Why King Kong Can Never Escape His Past

From Kong: Skull Island to the character's 19th century roots, we examine the history and origins of King Kong

He stands there, taller than before but imminently familiar in shape. Now appearing larger than the actual Empire State Building observatory he once hung on to for dear life, King Kong in Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ Kong: Skull Island is a massive cinematic presence resurrected in a new environment. The title of the film suggests we’ve come home to the far-flung locale of Hollywood cinema’s most profound early fantasy, but this Skull Island is a departure from anything we’ve seen before.

Shot primarily in Vietnam and Hawaii, the real-world location photography intentionally echoes previous American excursions into Southeast Asian jungles that ended tragically, a visual cue that is hardly lost in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ movie since he liberally invokes the sweeping vistas of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. That feverish psychedelic haze, where filmmakers adapted Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to tell the story of America losing its soul in the jungles of Vietnam, also may have cost its director his sanity. Granted, that’s par for the course in these kind of primordial fables about the crashing forces of civilization and the “primitive” natural order.

Indeed, despite the thrilling novelty of seeing King Kong swat U.S. Huey choppers out of the sky like he was the Viet Cong’s belated response to Robert Duvall’s morning coffee napalm, the visual of a giant gorilla standing in for a civilization that consumed American foreign policy, Coppola’s grip on reality, and by extension Conrad’s Victorian, literary dread of “the horror” feels like a homecoming. After all, the most successful Kong movies drowned in this type of romantic clash of cultures.

Whether it was supporting players Jamie Bell and Evan Parke dragging down the pace of Peter Jackson’s King Kong to have an academic discourse about the merits of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the 2005 movie, or the original 1933 classic eulogizing the greatest fantasies from the previous generation’s Age of Wonders, Kong’s cinematic language is written in a vocabulary of the past. The better film versions are always looking back at times gone by, be it Vietnam or the Great White Hunters of Victorian and Edwardian novels, high literature and dime novels all. By gazing backward, only then does Kong’s reign resonate in the here and now.

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At its very grand conception, the original King Kong from Merian C. Cooper was the product of a man with one eye on the future and another set firmly in the past. Cooper was in many ways a futurist in ideals but a traditionalist in his passions. The son of an American military family with a history of service, Cooper attended Annapolis at a young age and might’ve been a disciplined Navy man if not for his constant ability to become distracted (he was expelled in his senior year for arguing that air power was greater than any sea vessel). In 1916, he was riding with the Georgia National Guard in an attempt to bring Pancho Villa to what Americans believed was justice. And by 1917, he was serving as a fighter pilot during the First World War—where he was shot down twice.

It was also during the Great War that he met Ernest B. Schoedsack, a man distracted by the same love for adventurism as himself. In the post-war, Cooper’s adoration for aviation was only matched by both men’s shared and burgeoning obsession with moviemaking. Together they produced and directed “natural dramas,” innovative documentaries that took liberal license in spiking up the excitement in images of tigers rushing the camera, often held by Schoedsack, with edited-in footage of natives supposedly running in terror.

Their eventual Hollywood narratives at RKO were obvious melodramas based on the sportsman ideal they both aspired to. Prior to King Kong, they produced the still thrillingly pulpy The Most Dangerous Game in 1932. That picture also featured Kong’s Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, but here they were captives of a sadistic Russian count who escaped the Bolshevik purge only to hunt human beings for sport on his secluded island.

And just as Schoedsack’s eventual wife Ruth Rose accompanied him on expeditions into foreign jungles to gather footage of dangerous beasts and exotic natives, she also would be the inspiration for King Kong’s Ann Darrow. She even came aboard the giant ape film late in production to punch up the dialogue and plotting.

All three lived remarkably exciting lives, but King Kong obviously came from more than anecdotal experiences.

Cooper apparently first became fascinated by the idea of great apes while reading as a boy French-American Paul Du Chaillu’s Adventures in The Great Forest of Equatorial Africa. An 1890 reprint of his longer previous volumes, the text detailed Du Chaillu’s expeditions in West Africa where he became the first European to confirm the existence of gorillas and pygmies. Or more precisely, as Du Chaillu breathlessly insists in his own preface, “I may claim to be the first white man who penetrated into that vast and unbroken forest.”

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Along with a childhood fed by the literature of Rudyard Kipling, Cooper was reared on tales of Victorian colonialism and conquest. He and Schoedsack even adapted Kipling’s The Four Feathers to the screen in 1929. However, the other supposed inspiration for King Kong came, by Cooper’s memory, from W. Douglas Burden’s world famous expedition to the Komodo Island in 1926, where he confirmed the fabled “land crocodiles” existed. He coined the term Komodo Dragon and brought two live specimens back to London where they withered and died. In fact, Cooper initially toyed with the horrible idea of capturing real-life gorillas in Africa and then taking them to Komodo and filming them do battle with the dragons.

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However, a likely influence that Cooper did not mention is the silent film The Lost World. An adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed story, that movie was an obvious point of reference for Cooper since its special effects were pioneered by the masterful Willis O’Brien, whose stop-motion technique would be perfected for Cooper eight years later when he designed King Kong from the ground-up. And in addition to featuring a jungle reserve stuffed with dinosaurs, The Lost World film of 1925 also took major departures from Doyle, including by ending the film with a Brontosaurus being captured by white explorers, who take the creature back to England, only to see it escape and wreak havoc on jolly ol’ London Town.

In many respects, The Lost World, both the novel and its film adaptation, are the forerunner that defines much of what we associate today with King Kong, and though the book was published rather late in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s career in 1912, it is thoroughly a product of Victorian anxieties, fantasies, and aspirations. Doyle himself was influenced by the exploits of British explorer Percy Fawcett, who despite living in the Edwardian era still dreamed of achieving the lofty heights of Queen Victoria’s most revered explorers who tamed dark and mysterious continents in the name of Her Majesty’s Empire.

Fawcett was one of the great pioneers in surveying Amazonia, as well as tracing the source of the Rio Verde River. A friend of Doyle, Fawcett had progressive views for an Englishman, convinced that there was an ancient lost civilization of “Z” to be found in the depths of the Amazon (he even vanished while searching for it long after the Empire had waned in 1925).

However, the creator of Sherlock Holmes took a more conservative view of the mysteries in South America with The Lost World. In that novel, good Englishmen high on the thrill of discovery cut their way to a forgotten plateau at the top of a volcanic Amazonian basin. On that plateau is a world of dinosaurs, ancient prehistoric mammals… and ape-men.

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In fact, the last third of the novel turns into a battle of civilizations, as the more human-looking and good (enough) South American Indians help the white explorers defeat the savage and barbarous ape-men. As the book’s moral authority Professor Challenge extols after the final victory over the savages hidden in the jungles is secured:

“We have been privileged… to be present at one of the typical decisive battles of history—the battles which have determined the fate of the world. What, my friends, is the conquest of one nation by another? It is meaningless. Each produces the same result. But those fierce fights, when in the dawn of the ages the cave-dwellers held their own against the tiger folk, or the elephant first found that they had a master, those were the real conquests—the victories that count. By this strange turn of fate, we have seen and helped to decide even such a contest. Now upon this plateau, the future must ever be for man.”

And with all the scientific curiosity of a steam engine, Challenger is instantly deciding that they will civilize the Indians they deem human and completely strip mine the plateau of its mystery and kill those they don’t like, much as Denham would ruin the mystique of Kong by transporting him as a novelty circus act to New York City.

Doyle’s opinions on these far continents are not anomalies. The Lost World was one of the last great pieces of literature that was a byproduct of an age rocked with the revelations of Darwinism and the prospect of the origin of our species not being wholly divine. Consequently, European fiction and pseudo-science became obsessed with ideas of “degeneration” and de-evolving into a more base, animalistic self. It is visible in the fear of Dr. Jekyll transforming himself into the grotesque Mr. Hyde in Robert Louis Stevenson’s strange story; it informed Bram Stoker’s Victorian nightmare of a Count from the “East” who could take on the shape of a wolf or bat and prey upon modern, susceptible young ladies; and it became quite literal in H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau. In that story, a mad scientist has created ungodly human-animal hybrids by vivisection, which made social (and racial) fears about “degenerating” into ape-like creatures a literal narrative.

Never mind how these ubiquitous social anxieties fueled real-world prejudices and pseudo-scientific excuses for discrimination throughout the West.

So novels like The Lost World featuring ape-men in a land that time forgot are not that surprising. The book also went on to influence Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot and a million other things besides King Kong. And all of this is too drawing from Heart of Darkness, a far more high-brow piece of literature from 1899. With no fantastic creatures, save for men themselves, Joseph Conrad drew on his own experiences in the Congo to create a narrative about how the wilds of Africa, the dark continent, drive white men mad when deprived from the airs of English civilization.

In the book, an ivory trader named Kurtz becomes worshipped as a god by African natives, which in turn pushes Kurtz over the edge into violent, deluded savagery. By Conrad’s own description of his novella, it’s a “wild story of a journalist who becomes manager of a station in the interior and makes himself worshipped by a tribe of savages. The subject seems comic, but it isn’t.”

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Modern readings of what is still in its own right a wonderful book have not found much to laugh at in the subtext. Barack Obama recalled a collegiate obsession with the novella in his memoir Dreams From My Father, stating, “See, the book’s not really about Africa. Or black people. It’s about the man who wrote it. The European. The American. A particular way of looking at the world. If you can keep your distance, it’s all there, in what’s said and what’s left unsaid.” Also curiously, while president, Obama purchased a copy of Heart of Darkness for his daughters in 2014.

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These elements are implicit in the original King Kong, and you don’t need Peter Jackson to literally namedrop Conrad’s story of Kurtz and the Congo to pick up on it. In Cooper’s King Kong, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a fantasy avatar for the director-producer. Denham’s also a moviemaker, dammit, and he made natural dramas and documentaries before throwing in “a girl” to placate audiences. He goes to Skull Island, eager to find sights that no “white man” has ever glimpsed. The locals of the island are savage, practicing human sacrifice, and they worship their own Kurtz, except now he is a 50-foot gorilla.

It is a melding of Cooper’s childhood obsessions with his modern sensibilities, as seen in the onscreen use of filmmaking and, in the end, aviation since airplanes take down the beast. Hell, Cooper and Schoedsack even gave themselves cameos as the airplane pilot and gunner that brought Kong down.

The fact that Kong became who audiences rooted for, and not the directors in the airplane, may have at least as much to do with Willis O’Brien’s emphasis on turning the creature into a lovable animal—and his Beauty and the Beast relationship with Ann Darrow—as the filmmakers’ aspiration for a suspenseful finish.

Since 1933, there have been several major Hollywood remakes or reimaginings of Cooper’s amalgamation of passions. The first, and worst, is Dino De Laurentiis’ legendarily awful 1976 remake, which sought to modernize King Kong in every possible way. It was not about a moviemaking crew; it focuses on an oil company’s search for more profit; the hero was a tree-hugging, anti-authoritarian hippie played by an appropriately strung out Jeff Bridges; and Kong himself is a horny primate that is obsessed with blowing kisses at poor, abused Jessica Lange.

In an attempt at modernity, De Laurentiis ended up with a movie that had nothing to say. Peter Jackson fared far better with 2005’s King Kong. A film that is too long by at least 45 minutes, we still find that he managed to rework it as a graceful tragedy. He also is the one to most literally pinpoint the aforementioned subtext and influences of the original film. Unlike De Laurentiis, Jackson realized that Kong works as a creature from the past—an animal of a bygone era.

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The original King Kong movie was influenced by the exploration and triumphs of the late 19th century’s fabled Age of Wonders. White adventurers from the West taming Africa, South America, even Antarctica, all in the glory of civilization. By 1933, that too was a time that had come to pass after the Great War. Yet, Denham found the last square foot of mystery on the map in Skull Island, and that becomes an explicit goal for the filmmaker in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake.

Characters read and discuss Heart of Darkness to understate their own drive and ambition for exploring Skull Island, and unlocking its dangerous secrets, including that damned big ape. The film also tries to curb the pro-colonial undertones of the original film by depicting Kong as not a monster, but a majestic animal misunderstood by everyone, save for Naomi Watts’ Ann Darrow. Nature is to be loved, not only feared. Jackson also tries to skirt the terror of dark skinned natives by making them red-eyed supernatural devils in his film, but it is definitely arguable whether that made it better or worse.

This all circles back to Kong: Skull Island, a much lighter and slighter film than Jackson’s ’05 remake and the ’33 classic. But it is still a potent and highly entertaining picture, directed with visual gusto by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who evokes comic book paneling as much as he does Coppola. Siddhant Adlakha at Birth.Movies.Death. has already done a fabulous job of unpacking the 2017 film’s anti-war subtexts. Well, they’re actually broad enough to probably just be “texts.”

However, it is quite telling that the Kurtz of this movie is not Kong himself, but rather the human character of Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Already embittered by the fact that the Vietnam War ended in defeat, or as he explains “it was abandoned,” he views King Kong slaughtering his men in helicopters as the final straw—as well as a renewal of military purpose.

Like Ahab, he will chase this beast to the gates of Hell, and also like Kurtz he loses his mind to the “madness” of the jungle. But it is no longer nature that is mad; it’s the deluded, vainglorious civilization trying to control it. For Conrad, Cooper, Apocalypse Now, and even Peter Jackson’s movie, the natural world is an inhospitable place due to its ferocity. Yet in Kong: Skull Island, the ape no longer represents some missing link or threat of degeneration; rather he is a pure hero and the real evil is the man who tries to control him, in this case, Packard. Civilization is the one found lacking and that destroys itself before the purity of an ancient force like King Kong. This is also underscored by the natives in Skull Island being peaceful and kind to the white skinned travelers who get trapped on the island—we’re the barbarians for trying to kill their god.

Today, the 1970s that De Laurentiis failed to mine in his remake are vintage, and the themes are easier to dissect and even fully reverse. Perhaps that ability to tap into previous generations’ (mis)adventures is what keeps King Kong so timely now.