The Great Debate Over King Kong
Kong is an undeniable cultural icon, one who has stood the test of time nearly 90 years from his first appearance in the 1933 film King Kong. Given his status is not liable to go away anytime soon it has been made an issue of tantamount importance to discuss what he means to society. Consensus in the truest sense may never be possible and that is not helped by quotes like this from one of Kong’s creators Merian C. Cooper:
Regardless of Cooper’s claims, he is most certainly not the leading theory for the Eighth Wonder of the World. The most widely stated opinion is one laid out by Robin R Means Coleman in her book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present in which she lays out her theories here:
“It is an instance, as Snead (James Snead) persuasively argues, of “the coded Black” in which Blackness is implicitly carried in the form of an ape. Kong is “blackened,” or racially coded, when juxtaposed against the presence of Whites in the film. Kong is the color black, emerging from a “lower,” primitive culture in which he is surrounded by Black natives-or mini-Kongs when they dress up like apes to worship their big Kong.”–Horror Noire – Blacks in American Horror Films From The 1890s To Present, Robin R Means Coleman
INGAGI: The Racist Faux-Documentary
This is a pretty damning examination of King Kong and much of it comes to the close linking of Kong and Ingagi. Ingagi is a deeply racist film once passed off as a documentary in the early 30s described in detail by Coleman earlier in the book:
“Ingagi tells the story of white research scientists who travel deep into the jungles of Congo to investigate the odd rituals of a Congolese tribe that both reveres and fears gorillas, or “Ingagis.” The Congolese give their women to the beasts. The film’s story is one of white enlightenment. Appalled by the natives’ ritual sacrifice and unable to tolerate it a moment longer, the scientists work to rescue a young Black woman victim from the clutches of an ape-beast.
In the course of saving the woman’s life and killing the animal, the men, and therefore the film’s audiences, are led to believe that the woman was not simply saved from being pummeled and/or eaten by the animal. Rather, she was rescued from enduring a highly erotic encounter with bestiality”–Horror Noire – Blacks in American Horror Films From The 1890s To Present, Robin R Means Coleman
It is true that Ingagi was both a tremendous success and did come up during the production of King Kong. In Cynthia Erb’s book Tracking King Kong: A Hollywood Icon in World Culture she confirms that Ingagi had to be vetted by the RKO legal department prior to filming King Kong and it did appear by name in an early version of James Creelman’s script.
“They [the natives] worship this trick animal like a God. Boy, when we shoot that, they’ll boil down Ingagi and Trader Hor for the celluloid.”–Wallace and Cooper, Kong (The Eighth Wonder), James Creelman
The final script for King Kong is quite different from those early Creelman drafts but the impact of Ingagi remains undeniable. However, today I want to bring forth another piece of media not from King Kong’s past but from King Kong’s future. 1935’s The Last Days of Pompeii is a film that may just shed the light on the topic for even the most ardent of skeptics. This film was made with the same writer, directors, and special effects technicians as 1933’s King Kong and put many of the themes people have read as subtext in King Kong flatly displayed as text.
The Future Holds The Key
The Last Days of Pompeii is a film based on a classic novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton but this film version bears little resemblance to that story as the film even opens with this opening statement:
“Although … the characters and plot have no relation to those in the novel by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, acknowledgment is made of his description of Pompeii which has inspired the physical setting of this picture”–The Last Days of Pompeii (1935)
This means that the film must be viewed from the lens of the filmmakers, not the novel. At the very opening of the film in an elaborate establishing shot, we already see black slaves rowing a boat entering the city of Pompeii. From the onset, the point of the film is made crystal clear, the supposed paradise is built upon the backs of slave labor.
We are then treated to a sequence of a group of white men in shackles being brought to the arena to fight to the death for the entertainment of the ruling class. One notable slave is a huge robust man in shackles and talked about as if he were King Kong himself:
“I supply the arena with slaves and wild beasts. But he’s more of a wild beast. Beat him, flog him. Only don’t spoil him for the arena.”-Cleon, The Slave Dealer, The Last Days of Pompeii (1935)
The humble blacksmith who is to be our main character redoes the binding of the slaves and subdues him from getting a hold of a nobleman. He is a noted fighter and is told he should go to the arena to make money. He declines stating he is happy to be in the lower class as he has all the happiness he could need with his wife and new child. Tragedy soon strikes and our once noble hero is forced to work in the pits to get money after losing all he held dear. He is skilled in the pits leading him to encounter the slave dealer he saved before his tragedy leading to the following exchange:
Cleon, the Slave Dealer: I don’t think you should look down on me, my friend. Aren’t we in the same business? We both furnish amusement for the people.
Marcus: I risk my life with the man I’m fighting. You buy and sell wretches to be slaughtered as a spectacle. I’m not proud of myself, but, by Jupiter, compared to you I’m a holy man.
Cleon, the Slave Dealer: You will never be an old one. It isn’t bravery that survives; it’s brains.
Marcus: Yes, it is well known that the rat lives longer than the lion, but who wants to be a rat? I wouldn’t do your dirty work – not to save my life!-The Last Days of Pompeii (1935)
It is here we see another similarity with King Kong; Cleon is directly analogous to Carl Denham, the filmmaker at the heart of King Kong. He takes things that don’t belong to him and brings them back as playthings for the world at large. Much has been speculated as to whether or not Denham is intentionally made out to be the villain in King Kong; there is no such ambiguity here. Denham is undoubtedly a stand-in for Merian C. Cooper; while Cleon shares none of the director’s characteristics, their roles are the same.
As he grows cold and callous he finds himself a child to protect after slaying the boy’s father in the pits. Having a new reason to live, he now does all that he can to protect the child. The more money he earns in the pits the more he can treat his child, which includes buying a learned slave to teach his boy.
This involves a lengthy scene of our once high and mighty hero purchasing humans at a slave trade. As is, unfortunately, a continuing theme in this movie, there are a number of black slaves in these sequences but it is only the white slaves who get any characterization. Even amongst slaves, there is a hierarchy.
Our next big thematic connection to King Kong occurs after an injury has made Marcus unable to participate in the fighting pits; as a consequence, he must do the bidding of those like Cleon, doing dirty work he strongly dislikes. Cleon sends him to Libya in order to obtain slaves.
When we see him in Libya he is standing in the remnants of a village that looks exactly like it did when Kong destroyed the native village in the 1933 film. We see white men led by Marcus cracking the whip and pillaging the black villagers. One particularly unruly man is nearly stabbed after he won’t stop fighting the slave masters. Marcus saves him but not for anything heroic, merely so that he can get more money from Cleon.
One of his fellow slave masters tells Marcus how to calm the man down; he must tell him that his son will go to the arena if he doesn’t come quietly. Marcus allows this and immediately the man subsides.
Slaver: “You see, you’ll have no more trouble with them now. Why, he was the fiercest of them all.”
Marcus: “Until he saw his son in danger.”-The Last Days of Pompeii (1935)
In the context of the film, this is clearly meant to humanize the people Marcus is enslaving and show how similar he is to Marcus. The one prominent sequence humanizing one of the film’s black characters. However, one cannot deny the striking similarity to how Merian C. Cooper wanted King Kong to play in the film from two years before.
“I want Kong to be the fiercest, most brutal, monstrous damned thing that has ever been seen!” and “I’ll have women crying over him before I’m through, and the more brutal he is the more they’ll cry at the end.”-The Making of King Kong: The Story Behind a Film Classic., George E. Turner, and Orville Golnder
This seems to be the exact sentiment behind this sequence in Pompeii and the clear parallel of using a black male to reinforce this idea cannot be overstated.
The King Of Kings
Aside from the racial parallels between the two films, much can be said about its religious iconography. In King Kong, when Denham displays Kong to the world he is in a pose that is a dead ringer to the crucifixion. Hell, the great wall of skull island is a leftover from the Cecil B. DeMille film The King of Kings, which is all about, as one would surmise, Jesus.
The religious symbolism is yet again laid as text in The Last Days of Pompeii as it actually includes appearances from Jesus and Pontius Pilate (played by Basil Rathbone). Jesus heals Marcus’s son, Flavius, after he is struck down by a carriage. Marcus then promised Jesus he will help him in any way that he can.
When the time comes, however, Marcus flees instead of fighting to save Jesus from the crucifix. Upon returning to his home, he is witness to all he built laid bare as his indifference towards man leads to God’s wrath.
Not exactly 1 to 1 in response to King Kong but the third act is set off after a crucifixion resulting in mass destruction is at the very least a structural similarity.
Have we finally solved the meaning of King Kong? Not by a longshot. These debates about the meaning of Kong will continue to rage on as long as there are people talking about the film. This is merely a piece to directly point out that the men and women behind King Kong knew full well the realities of everything people have put upon the eighth wonder.
Film is a subjective medium and as such true consensus will never truly happen, nevertheless these conversations are vital as we continue to move forward into a world where the giant ape still reigns as King.