At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture


A Tale of Three Kongs: Race and Gender in King Kong and its Remakes

posted by Jack Kerwick

In an article for intellectualconservative.com, Lisa Fabrizio remarks on the dramatic changes in cinematic depictions of masculinity that have occurred over the decades.  While the extent to which such depictions have become “feminized” has been greatly exaggerated by right-leaning commentators—not only is the “tough guy” at least as visible a character in contemporary cinema as it has ever been in the past, this generation’s movie macho men are typically bigger, stronger, and more aggressive than their counterparts from yesteryear—it is hard to avoid the verdict that the popularity of the figure of the strong and silent man has indeed been eclipsed by that of the man who is sweet and sensitive.

Masculinity  

No where is this truth more clearly born out than in the relationship between the original King Kong (1933) and its remakes (1976, 2005).   Having been a diehard fan of this story for nearly all of my life, I recently had the opportunity to once again watch all three films consecutively. 

King Kong 1933

In the original, Bruce Cabot portrays Jack Driscoll, the first mate of the ship that sails to Kong’s Skull Island and the hero that, upon falling in love with Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow, eventually rescues this damsel in distress from the lair of the giant ape.  Although not remotely as popular an actor as his real life friend John Wayne, Cabot’s silver screen persona is cut from the same cloth as that of the latter.  Cabot’s Driscoll is abundantly possessed of honor, courage, and strength, but these virtues are severally imbued with and united by a ruggedness that is not always easily distinguishable from a lack of couth.  While a man of few words, the Jack Driscoll of the 1930’s can be counted on to say what he means and mean what he says, whether he is referring to the ritualistic practices of Skull Island’s natives as “evil,” explaining to the woman to whom he would soon thereafter confess his love that “women can’t help being a bother,” or calling his de facto boss, Kong’s captor and film maker Carl Denham, “crazy.” 

Still, in spite of his character’s lack of refinement, Cabot’s Driscoll is wise enough to know that the excursion to Kong’s Island is not one that promises to end well for the love of his life, and his resolve to risk all to protect her proves that whatever he lacks in intellect he more than makes up for in heart.

But as the attacks against John Wayne definitively established, the Baby Boom generation and its posterity have no patience with this conception of masculinity—a fact that the ’76 and ’05 remakes of Kong reflected in no uncertain terms.

King Kong 1976

In the ’76 version of King Kong, the hero is portrayed by Jeff Bridges. This time, though, his name is Jack Prescott, and far from being a simple, meat-and-potatoes first mate, he is a professor of paleontology from Princeton University and the author of a book on primates.  Unlike his counterpart from ’33, Prescott’s heroic deeds are performed for the sake of rescuing, not just Beauty (Jessica Lange’s “Dwan”), but, more importantly, the Beast.  Bridges’ character sharply reminds the villainous oilman—Charles Grodin’s “Fred Wilson”—who sets his designs upon Kong’s island that “this is no longer the nineteenth century” when whites could take the lands of indigenous peoples with impunity; charges him with being an “environmental rapist” while implicitly threatening him with the promise that in response to his action “the kids” would “burn every Petrox gas station from Maine to California”; and steadfastly refuses to be complicit in Kong’s exploitation, even when that means forgoing the woman that he loves, reneging on his contract with Wilson, and donating his advance pay to the SPCA’s fund for “sending Kong home.”  Moreover, Jack Prescott, anticipating Kong’s move toward the World Trade Center from which he will be shot down in the film’s climax, agrees to share his knowledge with the authorities only under the condition that they in turn agree to capture Kong “without injury,” and when they go back on their word, Bridges’ character cheers as Kong sends a handful of his attackers to their deaths.

King Kong 2005

But if Bridges’ Jack Prescott can be said to represent a more sensitive and intelligent conception of masculinity than Cabot’s Jack Driscoll, then this is even truer in the case of Adrien Brody’s Jack Driscoll in Peter Jackson’s 2005 reimagining of Kong.  Like Bridges’ Prescott, Brody’s Driscoll is an intellectual of a sort; but unlike the hard nosed scientist from the ’76 incarnation, the Jack Driscoll of ’05 is a playwright, an artist (can’t get much more sensitive than that!).  And while Kong doesn’t incite his affections as the ape managed to do with his ’76 counterpart, the expression to which Brody’s Driscoll gives this new male archetype is not only unambiguous, it is asserted with an intense self-consciousness. 

This Jack Driscoll bears no similarities to his predecessor from ’33, and Brody is at pains to remind audiences of this.  Interestingly, Peter Jackson, the author of Kong ’05, claims that it was the original film that initially inspired him to become a filmmaker.  However, on numerous occasions throughout his telling of this story it is difficult to elude the impression that he relishes in mocking it.  And Brody’s Driscoll is the key device through which he accomplishes this. 

The lead male role for the film for which Driscoll is writing the screenplay stars actor “Bruce Baxter,” a caricature of Bruce Cabot.  During the filming of a scene, Baxter “improvises” upon the lines that Driscoll has written for him by repeating what Cabot had said to Fay Wray in the original Kong: “women are a nuisance,” etc.  Brody’s Driscoll, clearly upset by the chauvinism that Baxter foisted upon his script, admonishes him to “resist” the “impulse” to “improvise” in the future.  Later, when the going gets really tough (and deadly) for the rescue mission for Ann Darrow, Baxter makes it painfully clear that his “tough guy” image is just that, an image.  Upon charging him with cowardice, Brody’s Driscoll continues in pursuit of Kong and Darrow, even when there is no longer anyone behind him.  Thus, if there remained any doubts as to whether the conception of masculinity to which Cabot gave expression in the ‘30’s was any longer a viable alternative to the idea of masculinity incarnate in Brody, Kong ’05 put them out to pasture once and for all. 

Race

So, from whence springs this hostility on the part of the left to the John Waynes and Bruce Cabots of the world?  From what I am able to discern, it seems that Lisa Fabrizio typifies the right-leaning cultural critic who, in spite of recognizing both the left’s revulsion of the model of masculinity emblematized by Wayne as well as its preoccupations with race and gender, refuses to make the connection between these two insights.  

The truth is that from the left’s perspective, it isn’t an idea of manhood as such that elicits its wrath toward the John Waynes and Bruce Cabots; it is a Euro-American ideal of manhood that so incenses it.  More specifically and to the point, it is an account of manhood that the left associates with “racism,” “sexism,” “colonialism,” “imperialism,” “jingoism,” and, in short, all of the evil of which it longs to rid the universe of its imaginings. 

Leftwing cultural critics have long waxed indignant over the “racism” in King Kong.  Some have even gone so far as to characterize it as a story about “racism.”  In the original Kong, after all, white men set their sights on an island inhabited by black natives.  Airs of nuance and sophistication aside, this is ultimately the spring, the only spring, from which the reasoning of these critics takes flight.  In Kong ’76, this plotline is replicated, but unlike in ’33, the black natives are treated sympathetically while the white men lack self-assuredness and self-righteousness.  White guilt, of which the original Kong had not a trace, pervades the characters of its first remake. 

The natives in ’33 placate Kong with human sacrifices; they don’t worship him.  Thus, they don’t feel deprived when Kong is taken from them.  In ’76, however, matters are otherwise.  As Bridges’ Jack Prescott explains, Kong was “the mystery” and “the magic” of the natives’ lives.  “When we took Kong,” he says, “we kidnapped their god.  A year from now that will be an island full of burned out drunks.”  Dwan (Jessica Lange) replies: “It’s scary.  It’s as if there’s a curse on all of us.”  Kong ’76 is designed to repudiate the older model of Eurocentric masculinity on display in Kong ’33 as well as to replace it with a newer, improved version.  In so doing, it also, by necessity, had to substitute new images of race and race relations as antidotes to the old. 

This “new image,” however, is by now all too familiar.  The black natives have been transformed into “noble savages,” Third World innocents who fall prey to the predatory greed of white “capitalist oppressors.”  Over night, a people that had survived and flourished under unimaginably harsh circumstances, a community and culture that had arisen within the midst of a remote but pristine island, was destroyed as their god—the apex of their scale of value, the point and purpose from which they derived their identity and meaning as a distinct people—was wrenched from them. 

Peter Jackson’s 2005 Kong goes even further than this: Jackson supposedly selected the actors who would depict the natives from a variety of racial backgrounds and then had them painted in the same shade.  The criticism, then, that his version of Kong was “racist” seems particularly overwrought, for while the natives are dark, they are not black.  In fact, they are all racially ambiguous.

There is, however, a black face in Kong ’05, and it belongs to this version’s first mate, “Hayes.”  It is doubtful that it was through inadvertence that Hayes—the only person of African ancestry aboard the fateful ship that sails to Skull Island—is made to appear as the most heroic character of the film.  Unlike Driscoll, whose love for Ann Darrow drives him to pursue her at all costs, it is from sheer goodness that Hayes risks and eventually loses all to save the latter.  He has personal emotional investments in neither Darrow nor, for that matter, anyone else, save the members of his crew.  Yet in spite of his prior awareness of the dangers that dwell on the island as well as his lack of attachment to Darrow and the film crew to which she belongs, Hayes resolves to continue the rescue operation until his bitter end. 

That Jackson had an acute consciousness of the racial dynamics of the original Kong and a steely resolve to subvert them is amply born out as well by the scene in which Kong is first revealed to audiences in a Broadway theatre.  Dejected and in chains, the gigantic ape is surrounded by black actors dressed as stereotypical natives reminiscent of those that appeared in Kong ’33.  With Bruce Baxter—Jackson’s caricature of Bruce Cabot’s Jack Driscoll—who is fitted in safari attire, they engage in dance to the jungle music against the backdrop of which Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow was offered to Kong in ’33.

Conclusion

Lisa Fabrizio’s thesis regarding the left’s hostility to America’s pre-1960’s ideal of masculinity and the toppling of this paradigm to which it lead is sound enough.  Yet it needs to be supplemented by a treatment of the racial sensibilities from which this shift in gender models is inseparable.  And for this, there is no better place to begin than with an analysis of the contrasts between the three versions of King Kong.           

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.



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