Kong and his films

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Kong: Skull IslandKong: Skull Island is the 19th movie in my collection about apes.* Or at least ape-ish creatures (not including those about cave people or yetis). We watched the recently-released Kong: Skull Island this past weekend, even devouring all of the special features on the second disc.

I give Kong: Skull Island second place in the great ape/Kong pantheon because it’s well done, fun, action-packed, and not nearly as bloated as Peter Jackson’s 2005 epic. Despite some lukewarm or critical reviews, it’s worth watching and collecting if your taste are in any way similar to mine. Films of this ilk are meant to be entertainment, not art. And this one succeeds well in being that. Plus it has some of the best natural scenery in any film I’ve ever seen (Vietnam, in particular).

The main list of my ape films includes the original, 1933 King Kong; still my favourite of the genre, despite some uncomfortably racist bits. And I will admit that the original movie doesn’t always make sense and isn’t always consistent. But it’s fun and was the first big, commercial stop-frame animation film. If you’ve never watched it, you really should. Try to find a copy with the cut scenes restored. And certainly see it before you watch the latest Kong film, so you have the proper context. (For me, it’s also nostalgia: I first saw the film on TV in the 1950s).

A few of the rest of the oldies in my collection are remakes or semi-sequels (not necessarily following in story sequence from the original; sometimes with its own story arc). Some are clumsy mixes of the Tarzan motif and King Kong. Some were “inspired” by (or simply rip-offs of) the original King Kong but not necessarily related in story or mythos. Many rode on its coattails and on the popular (and commercially profitable) fascination with apes and monsters that rose from Kong, Tarzan and all the monster films that were released in the 1930s and later.

Some fit the original’s Beauty and the Beast motif (combined with the “jungle quest”/lost world themes), while others are more of the Frankenstein or monster motif. To be frank I don’t think theme was really on the minds of a lot of the writers or producers. Fun, thrills and entertainment were tops.

Many of those released in the 1930s through the 50s are fairly cheesy B-films that don’t hold up well when viewed today, but some have a charming humour and naiveté about them (perhaps unintended by the directors, however). Several have tamed chimpanzees in the film as animate props, and most feature men wearing badly-fitted gorilla suits. The Gorilla, 1939, is a comedy starring the since-forgotten Ritz Brothers, and Bride of the Gorilla throws in some Hollywood voodoo (one I lack that has similar content is Ed Woods’ Bride and the Beast, 1958).

Back when Kong was new, gorillas were still quite a mystery and western culture saw them as dangerous animals, not the sentient cousins we know them as today (the groundbreaking Gorillas in the Mist was released only in 1988). There was a popular myth – flamed by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels and Hollywood flicks – that gorillas captured women and took them into the jungle for sexual use (see the 1930s’ pre-code sexploitation film, Ingagi – I haven’t seen it yet but would like to). That myth was also fed by the racism of the early 20th century and bled into the films of the era. It can make for some uncomfortable viewing today.

This gorilla-as-sexual-predator or gorilla-as-rampaging-monster with the somewhat mitigating monster-with-a-soft-spot-for babes themes continued through Kong films and their spin-offs for decades. However, by the time of Dino De Laurentiis’ films, the sexual predator theme had been dropped (although not the innuendo) and the tender-hearted monster (at least for blondes…) emerged more strongly, to be fully ensconced in Peter Jackson’s epic. In Kong: Skull Island it’s still there, but Kong is transformed again and with it the Beauty and Beast theme gets submerged. Instead we see the Kong-as-a-god emerge.

Over the years, in the main films, Kong himself may have seemed to be getting bigger, although after years of growth, he shrank to his smallest size in 2005. According to moviepilot.com, here are his heights through four films:

1933’s King Kong — 24 ft tall
1976’s King Kong — 55 ft tall
1985’s King Kong Lives — 60 ft tall
2005’s King Kong — 25 ft tall

This overlooks a few notes about Kong’s apparently flexible (or inconsistent) height of 18-40 feet in the 1933 film. According to IMDB:

Kong’s size changes throughout the movie. RKO officially listed him as being 50 feet tall in the film’s publicity materials, but he never appears quite that large in the film itself. Two stop-motion models were used for the scenes of Kong on the island, and both of these were built to appear 18 feet tall compared to the miniature sets. A third model, built to appear 24 feet tall, was built to be used in the New York scenes so Kong would appear more imposing next to the cars and trains. However, due to the inconsistent and imprecise nature of composite shots (shots containing stop-motion and live action at once), the models vary greatly in size and regularly appear both larger and smaller than the 18-to-24-foot range. Meanwhile, the full-sized Kong hand, foot, and head were constructed for a 40-foot monster’s stature.

IMDB continues:

Kong’s size in later movies is also not consistent. He stood 148 feet tall in King Kong vs. Godzilla so that he’d be large enough to properly battle the 164 foot Godzilla, and he was reduced to about 66 feet for King Kong Escapes, but neither of these films take place within the same continuity as each other or the original. In the 1976 remake a character estimates him to be 50 feet tall, but the actual life-size Kong animatronic used for the film stood exactly 40 feet and the Kong suit was usually made to look that height compared to the miniature sets. In that film’s sequel, King Kong Lives, he rose to about 60 feet. Peter Jackson’s remake depicted Kong as 25 feet tall, as does the Universal Studios ride “King Kong 360 3D,” although its predecessor, “King Kong Encounter,” featured a 30 foot animatronic.

But in Kong: Skull Island, he’s big again. Really big: 100 feet (30.48 m – still shorter than the 118 and 108 m heights of the most recent Godzillas – and as I wrote in 2014, size matters). But compared to Jackson’s Kong, this one is gobsmacking huge. (Ignore for the nonce the fact that that gigantism on that scale raises serious problems because of bone density and musculature necessary to maintain and move such a frame, not to mention caloric intake to stay alive, and in insects or anything with an exoskeleton, it’s impossible).

The reason for this growth spurt is made clear in the specials on the second disc: Kong is a god, and a significant theme in the film is man-vs-god. There’s a bit of the angels-rebel-against-god here, too. Outsiders come to the island to challenge the deity who has been protecting its resident humans. Very Dantean and maybe a bit Faustian, too. There is no explanation as to how or why Kong is so huge. He just is. And he’s the last of his kind, too: a lonely deity.

Back when I was in elementary school, I was taught that there were three conflict themes in narrative literature: man-vs-man, man-vs-himself and man-vs-nature (yes, I know: today we’d say person, not man… yes, I know the term ‘man’ also refers to a collective group, and I should just say persons…). It expanded to four categories. Then it grew to five conflict themes. And then to a full seven categories (person vs. fate/god, person vs. self, person vs. person, person vs. society, person vs. nature, person vs. supernatural, person vs. technology). Maybe even more are counted today. (If I was writing the textbooks these days, I’d stick the fate/god conflict in with the supernatural category.)

Regardless of academic hair-splitting, we see the protagonists in conflicts with god, nature, others, society and self in the film. The former two are predominant. But if Kong is a god, he’s a vulnerable one: he bleeds. He hurts. Maybe gods are not omnipotent after all…

There’s a sort of subdued love interest, too, between two of the main characters, but it really doesn’t play a significant role in character development. There’s a touching but brief connection between the female photographer and Kong, but the difference in scale is so vast that it doesn’t allow for the sort of emotion we got in Jackson’s film.

Kong is a god incarnate – worshipped as such by the island’s villagers – and acts like it; semi-benevolent towards the islanders, more hostile towards the interlopers. Like the ancient gods, he has a temper, too and shows it. Plus he’s very supernatural – using the term super to mean “larger, bigger, better, higher, or greater.” The whole humans-challenge-god is in play here. We’re the upstarts, with the big guns and bigger chips on our shoulders. We’re the secularists who refuse to bend the knee. And as usual in these situations, hubris loses. But hey, we came close… 

What the religious understory lacks is the serpent in paradise. The outsiders fail to tempt the natives into any sort of rebellion or challenge. Just as well: they know they need Kong’s protection to keep them safe from the demons in the dark (the Skullwalkers who emerge from the underground). Kong does not get captured to be put on display like a museum piece back home in the civilized world. In fact, the opening scenes make a pointed statement about how thin the veneer of civilization is, and how sordid it appears against the beautiful, natural Skull Island scenery.

In Kong: Skull Island it’s really party of people-vs-god, since it’s not just an individual although one man is particularly bitten by the urge to kill Kong. It’s also party-vs-nature, a bit of human-vs-human conflict, and monster-vs-technology. And it’s set in the mid-1970s, so the technology is limited. But the timeframe (at the closing of the Vietnam War) allows the film to make veiled but soft references to modern war, politics and gender issues. It also allows for a much better soundtrack than anything set in today’s world (a tip of the hat to Apocalypse Now in that, particularly with the helicopter scenes…).

Let me add that it doesn’t break much, if any, new ground in terms of plot. A lot of the sequences are predictable, although enjoyably so. Remember: it’s about entertainment and caters to audience expectations.

There’s also a suggestion of sequels in the whole banter about the hollow earth and ancient species lines of speculation. While not fully fleshed out, they left open the possibility of a return and maybe even a descent to the hidden worlds below (a la Journey to the Centre of the Earth). A remake of King Kong vs. Godzilla isn’t in the books, however, unless Kong grows up a whole lot more before then.

Most important, I think, is that the film doesn’t try to be a remake like Jackson’s, but rather to complement the original with a reasonably plausible alternate story that at the same time does homage to the classic. While it’s set in the Kong mythos, it stands on its own and deserves to be judged as such, not merely as a remake or knock-off. I liked it and I think you will, too. 

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* Nineteen not including the Planet of the Apes films (five classics, four recent and a new one to be added this year). They are, in order of release: Savage Girl (1932), King Kong (1933, in both uncut and edited versions), Song of Kong (1933, the only ‘official’ sequel, released nine months later), The Gorilla (1939), The Ape (1940, Boris Karloff), Law of the Jungle (1942), The Ape Man (1943), Nabonga (1944, also titled as Nabonga Gorilla), White Gorilla (1945, which actually contains clips from a 1927 silent film), White Pongo (1945), Mighty Joe Young (1949 – remade in 1998, which I don’t have yet), Bride of the Gorilla (1951, Lon Chaney Jr.), Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), King Kong vs Godzilla (1962, Japanese, dubbed or subtitled), King Kong (1976, Dino De Laurentiis), The Mighty Peking Man (1977), King Kong Lives (1986, Dino De Laurentiis; sequel to his ‘76 film), King Kong (2005, Peter Jackson) and Kong: Skull Island (2017). I am missing a few, however, according to this IMDB list, but I am not interested in the animated ones. This list also has 19 films, but includes several Japanese titles and one in Spanish, plus of course animated titles. I have a 1968 film called Kong Island (also titled King of Kong Island), but is neither about Kong or an island, plus a few that feature “ape men” (The Wild Women of Wongo), or yetis (The Snow Creature, Snowbeast) that dont really count as Kong-ish films.

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