KING KONG (1933, Directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack)

© 2020, by M. Keith Booker

Made only two years after the birth of the sound era monster genre with the release of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, King Kong is one of the founding films of the American monster genre, and its title figure is an American cultural icon. Kong is also an American original. Unlike his predecessors in American monster film, Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula, he did not derive from sources in European literature but was dreamed up by co-director Merian Cooper. The film, meanwhile, established a formula for the horror-suspense genre that would be imitated in countless other films, including a number of direct sequels. It also established female lead Fay Wray as the paradigm of the threatened victim, while setting a standard for special effects and visual trickery that was unsurpassed for decades. Perhaps most important, however, is the film’s treatment of the giant ape Kong (however alien and dangerous he may be) as a sympathetic figure, thus making him a sort of tragic hero. Indeed, he is treated even more sympathetically than the monster in Frankenstein, who, though constructed of human parts, ultimately lacks the humanity with which Kong is endowed in the 1933 film.

The premise of King Kong is fairly simple. Daredevil filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), who travels the globe in search of exciting footage for his adventure films, has heard rumors of a mysterious uncharted island inhabited by Kong, a legendary creature of uncertain nature. Denham hires a ship to sail to the island. However, unable to find an established actress willing to take on the dangerous assignment of playing opposite Kong in his film, he hires Ann Darrow (Wray), whom he rescues on the street when she is accused of stealing an apple from a grocery stand, to play the role. On the trip to the island, Darrow meets Jack Driscoll, the ship’s first mate. They fall in love and agree to be married after the voyage is ended, adding a romantic subplot to the film.

They find the island and land there, encountering a village of savage natives, whom the film, in what is probably its greatest weakness, portrays rather cartoonishly. Impressed by Darrow’s blond hair, the natives kidnap her and offer her to Kong as a sacrifice. He takes her and makes off into the wild interior of the island, where he becomes smitten by her beauty. In one surprisingly suggestive scene (for 1933), he gradually peels away her clothing (somewhat like peeling a banana) to get a better view. Meanwhile, he repeatedly fights off dinosaurs and other huge savage creatures in order to defend her. All the while, Denham and Darrow are leading a rescue party, but all of the searchers are eventually destroyed by Kong (or other creatures on the island) except for the two leaders. Eventually, Driscoll manages to rescue Darrow and take her back to the beach. Kong follows, ransacking the native village on the way and munching on several of the natives. He is then subdued with one of the gas bombs that Denham has prepared for that purpose. They then somehow load him on the ship and take him back to New York where he can be exhibited on Broadway. During the first show, however, Kong becomes alarmed when photographers repeatedly snap flash pictures of Darrow. Thinking that his loved one is being attacked, he breaks free of his restraints, recaptures Darrow, then storms through the streets of New York with her once more (literally) in hand. In the film’s famous climax, Kong climbs atop the Empire State Building[1] (then the world’s tallest building), still carrying Darrow. There, he is attacked by airplanes and badly wounded. He falls to his death in the street below, leaving Darrow atop the building, once again to be rescued by Driscoll.

Kong peels away Ann Darrow’s clothing.

In telling this story, King Kong is a very economical film that manages to pack a great deal of material into its 104-minute runtime (in comparison, Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake runs for over three hours). It addresses a number of issues that are often key to the monster genre, in addition to the obvious central concern with the othering of its eponymous monster. One of these is the particularly crucial role played by Ann Darrow, whose representation as a largely passive victim raises a number of issues related to gender. But one of the most interesting aspects of this particular film is its essentially metafictional nature: King Kong itself is precisely the sort of film that Denham was hoping to make[2], and Denham’s exploitative treatment of both Kong and Ann contains a great deal of potential commentary on the film industry as a whole. At the same time, King Kong (thanks largely to the work of Willis O’Brien in the creation of Kong and the film’s other giant monsters) is a technical triumph that foreshadows the coming importance of special effects in today’s Hollywood films.

Kong battles a plane atop the Empire State Building.

Kong himself is of course the most important “special effect” in the film. A great deal of struggle went into the design of Kong’s features, most of it having to do with just how human-like those features should be. This is a film that depends a great deal on our ability to empathize with Kong and to recognize familiar features of ourselves in him. But it depends just as much on Kong’s otherness and on our ability to think of him as something strange, wondrous, and terrifying. It’s a fine line to walk, and one of the key reasons why King Kong is so successful as a film. Kong’s key feature, of course, is his colossal size, so it might come as a surprise to some to learn that the actual “Kong” seen in the film is an eighteen-inch-high puppet that was shot in stop-motion animation, then seamlessly combined with the other elements of the film. The result is remarkable, especially given the technology that was available in 1933. And, while the effects might not always be convincingly realistic, they are nevertheless effective. Indeed, effectiveness was consistently chosen over realism in the making of the film—as when Kong’s size seems to vary from one scene to another, depending on what Cooper thought would be effective in that particular scene.[3]

In terms of the metafictional aspects of King Kong, it is important to remember that Denham, primarily in pursuit of box-office profits, captures the noble creature Kong, leading to his death. Denham is also willing to endanger Ann, essentially using her as bait in his attempt to capture Kong, first on film and then in reality. His arrival on Skull Island also leads to the destruction of the human settlement on that island and to the deaths of many of the inhabitants of that settlement. The film thus raises a number of questions about the ethics of Denham’s project that potentially extend to the film industry as a whole, which is interrogated much as science is interrogated in Frankenstein. Denham, as a filmmaker, is very much is the same situation as the scientist Henry Frankenstein: driven by his own quest for professional success, he perhaps goes too far, leading to disaster. On the other hand, it is also the case that these questions, while clearly posed by the film, are not its true focus. King Kong is designed primarily as an entertainment designed to thrill audiences with bold adventures and spectacular, exotic adventures, perhaps providing some escapist relief from the grim rigors of the Great Depression, which was at its worst point in 1933, the first year of the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal policies would soon being to improve economic conditions in America.

This does not mean, though, that the film cannot also be thoughtful or that its viewers should not ponder its implications. Indeed, as is perhaps signaled by the four-minute Overture that begins the film, King Kong is a film that seems to want to be taken seriously as a cinematic event, even if the event is more a spectacular one than an intellectual one. Then, the rousing, adventuresome music of this Overture is extended for another minute-and-a-half through the opening credits, adding to the building sense of anticipation as audiences await the actual film. The credits are then followed by an on-screen inscription that is labeled as an “old Arabian proverb,” attributed to “the prophet”:

And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed is hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead.

This “proverb” was entirely fabricated by Cooper (Morton 29), but it does serve the purpose of adding weight to the film by suggesting that its story might have sources in ancient texts. But this “proverb” also serves the Orientalist function of linking the film to a Middle East that was at the time the focus of a great deal of exoticist imagining as a place of romantic adventure. There was, for example, a spate of American films set in the Middle East and focusing on exotic images of Arab culture in the 1920s and 1930s.[4]

This reference to the antiquity of the story also points to the way in which many elements of the film are designed to associate Kong and the other inhabitants of Skull Island with the distant past, creating a “lost world” effect that increases the sense that we are viewing an exotic adventure.[5] The most obvious case of this phenomenon involves the way in which Skull Island seems inhabited largely by prehistoric creatures, many of whom are identified as being in the “dinosaur family.” The most problematic case of this phenomenon involves the film’s depiction of the native tribe that lives on the island as hopelessly primitive, having never advanced beyond the dawn of human civilization, thus drawing upon a classic element of colonialist discourse, in which colonized peoples were consistently depicted in such a way. Importantly, these natives are clearly coded as African, rather than as East Indian Islanders, thus allowing them to enact a better-developed system of iconic images of primitivity.

Ultimately, then, King Kong is a film about the destruction of traditional social forms by the onset of capitalist modernity. As Susan Buck-Morss puts it, the film features a creature who had been a king and a god in his own world, but then “fought against urban-industrial civilization and lost” (174). But the film’s tendency to associate this defeated traditional world with savagery—and especially with African savagery—is highly problematic. The film also (and more prominently) veers into dangerous stereotypes in its treatment of gender and its portrayal of Ann Darrow as a classic damsel in distress. In the first actual scene of the film, a theatrical agent Charles Weston (Sam Hardy) arrives at the ship that has been hired for Denham’s mission. Also present are Driscoll and the ship’s captain, Englehorn (Frank Reicher), who is concerned about the number of explosives Denham has loaded onto the ship Driscoll. Weston has been commissioned by Denham to find a female lead for his film, but Weston comes bearing the news that it just can’t be done: the trip is too dangerous. Denham responds that he doesn’t really want to take a woman along on such a mission, but that the public “must have a pretty face to look at.” Denham thus quickly establishes his view that having a woman in his film is an inconvenience he would rather avoid, but that a woman is required, purely to serve as an object of the male gaze of his audience.

When Weston still insists that he can’t find an actress for the film, Denham rather misogynistically declares that he will find a woman on his own, “even if I have to marry one.” He heads out on the streets of New York, quickly encountering a soup kitchen at which a long line of women await service, thus acknowledging the Depression-era context of the film. None of these women look like good prospects, though, so Denham moves on to a sidewalk grocery stall. While he is there, a starving Ann Driscoll approaches the stand and start longingly to fondle an apple. The proprietor (Paul Porcasi) snags her, accusing her of stealing, even though she hasn’t actually taken anything. Denham manages to get the proprietor to back off by paying for the apple. Ann then nearly faints from hunger; Denham catches her, takes one close look at her face, and realizes that he has found his actress—a woman who is both beautiful and desperate for money. He takes her to a diner and feeds her, then convinces her to become the female lead in his film.

The conditions under which Ann is hired further emphasize the Depression setting of the film. They also suggest that Ann is being hired merely for her looks, without any concern for her talents as an actress (or the lack thereof). At least Denham reassures her that there will be no “funny business.” She does, however, have to deal with a great deal of misogynistic reaction from the crew, including Driscoll, who introduces himself to her by accidentally hitting her in the face, then informs her that having a woman on the ship is a “nuisance.” He will soon change his tune, but in a sense the film verifies his initial attitude, given the amount of trouble that Kong’s fascination with Ann causes on Skull Island. Meanwhile, Denham’s suggestion that he is hiring Ann to serve as eye candy seems to apply to this film as well, which puts a great deal of focus on Ann’s beauty, including the titillating scene in which Kong suggestively peels away Ann’s clothing, occasionally sniffing his fingers as he does so.

Luckily, Ann seems to have plenty of layers of clothing, so she is still pretty well covered by the end of the scene, which nevertheless establishes that Ann serves in the film as a focus for the male gazes of both the audience outside the film and for Kong inside the film—an attraction that ultimately leads to Kong’s death. As Denham declares, arriving on the scene where Kong has just fallen to his death, “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” This beauty and the beast motif is frequently alluded to in the film and helps to give it an almost fairy tale quality. Indeed, the film has any number of layers of meaning. For one thing, its portrayal of Kong as the monarch of his island but as no match for the forces of modern technology makes the film a sort of parable of the power of modernity and of the ability of modern technology to overcome the power of nature, for which Kong serves as a sort of allegorical stand-in.

Finally, the sentimentally sympathetic portrayal of Kong functions on a number of levels. At the simplest level, it can be taken as can be taken as an expression of empathy for animals, yet Kong is also clearly endowed with a great deal of humanity and implied to feel a number of human emotions. One of the film’s more problematic aspects, meanwhile, is the way in which Kong can so easily be read as a problematic emblem of either working-class or African American masculinity (or both), suggesting that both workers and African Americans tend to be hyper-masculinity to the point of being animalistic. The fact that Kong is captured in his own jungle, then shipped to America in chains as an economic commodity further links him to the legacy of slavery in the American South. Finally, Kong is alone throughout the film, battling against an array of dinosaurs and other giant beasts, as well as against the humans of the film. Captured and taken back to New York for exhibition, he is entirely out of his element and even more alone. The film seems to imply that he is simple-minded enough not really to understand his predicament in captivity, and to that extent he resembles all of the proud and mighty beasts (lions, tigers, gorillas, and so on) who populate America’s zoos. Actually, the fact that he is literally kept in chains because he is so dangerous puts him in an even worse situation than almost any zoo animals, while Denham’s overt declarations about how much money he is going to make exhibiting Kong makes clear just how venal Denham’s motivations really are.

At the same time, Kong is given enough humanity that it is easy for audiences to identify with him, rather than the human characters. Part of what enables Kong to achieve this dual role as animal and human is the simple fact that he is a great ape and thus essentially straddles the boundary between the human and the animal by definition. Kong’s attraction to Ann is another key to his humanization, though the film is again walking a fine line here. Kong’s admiration for Darrow’s beauty clearly has sexual (and potentially beastly) undertones, but the film is careful not to establish any real relationship between Ann and Kong. She seems mostly just to be terrified of him, rather than warming up to him, while the size difference would certainly make any sexual relationship pretty much impossible. King Kong ultimately seems to imply that Kong’s attraction to Ann is more aesthetic than sexual, which makes him a sort of sensitive, unappreciated soul. The film’s background music effectively reinforces this point, further humanizing Kong by expressing his feelings of tenderness, sadness, fear, and anger. The design of the Kong puppet is also key in this regard, giving the giant ape a very expressive face that helps to convey his emotional reactions. At the same time, Kong also proves heroic, risking his life to battle against a T-Rex and a pterodactyl in order to save Ann from them. In the end, he presumably thinks he is saving Ann from danger when he climbs the Empire State Building with her—a strategy that again indicates his lack of understanding of this strange new world to which he has been taken against his will. He thus becomes a sort of paradigm of the lone individual, the only creature of his kind, meaning well but misunderstood by all.

Many factors, then, contribute to Kong’s remarkable success as a movie monster, which has made him one of the best-known figures in American popular culture. It has also made him a lasting presence in American film, beginning with one immediate sequel, Son of Kong, with many of the principals of the first film returning: it was directed by Schoedsack and written by Schoedsack’s wife Ruth Rose (who had also co-written King Kong), with O’Brien as “chief technician” and Cooper as executive producer. Also released in 1933 (just in time for Christmas and just nine months after the original), Son of Kong had a lower budget than the original and was much less commercially successful. It’s also a very different film, lighter in tone and slighter in import.

No doubt the differences between the two films are partly due to the fact that some audiences found the original film all too disturbing. Thus, it was no doubt a desire to produce escapist entertainment at the height of the Great Depression that dictated the lower emotional intensity of the later film. As one newspaper ad for the film noted at the time “All of the thrills of King Kong, but none of the horrors. A treat for the children” (cited in Morton 109). Most of this has to do with the depiction of the eponymous great ape, who is now just a “baby,” only twelve feet tall (and far less interesting than his famous father). He also has only a few moments of screen time, establishing a connection with Denham (still played by Robert Armstrong) and this film’s female lead, Hilda Petersen (Helen Mack) before drowning as all of Skull Island sinks beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean as the result of a massive earthquake—which somehow seems to have no effect on the surrounding waters, allowing Denham, Petersen, Captain Englehorn (Reicher), and their stereotypical comic Chinese cook Charlie (Victor Wong) to escape in a rowboat. Of course, the sinking of the island takes with it all of the surviving native tribespeople, but the film places far more emphasis on the death of Kong, Jr., which occurs as he saves Denham from drowning.

Denham is also an altogether more positive figure in this film. He is, in fact, a fairly conventional film protagonist (and even gets the girl), which also adds to the lighter tone relative to the first film, in which Denham was such a problematic character. Now, however, he seems to feel genuine remorse for what he did to Kong in the first film. However, he is, even in this film, perfectly happy to retrieve a hidden treasure from the island, with no consideration of the fact that this treasure might rightly belong to the tribespeople.

Perhaps the most interesting moment in Son of Kong occurs as the crew of Englehorn’s ship rebels against his command, partly due to the instigation of Nils Helstrom (John Marston), a failed Dutch sea captain who is also on board, and partly due to the fact that Englehorn and Denham have decided to head back to the dangerous Skull Island seeking the treasure. At one point, Denham and Englehorn see the crew approaching them in force, at which Denham remarks, “We must be in Russia. Here comes the committee of the workers.” It’s just a quip, but it does provide a reminder of the setting of the film in 1933, when the relatively-new Soviet Union was still viewed rather positively in America (especially on the Left): given the recent collapse of capitalism, more and more Americans were willing to consider alternatives. Moreover, this motif is further developed a few moments later, when the crew actually rebels, putting Denham, Englehorn, and Petersen off the ship in a lifeboat (joined voluntarily by Charlie). “Row, you blasted bourgeois!” yells one of the sailors, intentionally echoing the rhetoric of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Then they reject the Dutch captain as well, declaring that “we’re through with captains on this ship. Let him go with the rest of the bosses.” They toss him overboard, declaring, “That’s where all captains belong: over the side.” It’s a rather strange eruption of political material in what is otherwise clearly designed as a light entertainment. Moreover, while the film certainly does not openly endorse the sailors’ rebellion, it does not openly reject it either. It’s a quick moment, just an insert, really, but it does provide an interesting snapshot of the kinds of ideas that were in the air at the time, ideas that would soon be completely suppressed in American film.

Produced by Cooper, directed by Schoedsack, and written by Rose, Mighty Joe Young (1949) reunited much of the creative team that had been responsible for King Kong sixteen years earlier. O’Brien, returned as well, though most of the stop-motion animation of the eponymous giant gorilla from this film was actually performed by O’Brien’s young assistant, a then-unknown artist by the name of Ray Harryhausen—who would ultimately become the most-acclaimed stop-motion artist of all time. Mighty Joe Young is something like a kinder and gentler version of King Kong. Here, the giant gorilla is not quite as large; he’s also not quite as threatening, having been raised in captivity since infancy by Jill Young (Terry Moore), who adopted him when she was still a little girl (played by Lora Lee Michel, performing, in the film, a running Shirley Temple imitation) living on her (white) family’s farm in Africa. Discovered by scouts looking for exotic animals to add to a Hollywood nightclub act, both Joe and Jill come back to the States to join the act. They become a big hit, until (predictably) things get a bit out of hand one night after Joe has a bit too much to drink and wrecks the nightclub. Declared dangerous, Joe is ordered destroyed by a court. But Jill and Gregg, her cowboy beau (played by Ben Johnson), help Joe escape. In the process the lovable ape performs heroic acts and ends up back on the African farm with Jill and Gregg.

The happy ending of this film perhaps makes it less powerful than Kong, though it addresses many of the same issues with its depiction of Joe as a sort of innocent naif, out of his element in show business and taken advantage of by others. He’s still alienated and the only one of his kind, but this time he has better human allies. He also avoids the fatal mistake of becoming sexually fascinated with a white woman, his relationship with Jill remaining strictly platonic. Indeed, he is essentially her pet, though he clearly has glimmers of intelligence that go well beyond that of, say, dogs or cats. As with Kong, then, Mighty Joe Young functions as a sort of emblem of the modern, alienated individual, with whom other modern, alienated individuals can identify without the complex messiness of dealing with another human being. He’s just smart enough to attract sympathy, as might a pet or a small child, but not smart enough to be intellectually threatening.[6]

After Mighty Joe Young, the Kong franchise and its direct offshoots essentially went on hiatus from American film, though the character did make new appearances in Japan, where it was licensed by Toho, a film studio best known for its Godzilla franchise. Indeed, King Kong joined that franchise by squaring off against Toho’s trademark giant monster in King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1962. This film was a major commercial success in Japan, revitalizing the Godzilla franchise. Kong also appeared in the Toho film King Kong Escapes (1967), in which he was opposed by “Mechani-Kong,” an evil robot version of himself.

The Kong franchise returned to America in 1976 with the release of a new version of King Kong, produced by Dino De Laurentiis and directed by John Guillermin (after Roman Polanski declined the assignment). Made at a time when films such as The Godfather (1972) and Jaws (1975) had firmly established the blockbuster as a key financial model in the New Hollywood era, King Kong was quite consciously conceived as a blockbuster, as a major “event” film that was widely publicized well before it was actually released. And, though technical difficulties (especially with the giant, highly expensive, robotic ape that was intended to be the primary Kong of the film) plagued the production of the film, these difficulties became almost legendary, adding to the anticipation for the film. This anticipation helped the film to become a mild commercial success, though it was less successful than hoped and received mixed reviews.

King Kong is a “big” film in every possible sense, even if most of the scenes involving Kong were ultimately shot using an actor (Rick Baker, who also worked with Carlo Rambaldi on the film’s special effects) in an ape suit due to problems with the giant robot. The film also featured excellent actors, including a young Jeff Bridges (as Princeton “primate paleontologist” Jack Prescott) and Charles Grodin (as oilman Fred S. Wilson, the film’s primary villain). It also introduced model Jessica Lange as “Dwan,” the film’s female lead. Lange had no previous acting experience, but landed a Golden Globe Award for “Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture—Female” for her performance in this film, which launched a career that saw her become one of Hollywood’s top stars.

In general, the story of the 1976 film is quite similar to that of the 1933 film, except that the voyage to Kong’s island is now undertaken in a quest to find oil, rather to make a movie, thus turning the focus of the film’s satirical critique from the film industry to the oil industry, which at the time was in somewhat of a crisis in the wake of the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973–1974. The oil industry, of course, is also well known for its greed and corruption, so in some ways it was an easy target. Still, critique of the oil industry is hardly the film’s central project, and the lack of seriousness of this critique is indicated by the naming of the film’s oil company as “Petrox,” which seems a reasonably name for a petroleum company, but which also inevitably, for those in the know, evokes the “Pet Rocks” gimmick gifts that had become so popular just a year before. The 1976 King Kong includes a number of such jokey elements, which many critics found to be a fault, though which might also add to its entertainment value. Indeed, King Kong is a film focused on producing entertainment—and especially on creating spectacle. This it certainly does, though the nature of the special effects made it impractical to recreate the dinosaurs from the initial film, removing one of the key sources of spectacle in the original. At the same time, these dinosaurs add a rather unrealistic element to the 1933 film that would probably have not gone over well with the more cynical audiences of the 1970s in any case—though Kong does at one point battle a giant snake (in one of the 1976 film’s most unconvincing scenes).

Kong examines his new love.

One major difference in the 1976 film is that Dwan does develop a genuine affection for Kong, weeping as he falls to his death (this time by being shot off the top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center by helicopters). Dwan, who drips with sexuality throughout the film, also develops an ongoing relationship with Prescott, though the ultimate outcome of that relationship is left in doubt. The final fate of Wilson—who fails to find oil so instead attempts to profit by turning the exhibition of Kong into a publicity stunt for his company—is quite clear however. He is crushed underfoot by Kong, a fate that most viewers of the film seem to have applauded, given Wilson’s villainous nature.

Guillermin and the De Laurentiis company (though De Laurentiis himself was only marginally involved) returned a decade later with King Kong Lives (1986), based on the unlikely premise that Kong actually survived his fall from the World Trade Center. In fact, pretty much everything about this film is preposterous. It was panned by critics and shunned by audiences and lives on primarily as a curiosity. It does, however, feature the unusual development that Kong actually takes a bride, who lives on with their son after Kong himself is killed (again) by the military. This ending seems to set up a possible sequel, though that sequel never appeared.

The failure of King Kong Lives did not prevent the giant ape from eventually returning to the big screen, this time with Peter Jackson as director. Relatively fresh off his spectacular success in adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy to film, Jackson was a master of the latest in digital special effects, and it shows. Jackson’s King Kong (2005) features by far the most impressive-looking title character to that date, thanks to the wonder of such effects, in this case digital motion-capture technology, with body-motion wizard Andy Serkis (known, among other things for his role as Gollum in Jackson’s Lord of the rings films)in the title role. Serkis’s Kong, among other things, looks much more like a gorilla than had earlier Kongs, running about mainly on all fours and featuring much more of a paunch. Jackson’s film is also much closer to the original than is the 1976 film, moving its action back to the 1930s and including virtually every element of the original film.

Peter Jackson’s King Kong.

With that as a basic beginning, it then adds and adds and adds, in a film that has been widely criticized for its bloated excess and long running time. For example, rather than removing the dinosaurs (as in the 1976 film), this film doubles down on the dinosaurs producing more of them than any film short of the Jurassic Park series (a series of films that certainly owes a great deal to the Kong franchise as an inspiration). In addition, familiar scenes such as the climactic battle atop the Empire State Building now last much longer, stretching Kong’s final suffering almost into torture porn territory. Jackson’s Kong again features Carl Denham (now played by Jack Black), but adds much more about filmmaking, while also using Black’s comic talents to add more humor to the film. It adds more romance between Jack Driscoll (now played by Academy Award–winner Adrien Brody) and Ann Darrow (Oscar nominee Naomi Watts), though Jack is now a screenwriter and Ann is an aspiring actress who had been working in vaudeville before the events of the film. This Ann is also a bit spunkier than her predecessors, so the problematic gender politics are improved a bit, but one of the things that Jackson ramps up dramatically is the degree to which the human inhabitants of Kong’s island are treated like subhuman savages. Indeed, their portrayal is so extreme that one is tempted to read it as a parody of the racist portrayals of them in the earlier films, but it would probably be a bit generous to read Jackson’s film in this way.

All in all, Jackson’s film is at least a demonstration of the staying power of the Kong story and of the lasting fascination with Kong himself in American culture. It should come as no surprise, then, that, when Legendary Entertainment conceived its “MonsterVerse” series of giant monster films, Kong would join Godzilla as the initial headliners in the series, which began with Godzilla in 2014 and Kong: Skull Island in 2017. (A second Godzilla film followed in 2019, with Godzilla vs. Kong, intended for release in November 2020, combining the two monsters in one film). Skull Island, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts in his first big movie, is another spectacular effort, one that features the most impressive special effects yet in a Kong movie, with the biggest and most majestic-looking Kong. Grossing more than $566 million in worldwide box office, it was also the top-grossing Kong film of all time. And it had the distinction of being the only film in which Kong survives and is never captured—nor does he ever kidnap the female lead (in this case photographer Mason Weaver, played by Brie Larsen).

Skull Island, in fact, is a complete reboot that does not stick very closely to the original film at all. For one thing, it is set in 1973—and in fact does far more than the 1970s film to emphasize its 1970s setting (such as a heavy reliance on vintage 1970s popular hits in its soundtrack). Moreover, this setting plays a crucial role in the plot, which is carefully connected to the American experience in Vietnam, which is just winding down as this film gets underway—amid widescale antiwar protests. “Mark my words,” says John Goodman’s Bill Randa as the film gets underway, “there’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington.” Randa, the government official who spearheads the mission to Skull Island (and thus vaguely stands in for Carl Denham in the original), thus uses up the film’s best quip in the very beginning of the film (which was, of course, released in the first year of the Trump administration).

The mission led by Randa is part scientific and part military, with the military portion being led by Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who heads a contingent of troops freshly arrived from combat duty in Vietnam. Skull Island, in fact, has a great deal to say about the American experience in Vietnam, which is signaled primarily through an extensive series of thematic and visual links to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), the best-known and most highly-regarded film that is explicitly about the war in Vietnam Apocalypse Now, meanwhile, is a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, which centrally details with the abusive treatment of colonial subjects in the Belgian Congo. Coppola’s film, by translating this story to the Vietnam War, suggests that the American war there was tantamount to a new form of colonialism. Moreover, Jackson is depicted as a homicidal maniac, viciously attacking Kong in the latter’s own home territory, which clearly comments on the American invasion of Vietnam (where the principal enemy was, after all, the Viet Cong). Skull Island reinforces this aspect of the film by depicting its island as inhabited by peaceful and quite civilized natives, now depicted as ethnically accurate East Indian islanders (though they could also easily be Vietnamese). They are also quite hospitable to strangers, despite having long lived in isolation; for example, they have befriended American pilot Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), whose plane crashed on the island in World War II, allowing him to live with them in their village since that time. And he is quite impressed with what he has seen during his stay, arguing that the islanders are far more spiritually advanced than the modern Americans who have now come to the island—and in many ways more civilized, to the point of having created a veritable utopia. “These people live up in the top of the trees, while we’re down in the roots,” proclaims Marlow. “Some of them don’t even seem to age. There’s no crime, no personal property. They’re past all that.”

“Marlow,” of course, is also the name of the protagonist of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, while the name of the male lead in Skull Island (played by Tom Hiddleston) is named James Conrad. Indeed, it seems clear that these names were chosen to provide viewers with overt clues to the fact that Skull Island is closely connected with both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now—though it is certainly the connections with the latter that are more direct and overt, especially in the visual style (as in the heavy use of helicopters and balls of fire, as well as the red-heavy color palette).It’s a promising link, but one that ultimately fails to fulfill its promise, largely because Vogt-Roberts seems more interested in aesthetic pastiche than in political commentary, more concerned with engaging Apocalpse Now itself than in commenting on Vietnam. Reviewer Akhil Arora called Skull Island “an insipid homage to Apocalypse Now with a bunch of monsters thrown in.” And that is a fairly apt description. The dinosaurs of the 1933 and 2005 originals are replaced by an array of “skull crawlers” and other exotic fictional creatures, which allows for a great deal of monster action. Enough, in fact, that this action dwarfs the rest of the film, which ultimately revolves mostly around its monsters, despite the A-list cast, impressive visuals, and clever dialogue with Apocalypse Now.

Kong surrounded by military helicopters in Skull Island.
Kong battles the “big” skull crawler in Skull Island.


Arora, Akhil. “An Insipid Homage to Apocalypse Now with a Bunch of Monsters Thrown In.” Gadgets360 (March 11, 2017). Accessed March 30, 2020.

Booker, M. Keith, and Isra Daraiseh. Consumerist Orientalism: The Convergence of Arab and American Popular Culture in the Age of Global Capitalism, I. B. Tauris, 2019.

Buck-Morss, Susan. Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, MIT Press, 2000.

Erb, Cynthia. Tracking King Kong: A Hollywood Icon in World Culture, 2nd ed, Wayne State University Press, 2009.

Morton, Ray. King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson, Applause Books, 2005.

Merrill Schleier, “The Empire State Building, Working-Class Masculinity, and King Kong,” Mosaic, Vol. 41, no. 2, June 2008, pp. 29–54.


[1] See Schleier for a discussion of the complex relationship between the Empire State Building and the Depression. Conceived in the late 1920s, the building was constructed beginning just after the 1929 stock market crash. It opened on May 1, 1931, and became for many an image of the same kind of capitalist hubris that had caused the Depression in the first place. Ultimately, Schleier concludes that Kong and the Empire State Building are both “literal and figurative embodiments of the Depression’s multiethnic working-class skyscraper labourers, at once powerful symbols of instrumental masculinity and upward mobility and the victims of modernity’s exacting regime, which resulted in their defeat” (53).

[2] Kong also has much in common with the travel films on which co-director Schoedsack had worked extensively as a newsreel cameraman documenting a variety of trips into unusual remote locations. Schoedsack and Cooper had also worked together on the silent adventure film The Four Feathers (1929), which has much in common with the adventure aspects of King Kong, as well.

[3] For more details of the specifics of the making of the film, see the chapter on its making in Morton.

[4] On these films and on their place within the phenomenon of “consumerist Orientalism” that arose in America at the beginning of the twentieth century, see Booker and Daraiseh.

[5] King Kong’s most important predecessor in this sense was, in fact, entitled The Lost World, a silent film whose pioneering special effects were created by none other than Willis O’Brien.

[6] Mighty Joe Young was remade in color by Disney in 1998, though the remake (despite a stellar human cast and an excellent-looking computer-generated ape) was not a big hit and added little to the original.