King Kong, Then (1933) and Now (2005)

Directors: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack/Peter Jackson

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By Roderick Heath

Most remakes trample their models with disdain, either for greed or scoring cultural points. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 classic is one of the signal films of my youth, as it has been for so many filmgoers and filmmakers, Peter Jackson included. His new version reeks pleasantly of a kid’s ability to paint in the corners of a film, to expand and create; we’re all, at a certain age, culture jammers. There are many takes on what kind of myth or fantasy King Kong enacts, but the easiest and truest interpretation is as a simple lust for adventure – the idea was conjured by adventurer Cooper whilst seated bored stiff in an office, the sound of a passing airplane caused him to imagine a giant ape seated on the roof of a building swatting at it. This germ, developed by mystery writer Edgar Wallace, was shaped into a script by Schoedsack’s wife Ruth Rose, who took care to honor and satirize her life between two he-men – once, on a shoot, Cooper had given her a rifle to scare away dangerous animals that might attack; she did have to kill a crocodile. Carl Denham’s clipped, unswerving purpose reflects Cooper’s own drive, used to taking and living with risks.

The new King Kong honors and reconstructs the original, treading a line between patronizing pastiche and dutiful replication. It’s become just as much a private fantasy for Jackson, wife Fran Walsh and third hand Phillipa Boyens as it was for Cooper, Schoedsack and Rose. Ann can no longer fall for a handsome, sexually virile lug like the original Jack Driscoll; now he’s a Clifford Odets-type earnest playwright shanghaied on the voyage to complete his for-the-dough script, an aptly conscionable, anti-commercial balance to Denham’s ends-justifies-means producer. It’s a loaded and fascinating idea, but Driscoll never assumes narrative import – his role as man out of place who makes good is subsumed by noxious actor Burt Baxter (Kyle Chandler), as lover by Kong – and only Adrien Brody’s sublimely understated ardor makes the character work. Jack Black plays Denham with an amusing manic obliviousness, but with none of the original’s dignity and honesty. Despite this, he still, as in the original where he is both creator and destroyer, gets the film’s final poetic summary; like any classic Hollywood figure, he grasps the arc. That’s another way the original works – it’s a self-reflexive film about a film that explains itself with bookends of cod-poetry to drive home the mythic quality. The professionalism and camaraderie of the 1930s, the Depression, are notably absent in Jackson’s film, although he hammers home the background far more overtly than Cooper and Schoedsack’s casual reportage. The crew of the S.S. Venture no longer venture fearlessly and to hell with the danger; there’s ominous warnings, a cautious and skeptical Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann), and an ethical ledger-keeper of an assistant (Colin Hanks). The only person willing to acknowledge his sense of adventure is Denham, and for this the film relentlessly vilifies him despite the fact that he’s providing the story we want to watch. All of this adds a moralizing element to the film which is, frankly, a drag.

The 1933 film’s not-very-noble savages led by Noble Johnson are entirely imaginary – they speak a bogus language cited by the original’s Englehorn (Frank Reicher) as resembling that of the Nias Islanders because Cooper figured no one from Nias was ever likely to see the film – satirized by Jackson when a pastiche of their sacrificial dance and coconut-brassiered garishness forms part of the show Denham’s New York show. But they were also touched with the eye and art of anthropologists. It looked like a real little world the film-makers had stumbled into, with solid references (Driscoll compares the Great Wall to Angkor) and details (they have chickens!). The villagers, at first ruthless and menacing, become sympathetic figures as they try to help the heroes keep Kong out and fight to save their world; the outsiders come to understand just why this world looks like it does when Kong comes after them all. This was supposed to be a once-great, now-degenerated society. The remake, to avoid any such trickiness, elides it entirely by reducing the populace to zombified weirdoes whose motivations are not exactly made apparent, and then disappear. There’s no touching upon who or what built the wall and the ruins we see, an odd blind spot in a film that delights in expanding backstory.

When it comes to Kong himself, Jackson gets it just right. Once he arrives, this Kong is a brilliant creation, part raging beast, part lonely sad sack, part dynamic, intelligent warrior wasted on a pathetic dirt pile, he is possibly the greatest invention yet of the digital age, with the indelible work of Andy Serkis as his model – clearly the same expressions, the same face, that drove Gollum are present in Kong’s vital physiognomy. He also plays Lumpy the ship’s Cockney cook, a good comic turn as he and Ann form a codependent relationship; she needs him to see off the dinosaurs, he needs her to make it worth it. In the original, Kong is the purest image of isolated masculinity; fascinated by Ann as an uncommon object, he fights his way through a landscape full of filthy monsters, sick beasts, drooling snakes – and that’s before he gets to Manhattan – proving his strength in the primal world, swiftly destroyed by the technical age. Cabot-Jack develops from a misogynist (his first exchange with Ann is quoted in the remake as an example of cheesy dialogue enacted by Baxter and Ann) under Ann’s spell, Armstrong-Denham is left as lonely chorus in his own life, and Kong, masculinity run rampant, is killed. In Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, a financier looks out from his Central Park West apartment on the same New York landscape, and Wolfe notes that he feels none of the soul-crushing awe normal men feel at this scene. Kong, though he rises to the greatest heights, can only conquer a lonely perch, and he is still brought down by the Empire city that belongs to little men in suits, the kind whose heads he ruthlessly rips off in his furious search for his woman. The original’s Kong is a beast who, although he encourages sympathy as a figure of defeated majesty, is hammered down by forces he can’t understand, a symbol of the kind of wildness that must be destroyed to keep the world, noxious as it can be, safe. The modern Kong is an equal but different tragedy because he is, ultimately, a sensitive brute, a cuddly romantic with Ann as much as he’s a tyrant alone. The society that requires his destruction is held entirely in contempt. He stands tall and goes down fighting in style, and his silent, swooning fall to earth is a gloriously sad moment.

The opening scenes of the original, with Denham hunting for a star and finding Ann, have the harsh, low-key realism of any Warner’s social-realist picture of the time, its sense of time and place pungent, and it is the film’s great achievement to use reality as the springboard into fantasy. The modern film, paints a Depression-era New York in greater expanse but with a pristine prettiness. Ann of ’33 mentions having done extra work for a shuttered studio. The fact she is introduced hardly able to stand from hunger, trying to steal an apple, needed no explanation. Jackson’s Ann – terrifically played by Naomi Watts – is introduced at length as a vaudevillian trying to maintain dignity. Many new characters are added for Jackson’s film, perhaps most effectively Jamie Bell’s charming turn as a young sailor who grows up in the course of this grueling adventure, learns dance moves from Ann, and betters himself by reading Heart of Darkness, coming to realize – in an appropriate metatextual touch – the book, like the events around him, is a nightmare, not an adventure.

Jackson’s Kong is a funny film, an intelligent film, a too-rich panorama. Certain plot turns and additions lead nowhere and spoil the original’s dynamic arc. It is determined to serve up an experience to its audience, but he loses that serial-speed harum-scarum thriller edge. The shtick of darting between monster’s legs and from-the-blue rescues by Englehorn is repetitious (and Cooper was right all along; the icky-crits-in-the-crevasse bit does spoil the pace). Jackson is a very honourable director. He wants to give you your money’s worth in age where too often you want to ask for it back. The original King Kong, a classic too often patronized, is alive as miracle of an almost lost art of cinema construction. Max Steiner’s score drove it with breathless, unashamed hype, and the snatches of it played in this film unfortunately remind us how much better it was than James Newton Howard’s serviceable equivalent. The rhythm of the editing, the efficiency of storytelling, the doubt-free enjoyment of mayhem, slaughter, and cruelty, the nasal voicing of its Depression-era posturing, ties it together into one of the tightest packages in cinema – not to mention its artfulness with visuals inspired by Gustav Dore and the genius of Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animation, which the modern effects crew pay tribute to, quoting Kong’s actions as when he tests the snapped jaw of a dead Tyrannosaurus (the film’s SFX set piece, and a classic in itself) and the way he rubs his eyes when gas-bombed. Jackson’s film is an overinflated circus of a film, not a classic, but a great pleasure in our under-ambitious era. He is the sole giant of the digital medium, the only one who can conjure sensual possibilities from it. His King Kong is a magnificent miscalculation. l

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