. . . . Film Reviews

John Carrichner

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Directed by Peter Jackson

              The conflict between primitive masculinity and beguiling femininity or what Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong) in Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's 1933 classic film King Kong might have called the "beauty and the beast" angle is explored rather exhaustively and with mixed results in Peter Jackson's much anticipated remake. Back in 1933 when Ann Darrow (played by Fay Wray) was carried off by her gargantuan suitor she was only allowed enough screen time to be terrified. Seventy two years later, Ann Darrow, (played by Naomi Watts) in Peter Jackson's King Kong, is allowed substantial time to get to know her simian abductor and learns he's...kind of a sensitive and very lonely guy.

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        At twice the running time of the 1933 original, Peter Jackson's King Kong is able to expand and clearly define aspects of the story which are merely implied in the Cooper/Schoedsack version. I think one of the great strengths of the Cooper/Schoedsack version is what is left unsaid in it. Ann Darrow (played by Fay Wray) is too busy being afraid of Kong to stop and figure him out psychologically. Kong is too busy acting like...well, an ape to express any specific feelings of affection. Their symbiosis is best appreciated on a symbolic level. Kong can be seen to represent the primitive urges of masculinity, the desire to possess a woman and/or the desire to protect that woman but he doesn't have to be seen that way. Ann Darrow can be seen as an irresistible object of desire bringing about the male's downfall whether she means to or not but... she doesn't have to be seen that way. The Cooper/Schoedsack version is riddled with Freudian implications which I believe allows viewers to draw their own conclusions. One might even describe the Cooper/Schoedsack King Kong as poetic. Truthfully, I have long thought the Cooper/Schoedsack version of King Kong is really about masturbation. People become uncomfortable when I define the film in that way but let me point out that Ann Darrow is...about the size Kong's penis would presumably be and Kong only seems content when he's holding her in his hand. Note all the phallic symbols in the production. At one point Kong fights a giant snakelike dinosaur. It's not actually a snake. It has feet, which can be seen if one looks closely but ...it looks enough like a snake to make the point. Need I mention the Empire State Building, the big daddy of 20th century phallic symbols? I think when Ann Darrow is rescued from Kong it is a symbolic castration and that's why he's so upset. I don't think he relates to her as another living creature at all. I also think his death at the end is sad because he doesn't fully comprehend why he's being attacked. He's just doing what comes naturally to him.
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        Peter Jackson's version of Kong is entirely different from the innocent brute my imagination conjures up when watching the Cooper/Schoedsack film. Jackson allows no room for doubt that Kong is in love with Ann Darrow (played by Naomi Watts). There are scenes in Jackson's King Kong which are specifically "romantic" and are meant to make both Kong and Ann Darrow more endearing but I found those scenes awkward and cloying at best. At one point Ann and Kong even have a bit of a spat which, of course, is done half in pantomime. Kong begins to sulk and Ann begins to trudge away from him only to soon be confronted by a number of very scary dinosaurs from which Kong has to rescue her. Once the danger has momentarily subsided, all is forgiven between them. Ann snuggles up to Kong and they watch the sun go down together. It is at that point apparent that though he is "king" of Skull Island, Kong is very lonely. Large cuts and gouges can be seen on his face and not all of them are fresh. Kong has had to fight to remain "king" everyday but he has apparently never enjoyed the solace of the company of a queen until now. The loneliness of Kong is clearly palpable in Peter Jackson's film and there is little room for any other interpretation. The audience needn't hypothesize too much. Everything is spelled out.
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        It has long been supposed that the Carl Denham character (played by Robert Armstrong) in the Cooper/Schoedsack King Kong was very much based upon Merian C. Cooper himself. Denham, in both versions of King Kong, is a major motion picture director. Denham, as played by Robert Armstrong, is an arrogant and boastful but courageous man, a noble adventurer and, like the version of Kong in the 1933 film, is also somewhat innocent. Could the Carl Denham character (played by Jack Black) in Peter Jackson's King Kong, be based upon Jackson himself? Denham as played by Black is a sly trickster and a manipulator. Like Jackson's version of Kong, Jackson's version of Denham has had to fight everyday of his life in his own version of the jungle... the movie business. When one of his film crew is killed during their first encounter with the natives on Skull Island, Denham declares that the man died because he believed there was still some "mystery" in the world and believed in the pursuit of that mystery. Denham speaks of "mystery" with reverence but it is obvious that he will ultimately exploit any mystery he uncovers to suit his own needs, whatever the consequences. Has Peter Jackson exploited the mystery of a previously very enigmatic symbol of masculinity by turning him into a romantic leading man? I can't say.
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        The emotional baggage that is lugged around in Peter Jackson's King Kong does have its advantages. Because Kong is clearly taking a stand for the woman he loves, the showdown on top of the Empire State Building is presented in a very heroic context. The fight with the airplanes is very exciting and emotionally powerful. Peter Jackson's crew did an excellent job in creating an image of 1933 era Manhattan seen from its highest point at dawn. There are many other very thrilling action scenes in Jackson's King Kong which should be noted. The first encounter with the natives on Skull Island is very scary and powerful. Unfortunately, the natives, as in both the Cooper/Schoedsack King Kong and the 1976 Dino De Laurentis produced remake (directed by John Guillerman), soon become less than an afterthought once Kong himself appears. Kong has many terrific fight scenes with several dinosaurs and other weird creatures. Peter Jackson didn't devote all of King Kong's three hour running time to "relationship" scenes. Perhaps the best action sequence, aside from the grand finale on the Empire State Building, is Jackson's revision of the fabled "spider pit sequence" wherein a number of Ann Darrow's rescuers, after being shaken off a log by Kong, fall into a large pit and are confronted with an imaginative variety of horrific monsters. Cooper and Schoedsack shot a version of this sequence for their version of King Kong but it was cut out early on and most of the footage is considered lost. Peter Jackson and his crew aside from coming up with their own version for their film also did a 1933 style version made up of shots from the Cooper/Schoedsack version and shots they took themselves and had processed to blend in with the older footage. That version is also very impressive. It's available on the DVD of the Cooper/Schoedsack King Kong for those interested.
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         Although I would have preferred a more ambiguous King Kong, I do think Peter Jackson's film is entertaining and exciting, perhaps not all of the time but much of the time. Had he not overdone many of his action sequences or gotten too sentimental his version of King Kong would not be his version of King Kong. I knew going in that the director of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy would have little use for the adage "less is more."
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Original Film Review written and published by John Carrichner on December 2, 2005.
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