This month brings the conclusion of the PLANET OF THE APES trilogy. To commemorate ComicsVerse is going Ape! We will be focusing on all things simian by looking at some of our favorite pop culture primates. For more articles in this series, click hereToday we discuss the grandaddy of all apes, KING KONG!

“It’s money and adventure and fame. It’s the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage that starts at six o’clock tomorrow morning.” — Carl Denham, KING KONG, 1933

Ever since humanity stepped forth from caves and built its first fire and spear, it has dreamed of what lies beyond. From that moment, our knowledge of the world has grown but so have our questions. The world is a vast and mysterious habitat for a wondrous multitude of species. The landscape of our world, though, is vastly different than what it was millions of years ago. All that remains of that time are bones and theories. What if, somewhere in a remote corner of this planet, these theories are a reality? What if monsters do still prowl this Earth, hidden from our prying eyes? Would you not spend everything for just one glimpse?

This is the premise behind one of America’s definitive cinematic wonders of the 1930s. KING KONG graced screens for the first time in 1933, bringing Merian C. Cooper’s childhood love of gorillas to life on the big screen. From that first film, King Kong has become a household name, a true dynamic monster in the American mythos. Kong is little more than the pure, righteous fury and unbound wonder of the natural world. He can climb buildings, smash airplanes aside with a single swipe, and bang on his chest like the rightful ruler of not just the jungle but the world at large.

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King Kong’s initial screen appearance in 1933 spiked nationwide appeal, making his initial appearance a phenomena. KING KONG inspired a sequel, SON OF KONG, as well as several television series, remakes and crossover films with Japan’s king kaiju, Godzilla. What interests me as a viewer is the way each of Kong’s film adaptations portrays the great ape. Merian C. Cooper’s gorilla differs significantly from Peter Jackson’s or Jordan Vogt-Roberts’, all to serve the overarching themes of their films.

In this article, we will take a look at the three benchmark Kong origin stories: Cooper’s 1933 classic, Jackson’s 2005 remake, and the most recent KONG: SKULL ISLAND from 2017. In doing this, my hope is to analyze different interpretations of this monstrous beasts, and the humans he encounters. Warning: Spoilers incoming for the above three films.

Journey with me into the heart of Skull Island. We have an audience with its king.

KING KONG — Merian C. Cooper, 1933

King Kong
Courtesy of RKO Pictures, Inc.

The 1933 classic KING KONG is one of the greatest early horror films to grace the silver screen. Merian C. Cooper grew up with a deep adoration of apes and Komodo dragons after an uncle gifted him Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa. This book chronicled the adventures of Paul Du Chaillu, the first European adventurer to confirm the existence of gorillas. In this account, the native Pygmy tribes described the species as “invincible” and “the King of the African Jungle.” Du Chaillu himself encountered a gorilla during his adventures and wrote that it was “a hellish dream creature” that was “Half-man, Half-beast.”

Man vs. Monster

King Kong
Courtesy of RKO Pictures, Inc.

Du Chaillu mythologized African apes, and his accounts inspired Cooper’s vision for KING KONG. While some attest that the original KING KONG is not a horror film, I respectfully disagree. Though the film pits Kong against humanity that tore him from Skull Island, humanity is not the villain. In Cooper’s words, he wished to create a “terror gorilla picture.” He wanted to mythologize Kong’s ferocity for moviegoers, to scare viewers. While crafting the original stop-motion model for the monster, Cooper directed the art teams toward terror.

“I want Kong to be the fiercest, most brutal, monstrous damned thing that has ever been seen!”

In the Western literary tradition, five forms of conflict drive narratives. Someone can either face other people, society, nature, God, or self. The conflict presented here fits none of these preconceptions. If King Kong were the hero of this story, it would be a battle against society’s need for grandeur and fame. However, Kong is the intended villain. I posit that this story takes on a life of its own.

KING KONG represents humanity versus an Other, something outside of our given laws. Men and women tremble at the sight because Kong should not exist. We label him, minimize him to the realm of an “Eighth Wonder of the World” because it is our way of bringing order to a force of chaos. Cooper’s first conception of the narrative has Kong clinging to the New York Insurance Building, terrorizing the streets below. While empathy is worked in through Kong’s protection of Ann Darrow, we are meant to join the civilians below. We do not see Darrow. We see a force of nature straddling the New York skyline. Not only that, but we see ourselves failing before the true king.

KING KONG — Peter Jackson, 2005

King Kong
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Some readers may question why I did not include the 1976 remake by John Guillermin in this analysis. The blunt truth? I didn’t know it existed until I began this writing. However, the real reason is that Peter Jackson’s 2005 reinterpretation shared many similarities with Guillermin’s film.

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In fact, the two shared some of the same shooting locations. I chose to analyze Peter Jackson’s KING KONG because it was the film that made me fall in love with America’s own kaiju. Though some may disagree, the story was beautifully told with rich animation. The lush, green Skull Island inspired wonder and a deep wanderlust. It was an ode to adventurism, to the explorers that inspired Cooper’s own film seventy years before. More importantly, for the first time in my personal viewing history, the monster was not the villain.

Man vs. Nature

King Kong
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

While exploring Skull Island alongside Jack Black’s Carl Denham and Naomi Watts’ Ann Darrow, you learn that humanity is the invader. Jackson’s Skull Island, though playing host to human natives, is a place of pure, unequivocal beauty. Untouched by civilization, nature reigns supreme. Dinosaurs roam beside giant scorpions and sea monsters. Skull Island is a slice of living natural history.

At its heart is Kong. In Cooper’s original film, Kong was made to appear partially human. Standing straight-backed, walking on two legs, Cooper meant to create a unique species. Jackson’s KING KONG adapts real nature. This Kong is a perfect, giant analog of its real-life counterpart. Through this realism comes an interesting dynamic shift. Kong represents nature. He may battle with the island’s Tyrannosauruses, but he does so for survival. King Kong is equilibrium. Humanity is chaos. If Cooper’s Kong didn’t belong in 1930s New York, then Jackson’s Denham does not belong on Skull Island.

At the end of the film, when Denham utters the famous line “‘Tis beauty that killed the beast” after Kong is killed, there is tragic irony in his voice. Kong would be alive, and well had the filmmaker steered far clear of the wonders of Skull Island. Jackson’s KING KONG focuses less on the terror of Skull Island or of its King. It interprets the source material to isolate humanity as the unsurpassed foe.

People invade Skull Island. Humanity throws off its equilibrium. People capture Kong, put him in a cage, and blame him when he breaks free and rampages through New York. In Kong’s world, there is no greed because nature wants for naught. Why do I love Peter Jackson’s take on Kong? Because for the first time, the strapping adventurers are not the heroes. They are the iron-bearing destroyers.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND — Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017

King Kong
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

It is worth noting that Jordan Vogt-Roberts 2017 remake of the King Kong story was made with a sequel in mind. With the massive cinematic universe hype afflicting modern cinema, Warner Bros. asked the most important playground question. Who would win in a fight: King Kong or Godzilla?

READ: Kong’s upcoming free-for-all with Godzilla is not the first encounter between these titans. Check out ComicsVerse’s analysis of the Toho KING KONG titles!

The answer is Godzilla, the lizard that literally leaks radiation from its pores. However, in 2020, the two are planned to meet on the battlefield, and with that comes certain expectations. Gone is the skyscraper climb, the beautiful blond to capture. In KONG: SKULL ISLAND, the idea that Kong, a god to his people, could be captured is laughable.

Man vs. God

King Kong
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

KONG: SKULL ISLAND introduces a unique perspective into the King Kong mythos. While Skull Island tribes have been shown worshipping Kong in past films, it is out of fear. They sacrifice women to the beast to appease Kong, so he doesn’t tear down their homes. However, the newest interpretation of Kong is a benevolent ruler, worshiped for protecting the native tribes. Kong is not just king. He is a deity.

This is interesting in the context of his upcoming battle with Godzilla. To best his new foe, his creators needed to reinterpret King Kong. This ape towers over his predecessors, standing even with his home’s mountains. Also, he stands on two feet, reverting to Cooper’s humanoid ape that is not quite animal but not quite person. This is a species all its own, and it strikes an almost repentant fear in viewers.

The opening scene features Kong tearing helicopters from the sky in an explosive fury. Further on, he tears tentacles from the body of a giant octopus. He is also intelligent, able to use a naval carrier propeller to kill a Skullcrawler monster.

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Skull Island is immersed in the supernatural. In previous films, the island played host to dinosaurs and giant creatures, but true to theory representations of prehistoric life. The monsters of this Skull Island have never existed. Among these is a Kraken-sized octopus, a massive bison with semi-trailer sized horns, and the fearsome Skullcrawlers, as large as Kong but with sharper teeth.

In all, this crafts Skull Island as a place outside the Earthly plane. To even reach the island, our explorers have to pass through a hurricane. Kong is an Olympian in this interpretation, and with film-wide allusions to myth, heaven, and the supernatural, this is intended.

Final Thoughts: KING KONG As Icon

King Kong is one of the definitive film Monsters in the American tradition, and for a good reason. Kong’s story is brimming with a depth typically unbecoming of a giant, hairy ape. He persists in the public consciousness because each new creator of his story illuminates a new corner of his shadowy home. With each new film, the viewer becomes an adventurer alongside Carl Denham, attempting to understand this strange new world. Each generation has a new King Kong, a new reason to see the monster in cinema.

Why does ComicsVerse go ape over this great King? Because, over time, he has become a shining example of the potency of cinema as a medium. As an allegory for man’s destruction of nature or as a demonization of the terrors of the unknown, Kong stands as king of American film monsters. Long live the king.

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