You Need Furs: The Meaning of Kong '76

A lot of University papers have been written about the "meaning" in King Kong 1933. I know, because when I was in Film Studies I wrote my own. In the course of my research, I read through all the stuff others had written. One claimed the wall on Skull Island symbolized "Wall Street"; Kong's fall from the Empire State Building was the "Stock Market Crash of 1929." Another saw Kong's capture as symbolizing the capture of black slaves, his suffering the suffering of all black Americans. To me, King Kong 1933 was more interesting as an example of what, today, we would call "postmodern deconstruction". It is a film about itself, which reveals the process of its own construction. It is a film about filmmakers who set out to make a film about a giant gorilla, called King Kong, which will be a tragedy with the same theme as the film which we are now watching. See what I mean? But back when I wrote that paper, I was bothered that no one apparently had ever bothered to write a paper on the 1976 remake. I promised myself that, someday, I would take a whack at it. So, for better or for worse, here goes nothing. A learned analysis of King Kong 1976. Stand back and watch your eyes.

And don't try this at home.

You Need Furs: The Meaning of Kong '76

In 1976, after watching the King Kong remake, one reviewer predicted it would eventually be studied in Undergraduate Film clubs. Whether that ever came to pass, I don't know. A few reviewers did take the film seriously enough to attempt an analysis, but the screenwriter, Lorenzo Semple Jr., was the scriptwriter behind the 1960s Batman series and, as a result, most critics were unprepared to see the film as anything more than a campy monster movie. However, Semple Jr. had also written the art house film Pretty Poison (which won Best Screenplay of the Year from the New York Film Critics), as well as Three Days of the Condor and the Parallax View.

King Kong 1976 is not only a fascinating subject for study in and of itself, but is more interesting when contrasted with the 1933 original. The principle difference between the two films lies in the concept of blame.

The remake was widely criticized for making too obvious what was only implied in the original. In both films, the audiences felt sympathy for Kong and his death was a tragedy. Thus, critics saw the two films as essentially the same. But in the original, there was no blame attached to his death. And though it was a tragedy, this did not mean it was a bad thing.

We might make a movie about a child growing up and leaving home. This too would be a "tragedy", but we would not blame the parents, nor even feel that any wrong had been committed. It would be a "necessary" tragedy. This was how audiences in 1933 viewed the original King Kong. His death was sad, yes, but necessary.

To understand this, we must understand the 1930s. There was no such thing as an environmental movement back then. The Earth and its creatures were put here for Man to make use of as he saw fit, and that included for the purposes of mass entertainment. No one was worried about the environment, and certainly not the filmmakers, Schoedsack and Cooper, who made King Kong.

In King Kong 1933, the man responsible for Kong's death is Carl Denham, a filmmaker. And yet, not only is he not criticized by even one character in the film, he is in fact the hero and the voice of reason, the one with whom the audience was most supposed to identify. This should come as no surprise since it has long been accepted that Denham was modeled after Schoedsack and Cooper themselves, who had gone to remote parts of the world to make movies, which frequently involved endangering animals for the sake of "the shot".

But to say there is no blame attached in King Kong 1933 is not entirely correct. After all, we are told: "It wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast". Of course, this is not true blame. Ann Darrow, the Beauty, did not consciously kill Kong, the Beast. It was merely in her nature, as a Woman, that she led him "to go soft", which in turn led to his death.

This too was a very 1930s concept, an obsession even. In the 1930s, to be a misogynist was not seen as a bad thing. The very term "misogynist" was used proudly, meaning simply someone who had no interest in women, because it was widely felt that to fall in love was to lose one's masculinity, (much as General Ripper feared he would lose his "precious bodily fluids" in Stanley Kubrick's satirical Doctor Strangelove.)

In this way, King Kong 1933 very much reflected the preoccupations and prejudices of its time. In criticizing the remake, critics fondly referred to the original film's "innocence" which they felt had been lost in the remake, but we might also see this innocence as irresponsibility.

In the 1976 remake, we see a similar reflection of the times in which it was made. No longer could we ignore the damage humans wrought on their environment. The Age of Aquarius had dawned and the death of Kong could no longer be seen as a necessary tragedy. It was just plain wrong and, being so, blame needed to be attached.

In the remake, Fred Wilson, oil company executive, takes the place of Carl Denham. But whereas Denham was the hero of the original, here Wilson is most definitely the villain. He is the one responsible for Kong's capture and ultimate death, and thus he shoulders the blame. At the same time though, the film is not prepared to let the rest of us off so easily. Whereas in the original, Kong was a violent creature, causing mindless mayhem wherever he trod, in the remake he only causes death when forced into a confrontation. When he knocks the crew of the Petrox Explorer off a log and to their deaths, he does so because they have first shot at him. And when he dies, we are no longer told that Beauty killed the Beast. Beauty has done everything she could to save him. Instead, this time, there can be no doubt; it was the airplanes killed Kong.

As he lies dying on the shattered pavement, photographers climb his chest, in a pose which one reviewer likened to the Marines storming Iwo Jima. In this way, we too shoulder the blame. The photographers are there to satisfy our curiosity. We are responsible, too.

Worse, the Air Force had killed Kong in the most deceitful way. They knew where Kong was headed because Jack Prescott told them so on condition that they capture Kong alive. Having promised to do so, it is clear they never intended to do other than kill the giant ape. The message, so common to films of the 1970s (including Semple Jr.'s Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View): "Don't trust anyone over thirty."

Thus, King Kong 1976 had something the original lacked: a conscience. And that conscience was personified by the Princeton anthropologist, Jack Prescott. In a sense, he is the true counterpart to Carl Denham, the Greek Chorus, the voice of reason with whom the audience is asked to identify. Just as Carl Denham was able to express the main theme of the original when he launched into his "Beauty and the Beast" speech, so does Prescott put into words the main themes of the remake. He is, in a way, both a surrogate for the audience and for Kong himself. For the audience, Prescott expresses our rage and grief as the events unfold, the reflection reaching its climax when he literally cheers for Kong atop the World Trade Center.

For Kong, he serves as a voice for the voiceless monster. This latter role is especially complex, since Prescott must both be empathic to Kong's suffering and, at the same time, view Kong as a rival for the affections of Dwan. The result should be an impossible contradiction. Instead, Semple Jr. cleverly recognizes that it is precisely because they are rivals that Prescott is able to best understand Kong's emotions and motives. He knows where Kong is coming from. With his long hippy hair, Prescott even visually mimics Kong, a trait which was remarked upon by almost every critic at the time.

As the conscience of the film, Prescott alone must remain above criticism. In the 1933 film, all characters are more or less guilty of aiding in Kong's death. In the remake, Prescott plays a part in Kong's death, but, significantly, it is always an unwitting part. When he leads Kong to the chloroform pit on Skull Island, he is merely trying to rescue Dwan, and doesn't even know the pit exists. When he directs the Air Force to the World Trade Center, it is only after eliciting the false promise that Kong will not be harmed. Again and again, he tries to prevent the mayhem which arises from the destructive acts of his fellow humans, warning the men not to shoot at Kong from the log, warning the photographers in Shea Stadium. He does everything he can but, because of the unstoppable forces against him, it is never enough.

But a character without flaws is dull, and so Prescott has his moment of weakness, of temptation. (At the risk of going too far, one can see a Christ like symbolism here -- something also dear to '70s filmmakers. With his long hair and beard, Prescott even has the looks for it.) Wilson challenges Prescott to put his money where his mouth is and just walk away, away from the fame which Kong offers and, more important, away from Dwan. For all his talk, Prescott is only human and so he gives in. He betrays his ideals. But only temporarily. Later, at Shea Stadium, he finds the strength to give up everything, Dwan included.

There is a key moment here when Prescott offers Dwan the same choice. She, however, does not have his moral strength. She cannot turn her back on the fame and fortune which Wilson is offering her. This brings us to a final question: If Wilson is the villain, and Prescott is the conscience, what of Dwan?

In the 1933 film, Ann Darrow was the nexus around which all events occurred. She was a "pivotal" character, but not in herself an interesting one. In the remake, Dwan is a more richly realized, complexly drawn figure. Like Prescott, she too is in tune with Kong's feelings for her. When Wilson tells her "He tried to rape you, babe.", she knows he did not. At the same time, she clearly is terrified of Kong.

Just as Prescott reflects both Kong and the audience, Dwan also has two roles. She is both a source of chaos and a source of order. As in the original 1933 King Kong, here Dwan, by her beauty, is again the cause of Kong's downfall. He sees her and "goes soft". In his death, and in the destruction which precedes it, is the chaos. As we have seen, this idea of woman as temptress was very much rooted in the 1930s. With the 1970s came the era of Women's Lib. No longer would audiences accept the submissive Ann Darrow, screaming endlessly, and meekly taking the blame for Kong's demise. So Semple Jr. concocts an interesting solution. Even as Dwan leads Kong to chaos, she alone has the power to calm him and protect him, and thus bring order. Even Prescott, for all that he understands Kong, has no such power over the Beast.

It is interesting to note that the theme music when Kong climbs the World Trade Center is the same as when Dwan climbs out of the oil tank aboard the tanker. We can see a parallel between these two scenes. The moment Kong begins his final climb, all hope is lost. Up until then, he still has some control, an ability to flee. But, once he begins to climb, all he can do is keep climbing to the top, there to reach a dead end, and his death.

Similarly, up until the moment Dwan climbs from the oil tank, she still has some control over events, over Kong and those who would harm him. She was able to stop Kong from wrecking the tanker, and she was able to prevent the captain from flooding the tank and drowning Kong. But from the moment she leaves him alone in the tank, the rest of the story is out of her control. She doesn't see Kong again until Shea Stadium and, once Kong begins his final rampage, he won't listen. She is helpless, her lack of control most keenly demonstrated in the climax. In the oil tank, with a look she was able to make Kong put her down. But atop the World Trade Center, though she screams "Hold onto me!", he is deaf to her cries. She gave up the power to intervene when she left him in the tank.

When we first meet Dwan, she is barely alive, afloat in a lifeboat after the yacht she was aboard exploded. Here, she is exactly the same as Ann Darrow. She is a woman at the very nadir of her life, without a cent to her name, without hope or a future. And yet, there is one major difference. Whereas Ann Darrow was dressed in tattered clothes, Dwan wears an expensive evening gown. In this is expressed another theme of King Kong 1976: the illusive nature of wealth and fame.

Again, this theme is very much a product of the time in which the film was made. The United States was in the midst of a major recession. When De Laurentiis asked to erect a giant King Kong statue in Times Square, the New York mayor agreed, saying: "In the present crisis, anything that will help give vitality and excitement is welcome." Hard as it is to believe today, in Hollywood it was firmly believed that motion pictures would disappear within the next few years. Despair was everywhere, and the result was a cynical suspicion of all that Hollywood had once promised. King Kong 1976 is very much about that broken promise.

Even as Kong represents the environment, he also represents the promise of fame and fortune. When we meet her, Dwan has already wasted her life pursuing fame. Cast adrift, she is found in her expensive gown, so beautiful the men comment: "It would sure have to be a careless yachtsman to lose this one overboard." And yet, the gown is part of the illusion, a gown given to her by "Harry" who promised to "make me a star". We can guess Harry was lying. In spite of appearances, she is as destitute as any woman on a 1930s breadline, and was that way long before the yacht exploded.

For Dwan, her whole life has been a search for fame. It is Prescott who, as the Greek Chorus, recognizes this when he tells her: "You need furs...It's in your blood." Kong is both literally and figuratively the ultimate "fur". If is for this reason that Dwan cannot turn her back on all that Wilson offers, the way Prescott does. It means more to her than it does to him. And, in Kong's death, Dwan achieves the fame she sought. Weeping beside the giant corpse, she is surrounded by photographers, the New York mayor fighting to have his picture taken with her. But though she has fame, she is not happy. Like Hollywood, the promise turned out to be an illusion.

And it is an illusion which was earlier foreshadowed by the Shea Stadium scene when Kong is unveiled before the public. This is a fascinating scene, as we are given a recreation of the first half of the movie, but recreated as a Tinseltown fantasy. There is the Skull Island wall, but done up in Red, White, and Blue. There is the sacrificial altar, but with a red carpet and tinsel posts. Dwan's sacrifical costume has become a dazzling evening gown. Even Fred Wilson is costumed as a Hollywood version of the "great white hunter". It is all a lie and we know it is a lie because we have just spent an hour watching the "truth". But it is the lie which Dwan as agreed to be a part of. If she wants fame, this is the cost.

There is only one element of truth in the whole scene. That is Kong himself. For, while even he has been "fictionalized" by the addition of a mock crown on his head, the truth which he represents can not be hidden so easily. He alone has remained unchanged. He is the one flaw in the illusion, but a flaw which will soon spread as he breaks free and wreaks havoc. For, Kong, in a sense, in sheer scale and inevitability, represents Truth, and in his final rampage he is like celebrated 1970s reporters Woodward and Bernstein, tearing apart the fabric of lies in the Watergate Scandal. Bringing down the system.

Few critics saw the 1976 King Kong as anything other than empty-headed camp. But I think Lorenzo Semple Jr. was a very thoughtful screenwriter and, in King Kong, he crafted a thoughtful film, for all its humour. We will only find meaning if we look.

In the original cut of the 1976 film, Fred Wilson was not crushed to death beneath Kong's foot. Preview audiences wanted him to die, and so the ending was changed. But here is the scene as Semple Jr. originally wrote it:

Wilson is paralyzed. He sees death above him as the great ape foot is lifted and WHAM! It slams down like a pile driver. Kong's foot is lifting up again and lumbering on, and revealed from under where it was is nothing but Wilson's terrific bush hat, crushed flat as a pancake. There is Wilson, his head pressed against the earth, barely able to understand that the foot just missed him. Dumbly he reaches for the hat and sees in the ruined thing his whole future...a crushed piece of wreckage.
It is a subtly symbolic scene. Obviously a little too symbolic for audiences. But, as we have seen, King Kong 1976 was all about appearances, about illusion versus truth. And so it was surely appropriate that, in Semple Jr.'s original vision, to Fred Wilson, a crushed hat was a more terrible fate than death itself.