The original King Kong very much reflected the values of its maker, Merian C. Cooper. When Cooper was six years old, his uncle gave him a book called Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa that inspired his imagination with tales of the jungle and strange animals, including gorillas. He wanted to be an explorer. He went to the U.S. Naval Academy but got booted out for suggesting that the recently-invented airplane could someday sink battleships. He became a bomber pilot in World War I and was shot down and imprisoned by the Germans. After the war, he flew for the Poles who fought Soviet invaders in 1920. He was shot down again and thrown into a communist slave camp but escaped. Years later, he made movies celebrating American values to counter communist propaganda.
In the 1920s, he became the first major moviemaker to take cameras to exotic places. In Grass, he documented a Persian tribe’s struggle against the harsh environment. He filmed Chang in Siam, letting roaring tigers come right up to his lens and elephants stampede around his camera—all to get extraordinary shots.
Cooper’s love for adventure, technology, and storytelling came together in King Kong. He modeled the character Carl Denham, a moviemaker who sets off for an unknown island to film something never seen before, after himself. Cooper, also a technological explorer, hired Willis O’Brien to perfect his pioneering techniques of stop-motion photography, rear-screen projection, and other innovations to create the illusion of real-life dinosaurs and Kong himself. The jungle scenes combined miniature models, matte paintings, and life-size sets with the evocative look and lighting of Gustave Doré woodcuts. Cooper also hired Max Steiner to compose one of the first great movie scores with the music closely tied to the action on the screen.
The movie hit the theaters at the height of the Depression with something never before seen. Real-life hero Cooper gave audiences not only a diversion from their economic woes but a look at daring individuals with enough drive, courage, and determination to fight dinosaurs, rescue Ann Darrow—played by Fay Wray—from Kong's grasp, and capture Kong himself.
Fast forward to 1976, to the Dino de Laurentiis debacle that incorporated contemporary clichés and bromides. The cardboard villain was an oil executive—boo, hiss, says the audience!—seeking to drill on an isolated island and screw any noble natives who get in the way. He captures Kong and brings him back to NYC as a PR answer to the “Put a tiger in your tank” ads. We're meant to applaud when Kong breaks free and squashes him. The "hero" of the movie, if he can be called that, was a long-haired environmentalist speaking the usual PC blather. Jessica Lange played a blonde bimbo who at one point calls Kong a male chauvinist ape before trying to protect him from fighter planes atop the World Trade Center. The movie looked pedestrian with little to inspire or awe us; this remake and the 1970s culture of malaise deserved one another.
Peter Jackson sets his Kong back in the 1930s with pretty much the same characters and story line as the original, which in itself makes it better than the '76 disaster. Even though we're used to cutting-edge special effects from the Jurassic Park pictures and Jackson’s own Lord of the Rings trilogy, Kong is a technological tour-de-force that still gives us a feast for the eyes.
A major virtue of the Lord of the Rings films was Jackson's portrayal of his heroes as individuals with strong, serious motives; they had to destroy the corrupting ring of power lest the powers of evil use it to enslave and destroy them. Through their virtues—determination, strength, and even wisdom—they triumphed. There was no tongue-in-cheek laughing at their own goals.
Jackson generally tries not to read twenty-first century sensitivities into his Kong. For example, the natives on Skull Island—perhaps due to their nightmare struggle for life—are savages, and brutal rather than noble ones. But his Denham is not an adventurer-hero as in the original or a serious-minded one as in the Lord of the Rings. Rather, he is a driven moviemaker, not an evil villain so much as a compelled man who pays too little attention to the suffering he creates by the risks he takes.
In the original, Kong was portrayed as the beast touched by beauty, but Fay Wray's Ann saw him as dangerous and screamed at his every touch. Naomi Watts in Jackson’s King Kong at first adds a new, intelligent side to her character. When captured by Kong who roars and pounds his chest, presumably as a prelude to pounding her, Ann, a vaudeville starlet, goes into a dancing-acrobatic-juggling act that surprises and fascinates Kong, who becomes Ann's loyal protector.
Giving character to animals in movies not meant merely for children is always fraught with the danger of making them too human, especially in the case of apes, which do have a rudimentary intelligence. Jackson strikes a good balance with Kong, a creature scarred by daily battles for survival who's comes across something that piques his simian curiosity and charms him. But he's still a killer, though his rampage through New York is clearly caused by his tacky mistreatment on Broadway by Denham.
But Jackson's Ann has a major character flaw. She might be right to not want Kong killed for simply doing in New York what he did on Skull Island. But having her volunteer to take a trip in Kong's paw up the Empire State Building, while exploiting the beauty and the beast theme to the hilt, steps over the line into silliness.
Still, audiences today will find in Jackson's King Kong an adventure with interesting relationships between man and beast, because it centers on an ape, an animal with some of the most sophisticated behavior in the animal kingdom—more interesting than when Jurassic dinosaurs are involved. This Kong might not live up to Jackson's Lord of the Rings—perhaps an impossibility—but it does suggest that our culture is turning to what we can hope will be a new and perhaps better romanticism.