) above his head in plain wood. Photographers want him to perform miracles. He sees the kiss between Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll and knows he was betrayed. That “beauty killed the beast” line was Denham absolving himself, passing on the blame. You never see Punctured Pilot actually washing his hands in any of the Jesus Movies.
King Kong was crucified at Radio City Music hall, he was resurrected and on the 34th street, he ascended, for love, on the biggest phallic symbol of the time: The Empire State Building. I still look for Kong when I see it, which is daily. The Empire State Building is a holy place, beautifully designed in art deco architecture. It will always be the gateway to Kong’s ascension. King Kong is a superior ape. Man is just an evolved ape. Jesus is seen as either just a man or just an evolved man. Kong is all powerful; Kong embodies the endless possibilities of nature. Gorilla of our dreams. There is no anti-Kong as there is an anti-Christ.
They worshiped him as one people. How old was King Kong that he still defied an ancient wall barring him from half of his kingdom. Is Kong immortal?
King Kong is uncommon, but stands in for common man. He has come to represent the lowest of man, the salt of the earth, the worker, strong and oppressed. He is not Superman. He is Everyman. He’s not even man; he is removed from human experience. A higher being, he is elevated just above man, as ape. He towers over man. Mark Twain foretold this when he turned Darwinism on its head in “The Lowest Animal” allowing social examples to prove, logically and empirically, using scientific laboratory experimental methods, with great attention to accuracy that man is the lowest of the life forms. “Below us nothing. “ Above us, Kong.
Kong was the savior. He saved Ann Darrow from beasts and tried to free her from an even more beastly civilization. Modern society can’t see the divinity of the life before reason or religion. Kong was the light of the world. He united the people of Skull Island. They worshiped him as one people. How old was King Kong that he still defied an ancient wall barring him from half of his kingdom. Is Kong immortal? How old are the people of Skull Island? And who are these people. If they live on an island untouched by time then they might be the first people, the dawn of man, all-natural and unspoiled by the changing world. The natives of Skull Island co-exist with the earliest of known species. We don’t see any elderly residents of Skull Island. We don’t know how old they grow to be, they seem forever caught in youth.
Skull Island is, like the paradise Christ promised, not of this world. It was removed from the reality of modern civilization. It was removed from time. It’s not even on any navigational maps. It is uncharted territory, outside the known world. Skull Island, we hear Denham tell the captain, was located “due south 90 miles west of Sumatra,” according to a hand-made map made by “the skipper of a Norwegian bark” who had rescued some men who escaped the island with their lives, but ultimately died on his ship. Skull Island is older than civilization itself, it follows ancient laws. The island was surrounded by a wall “built so long ago that the people who live here now have forgotten the higher civilization that built it.” The natives keep the wall in repair. “The need it. “ Jack Driscoll, played by Bruce Cabot, tells Ann that the wall is not as big as Angkor, another little known, but impressive ancient city in Cambodia. This wall lasted until 1939 when it was set on fire during the burning of Atlanta scene in Gone with the Wind.
King Kong has been claimed as a symbol representing the underdog. He has thumped his chest for class and for race. At the time, the depression, the people clung to Kong as he raged against society, tearing down Radio City Music Hall (Yankee Stadium was originally planned as the location), more than socially awkward appearing like that with all those tuxedoes around him. I know it was after six, but still. He’s an ape in a cage in a one-ring circus. They should be serving red-hots and peanuts. Kong also resonated with African-Americans at the time, in his conflict against his white oppressor. Though the depiction of blacks in the film is still rightfully mocked and ridiculed, it was not as racist as Tarzan movies. The Chinese cook did call the natives “crazy black men” when he finds evidence they abducted Darrow. But the power of Kong transcends this. The film has been enthusiastically scrutinized for its racial and social themes. Cooper has disavowed these “insights” into his film; he was not the kind of person to consider injecting messages into his productions.
Kong endures a hail of bi-plane bullets, as did Jesus the devices of Roman flagellation.
“There’s only one Carl Denham” and Robert Armstrong acts the shit out of him. He sets out to make “the greatest picture in the world. Something nobody’s ever seen or heard of.” He has a natural carney and advertising sensibility and “you’ll have to think up a lot of new adjectives.” His films have everything but a love interest. He and his crew have to set sail quickly to get to their destination before the monsoon season starts, but Denham needs a star.
Denham doesn’t find his star in the good women of the Women’s Home Mission. He needs a thief. A sinner. He needs a sexualized being. He needs Mary Magdalene. Caught stealing, of all things, an apple, Denham sees Ann Darrow, portrayed by Fay Wray, who has the greatest scream in film history in this movie. Ann Darrow has only done “extra work on Long Island.” Carl promises her “money, and adventure, and fame! It’s the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage that starts at six o’clock tomorrow morning!” The camera consistently casts Darrow in star lighting. It gives her an angelic glow. Her pale skin, the white dress and cinematic lighting enhance her whiteness. It is similar to the lighting used in Western Christian art, where figures of divinity like the Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ were traditionally depicted in a lighter shade than other figures. It oozes holiness and spiritual power. But Magdalene is sexualized and, according to Cooper, Darrow was “constructed as the apotheosis of desirability, all that a man could want.” The camera repeatedly catches her image from the point of view of King Kong like the scene in which the ape partially undresses his captive and sniffs at her and her clothes. On the ship, Ann plays with the chained monkey. Kong never really touches Ann Darrow, except to tickle her or keep her safe. He knows he, like Christ, would be overwhelming.
The voyage to Skull Island was like going up the river into the heart of darkness to find Kurtz. The myth gets larger as they approach the island. Denham spouts clues to the myths. “The beast was a tough guy too. He could lick the world. Be he saw beauty and she got him, He went soft. He forgot his wisdom and the little fellas licked him.” Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) has heard of the Kong legend, calling him “a god or a spirit or something … a native superstition. Neither god nor man.” But Denham reminds him “every legend has its basis in truth.” So it has been said of Christ.
Darrow was offered to Kong in a spectacular nighttime ceremony, the matinee having been cancelled by Denham and his crew when they spoiled the ritual by filming it, atop an incomplete pyramid. Kong was reverently called out by the tribe with elaborate gestures and loving language. The Witch King, played by Steve Clemento, speaks soothingly and ecstatically when summoning Kong. They share something that we, in civilization, lack the faith to see.
The number three plays a big part in the Christ story, he is part of the trinity, he drops the cross three times, he rises on the third day, and he has 12 disciples. It also figures strongly in King Kong. Kong fights three beasts protecting Ann, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a giant snake with feet and a pterodactyl. Kong stumbles three times on top of the Empire State Building and hits three tiers on his fall. Denham loses 12 men from his crew chasing after Kong.
Kong has become a pop deity in the years since the 1933 version came out. A popular button in the 60s, the Illuminatus Trilogy book series and a poem by Yabe Yablonsky published in the Whole Earth Catalog in June 1971 proclaimed “King Kong Died for Our Sins.” In Dino De Laurentis’ remake, an energy executive was looking for oil and finds a more valuable natural resource, Kong. Peter Jackson missed the point entirely. Jack Black’s Carl Denham was utterly unbelievable saying the “beauty killed the beast” line. It’s not just out of character, it seems like it comes from another movie.
King Kong isn’t the standard, purposeful, tear-jerker, but it jerked mine. The death of the Frankenstein monster made me sad. Dracula’s death usually pissed me off. They were all powerful creatures, acting according to their nature. None of them deserved the judgment imposed on them by a society they were not part of. It was reported that King Kong was Adolph Hitler’s favorite movie. He cried when the Kong, the underdog, was defeated, an image I wish someone caught on film. Maybe he saw himself as Fay Wray. Blondes were “pretty scarce” on Skull Island. Kong, of course, was gassed by hundreds of canisters, each of which “could have dropped an elephant.” I would hate to imagine this was in any way an inspiration to attempted genocide. As a tearjerker, it is very effective. As effective as Terms of Endearment, but closer to the tears people shed for Jesus of Nazareth. Kong is not a monster. He is Christ. King Kong died for our sins. I may have my doubts about Christ, but I believe in King Kong.
This was originally published in AltVariety in May 2012.
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