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King Kong Grows Up

"De Laurentiis shows himself a producer with considerable restraint and wit. "
Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr. Commonweal Mag.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr. from Commonweal Mag. "The Screen"
February 4, 1977

During the button craze of the sixties, one of my favorites was, "King Kong Died for Our Sins." It's so true. Like Christ, Kong gathers all possibilities into himself. He is unique in the sense that all creation is unique, and therefore he is at once both unique and ubiquitous. He is everything, and Everyman. He is that for which there is no other, no opposite. He is infinite embodied. This is his secret strength. Having existed for over forty years in only one feature and its sequel, not counting Japanese imitations, Kong has nonetheless become as widely known as Mickey Mouse, who had to found an empire to achieve such recognition. (The Kingdom of Kong is within.) Next to Kong, even Rhett Butler is a pipsqueak. Though brought into existence with only a fraction of the financing and hoopla of Gone With the Wind, King Kong has played to more audiences in more countries than were ever dreamt of in David O. Selznick's philosophy. Gone With the Wind never played in a single African theater for years. To do that you have to have the stuffings of which myths are made.

It is in keeping, then, that Dino De Laurentiis's new remake of King Kong should treat its hero as if he were the most precious of natural resources -- as if he here the very wealth of the earth, the innate power of nature herself. The only natural resource which could be a commensurate metaphor for Kong today is oil, of couse, so that it is the one De Laurentiis equates him with. The expedition which accidentally discovers Kong is in fact looking for oil under the supervision of a petroleum company executive named Fred (Charles Grodin). But the atmospheric analysis of an uncharted island which Fred takes as evidence of oil turns out instead to be exhaled breath of a mammal. Having been confused with oil deposits from the start, Kong is then shipped back to civilization in the hold of a tanker; and at his public unveiling in New York, the shrouds lifted from his cage are even shaped and painted like a gas pump. Thus Kong has been refined the way any load of crude would be. From the wellhead to the consumer, he has been exploited by the same vertical consolidation which, any anti-trust lawyer will tell you, is ripping us all off these days.

While King is a despoiled natural resource, he is also a despoiled human resource. When he climbs atop the World Trade Center to make his last stand, the military send in their Cheyenne helicopters, the ones that were nicknamed 'Puff the Magic Dragon' in Southeast Asia because they spew 12,000 machine-gun bullets per minute. Another mythical beast of our own creating, Puff is an appropriate nemesis for Kong; and under Puff's fusillade, this primate Kong suddenly becomes that other Cong whom we tried to kill off the same way. He becomes the enemy who opposes us with the same guerilla tactics Christ used against the Romans, the enemy who, though slaughtered in the flesh, lives on in the spirit and wins in the end. (We can't deny he has such staying power considering he has now been resurrected, like Christ, over forty years after we first killed him.) Yet at the same time that Kong is the enemy, he is also we ourselves. His omipotence lies to a large extent in an omipresence, in being utterly protean. Kong is that 'throttled and pitiful giant' L.B.J. once warned us we would become if we fought a war in Asia. Kong is the all-possessing American hero who yawps in Whitman's song 'Of Myself',

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes).

Containing the multitudes of the world at large, Kong of course contains all the characters in De Laurentiis's film as well. He contains, for instance, both the hero and heroine, who are but aspects of Kong's own personality. The hero is Jack (Jeff Bridges), a zoologist who stows away on the oil expedition, and the first time we see him, we are struck by what a hairy ape he is with his untrimmed hair and full beard. The heroine is Dwan (Jessica Lange), who has only a single, peculiar name like Kong, and the first time we see her, since she is adrift in a liveboat as mysterious and unexpected as Kong's island, we realize that her fate too must be tied to his.

The momentous events in Kong's story all occur through a kind of transference between him and the other characters, a kind of animal magnetism which always seems to draw down upon him the consequences of their actions. Again, we feel that they are all somehow only part of him to begin with. When Kong starts raging just as Jack is about to score with Dwan, she rushes off to sooth Kong instead. Having been seduced by Jack, she makes love to Kong as if they were, man and beast, one and the same. When papparazzi swarm around Dwan, Kong breaks out of his cage because he thinks she's in danger. But when he lies dying later, those same papparazzi storm up his chest like the marines onto Iwo Jima to photograph his death agony. It is as though, having attacked Dwan, the papparazzi have killed Kong.

In a way, the pappazzi are what have killed him too. He is a victim of their world, of publicity and celebrity. Nevertheless, De Laurentiis's film never allows us to lose sight of the fact that Kong is also the victim of himself. Like his Kingdom, his only real enemy is within. What topples him off the World Trade Center is not finally either the helicopters or the papparazzi, but the fact that his own passion knows no bounds. In this reincarnation De Laurentiis has given him, Kong remains the same tragic figure he was in the 1933 version of King Kong. De Laurentiis rolls out no artillery heavier than those few helicopters to kill Kong because he wants us to recognize that Kong's fate is in truth self-inflicted. And in the same vein, while De Laurentiis realizes he must make his characters smaller than life in order to make Kong seem bigger, he doesn't make them so small that their feelings are nonexistent or arbitrarily changeable. Consequently, Dwan and Jack remain true to Kong, and a part of his personality, even after he's dead. As they confront one another in the crowd beside his corpse something in them seems to have gone dead too, for they are not able to fall into each other's arms. In this closing note, as elsewhere, De Laurentiis shows himself a producer with considerable restraint and wit.

For all that, however, the new film will never have the same sway with us that the old one has. De Laurentiis's version is limited in this respect by its own financial resources and spectacularity. The one place where De Laurentiiis has shown neither wit nor restraint is in the promotion of his film, which began over a year in advance. In all the ads, for example, far from being shot down by a couple of helicopters, Kong is shown crumpling up a whole jet fighter in one hand like a beer can. With an advertising blitz like this, De Laurentiis's film is perhaps too central a document of our time to become a genuine legend. Great myths come, like Kong himself (or Christ), out of nowhere. They begin in some hinterland and take us by surprise. Their origins are obscure the way the authorship of the Bible is, or of the 1933 King Kong, which almost certainly didn't originate with the writer, Edgar Wallace, who shares the screen credit for it. Whoever came up with the original idea for King Kong, to have made the film the first time required real inspiration. To have made it a second time, maybe even to have made it better in some ways, required only intelligence.