Long before there were twin towers in New York, destined to rise and then crash down upon beleaguered Manhattan Island, two other great wonders loomed over that storied skyline — behemoths that were uneven in mass but appeared as equals in our hearts, and to our watching eyes.
One was real, a building named after imperial ambition, erected in a fever of zealous optimism that defied even the depths of the Great Depression. Propelled by the renowned American appetite for commerce, technological achievement and hubristic accomplishment, the Empire State Building symbolized — far better than the later, doomed, World Trade Center towers — a brash Modernist Agenda.
The other titan was mythical, a fabled embodiment of all that contrasted with modernism. King Kong. An ape, but so much more. A proto-man, primitive, solitary and fiercely proud, representing everything about us that the architects and builders aimed to ignore, or leave behind.
But we cannot simply leave it all behind. The legacy follows us everywhere, even into our prim urban landscapes — the pure-but-dangerous innocent that we find both attractive and terrifying, especially when we look in a mirror and realize how few generations separate us from the jungle, from the cave.
Movies last an hour or two, but legends need time to grow. Though King Kong was a commercial success in 1933, the giant gorilla flickered only briefly on a few hundred screens before giving way to other stirring tales, or real-life concerns. As some of the contributors to this book relate, Kong's story had to be repeated on television's smaller screen for new generations of youth and adults to embrace it fully as their own, making it a core fable of our culture, recognized by all.
At the surface, there is little to this simple story that cannot be described in a single paragraph. A movie impresario, modeled after the Kong's own adventurer-producers (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack), takes a brave crew and beautiful ingénue to a distant, uncharted isle. There, natives barely stave off prehistoric beasts through liberal use of sacrificial virgins — the stuff of pulp adventure fiction at its lowest ebb. (Even Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard gave their distressed-but-plucky damsels more to do than simply scream and writhe enticingly, the pathetically simple role assigned to poor Ann Darrow (as played by Fay Wray in the original King Kong). When natives kidnap our blonde temptress as an offering to their ape-god, the impresario sends a hunky hero-type, leading movie-expendable crewmates into the jungle to battle a mélange of exaggerated Mesozoic and Cenozoic monsters in order to rescue her. Meanwhile, Beast has a few bonding moments with Beauty . . . including a bit of titillating, involuntary disrobing amid several desperate battles to protect his newfound treasure . . . .
All right, make it two paragraphs. When Hunk steals Beauty away from Kong's pinnacle lair, Kong makes his fatal error and follows. Leaving his domain, crossing the threshold "into town," he becomes vulnerable to urban humanity's power, a power made manifest by the impresario's marvelous sleep-gas bombs. Whereupon — through the wonder of cinematic cutaway — Kong swiftly finds himself put on humiliated display in a different kind of jungle, entirely. And it is here that King Kong becomes more than just another early-talky adventure film, or a notably clever experiment in stop-action photography. For here, at his humiliating nadir, Kong wins the movie audience over, forcing them to abandon all ambivalence. It seems, at that crucial moment, as if he draws as much strength from our sympathy as from primal rage. Shattering his bonds and reclaiming his ingenue prize, he scales the highest pinnacle that he can find. Seeking refuge? Or a sacred height to make his last stand?
Kong's hopeless struggle, against a swarm of machine-gun equipped biplanes, has to be one of the great moments of heroic imagery, not just in cinema, but on a par with Hector confronting Achilles on the Plains of Illium, or the Old Guard standing hopelessly erect at Waterloo. Equal to Crockett at the Alamo, or Balin's futile defense of Moria.
No, it is better than all of those. At least I think so. I will argue that it's so.
But that is the point of this book. To argue joyfully about the meaning of something mythical — an event that never really happened at all! You have seen the original motion picture, possibly the 1976 sequel starring Jessica Lange, and probably (by now) Peter Jackson's much anticipated 2005 remake. If you were the sort of person who believed that "a story is just a story," you would not have picked up a book like this one, in which twenty-two insightful and richly varied thinkers try to show how much more depth and meaning reside in this legend than even its original makers consciously knew.
Surveying this collection of wit and insight has reminded me of another legend about a huge and marvelous beast. The Blind Men and the Elephant is a familiar fable about a dozen sightless philosophers, each of whom tries to appraise and describe a pachyderm by touch alone. One, stroking a huge leg, likens the elephant to a tree. Another, fondling the trunk, declares that it is very much like a snake. So it is here, as an eclectic and brainy bunch analyze Kong in the light of their own obsessions and concerns.
Essays range from nostalgic ruminations about young boys and their love of movie monsters, all the way to entrancing, alternate world fantasies by David Gerrold and Pamela Sargent. (Picture Kong, the fifty foot tall actor, who tragically only managed to make this one film before his untimely death. Or Kong, seeing the light at the last moment, about lost love.)
Some contributors chose to be tough-minded and grownup. Dario Maestripieri, Robert Metzger and Joseph Miller bring in science to tell us how much (or little) of the story is plausible, while Bruce Bethke supplies yet another reality check, showing why Peter Jackson had to go back in time, setting his Kong in the same Depression era as the original.
King Kong is a period piece and must always remain so. Dino de Laurentis's 1976 remake failed, not especially because of lousy acting or poor direction, but because it took Kong out of when he belonged and tried to put him into a then-contemporary setting. The story of Kong requires innocence; it requires terra incognita . . . ."
Other writers went to the opposite extreme of wallowing joyfully in ungrounded fantasy. For example, Robert Hood enthusiastically compares Kong to the ever-popular Godzilla, while Adam-Troy Castro dives into a provocative thought experiment pondering how the story might have gone, if Anne Darrow had been left with Kong in his domain on Skull Island.
Paul Levinson, Robert Hood and Nick Mamatas relate, in their essays, how the images and lessons of King Kong impacted both upon their own lives and the society around them.
Film buffs aren't neglected. Rick Whitten-Klaw relates the real life adventures of Schoedsack and Cooper, whose hair-raising personal tales rival those of any movie hero. Renowned painter Bob Eggleton covers Kong as a marvel of cinematic art and special effects, a tradition largely invented by the legendary Willis O'Brien and, carrying forward through his disciple, the great Ray Harryhausen, all the way to the brilliantly creative effects wizards in today's industry. (Arguably the only consistently original and creative element in modern cinema.) While Steven Rubio disdains the 1976 remake, James Lowder ponders the tradition of classic horror stories, and Keith DeCandido repudiates all deep explanations in favor of what-you-see-is-what-you-get; an adventure tale of beast vs. hunters and anthropological stupidity, with "beauty" having very little to do with it.
Offering a genuine "Aha!" moment, Adam Roberts argues — persuasively — that Kong is essentially a children's story, appealing to us in much the same way that size differences — at both ends of the spectrum — fascinate kids, who both stomp and chew on their toys, like a gorilla, and warily avoid being stomped by grownups.
(See more on this issue of scale, below.)
Of course, there are essays for the sober intellectual. We haven't neglected literary criticism and textual analysis!
Yet, here is where comparison to The Blind Men and the Elephant becomes especially apt, with each savant zooming in upon a particular perspective, almost-certainly excluding other interpretations. For example, John C. Wright examines Kong in terms of American hubris in a technological age that challenges our love of the underdog. And James Gunn gives us the context of contemporary science fiction in the 1930s, when SF became the most unabashedly American of all literary genres.
Can Kong be viewed as a metaphor representing the quandary of urbanization? Like millions who were at the same time pouring into cities from the countryside, Kong was faced with a problem of adapting. A hapless rube in Metropolis, did he speak for thousands of farm boys and girls who were finding strength to be a poor match for sophisticated city ways?
It gets deeper. For example, Charlie Starr argues that we should reverse the usual notion, that the giant ape represents primitive man. Starr contends instead that Kong symbolizes a new, rebellious individualism — the Nietschean Über man — elevated by Darwinism to a position of Godhood, only to be brought down when the limits of his own animal nature are exploited by lesser men.
Starr adroitly points out some of the historical roots to this fable. "In King Kong we're presented with an archetype as old as Enkidu and the Sumerian harlot in the Epic of Gilgamesh . . . ." (Still, I always thought that Enkidu was the retro figure in that tale, sent by gods to enforce old ways, not to open up the new.) In contrast, Don DeBrandt roots for Beauty, seeing her less as destroyer and more as preserver or creator. In all three King Kong films, according to DeBrandt, Beauty represents civilization. Though each film shows her changed by evolving values, and at first-sight she seems vulnerable to beastly ravishment, the constant theme is that she endures, triumphant in the end.
Even more imaginative and focused, Natasha Giardina offers a postmodernist/feminist perspective that portrays the mighty ape as a towering monument to masculine insecurity, and perhaps misogyny. King Kong is a pure howl, according to Giardina, relentlessly expressing fear of obsolescence and emasculation by autonomous femininity. All sides in the classic confrontation — both Kong and his persecutors — represent pathetically terrified and libido-obsessed maledom. With back hair, yet.
But then, does this apply to all movie monsters, even those who aren't beauty-transfixed or spinally hirsute? And what of women who avow different, more complex feelings toward Kong?
Almost in direct refutation, Rick Whitten-Klaw tells us about the marvelous Ruth Rose, who married Schoedsack, but only after proving her independent mettle with stirring, scientific adventures around the world, in jungles and at sea. In a league with Amelia Earhart and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Rose later became lead scriptwriter for King Kong, a fact that raises a myriad questions in modern minds. Like: why did so little of that "spunk" get translated into the role of Anne Darrow, as portrayed by Fay Wray? Many aspects of that character were clearly modeled after Rose herself. And yet, clearly, she would have been more assertive in the same situation. Pursued by a giant ape, Ruth Rose would have done a lot more that just scream.
(Is that, perhaps, one of the messages? Throughout the film, there are countless opportunities for viewers — both men and women — to say I'd do things differently, maybe a whole lot better.)
What fun! Clearly, all of these authors and thinkers enjoyed writing their contributions, getting a bit extravagant on the topic of . . . well . . . the most extravagant fellow ever portrayed on celluloid.
My own role appears to be a bit more sober (alas!): to offer a range of perspective tools that the reader can take along on this adventure.
Let's start with a little humility. After all, at one level it is "just a movie," made to earn money through the simple delivery of entertaining diversion. Let me quote from one of the better books about King Kong written in the last century, The Making of King Kong: The story behind a film classic (1975), by Orville Goldner and George Turner.
Many writers have tried to justify the public's love affair with a gigantic, ugly ape by reading into the film a great deal more significance than was intended by its creators. European Communists insist that when Kong smashes the gates of the native village he symbolizes Karl Marx. A French critic, apparently confusing Ruth Rose with Rose La Rose or Gypsy Rose Lee, attributed the picture's erotic aspects to the "fact" that it was partly written by "a former strip-teaser." Others insist Kong was black in order to represent the plight of the Negro in America, who also was brought to these shores in chains and exploited by the white man. Freudians point with glee to the irony of Kong retreating to the top of "the most elaborate phallic symbol in the world" — the Empire State Building. For Freudians, too, are the "mock crucifixion" of Kong, the "proxy gratification" of depression-angry audiences via Kong's destructive rampage in New York, a brontosaurus that reminds them of Leda's swan, and so on, ad nauseam. Such notions are firmly denied by the persons behind the film, who view them variously with disgust or amusement.
We earnestly suggest that simple explanations are best: Kong was not darker in hue than any other gorilla, he smashed the gates solely because he wanted to recapture Fay Wray, his atrocious behaviour in the city had nothing to do with politics or economic conditions and he climbed the Empire State Building because it was the highest point in the city, corresponding to his mountain-top lair in his homeland. King Kong is exactly what it was meant to be: a highly entertaining, shrewdly conceived work of pure cinema.
Well . . . as I said, the elephant can be viewed from many angles. Those who take their erudite symbolism seriously (and many of our contributors do) consider it to be quite irrelevant that the film's creators denied having underlying agendas. A favorite trick of pedants and scholars (as opposed to scientists) has always been to dismiss contrary evidence as "denial" and to claim that they can see all the real psychological motivations. Seldom is it even acknowledged that the symbols in question (in this case a great ape) are being interpreted in a mirror of their own obsession. The scholar winds up being exposed, far more tellingly than the original creator of the work.
On the other hand . . . aren't the "realists" also spoilsports? I mean, what could be more absurd and churlish than to try denying us some fun . . . the pleasure of using our prefrontal lobes to analyze and analyze and analyze! Isn't that even more essentially human than all our vaunted technology?
Sure, King Kong himself would snort at the very idea of diagnosing his motives through nonsense like deconstruction and textual semiotics. But Kong would already have hurled this book across the river — or eaten it.
Whereas you . . .
. . . well, by now, you've already paid for it. So what do I care?
Hm. In fact, I do care a bit.
Moreover, having described the topic, this book and its contents, I can safely say that it's my turn, now, to talk about this wonderful film and what King Kong says to me. So let's go back to one aspect that I commented on at the very beginning — the notion of scale.
Is it intentional that individual human beings appear, next to Kong, just as dwarfed as he will wind up appearing, beside the mighty Empire State Building? Vastly overpowering any single person, he nevertheless finds himself overmatched by our joined power, symbolized by the great tower that he attempts — in vain — to conquer.
None of the essayists mention what I consider to be the most critical lesson . . . that we are vastly stronger working together than we are apart.
One could interpret this darkly, by making a dismal comparison to the fascist preaching of united will, directed by a single leader, party and goal. That vile dogma was making inroads around the world at the very time that this film was made. Certainly the fate of individualist Kong presaged the doom of millions, including many who dared resist a rising tide of ideological mania. A madness that was exacerbated, horribly, by misused technology.
On the other hand, shall we dismiss the symbols of cooperative civilization, simply because mad oversimplifiers — like Hitler and Stalin and Mussolini — were too stupid and evil to get what it is really all about? Not monolithic subversion of the individual, but the creative building, step by step and brick by brick, of new things by a complex process of collaboration. Universities and laws. Cities and farms. Science and ethics. Plus all the new technologies and diversions that can be used — or misused — for well or ill.
What we're talking about is a topic that was very hot in 1933 . . . the very notion of eclectic human improvability, which underlay every modernist ambition, from schools to skyscrapers. A self-critical process, constantly re-evaluating old ways, from racism to gender roles, from music to mythology. A process based upon confidence in our ability to guide change . . . or at least to cope.
(No wonder it has lately come under intense battering, by cynics of every stripe.)
The Empire State Building is very much like the film that viewers are watching, in a theater or at home. Somehow, a legion of financiers, craft workers, artists, actors, writers, impresarios and countless others — each of them equipped with plenty of individual ego and spirit — combined their efforts to make something marvelous that is still used and loved and discussed seven decades later. None of those who created either the building or the movie still live today. But they endure, and not only in the classic biological way, through their progeny. They also continue, cheating death, through the fine things they built together.
Within the film, Kong is portrayed as a mighty but sterile being, denied both kinds of immortality. Even if he had been left alone on his island, Kong would have become dust by the year 2000, forgotten by the forest he once dominated. Even had he won and kept his Beauty, she could never have given him children or a posterity. Speechless, he cannot persuade or move us, except to the basic emotion of sympathy.
Ultimately, it is not the gas bombs or biplanes that thwart Kong, but his inability to negotiate, argue and do all the other complex things that transform an old-style solipsist-ape into one of the new-style, world-changing, cooperative individualists.
His inarticulate rage allows him only to see his fellow island beasts as rivals, never as potential allies, even when dangerous new interlopers invade their shared realm.
Likewise, he is unable to appeal to social rules (and maybe even hire a lawyer) when they have him trussed and humiliated on-stage.
Or to woo his love in a manner that may heed her needs . . .
. . . or else to accept her rejection with the balm of philosophy.
Or to adapt and adopt the technologies that are used against him.
Or to (perhaps) even join in the adventures and ambitions of midget-anthropoid cousins who have taken on new ambitions, new pathways of evolution that render his strength useless, leaving him far behind . . .
. . . as many of us sometimes fear that we are about to be left behind.
Isn't that another primal dread, reflected and diffracted by this multifaceted movie? Each of us has had to deal with obstinate, retro types who cannot deal with change. And each of us has been the stubborn ape, who feels threatened and intimidated by change.
Yes, the power of collaborative endeavor is impressive, whether it is propelled by openly cooperative institutions or by competitive capitalism, combining the labor and skills of thousands of men and women to achieve what prior generations could barely have imagined. But during the Depression — as now — people had a right to their ambivalence. They had every reason to take both sides — pride in civilized accomplishments and worry over where it all might lead.
Again, I am attracted to those core symbols in the film's most powerful scene. More than any other skyscraper, the Empire State Building seems to reject the lesson of the Tower of Babel and its classic warning to mere mortals, that they had better leave the sky alone. Like a ship, it aims boldly at the stars.
But not everyone is welcome to climb aboard. Not the super-individualist, stomping and bellowing. No Nietzschean supermen or solipsists. Not if they tread on others. Even if they are poignant and passionate victims of a world transformed.
We sympathize during the movie's most stirring scene, while a vastly courageous and confused ape clutches at his throat, staggering in dim incomprehension as biplanes swoop to brutally enforce society's limits. Limits that even a permissive culture — one friendly to individual spirit — simply has to impose, lest we become the howling thing that each of us still carries around inside, that remnant leftover from Cain, from the caves.
We may build new ziggurats to the stars. We may climb them, while bickering and competing, negotiating and telling grand tales. We may even take our inner beasts along with us, if they'll behave, and stay confined to art, where they belong.
But poor Kong. Good old Kong. Pure and simple Kong.
Our old king Kong . . .
. . . he does not understand, nor is he meant to.
On the temple steps, he is our sacrifice.
Copyright © 2005 by David Brin. All rights reserved.
King Kong. An ape, but so much more. A proto-man, primitive, solitary and fiercely proud, representing everything about us that the architects and builders aimed to ignore, or leave behind.
"King Kong Is Back! (introduction)" (published in full here) was written as the Introduction to King Kong Is Back!: An Unauthorized Look at One Humongous Ape (Smart Pop series).
Anonymous (Stephen Mitchell tr.), Gilgamesh: A New English Version (book)
Karen Backstein and Annie Mitra, The Blind Men and the Elephant (book)
David Brin, ed., King Kong Is Back!: An Unauthorized Look at One Humongous Ape (Smart Pop series) (book)
King Kong (1933) (film)
King Kong (1976) (film)
Jenny Wake, The Making of King Kong: The Official Guide to the Motion Picture (book)
David Brin blogs at Contrary Brin and comments on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Quora specifically to discuss the political and scientific issues he raises in these articles. If you come to argue rationally, you're voting, implicitly, for a civilization that values open minds and discussions among equals.
David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!).
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