Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Ernest B. Schoedsack & Merian C. Cooper's 'King Kong', 1933

The film King Kong is fascinating as to the messages it portrays.  Due to it's age and context there are many issues with its stance on racial and sexual roles.  The first example of the sexual stance would be when we're introduced to the female character of the film, Ann.  It being set in a period of male superiority over women, Ann is found by the director of the film and he rescues her from her impoverished life with promises of adventure and a lead role in his film.  The context of her poverty was that America was suffering from the 'Great Depression' during the 1930's and his promises of food and employment was everything she, and anyone in her situation, needed most.  Thomas Patrick Doherty perceived that "like in so many early Depression films, the male suitor courts the damsel not with flowers or refined manners but with the tangible proof of his breadwinner prowess, a square meal." The director has asserted his ability to financially support her in a way she can't support herself and thus winning her trust.

Ann, representing women within the film, is not only dominated by the men in her culture but later by Kong himself.  She is given as a sacrifice to him and because of her beauty he takes her away deep into his domain to keep.  It is when the audience first sees Kong and his violent behaviour that the issues with race become prominent.  During this period in film, black was seen as a negative colour, the colour of something threatening and the use of a giant black ape stealing beautiful white women is a clear example of the symbolism of the black creature as evil.  It's these first scenes with Kong's interactions with Ann that are really sexualised.  One example is of Kong touching her and then smelling her fingers, another is his gradual removal of her clothes, sniffing them inquisitively.  He is obviously showing signs that the audience will connote as sexual and it is this idea of the dark black monster having sex with the beautiful blonde white woman that could cause a stir during the 1930's.  Fatimah Tobing Rony stated that "Kong's attraction to Ann is transgressive: Kong, a hybrid figure, a manlike beast, threatens the taboo on interracial sex".  The film being set in a period where racism towards black people was almost acceptable, as it wasn't until the 1950's where laws began to be passed against it, the idea of an interracial couple would be quite unpleasant.  However, one thing that could go against the negativity of the idea is that Kong behaves much more carefully around Ann and is constantly protecting her when he feels threatened.  This view could be seen as transgressive as despite all the negative connotations ascribed to the black beast, he wants to protect her.

Despite the slight positive associations the audience may read from the previous statement, the end of the film affirms the racism within the narrative.  The beast has escaped from the confines of the theatre and captures Ann on his way to the highest point in the city, the Empire State Building.  It's here that he shows his threatening nature towards the white civilisation by thumping his chest and attacking the planes that fly at him.  He is inevitably shot and defeated and falls to the ground below where crowds gather to look at his lifeless body.  The scene can be read in many ways and one way is that the civilised culture of technology and cities of white people has triumphed over the tribal and savage black beast.  James A. Snead, Colin MacCabe and Cornel West's interpretation is that "the narrative pleasure of seeing the (white) male-female bond re-established at the end tends to screen out the full meaning of the final shot: the accidental (black) intruder lies bloody and dead on the ground, his epitaph given glibly by the very person who has trapped him. "  This interpretation shows the dim view they hold for the racial stance the narrative and audience members hold.  It shows them as ignorant to what's in front of them, the destruction of the black villain that had been put into this situation by white people themselves. Their ignorance is what makes the scene so much more dramatic and sad, that makes the educated viewer sad to be called human.

The film was an insight to the world of 1930's culture and the racial and sexual etiquette of the period.  It should not only be remembered for its negatives though.  The animation of the time was far beyond anything the audience had ever seen.  It allowed RKO to survive bankruptcy which, during the time of the Depression is a great achievement for any business.  Not only that, but without it the cinema industry may never have seen the work of Ray Harryhausen, who was so 'mesmerized' by the animation in King Kong that it made him seek out as a career.


  1. Good golly, Miss Molly! This is a fascinating take on the movie - love the Fatimah Tobing Rony quote - of course, for many people, it's just a movie about a giant monkey, but when it comes to genre movies critics are fond of casting them as 'systems of metaphor'. Even if you don't buy 100% of the theory, it certainly lends richness and contextual layers to the stories that remain so popular. Notice too how both Kong and Oz have, as their backdrops, the ravages of the Depression - and the adrenalin rush of escapism. Personally, I've always hated the fact that the filmmaker gets the last word on Kong's life - and, in the Peter Jackson remake I always feel so miffed that the human lovers are rekindled, when all I give a shit about is that poor dead ape! :-(

  2. Awesome! I'm really glad you approve! I wanted to take a theme to talk about and I found that the most interesting. I was the same when I watched the films! Denham was an arsehole and everything was his fault not Kong's and the lovers in the remake were rubbish! I thought she would've felt a bit more compelled by the death of Kong seeing as he was a much more wonderful character than her boring writer boyfriend! Pah!

  3. Agreed 100% Adrien Brody... yawn. Anyway, he slept with Dren - oh...