Tuesday, 19 February 2013

King Kong, dir. Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, scr. James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose, st. Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot, Robert Armstrong

Putting aside for one moment the more thorny reading of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 movie King Kong as a troubling metaphor for white man’s assertion of power and control over an alien environment’s indigenous population, and indeed the fetishising of white women by the native peoples themselves, there is a rather yearning love story at work in the film. In fact, I would be inclined to argue that Kong aspires to be a role model for all us men; fiercely loyal, obsessively protective, bringing all efforts to bear on a singular objective – his gal, Ann Darrow (Wray).

If the hero in the picture is Kong, then surely the antihero is man. Again, ignoring all colonial interpretations (although it’s mighty hard not to) of white folk travelling to an exotic foreign clime, harnessing the wondrous and exotic, ripping it from its natural environment, and transporting it back home so richer white folk may gawp at it and feel culturally enriched, in our reading of King Kong as a simple love story, the men – in particular those who rush around the island Benny Hill-style trying to ‘rescue’ Darrow from the ape, are a clear illustration of male ineptitude. Filmmaker Carl Denham (Armstrong) states from the off that his new picture will be nothing without a glamorous girl to sell it, and so he sets off, trawling the streets like a sex-trafficker until he finds Darrow, down on her luck and desperate for work. Denham’s made so many references to the Beauty/Beast allegory up until this point, his final line in the movie seems as orchestrated as his plan to line his pockets. He cares not for Darrow. She’s pretty, he’s on a deadline, and the ship’s engines are a-crankin’. The captain of the boat Englehorn and first mate Jack Driscoll (Cabot) are no better, full of lame-o machismo and condescension. “Women just can’t help being a bother. Made that way I guess,” says Driscoll. The realisation of Darrow’s role as an expendable commodity is quite shocking. Who would know if she never came home? Who would care? Who would claim responsibility?

Once the natives kidnap Ann and offer her up as a ritual sacrifice to the mighty ape, we see for the first time Kong’s reaction to the girl. After all, “blondes are scarce around here”, the crew have noted. True, Marcel Delgado’s stiff, fur-covered animatronics are primitive when compared to Andy Serkis’ mo-capped performance in the 2005 Peter Jackson remake, Kong’s expressions reduced to Chewit-advert eyebrow-raising and chest-pounding, but the reaction to the girl is unmistakable. Kong is curious, cautious, delicate and clearly besotted. After we see the pursuing crew fight off a Stegosaur and a Brontosaur in their search for Ann, we see Kong placing her atop a huge limbless tree-stump, a prize on a pedestal yes, but also, a sensible temporary placement out of harm’s way. Darrow’s reactions to all this meanwhile, to be fair whilst grounded in realism, are to shriek and scream. It may be how we might react were a lovelorn behemoth to carry us off into the jungle, but it makes for a poor heroine. Art and literature is full to bursting of tales of women being screwed over by men, treated as objects, discarded at will, the men blissfully unaware or unconcerned by what they have, but painfully comes up short when attempting to show us the opposite may also be true. It’s something the Jackson remake got right, and in no small way thanks to Naomi Watt’s portrayal of Darrow. In Jackson’s King Kong, the love may not be quite reciprocated in the same way, but it is at least understood. The pre-Empire State climax in which girl and monkey go for an after-hours skate in Central Park may indeed be a bridge too far, but it shows us something very important – that there is a connection between the two.

Back to 1933 and along comes a T-Rex who too wants Darrow, but this time presumably for lunch. In quite a gruesome scene that follows, Kong wrestles with the lizard, a violent and bloody battle that culminates in the ape breaking the monster’s jaw. The scene may be dismissed as just another tediously primal assertion of one beast’s assertion of masculinity over another (and over a woman) – compounded by Kong’s victory roar and fist-clenching – but the scene is ultimately sold as an expression of tenderness by the way his guttural growls and snarls soften as he tends to Ann, her perch having been toppled during the skirmish. Still fearful, Darrow attempts a retreat but Kong gently scoops her up and carries her further into the jungle. By this time, the only member of the crew still on Ann’s trail is Driscoll, the only really eligible love interest, although his relationship with her hasn’t convinced so far. Back at the ship, having lost the girl he vouched for, Denham prepares to set sail the following morning regardless of whether Driscoll’s managed to signal to them of Ann’s sound rescue. For him, Ann is his ticket to seeing his name up in lights on Broadway, his McGuffin, literal bait to ensnare his prize creature.

High up on a rocky cape, Kong pauses to further examine the blacked-out Ann. In a scene that was to be excised from the print by the censors, he paws at her clothes with all the interest and curiosity of an adolescent boy faced with something he’d read about in books, but never dared to hope he might one day have in his hands. Kong rips her skirt and blouse, examining the strips of material that come away beneath his hands before smelling his fingers. It’s a highly sexualised scene, and an ungainly one at that, but it does show sexual attraction as having its roots in innate biological fascination, as opposed to lustful, barbarous desire. How rare it is to find an alpha male strong enough to topple any adversary, but bewildered and entranced by beauty instead of claiming it outright.

Once Kong has been be-chained and dragged to Manhattan to be placed onstage as the exhibit to end all exhibits, we see Ann and Jack waiting nervously backstage for the curtain to go up. Two attempts at character redemption follow one another here; first, Ann comments on how she doesn’t like to see Kong (offscreen) chained up, and Denham deflects the press labelling him a hero onto Ann, stating it was her that lured the creature, and thus deserves any praise. But it’s too little too late as Kong breaks free, grabs Darrow once more and makes his way through the urban jungle before scaling the famous skyscraper. Jackson’s film has a wonderful shot of Watts’ Darrow appearing dreamlike through the fog, a call-back to the earlier scene of forced sacrifice, but this time, offering herself up in order to pacify the creature, a voluntary union. But whereas Jackson’s Ann Darrow and Kong reach a mutual understanding, Fay Wray resorts back to the histrionics of her earlier capture. The girl in the remake contextualises Kong’s fascination with her through her actions and reactions; the original 1933 Ann Darrow damns and compounds it. Like Titania and Bottom-as-an-ass’ relationship in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the drama indirectly speaks of something quite profound beyond its intended meaning; the helplessly blind nature of attraction, and the unbreakable bond of true love.