Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong remake opens on the homeless Depression-era denizens of New York City as Al Jolson rapturously sings “I’m Sitting on Top of the World”. Jolson’s brassy baritone provides a sonic contrast to the montage of careworn faces huddled together in Central Park’s Hooverville. In the context of the film, the song also evokes images of Kong’s final moments: sitting on top of what was at that time the highest man-made structure in the world. Most audiences watching Jackson’s remake already know Kong’s fate as his final stand atop the Empire State Building is one of the most famous images in the history of cinema. Jackson’s affectionate remake works to remind audiences, even in its opening moments, of the story’s inevitable tragic ending. 

Jackson’s King Kong is a passion project for the director. He lovingly recreates Cooper and Schoedsack’s 1933 film and invites nostalgic re-readings of the original text and its 1976 remake. Beneath its spectacular horror-laced action/adventure veneer, Jackson’s film exhibits a keen awareness the polysemic readings the 1933 film has inspired. Noel Carroll’s “Ape and Essence” lists some of these: “Kong as Christ, Kong as Black, Kong as commodity, Kong as rapist, Kong as L’amour fou, Kong as Third World, Kong as dream, Kong as myth,”1and so on. Applied in tandem, these readings highlight the level of interpretive play the film inspires. The combination of Kong as simultaneously “Black” and “commodity” prompts a critical reading of the film as a metaphor for America’s slave trade: Kong is shipped against his will from his jungle homeland to modern America where his captors keep him shackled as they try to break his spirit, benefit from his subjugation, and display him for profit to the amusement of White audiences. 

Kong as L’amour fou muses on how the giant prehistoric ape became a slave to love: a feature that famously attracted members of the Surrealist movement to the film who were enthralled by its combination of bestial and oneiric qualities.2 The one-sided romance depicted in the 1933 film resembles the comical inter-species romance between Pepé le Pew and Le Cat featured in numerous Warner Bros. animated shorts. Anne Darrow shares similarities with the ill-fated cat “whose chance encounter with some white paint”, writes Kirsten Moana Thompson, “triggers Pepé’s lust for ‘zee king-sized belle femme skunk fatale’”.3 Like WB’s flighty feline, Anne screams in terror and flees at every opportunity from the ardour of her ape admirer. Kong’s sexual intrigue with his blonde beauty was enough to attract Joseph Breen and the Production Code censors who insisted a scene in which the ape undresses Faye Wray be toned right down for the film’s 1938 re-release.4 Right up to his violent last stand atop the Empire State, Kong, like the love-sick cartoon skunk, is never dissuaded; quite literally falling for Anne one last time as Robert Armstrong’s Denham dryly quips, “‘Twas beauty killed the beast”. 

John Guillerman’s serious-minded 1976 remake explicates several of these subtextual interpretations. The Petrox oil company thus literalises Kong as commodity by unveiling the captured ape from behind a gigantic wraparound curtain garishly fashioned to resemble a petrol bowser. The grotesque media stunt is clearly designed to appeal to oil-deprived American audiences while Kong’s ascent and fall from the World Trade Centre reinforces the ape’s commodified identity: a symbol of rising and falling profits. Jeff Bridges’ palaeontologist Jack Prescott expresses clear sympathies for Kong and expresses post-colonial regret for the wellbeing of the villagers of Skull Island, forecasting that the removal of their monstrous deity would damn them to alcoholic oblivion within a year. Jessica Lange’s callow aspiring actress Dwan drifts through life in a New Age haze, buffeted by the vicissitudes of fate: simultaneously terrified of and terrified for her giant simian abductor. Guillerman updates the thrills and spectacle of Kong for the disco generation and delivers a sincere yet sardonic morality tale for its times. Carroll argues that Guillerman’s approach makes the film too singular in its messaging while the 1933 film’s equivocality enriches the text. “Part of the fascination of the original,” he opines, “[is] its openness to interpretive play”.5 

In remaking the 1933 classic, Jackson highlights his affection for the film and the impact it had on his aspirations to become a filmmaker. His computer-generated homage recreates the look and feel of the original film with its early Thirties period setting while also incorporating elements of Guillerman’s version. His efforts can be said to resemble those sentiments attributed to Jack Black’s Carl Denham, described in Jackson’s film as a vulgar showman who cannot help but destroy the things he loves. Like or loathe it, Jackson’s palimpsestic remake invites knowing audiences to look past its pixelated surface and recognise the living breathing spirit of Cooper and Schoedsack lurking beneath. 

Cooper and Schoedsack’s preparedness to put themselves in harm’s way for their films would inspire Kong scriptwriter Ruth Rose to base her two leading men on the daring filmmakers. Carl Denham’s gung-ho filmmaker would be based on Cooper while Schoedsack provided the inspiration for imperturbable First Mate Jack Driscoll.6 Gerald Peary’s study of Cooper and Schoedsack’s earlier docu-dramas argues that these formative projects are relevant to King Kong because they function as “demonstrations of Kong’s kinship with the more unorthodox topics of the pioneering documentarians”.7 Their 1927 film Chang stands out as an influential feature in both the 1933 and 2005 versions of Kong. Filmed in Thailand, Chang follows a family’s triumph over the jungle and its most powerful beast: wild elephants locally referred to as “Chang”. The film climaxes with a spectacular elephant stampede that levels a village and bears an uncanny resemblance to Kong’s enraged destruction of the grass huts on Skull Island. Kevin Brownlow notes that certain shots in Chang’s elephant stampede were later reproduced in King Kong: “The rescue of the villager’s baby” in Chang, he posits, “is the blueprint for the rescue of a Skull Island native’s baby”.8 

Chang’s elephant stampede is also present in Jackson’s film in the form of the spectacular brontosaurus stampede. While it does not acknowledge Chang as an inspiration, Jackson’s sequence recalls an episode involving Schoedsack during the Chang shoot. In order to get a good angle to shoot the elephant stampede in Chang, the filmmakers dug a pit, covered it with logs which they levelled with the surrounding earth, and camouflaged it with branches. Filming the stampede sequence from inside the pit, Schoedsack recalls: 

“I’m cranking away through a little hole, and the elephants are coming, and I’m hoping they’ll step around the pit. Just a few of them get over, and they start kicking the camouflage all over the thing, and they cut off the view. I think they did a war dance on top [and] the pit sank a couple of inches”.9 

This and similar accounts of Schoedsack’s fearless filmmaking recall a portion of Rose’s dialogue from the 1933 film spoken by Denham after Ann asks him if he always takes the pictures himself. Denham confirms: 

“Ever since a trip I made to Africa. I’d have got a swell shot of a charging rhino, but the cameraman got scared. The darned fool. I was right there with the rifle. Seemed he didn’t trust me to get the rhino before it got him. I haven’t fooled with cameramen since. Do the trick myself.” 

In Jackson’s film, the ruthless determination of Jack Black’s Carl Denham recalls both Schoedsack’s perilous shoot in Chang and Denham’s brio in the 1933 film. Jackson’s sequence opens with Carl Denham filming a herd of brontosaurs quietly grazing. Denham’s fearlessness is contrasted with his jittery leading man, Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), who reluctantly stands in front of the camera to provide a sense of scale to the beasts in the background. As Bruce edges forward the herd is spooked by a pack of velociraptors and stampede towards the men. Baxter flees while Denham stands his ground, cranking the camera even as the dinosaurs are almost on top of him. 

Though never formally acknowledged by Jackson, the presence of the Brontosaurus stampede in his film shares commonalities with Chang and clearly draws from sources beyond the 1933 film. We might say that Jackson’s King Kong is as much homage to Cooper and Schoedsack themselves as it is to their greatest creation. 

In The Making of King Kong, Goldner and Turner explain that when shooting wrapped on the 1933 film there were “over 238,000 feet of unedited negative from which a 10,000-foot feature had to be extracted”.10 The length was eventually reduced to 11 reels that sadly sacrificed exciting sequences on Skull Island. One of these is the spider pit sequence, the loss of which has been lamented by film scholars and aficionados alike. Shot by stop-motion maestro Willis O’Brien, the spider pit sequence depicted the disturbing deaths of the few remaining crew of the Venture that accompanied Denham and Driscoll on their rescue attempt of Ann. Kong attacks the crew as they cross a log bridge, sending them into the ravine below. In the original version filmed by O’Brien, the men survive the fall into the ravine, only to be eaten alive by various giant-sized creepy-crawlies. Considered too disturbing by the studio, the spider pit sequence was cut and replaced by a scene showing the men killed by their fall into the ravine. The original spider pit footage has never been found. 

In Jackson’s remake, the spider pit sequence is reintroduced. However, Jackson breaks with the 1933 film by sending Denham and Driscoll down into the ravine infested by giant prehistoric insects. With the two leads trapped in the pit, the film nods to the significance of O’Brien’s work by elevating the importance of the sequence itself. When Denham returns to consciousness after his fall, he discovers his movie camera smashed and his prized footage of the island exposed and destroyed; much like O’Brien’s original spider pit footage. Jackson ups the ante with his spider pit sequence, drawing on his roots in horror to create a truly nightmarish scene equivalent in 2005 terms to the 1933 lost footage, showing the crew being overwhelmed by a swarm of giant insects and literally eaten alive. The sequence in Jackson’s film thus works as a tribute to O’Brien, paying homage to the animator and his lost spider pit footage.

While Jackson attempts to recreate elements of the original film as faithfully as possible, he also demonstrates an acute awareness of cultural shifts that have taken place since 1933 (and 1976) and addresses some of these. His recontextualised pastiche of the original text maintains an affectionate level of fidelity to the scenes it recreates. In Cooper and Schoedsack’s film, a scene that takes place on the deck of the ship as it sails out of New York harbour depicts an exchange between Ann and Jack that later develops into a romance: Ann: I think this is awfully exciting. I’ve never been on a ship before. 

Jack: I’ve never been on one with a woman before. 

Ann: I guess you don’t think much of women on ships, do you? 

Jack: No, they’re a nuisance. 

Ann: Well, I’ll try not to be. 

Jackson includes this same dialogue in a scene between Bruce Baxter and Ann (Naomi Watts), this time staged for Denham’s camera on the ship’s deck during the long voyage to the island. As Denham yells “action”, Chandler and Watts adopt the stagey affectations that characterise the performance style of early sound cinema that is visible in Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong’s dialogue delivery in the original film. In the process, they draw attention to the difference in performance styles and how these have changed over time. Even though Jackson has positioned his remake in 1933, he deliberately juxtaposes the theatrical performance styles of the era with the so-called naturalism of contemporary screen acting to divest his film of the cultural prejudices and beliefs of the 1930s. 

Jackson saves the best of his homages for when Denham reveals Kong to New York audiences, transplanting Ann’s sacrifice to Kong in Cooper and Schoedsack’s film onto the Broadway stage. This enables the director to reproduce and incorporate iconography from the original scene, including parts of Max Steiner’s Wagnerian score. He also borrows an idea from Guillerman’s film when the Petrox Oil Company introduces Kong to the world in a televised promotional launch. For the event, Dwan reprises her role as an offering to Kong. She is led up to a replica of the Skull Island sacrificial altar where she again comes face to face with the giant ape. Hosting the gala is avaricious Petrox executive Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), filling the role of Denham. Wearing a safari suit, Wilson addresses the crowded stadium while African American dancers dressed as islander savages thrash about wildly. Jackson’s film fuses Cooper and Schoedsack’s premiere of Kong on the Broadway stage with the vulgar theatrics of Guillerman’s stadium event. 

Jackson raises his Broadway curtain to reveal a forlorn Kong, bound in steal chains and manacles. On a signal from Denham, stagehands crank a winch and Kong is forcibly drawn up to his full height with arms outstretched, mirroring the crucifixion stance of Kong in the original film. Like Wilson, Baxter makes his entrance in a safari suit as the Great White Hunter while African American performers dressed as the tribespeople from the 1933 film dance on stage. One of the most memorable characters from the original film is the village chieftain on Skull Island, formidably played by Noble Johnson. The chief’s costume emphasises his imposing presence with its feather-lined grass skirt and necklace, decorative cape, and ornately fanned headdress radiating out from behind a high afro. Among the characters that Jackson includes on his Broadway stage is a dancer dressed identically to Johnson’s tribal chief. Despite significant socio-cultural shifts in the representation of African Americans on screen, Jackson’s recontextualisation of the same scenes from the 1933 film manage to maintain fidelity to the original while resituating its representation of race for 2005 audiences. 

Claude Ollier wrote in 1965 that Cooper and Schoedsack’s film sadly ends with what he considers “a mystery still unsolved: what expression would King Kong have assumed if, in those last shots, Ann had loved him?”11 Jackson’s version, having dispensed with allusions to miscegenation, shows us. Kim Newman interprets Kong’s tumble from the Empire State Building as a parody of James Cameron’s Titanic where Kong, inhabiting the role of DiCaprio, makes sure that his own private Kate Winslett is safe and secured before sinking out of sight. Cynical as Newman’s assessment is, its comparison to Titanic offers a useful insight. As with Cameron’s film, the final tragedy of King Kong is that we know how it ends and there is nothing we can do to stop it. Whereas audiences in 1933 were relieved to see the monster destroyed, our relationship with the ape has been filtered through almost ninety years of grasping to understand the beast. With his 2005 remake, Jackson invites us to join him in weeping for Kong’s all-too-brief moments of joy, sitting on top of the world. 

Notes

  1. Carroll, Noel. Interpreting the Moving Image. Cambridge University Press, 1998. p. 118.
  2. Fatimah Tobing Rony writes that King Kong offers “a cinematic visualization of the male beast which the Surrealists so longed to unleash … a mix of the surrealist ingredients of the erotic, the exotic, and the unconscious” (p.186). See: The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle. Duke University Press, 1996. 
  3. Thompson, Kirsten Moana. “‘Ah Love! Zee Grant Illusion!’: Pepé le Pew, Narcissism, and Cats in the Casbah.” Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros. Animation, edited by Kevin S. Sandler, Rutgers University Press, 1998, pp. 137-153. p. 137. 
  4. Scenes of Kong stomping and biting some of his victims were also required to be removed before the film’s 1938 re-release. King Kong was subsequently re-released in 1942, 1946, 1952 and 1956. It was thereafter a perennial television favourite. 
  5. Carroll, p. 119. 
  6. Brownlow, Kevin. “Chang.” King Kong Cometh!, edited by Paul A. Woods, Plexus, 2005, pp. 17-26. p. 24
  7. Peary, Gerald. “Missing Links: The Jungle Origins of King Kong.” King Kong Cometh!, edited by Paul A. Woods, Plexus, 2005, pp. 11-17. p. 11. 
  8. Brownlow, p. 21. 
  9. p. 21. 
  10. p. 23
  11. Ollier, Claude. “A King in New York.” Focus on the Horror Film, edited by Roy Huss and T.J. Ross, Prentice Hall, 1972, pp. 110-120. p. 120.