King Kong meets Exxon

by Ernest Larsen

from Jump Cut, no. 16, 1977, pp. 3-4
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2005

"Dance, dance Leroy Brown
Baddest man in the whole damn town
Badder than old King Kong
Meaner than a junkyard dog."
 — Jim Croce

"An actor is not a machine, no matter how much they want to say you are."  — Marilyn Monroe

Despite $24 million and superslick promotion, the new KING KONG is much less spectacular than the 1933 original. Instead of concentrating on the special effects and grandiose scale required of true spectacle, the new KONG quickly opts for a classic version of the triangular love story. Dwan (Jessica Lange), the starlet in search of fame, must make the agonizing choice between two males from wildly different backgrounds. Which will it be? Jack Prescott, bearded, long-haired professor of primate zoology at Princeton — in other words, a successful white petit-bourgeois academic. Or Kong, a dark, also hirsute, amazingly expressive monster — the newest version of Rousseau's noble savage.

Lorenzo Semple Jr.'s script carefully prepares for this inexhaustible dilemma by appropriating a suggestion just touched on in the first scenes of the original KING KONG. In those scenes movie showman Carl Denham picks up penniless Ann Darrow in the Bowery, rescuing her after she's caught swiping an apple. Since his moneymen have decreed he must have a love interest in his newest adventure film, Denham quickly persuades Ann to accompany him to the mysterious Skull Island. This exceedingly short sketch of the economic forces in the Depression anchors the subsequent fantasy in reality. Denham, the adventurous individualist entrepreneur, disappears in Semple's retailored version (even in 1933 he was an outmoded figure, a throwback to an earlier stage of American capitalism). Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), the professional academic in 1976, emerges from the none-too-bright first mate Jack Driscoll in 1933. Down-and-out Ann Darrow becomes glamorous Dwan. The romance that the character Denham was supposed to film becomes the basic plot mechanism of Semple's script.

But before introducing either Dwan or Kong, the essential figures of the romance, Semple sets in motion a critique of corporate capitalism. Oil profiteering and Watergate are the topical sources of a critique which is easily defueled by the campy tone.(1) Both KONGs begin by characterizing the dominant social reality of their time. In 1933, in this one film at least, grim social reality outflanked Hollywood's appetite for "pure" spectacle. The new KONG, like most disaster films, gives recognition to the massive distrust felt by powerless audiences bludgeoned by the economic and psychological manipulations of corporations and government.

Thus both films capitalize on social fears by developing their fantasies within a context that resembles reality — a narrative device which skillfully excuses them from dealing with the real consequences of real fears. (Hollywood's magical ability to wipe the slate clean when the slate is falling to pieces is already a commonplace of ideological criticism.) The first film justifies the journey to Skull Island, the strategic retreat from Western civilization to savage "prehistory," in the self-reflexive terms of spectacle (making a film), (2) the second in the more naked terms of corporate rapacity (the rip-off of oil resources).

The new KONG's modern romance can only be understood within the context of this rapacity. Not only because that is how the film is structured, but also because the articulation of this structure supports the bourgeois axiom that sex is power. The opening scenes of the film clearly establish power relationships. I wish to show how these power relationships are the motor of the romantic triangle that then takes over.

 Semple begins his story at dockside in exotic Surabaya, which would appear to be on the southern edge of the ocean of myth. On the deck of the Petrox Explorer, the giant oil firm's well equipped research vessel stands Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), mid-management exec, the oily villain you love to hate, also well-equipped with trimmed sideburns, moustache, and Safari jacket. As soon as Fred says, "This is it. This time we're after the Big One," the phallic humor of the film is established. In the comic language of euphemism (PG rating) the film will exploit sexual nuances that the earlier film merely sketched and appended to its more compelling racist terror.

We soon learn that Fred is the 70s replacement for Carl Denham. In a scene reminiscent of WWII pre-flight bomber briefings, we find that Petrox's bribery of White House officials has produced a satellite scan that indicates an unknown island with (on a scientifically informed guess) a huge reserve of oil. Denham's goals, in the modest movie tradition of the 30s hustler, are now magnified in Fred Wilson to the post-Watergate level of corporate greed. Instead of a daring way to make a hokey adventure flick, the Skull Island operation becomes a military invasion. The only one who calls Fred's presumption into question is a stowaway who looks like a sensitive jock turned bearded hippie. Fred is sure he's a Shell spy — but no, after an electronic security check, it's Jack Prescott, anxious to test his hypothesis of a huge man-like beast on the mysterious island. "Ape-shit," says Fred. Later the outraged Jack accuses Fred and the Petrox expedition of committing "environmental rape" on the island.

Semple draws the parameters of his critique from this overdrawn conflict between Jack and Fred. Director John Guillermin overloads this long briefing scene with a spurious technological ingenuity, the kind audiences have become inured to since the James Bond film. (3) Clearly, we associate Fred with this expensive junk while Jack, without it, is reduced to zero. On the one hand, Fred has all the armor so the balance of power is never in question. Script references to bribery, profiteering, and general corporate creepiness serve the aim of producing a mood of cynical acceptance when the possibility of change appears to be so negligible. You can't beat people who have satellites for playthings. On the one hand, Jack's powerlessness ennobles him because he's so admirably foolhardy. At best his ecological, anthropological, and moral protest might give us an issue to root for. Semple never goes overboard — he limits Jack to colorful acts of derring-do.

Fred, then, holds all the cards, including, it appears, the queen of hearts. For up to this comic-book duel, up to this imperialist barge, floats Dwan. She was aboard a pleasure-craft when it exploded accidentally. After being snared from a bit of wreckage she explains how she missed instant drowning only by her refusal to watch DEEP THROAT below with a movie producer (now on the ocean floor).

Dwan's fortuitous appearance short-circuits the topical political satire and returns the film to its primary source in myth. (From the greasy dishwater of corporate villainy bubbles the ivory soap of sexual-romantic myth.) The visual style of Dwan's appearance — unconscious, in a clinging wet black gown — incarnates a male sexual fantasy. How far has she floated from pornography? Once the characters finally reach the island she races ahead of the others, even Jack, snapping her with his motor-driven Nikon. With the irresistible allure of a Siren, she leads the men to their doom. With Dwan, director Guillermin renews the banished imagery of the glamour-girl in American film. Jessica Lange's body receives the star treatment as no woman's body has since Marilyn Monroe. Dwan's initial scenes, bereft of dramatic content, are in fact a direct rip off of images of Monroe that have been purveyed in the years since her death — particularly the candid Life magazine photos of Monroe on the beach in shorts. While Lange fortunately does not imitate Monroe's mannerisms, except for a constant dreamy expression, Guillermin films her to evoke the same narcissistic charm of the "born" tease. The lyrical cinematographic descriptiveness of her scenes while being dressed by the sailors aboard ship are prescriptive. The scenes exude a false perfection of pleasure common to the best TV commercials that market a manufactured stereotype of beauty.

 KING KONG goes on to exploit the substance of the Monroe myth as well as its form. Narrative themes of damaged innocence, potential rape, vulnerability, the restless search for identity in fame, and the terrifying response of the masses appear throughout the rest of the film in Dwan's ceaseless shuttle from Kong, to Jack, to Fred. The ideology of woman as property, of woman as the essential attribute of male power and fantasies of power obscures the social corruption alluded to in the first part of the film.


In their first scenes on the island both Kings promise a collision of cultures — and both renege. Modern humankind never meets primeval humankind, instead the white male meets the monsters of his past, the rear projections of his fears and desires. Both films use coded racist portrayal of the black man's rape of a white woman to provide sensationalist psychological appeal. But the style with which Kong keeps his grip on Ann suggests different possibilities than the modern Kong's possession of Dwan. The long series of model animation battles between Kong and a zoo full of prehistoric monsters reduced the relationship between Ann and Kong to a series of prolonged screams. Furthermore, Fay Wray's indelible scream portrayed her unswerving resistance to Kong.

But now in 1977 "the most exciting original motion picture event in history"(4) has returned, and every return has its lesson. Obviously the black man's rape of the blonde is an enduring Hollywood fantasy. So enduring that Semple eliminates the terror and Guillermin confines himself to shots of a giant black pole sliding into the gate of the island fortress. The filmmakers turn the possibility of rape into the foundations of a relationship. Dwan has one touching emotional scene after another with her captor — scenes without parallel in those with Jack or Fred. Particular care is taken technically to humanize Kong's face — he effortlessly expresses a wider range of emotion than either Nicholson or Brando in the recent THE MISSOURI BREAKS, for example.

The anthropomorphizing of the beast is essential to the "humanizing" of the rape theme. More than one critic has suggested that in both versions Kong has no genitals because he's a walking genital, every male's erection on the rampage, desire without conscience. The twist of the new Kong is that he not only has a conscience — but a consciousness as well. This Kong could have his way and he doesn't.

The old version is careful to show that Jack rescues Ann before the unmentionable can occur — and equally careful to show Ann's terror and loathing. The new version turns the possibility of rape into a series of dirty jokes. Dwan's flirtatious slaps and coy insults (she calls Kong a "male chauvinist ape" at one point) reinforces the self-serving male image of the woman (literally ripped from her pedestal) as a tease. This characterization lends gross credence to the male belief that the woman asks to be raped. Furthermore the gentle ape responds to her teasing with abject devotion. When Kong begins to strip Dwan's clothing, the male audience can enjoy the fantasy of rape without its brutalized and brutalizing effects. (This distinguishes KONG, psychologically speaking, from the wave of rape films that emphasize the brutality.) The penis has more meaning as a symbol of power than as an instrument of desire. Kong as penis-symbol ritualizes an act which is, in fact, ritualistic only for the perpetrator — never for the victim.

The new Kong is characterized not as a beast but as a noble savage. He presents Dwan with a panoply of generous gestures. Is she filthy after a rough night in the jungle? He takes her to the local waterfall for a dip and ingenuously blows her dry. (More innocent titillation for the audience.) When she falls into his cage aboard ship, doesn't he catch her and then allow her freedom — clearly sensing his loss of appeal when it is he that is imprisoned rather than she. And when she's surrounded by photographers in the stadium in New York, he breaks free to help her. Sure he's possessive — but what male isn't? This last incident is consistent with the plot of the first KONG, but Semple has again turned an uncodified and undeveloped suggestion latent in the original into an aspect of Kong's character. Dwan herself falls half in love with the beast — he exudes so much human warmth. Atop the World Trade Center she pleads with him to take her back into his grip so that the helicopters won't dare to attack him. In both versions Kong is a symbol of power, but in the new one much more clearly a symbol of defenseless power, the raw energy of an undeveloped resource.


The theme of defenseless power was immortalized in the graffito "King Kong died for our sins" as well as in the mod epic MORGAN (1966) in which Kong had a cameo role. The graffito expresses the truth of a redemption worthy of the bathroom stalls on which it was written. The new Kong as well has some of this heroic stature. Jack Prescott while fantasizing being Kong has the unenviable role of trying to save Kong from himself. Prescott cheers from another skyscraper as the beast bats a copter. In the struggle for power being enacted above the great metropolis, we root in concert with the substitute hero Prescott, an essentially passive spectator. When the ultimate struggle is waged, our human alter-ego Prescott does not wage it, but his alter-ego Kong. The rebellion that characterizes Prescott is never resolved dramatically except in terms of this single shot of him cheering. This transference from the human subject to the beast refocuses the power relations that obtained in the beginning of the film from the rational but powerless to the irrational but powerful, from Jack to Kong. Jack and Kong balance each other in such a way as to cancel the possibility of meaningful or truly rebellious action. I would speculate that one of the main functions of self-enclosed bourgeois narratives such as Semple's KONG is to preclude any such potential, normally by offering hopelessness in the most energized forms.

 In the earlier film Jack Driscoll's function is to do battle with Kong, to bring the story back to its human (i.e., bourgeois) roots in the end by rescuing and repossessing Ann. But Prescott in the new KONG is not just the ape's rival — he's an image of Kong on a smaller scale and identifies with him. (Maybe Jack is the only one in the film who's seen the first KING KONG.) Dwan may sincerely love Prescott but it's Kong she's attracted to. Several scenes confronting us with the frustrating fact of coitus interruptus (Dwan and Jack just never get it together) show Dwan leaving Jack for Kong. Jack draws the obvious lesson and tells Dwan that she could never reconcile herself to the life of a professor's wife. Dwan is never given a clear choice, of course. The script hedges every situation so as to suggest that she prefers the road to stardom — but she continues to the end to deny it. This is the other side of the falsely heroic theme of redemption. Prescott wishes to possess Dwan, that is, to turn her into a useful commodity as a professor's wife, but she resists this effort at possession. (I love you Jack, but what about Kong — and fame, etc.)

Semple waits for the final shot of the film to resolve this dilemma. Jack has wished all along to redeem Dwan from the ignominious glories of stardom. He is her indefatigable rescuer, a key male role in American films. All of a sudden, Kong's dead, the preying ugly crowd (more menacing than the savages of Skull Island) is massing round his hulk, Dwan surrounded and in tears calls for him. This is the moment of romantic authenticity necessary in every Hollywood movie worthy of the name. But Jack renounces her — failing to fight through the crowd. Denied the scenario of seduction and betrayal, Jack opts for the more abstract and no doubt generally unnoticed game of redemption and renunciation. He literally turns his back on her. Semple is here at last accurate in his portrayal of the phony environmentalist and daredevil jock academic, whose heart is on his tattered sleeve and whose brains are padlocked in some sweaty locker-room at Princeton. The woman is sacrificed at Skull Island (in the mythic and anthropological realm of the noble savage) and sacrificed again on Manhattan Island. Of course it's only Prescott who connects the two — with his prescience and Nikon-sharp memory, he notices the resemblance between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the twin crags that mark Kong's lair on Skull Island. Jack's sacrificed to the crowd reverberates as the intellectual (or academic, or petit — bourgeois) willingness to bypass struggle, once verbal protest has appeared ineffectual. Prescott is prey to a deadly passivity.

 The pawn in this fantasy is always the woman. Possession of Dwan is a sign of power. The initial item of exchange between the natives of the island and the invading Petrox team is the proposed exchange of Dwan for five native women. (This also occurs in the original.) Woman is the first and vital term or sign of exchange whether with Kong or with Jack (who gives her up to the crowd in exchange for sheet principle.) When Lévi-Strauss adduces the exchange of women as the primal act of human communication between social groups, he refuses to draw any anti-female conclusions from this supposed fact. Lévi-Strauss argues that women cannot be reduced to the status of sign, since unlike things, women have the power of speech. However, in a discourse controlled and distributed by men (patriarchal culture) women's power of speech tends to be mystified and/or dependent. In the grotesque (cultural) case of KONG, Dwan is clearly drugged during the sacrifice to the beast and clearly defenseless during the sacrifice to the New York crowd. In KING KONG at least such exchange is a power relation, not merely an item inaugurating communication.


The significance of this exchange of Dwan as a marker among males is given its crassest form with the unambiguous Fred, the Petrox greed-freak. He recruits Dwan in the service of the multinational corporation, which totally replaces the outmoded economic forms of the Depression. Fred has the only unsentimentalized view of Kong. He stages a reenactment of the original sacrifice of Dwan in a New York stadium. His image of the penis-beast is apotheosized by the gigantic fuel pump in which Kong appears in the stadium before the glamorized Dwan. Since the pump is unveiled at the very moment we expect to see Kong (it is actually the shroud of his cage), this funny image is the one visual coup of the entire film. The reenactment explicitly draws a parallel between Kong's function as a ritual fertility god and his function as spectacular commodity.

 Alone among all the males in the picture, Fred does not evidence desire for Dwan. Use value is totally obliterated by exchange value. Ironically robbed of his intention to sack the oil resources of the island, he takes from the natives their one true resource, Kong, and turns to promoting the beast as a new version of the tiger in your tank. He signs Dwan to a contract (which Jack spurns) and she becomes an element of spectacle. This again is a recreation of a motif from the original: just showbiz, but showbiz in the service of Petrox this time. The satire is so glib it's barely worth mentioning except to indicate, on the one hand, the role of Kong, the pump that spurts fuel instead of sperm, and on the other hand, the role of Dwan, potential victim this time of a different kind of rape, a violence that returns her to the Marilyn Monroe myth — that of vulnerability in the midst of the ravenous crowd. In the Petrox grip, Kong, Dwan, and the masses (depicted as a crazed mob) become totally exploitable.

In the emotional equation Kong absorbs all the tears. Dwan is again merely an element of exchange. Kong is treated throughout the film successively as ecological resource, ritual god, benevolent beast-boy, spectacular commodity; but of course he is nowhere depicted as what he is materially: a machine. The film is technically crude enough so that I was seldom tempted to think of him as anything but a machine, a very lively and emotional machine, somewhat more human than most of the other characters in the film. The image of the machine as a noble savage suggests in a way the entry of a new conception of human nature, similar to the film's fatuously critical conception of the new economic model of the multinational corporation. This entry, which I offer, tentatively, is flanked in American film and television by the vogue of the occult, which depicts human nature as less than human (depraved) by invoking the supernatural; and on the other side, by the bionic wave of sci-fi films which depict human nature as machine-like by invoking the super-terrestrial (or the futuristic wonders of "science"). The new KING KONG can be seen as the most convincing demonstration to date that machines are now more human than mere human beings. (5)

 The pivot of the narrative in each of these possibilities is typically the young beautiful white woman. CARRIE, KING KONG, DEMON SEED are three examples which could easily be multiplied. Advanced capitalism is once again tirelessly discovering new ideological forms to encompass perceived threats to its hegemony. The patriarchal structures which permeate advanced capitalism (and to which women are inevitably most sensitive) are the object of hostile offensives in almost completely mystified forms in these narratives — each of which has a doomsday theme, each of which thoroughly represses the perceived threat. By totally identifying personal (sexual) relations with power relations, by absolutizing sexuality so that it becomes bestial and power so that it becomes mechanism, the new KONG with pure negativism reluctantly lays bare the vacuum of everyday life.

The new KONG's ending is strictly repressive, shirking Hollywood's responsibility for wish fulfillment and not even conceding a return to bourgeois values. One can only conclude that it has no values to uphold. To that extent it does not end — it stops. The loss of hope marks it as a film of the 70s. No resolution of the issues it engenders is imaginable. The movie leaves us with an image of a woman in tears stranded beside a male beast while the crowd presses in upon her. Most of the disaster films end with a shot of the site of destruction. The camera moves from a close up with accelerating speed to an all-encompassing shot that ends with us, sometimes a mile in the air, looking down magisterially on ruin.


l. Semple appears to have sustained this tone for some time: he's responsible for the scripts of both BATMAN (1966) and PRETTY POISON (1968).

2. See Judith Mayne, "KING KONG and the Ideology of Spectacle," Quarterly Journal of Film Studies, Vol. 1, No. 4 (November, 1976), pp. 373-387.

3. This hardware overkill is characteristic of Guillermin, who made the male action epics, THE BLUE MAX (1966) and THE BRIDGE AT REMAGEN (1969), not to mention the disaster flicks, SKYJACKED (1972) and THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974).

4. According to producer Dino di Laurentis' myopic copywriters.

5. This misperception is now dated by the appearance of Seethreepio and Artoodeetoo in STAR WARS.