The Ape(x) of Beauty
Crystal Downing

I had a friend in college who believed the King Kong tale to be as psychologically profound as two myths appropriated by Freudians: Narcissus loving his reflection and Oedipus marrying his mother. My friend was especially enamored of the 1976 remake of the 1933 King Kong film because it added a reciprocal attraction between the seductive blonde actress and the big hairy beast.

I lost touch with this friend for several reasons—not least of which was her obsession with bellicose hairy men—but I have several times wondered what she thought of the most recent redaction of King Kong. Though Peter Jackson’s three-hour film maintains the mutual attraction between the ape and Ann Darrow (played by Fay Wray in 1933, Jessica Lange in 1976, and Naomi Watts in 2005), it radically redefines how beauty killed the beast.

Jackson’s film lavishly and lovingly quotes the 1933 King Kong—both visually and verbally. As in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson’s attention to detail is stunning. The difference, of course, is that his source text for the Tolkien trilogy was itself a work of extraordinary artistry, whereas the source for King Kong was a film that had no pretense of being anything other than a B-movie thriller. For those who avidly avoid B-movies, the mythic plot goes something like this:

A film director named Carl Denham hires a ship to take his crew to an isolated South Seas island in order to get some extravagant footage. On the island, native savages capture Ann, Denham’s fledgling actress, offering her as an appeasing sacrifice to a twenty-five foot gorilla on the other side of a huge man-made wall. In order to rescue Ann, both ship crew and film crew leave their boat, the S. S. Venture, to venture beyond the wall. There they do battle with primeval creatures until Ann’s love interest, Jack Driscoll, steals the actress away from Kong, who has developed affection for his screaming plaything. After great daring-do (and multiple deaths), the men subdue the giant ape and ship it to New York to put on display as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” Shackled to a Manhattan theater stage, King Kong breaks his chains when flashbulb-popping cameras anger him. Ravaging Manhattan until he finds Ann, the huge creature then escapes to the top of the Empire State Building with her in toe—quite literally. On top of the skyscraper he swats at biplanes reminiscent of flying pterodactyls he had battled from the apex of his island lair. When bullets finally bring him down, the film ends with the famous line, “It wasn’t the airplanes; it was beauty killed the beast.”

Following this plot closely, duplicating word for word the closing line, Jackson spectacularizes the art-deco Depression-era settings that the 1933 film took for granted. However, while the original film begins dock-side, with preparations for the voyage, Jackson begins with a close-up of a monkey, pulling back the camera to reveal that the animal sits behind bars in the New York City Zoo. On the sound track we hear a rendition of “Sitting on Top of the World” as the camera next pans through a Central Park shanty-town and on to a soup kitchen. The song, of course, wryly comments on conditions in the 1930s. But its juxta­position with the monkey in the zoo also prepares us for the famous final scene, when King Kong sits on top of the highest building in the 1933 world. Unlike the 1976 film, then, which placed King Kong’s final scene atop one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center (ironically enough), Jackson returns us not only to the 1930s but also to the art deco of the Empire State Building for the ape’s chest-pounding defiance of human interests.

Jackson, himself, seems to have developed the film in chest-pounding defiance of human interests. Failing to get financial backing for the project until his Lord of the Rings tour-de-force opened up Hollywood coffers, he spent much of his own money to finish the film, as obsessed with keeping the project alive as King Kong is with keeping Ann alive. Perhaps not coinci­dentally, Jackson adds a scene to his remake in which the filmmaker, Carl Denham, is ostracized by financial backers who want to pull the plug on his current project. Hence, it is Denham’s obsession with getting his film made that drives much of the plot.

Denham, however, is not Jackson’s hero. A crass opportunist, Denham does whatever it takes to finish his film, from telling lies to jeopardizing lives. In fact, after one of the crew’s many island battles, Denham mourns his exposed film stock more than his dead comrades. Rather than the director, the (human) hero of Jackson’s film is a writer. In one of the most significant changes from the 1933 movie, Jackson turns Jack Driscoll, Ann’s love-interest, into a playwright.

In the original film, Jack Driscoll is a sailor: First Mate aboard the steamer. A male chauvinist, Driscoll’s resentment toward the ship’s sole female passenger is eventually softened, and he heroically pursues Kong to rescue the girl in 1930s macho-man style. In contrast, Jackson’s Driscoll has been cozened into staying on the ship in order to finish the screenplay for Denham’s film. Valuing the beauty of artistically rendered language over the financial returns of movie script schlock, Driscoll agrees to do the screenplay only because he needs the money to survive in Depression-era New York. Even then, when he discovers that he has been tricked into going on a long voyage, he contemplates jumping ship so that he can attend the opening rehearsal of his new play. As he tells the director, “I don’t do it for the money, Carl; I love theater.” Called “Shakespeare” while on board ship, Driscoll signals his literary interests by titling a play Cry Havoc, taken from Shakespeare’s famous line in Julius Caesar: “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war.”

In Jackson’s film, Driscoll touches Ann’s heart even before she meets him, for she is a fan of his literary art. Working as a vaudeville acrobat to make ends meet, Ann dreams of someday acting in one of Driscoll’s plays. Thus, while the 1933 Ann Darrow joins the island expedition because she needs the money and wants to be a movie star, Jackson’s Ann, who also needs the money, refuses to participate in the questionable enterprise until she discovers that her literary hero serves as Denham’s screenwriter.

In addition to getting Ann on board the ship, literary art inflects the film through another significant change to the original script: Jackson adds a young sailor, Jimmy, who is reading Joseph Conrad’s famous 1901 novella, The Heart of Darkness. As part of a steamer crew, Jimmy identifies with Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, who mans a steamer bound for uncharted territory. Later, however, Jimmy asks his mentor, First Mate Hays, “Why does Marlow keep going up the river? Why doesn’t he turn back?” And Hays replies, “There’s a part of him that wants to, Jimmy: a part deep inside himself that sounds a warning. But there’s another part that needs to know, to defeat the thing that makes him afraid.” Conrad’s Marlow describes this impulse as “the fascination of the abomination”—the ambiguity of which might summarize the King Kong myth. For not only does the Kong abomination become fascinated with Ann Darrow (as in the 1933 film), —but she becomes fascinated with Kong (as added in the 1976 film).

Significantly, after Kong absconds with Ann, Hays in a voice-over quotes from The Heart of Darkness as he and Jimmy join the search party: “We cannot understand because we were too far and could not remember because we were traveling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone.” Jackson, through Hays, brings these words to bear on King Kong’s island, where the presence of dinosaurs and other primeval creatures gestures toward the “first ages” of evolution. Indeed, in the Conrad paragraph from which Hays quotes, Marlow makes a statement that could describe the island in all three King Kong films: “We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet.” Jackson, however, has Hays quote a statement from Conrad’s next paragraph, because it better resonates with Kong, free and monstrous King of his island: “We are accustomed to look on the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.” These words, of course, adumbrate the moment when King Kong will be shackled to a theater stage, a conquered monster put on display, like the caged monkey in the film’s opening shot.

Not long after Hays quotes Conrad, Jimmy looks up from his Heart of Darkness volume and says, “It’s not an adventure story, is it Mr. Hays?” This is perhaps Jackson’s biggest clue to us. His remake of the King Kong tale is not merely an adventure story. It is about the power beauty can have over the beastly; it is about the light that dawns in the heart of darkness. In the 1933 King Kong, of course, the power of beauty is equated with a highly sexualized blonde bimbo. Indeed, in a scene that was cut when the film was re-released in 1938 (after the Hays Code went into affect in 1934), the fascinated Kong pulls off Ann’s outer garments, fiddles with her body, and then smells his fingers.

Jackson not only eliminates blatant sexual implications, he entirely reinterprets the fascination of the abomination. After Kong absconds with Ann to his mountain lair, he attempts to intimidate her with ferocious, toothy howls. While the 1933 Ann is duly intimidated, spending most of her time with Kong either fainting or screaming, the 2005 Ann does vaudeville tricks once she notices that Kong is fascinated when she accidentally trips. She falls down and jumps back up, does cartwheels and flips, juggles rocks, walks like an Egyptian and Charlie Chaplin. The beast laughs, fascinated not with her sexuality but with her craft—as though in allusion to William Congreve’s famous lines, “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast, / To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” When Ann stops performing, Kong pushes her over and trips her, laughing as heartily as the human audiences who had watched her vaudeville pratfalls earlier in the film. When the exhausted Ann yells, “No! That’s all there is! There isn’t anymore!” Kong has a temper tantrum, throwing rocks and knotted oaks off the mountainside, then sulks away after a loose stone conks him on the head. Jackson quite clearly shows that the abomination finds Ann’s art more fascinating than her sex.

Ann takes advantage of Kong’s sulking to run away, but subsequent attacks by multiple forms and sizes of creepy primeval monsters send her back to the protection of the ape. However, after once again carrying Ann to the apex of his mountain lair, Kong now becomes entranced by a beauty significantly greater than her craft. He ignores Ann, even when she juggles, in order to watch the sun shedding garments of red and orange as it sinks into the ocean’s bed. When Ann witnesses the power that a setting sun has over Kong, she repeats “It’s beautiful” while patting her heart with her hand. The creature taps his own savage breast while wistfully watching an azure sea extinguish a heart of brightness.

Jackson’s Ann thus joins the beast as audience to the sun’s performance. Rather than an object of the male/ape gaze, she is an empowered subject of the gaze, collaborating in a love of beauty—as she had earlier done with the playwright. Jackson, in fact, establishes an explicit parallel between King Kong and Jack Driscoll. Just as Kong and Ann establish mutual empathy through the beauty of a sunset, the mutual attraction between the playwright and the actress begins against the backdrop of a sunset. Furthermore, Kong and Driscoll, the only two in the film able to rescue Ann from certain death, are similarly imprisoned by the self-serving interests of Carl Denham, who tricks them both onto his hired boat: Driscoll forced away from the New York theater scene, Kong forced away from his lovely island scenes. Significantly, by the time Driscoll had discovered Denham’s ruse, all the sleeping quarters aboard ship were taken. He therefore has to set up shop in a huge animal cage in the hold. Jackson frames several shots so that we see Driscoll typing away through the bars of his cage, once with a sign in the shot, adjacent to his head, reading “Live Animals Inside.” Thus, just as Kong taps at his black chest to signify “beauty” to Ann, Driscoll taps out signifiers in black ink to create beauty with words, the gestures of both “animals” charming the young actress.

Jackson solidifies the parallel between man and beast through Jimmy, who values the beauty of The Heart of Darkness. The first time we see Jimmy on screen, he tries to steal, significantly enough, the writer’s pen after having brought food to his cage. Hays, who catches Jimmy in the act, explains to Driscoll that the young sailor enjoys hanging out around the cages: “That’s where I found him, stowed away, . . . arm broken in two places. He was wilder than half the animals in here.” It is as though Jimmy represents an evolutionary stage between the ape and the playwright, his evolution reflected and abetted by his love of literature. Jackson even connects Jimmy to Ann. In one quick scene on the deck of the ship, we see Ann teaching Jimmy to dance—against the backdrop of a sunset.

Jackson sustains the parallel between the ape and the playwright after the return to New York. Shots cut back and forth between two theaters: a huge and luxuriant space in which Kong is chained before an elegant throng, and an intimate off-Broadway venue where Driscoll’s words are staged before a small audience. In both, an actress plays Ann’s part. On the Kong stage, a blonde woman pretends to be Ann responding to the ape’s gestures; on the Driscoll stage, a blonde woman speaks lines the playwright imagines Ann to have thought in response to him. The pseudo-Anns cause despair in ape and man, Kong trying to break free from his production and Driscoll running from his production. Looking for the real Ann (as is Kong), Driscoll enters Denham’s theater, where the camera does several shot/reverse shot close-ups on the faces of the playwright and the ape, their disgust with the extravaganza expressed through their similarly sorrowful eyes. When Driscoll asks someone about Ann, he hears that the producers “offered her all kind of money” to perform in the Kong show, but that “she turned them down flat.” The shot then cuts to a small theater to deliver one of the most lyrical scenes in the film: Ann gracefully dances in the background with thirteen other balleri­nas while a man soulfully sings “Bye, Bye, Blackbird.” We see that she has chosen to participate in beauty rather than to make money.

This scene toward the end of the film echoes one near its start, when Ann refuses the opportunity to make money in an exploitative girly-show. Denham, in contrast, puts Kong in the primate version of an exploitative girly-show—as an extremely hairy object of the gaze. His disgusted assistant satirically tells Driscoll that Denham “was right—about there still being some mystery in the world. And we can all have a piece of it—for the price of an admission ticket.” With Kong shackled in the background, Jackson implies that, when money is the primary motivator, the mystery of beauty is shackled.

After Kong breaks his chains, he ravages Manhattan looking for Ann. Unlike the 1933 film, Ann soothes the savage beast by walking up and offering herself to him. However, unlike the 1976 film, incipient eroticism is undermined by another lyrical scene. Kong, with Anne in hand, accidentally slips on a frozen pond in Central Park and then turns around for more. Ann laughs with glee as Kong slides and twirls on ice that glistens with the reflection of surrounding Christmas lights.

When the beautiful moment—and the ice—is broken by a mortar shell, Kong leaps and swings his way to the Empire State Building where he makes his iconic climb. Near the top, however, he stops when he notices an incipient sun rising over the waters surrounding Manhattan. Kong sits down, forgetful not only of the army chasing him, but also of Ann, who so wants to participate in his reverie that she yells up to him “Beautiful!” tapping her breast. Not wanting to give up on one moment of beauty, Kong keeps his eyes on the russet colored skies, and taps his breast in reply.

At this moment, gun-toting biplanes rip through the russet-mantled dawn, and Kong’s savage yells return. After having been pierced with beauty only moments before, Kong climbs to the apex of the building where he loses his balance after bullets pierce his heart. As his body falls in slow motion to the street below, a soft requiem accompanies his descent. At the bottom, Denham pushes through a crowd in order to deliver the well-known closing statement: “It wasn’t the airplanes; it was beauty killed the beast.” But by now we realize that Jackson’s film functions as a midrash on the famous line, implying that, just as music soothes the savage breast, beauty kills the beast in us all. Whether directed at a setting sun or a rising playwright, appreciation for art signals the evolution from animal savagery to human nobility.

 As Driscoll rises to the apex of the Empire State Building at the end of the film, where he takes the place of Kong in Ann’s embrace, Peter Jackson gives us a visualization of words written by Joseph Conrad nearly a century earlier: “The artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition—and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain.”

Even though Peter Jackson’s King Kong is far from great art, it nevertheless reminds us that film, when in the hands of those who value beauty over money, can speak to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain.

Tap your heart if you agree.


Crystal Downing is Associate Professor of English and Film Studies at Messiah College.

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