Aboard the S.S. Venture, a young sailor looks up from his reading and asks the first mate, “It isn’t an adventure story, is it, Mr. Hayes?” It might as well be Kong director Peter Jackson himself who responds, “No, Jimmy, its not.” The two are talking about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but the statement is every bit as much about King Kong, and through it Jackson alerts us to a critical caution—we’ll miss the point of the story if we mistake Kong for adventure alone.
Now, it is a wild trip of a movie to be sure. Adhering to the same basic storyline of the 1933 original, Jackson’s Kong follows vaudeville actress Ann Darrow as she embarks with a film crew to a land thought only to exist in seafaring legend. Soon enough, we find them in the grip of the macabre carnival that is Skull Island’s daily battle of survival—which means breathtakingly extended brontosaurus-stomping; giant-bug-chopping; man-eating-worm-sucking; T-Rex-chomping and chest-thumping action sequences that are nothing short of astonishing. “The original King Kong is my favorite movie of all time,” says Jackson.“I just thought a version of this wonderful story told with the technology we have today would be a really amazing thing.” With all the adrenaline Jackson blends an equal amount of humor, stirring characterization, rousing music, and surprising warmth drawn together in a schmaltzy, old style melodrama supporting his belief that “the foremost responsibility of filmmakers is entertainment.” Kong, Jackson happily admits, “is escapism, and incredible spectacle, and amazing special effects.” But it’s also so much more.
First, it is a tale of two islands, Skull and Manhattan, and the struggle to survive is equally precarious in the depression-era New York jungle. The juxtaposition of these two cultures helped convince Jackson to keep the original film’s time-frame. “It gives a little kick sideways into a slightly fantastical realm,” he says. “I think that there’s no real sense of mystery or discovery in the world anymore. Yet in the 1930s, you could believe that there was one tiny, uncharted corner that hadn’t been discovered.” This sentiment is echoed by Hayes in a voiceover as he quotes Conrad, “The earth seemed unearthly… We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.” Kong is very much about what happens when humanity comes into contact with unencumbered mystery. Like Conrad before him, Jackson takes care to show that neither an industrial civilization nor an emergent one necessarily has an upper hand at addressing life’s basic questions; and, in fact, he suggests that both civilizations fail to properly respond to the monstrous that, in Kong, is also monstrously beautiful—and this sets up what for Jackson is really at stake. “At its soul,” he says, “it’s a story of relationships and empathizing with this huge beast. Even though we’ve tried to keep him as this very noble, brutish, frightening gorilla, I hope that we have presented him in such a way that you can engage emotionally with him and feel the tragedy of his story, because that is what’s at the heart of the film.”
The foundation for this tragedy is suggested in one scene showing the bones of Kong’s ancestors, through which Jackson conveys the terms of Kong’s existence. “He’s the last of the huge gorillas that live on Skull Island,” Jackson notes, “the last surviving member of his species. It must be one of the loneliest existences you could possibly imagine.” Kong is the solitary warrior on an island that quickly puts to rest our previous notions of cruel, brutal and short. While also bearing the physical scars of battle, Jackson is adamant that Kong carries deeper wounds as well. “I’m imagining he’s probably 100 to 120 years old by the time our story begins. And he has never felt a single bit of empathy for another living creature in his long life.”
Enter Ann and maverick filmmaker Carl Denham, barely enduring life at the height of the Great Depression. Desperate to earn enough money for food, Ann is tempted by the opportunity to descend into adult burlesque. That she does not is a significant moment; she is unwilling to use her beauty as a bartering tool and she becomes a reliable moral compass for the drama ahead. Denham, on the other hand, hell-bent on preventing his producers from killing his film, proves himself willing to risk everything he – and everybody else – has to meet his needs. Denham lies in order to convince Ann to embark with him on the Venture, thereby setting in motion her fateful meeting with Kong.
It doesn’t get off to the best of starts. Ann is sacrificed by the primeval Skull Island tribe as an appeasement gift to Kong. Nevertheless, she manages to outlive her predecessors, first by fighting back at Kong and then by entertaining him. It is a testament to the filmmaking genius of Kong that this moment is so subtly underplayed that it actually works. The relationship is further cemented a short time later in an extraordinary action sequence that climaxes with Ann stuck between a hungry T-Rex and Kong. As the combatants face off, Ann chooses to move beneath Kong, declaring him as her protector. Thus knighted, Kong proceeds to unhinge the T-Rex’s jaw-set. From this moment on, Kong is her champion.
They retreat to a high-mountain refuge. There, the sunset opens up before them, and Ann, contemplating both it and the gorilla, beats softly on her chest and calls it “beautiful.” It is as much about Kong as it is the dwindling light. It is also a tender allusion to the film’s climax when Kong, scared and cornered, again retreats with Ann to the highest perch he can find, this time atop the Empire State Building. There, the night passes into twilight and in the face of the rising sun Kong beats slowly on his own chest, signaling that he has understood both the beauty in the world and Ann’s allusion to it. Ann and Kong have learned to step outside their own subjective existence and to relate to another. It is a powerful reminder that just as important as being loved is the ability to love. That Jackson has found a way to allow this love to be reciprocal is not only his most significant departure from the original Kong but it is also what allows the transformation in behavior between Kong and Ann – from their first terrifying meeting to their last tearful departure – to be every bit as believable as it heartbreaking.
Peter Jackson has a deep personal stake in the story. He saw the original King Kong when he was nine-years old, and the event made him want to be a filmmaker. For thirty-five years he dreamt of bringing Kong back to the big screen. “I feel very obligated to him, because he really did start my career off; and in a way, if I can do him honor by telling his story well today, then I’m returning something of the favor that I owe him.” Inherent in this is a caution that resonates throughout Kong – particularly in the film-within-a-film motif – and that is found in an accusation made of Denham after he has captured Kong and put him on display like a circus freak—he so often “destroys the things he loves.” Unlike Ann, Denham’s misplaced ambition leads him to make beauty a mere commodity. That our reaction to beauty so often kills it is an overarching theme in Kong. Jackson is no stranger to it. Having brought Middle Earth to life, he knows when he is treading on sacred ground. As if to underline this, Jackson cast himself into the role of one of the gunners on the biplane that finally shoots Kong dead. What is he saying about directing a film he so desperately loves? Perhaps that to attempt to tell a story well is to risk telling it badly. Here I find myself with a personal stake as well.
Having recently married, I think I know something of this, myself. I fell in love with a person, all her own, with whom I desire to share the rest of my days. Yet, in each of them so far, how often have I faced the temptation of trying to reshape her in my own image? Why do I do this? Why is it somehow sometimes frightening to ponder spending the whole of my life with a real person, so unlike me? Why is Trinitarian love – where there is real unity without uniformity – so rare? In becoming the gunner, I think Peter Jackson knows that filmmaking – like a husband’s work – is a perilous thing; and is best pursued barefoot, with one’s shoes kicked off.
Peter Jackson has proved several times now that fantasy can be rooted more deeply in reality than much of what passes as realism. Kong works because it tells the tale of the denizens of two islands that are starved for transcendence. That Kong tells this story by portraying a wild-trip of a journey both into a far-off, mythical land and into the nearer-by (though just as nearly inaccessible) inner workings of the human soul makes it that much better. Both islands are the poorer for Kong having passed-away; just as both are richer for his having passed-through.