Yes, Jack! A Prehistoric Beast... Let's Kill It! [The Ballad of Kong Pt. 4]

[Before stomping on any further, read Pt. 1, Pt. 2, and Pt. 3 here...]


Getting back to the real Kong, once I managed, with great difficulty it seems, to sneak around the readily apparent charms of Fay Wray, there was still the matter of the dinosaurs, my raison d'être for wishing to view the original 1933 version of King Kong again in the first place. Besides seeing the original Kong three years earlier, I had filled the dinosaur void in my soul with other films featuring the prehistoric creatures. 

My first experience with dinosaurs on film was like to have been The Beast of Hollow Mountain, which I saw at the age of five and which served to solidify my dinosaur love. In the previous summer of 1976, I had discovered Ray Harryhausen's The Valley of Gwangi for the first time and found myself unable to function at all for a few weeks. At that time, I never really knew the connection between both of those films and Kong until much later (both Beast and Gwangi, which feature battles between cowboys in the Old West and dinosaurs, were derived from an unrealized story treatment by Willis O'Brien, the man who brought King Kong's creatures to glorious stop-motion life). I had also fallen in deep love with Godzilla by that point, mainly because of John Belushi, who introduced an NBC showing of Godzilla vs. Megalon in prime time by wearing the same Big G costume he had also used in a famous sketch on Saturday Night Live that season. Sure, Megalon is one of the lower entries in the entire Godzilla series, but we loved it all the same. (And still do...)

I poured my youthful energy and attention on practically every book on dinosaurs and paleontology that I could get my hands on, in a way that I really wished, in retrospect, I had reserved for school work. I had also spent every Saturday morning the previous couple of years devouring every single episode of Sid and Marty Krofft's Land of the Lost, which not only gave me plenty of stop motion dinosaur action, but also supplied me with the still frightening concept of humanoid reptilian hybrid Sleestaks.

I was, to put it mildly, dinosaur mad. It's true that I was also baseball mad, but once you pushed aside the piles of Baseball Digest magazine and the boxes of trading cards that I had collected, you would run into my array of Snap-Tite dinosaur models, with which I would recreate repeatedly a horrible battle between my Tyrannosaurus Rex and my Triceratops, flipping a coin to determine the outcome. Eventually, I would devise a dice system, much like my self-rigged baseball game, which would become the deciding factor in moves and attacks. I was sure that once I published my game, I was going to make a mint and the world would be mine. I also had a more advanced motorized model that I built of my all-time favorite dinosaur, the Ankylosaurus; more than one, in fact, because I built a second model to use in a diorama that I had built for school, using artwork based on Charles R. Knight.

On that summer afternoon in 1977 staring at the cathode tube, I found myself ashore on Skull Island, fresh with the flush of shipboard puppy love, ready to take on all comers in defense of the lovely Ann Darrow. At some ill-fated hour of the night, she was kidnapped from the Venture by the way-too-sneaky natives of the island, and I was the only crew member to have noticed it, but my cries of alarm from my deckchair are to no avail! Deaf to my pleas, my fellow shipmates don't notice the transgression until the sacrificial fires are already lit and the drums are rolling out their steady thrum-thrum-thrum as a call to the Mighty Kong. Our response is to hit the boats and rush to the village, but upon our arrival at the gate of the supposedly Kong-proof ancient and giant wall, it is too late to save Ann. She is whisked into the dense jungle with a fiercely roaring and enormous rush of fur and sinew, lost to the wilds of Skull Island. Frightened, we pursue nonetheless...

At this point in the film, despite my advance knowledge of what would be encountered on this trek, I had no idea how this return trip through the jungles of Skull Island would affect me for the remainder of my days. Kong seems to be a simple adventure: a ship, a girl, an unknown island, an awesome monster, a tragic end. But just like the 1939 The Wizard of Oz, the trip is backloaded with trick after trick after trick, image after image after image. The layman remembers these films as mere fantasies, but they are thick with entertainment, and made by craftsmen who knew exactly how to deliver that entertainment at a high level. And it is only natural for subjectivism to take over for the eager viewer and make them believe that maybe there is something else in this as well besides simple melodrama and heroics. For me, Skull Island, built on studio sets with creatures brought to life with magic-like puppetry, was alive like no place I had ever seen in a film. I sensed it the first time that I saw the film, I felt it even more on that second viewing three years later, and I still feel that way to this very day. To turn Gertrude Stein on her ear, that simple jungle rescue trek has so, so much "there there". There was so much subtext lurking for me in King Kong, beyond the obvious Freudianism of the title character and the racism inherent in jungle pictures that rely on encounters between native cultures and pearly white, trigger happy Americans.

It was Carl Denham and the crew of the Venture that proved it for me. Yes, the greatly oversized stegosaurus charges them early on in their search, and its attack and their reply could be construed as a case of kill or be killed, so I don't entirely fault them for their response. The thing that must be remembered when watching King Kong is that, while the film has themes that will play to the Ages, its dialogue and plotlines are fully indicative of its time: 1933. However groundbreaking the film may be in the area of action storytelling and special effects, it is rooted firmly in the cliché and attitudes that pervaded the movies (and culture in general) in 1933. The world was a much larger place then, and there were still many mysterious, unexplored regions to dream of at that time. Rambunctious adventurers and fearless explorers, then as now, were the heroes of the day, and sadly, big game hunters were much admired, too. And while Carl Denham is clearly cut from the "Bring 'Em Back Alive" mold, the "Shoot First, Ask Questions Later" attitude is the more apparent logic at work here.

Denham hasn't even seen his first dinosaur for more even ten seconds before he asks for a "gas bomb" to be handed to him. One of the crew has a box strapped to his back (marked "Gas Bombs," just so you are sure of where they are) that holds, judging from the size of the box, at least eight of the spherical grenades. When the stegosaurus charges, there is a hail of bullets from the crew, and then Denham hurls the bomb. The stegosaurus goes down from the combination of weaponry, but instead of continuing on a separate path or merely steering the party widely clear of the beast, Denham marches the crew directly towards it. And instead of leaving it alone, Denham fires another shot at the still-gasping creature. This riles it even further, but as it stands and twirls to make another charge, it is brought down again with another hail of bullets. Carl and the crew advance even closer, and when the dinosaur dares to make one more roar of defiance, Denham puts a final bullet into its brain. Only after Denham has proclaimed "That got 'im", does the "bold" adventurer ponder his position. "If I could only bring back one of these alive," he wishes all "aw, shucks" and dreamily. Yes, if only... I wonder when you will get a chance.

The fact is that he could have brought that stegosaurus back alive. If you are going to go after something the size of Kong, and you have boldly announced the "fact," without any proof whatsoever, that your "gas bombs" can bring him to his knees, why not test their effectiveness on something of a similar size? Maybe the first dinosaur that you run into, let alone the first prehistoric creature that you or any other man has ever witnessed in real life? You throw one gas bomb, Denham, but not a second? You had at least eight in the box, and you have used one and it did not knock the stegosaurus out, even with that unnecessarily added dosage of bullets. If gas bombs two, three, and four don't work, then you had better rethink your Kong capture plan at that point, because you would only have four left, the stegosaurus is still kicking, and that Kong is one baaadaasss mutha'! If you use less than four on the stegosaurus, then you might have plenty to work with on the ape, and perhaps you will have some extra for any other dinosaurs you are likely are going to run across. But Denham never throws a second bomb, instead relying on his trusty ol' shotgun. He never considers whether they are actually going to work on the giant gorilla that they are trying to capture, and basically treats the death of the dinosaur practically as if it were just another minor animal on yet another big game hunt. His immediate reaction to an unknown species is to kill it. How very... American of him.

You can say "You were only twelve. Surely, you were simply watching a monster movie?" and you would be mostly right. I myself was not there to ruminate on the cruelty of man and his supposed right to ransack the Earth, American or entrepreneurial imperialism, the suppression and infiltration of native cultures, and the "Big Gun = Happy American" equation. I was there to watch giant apes and dinosaurs. Period.

And I got giant apes and dinosaurs. What I also got was a lifelong crush on a movie star almost sixty years my senior, a savage dislike of guns and the people who insist that they are the only way to live a proper life (I have no dispute with people who use them genuinely as tools, not even hunters, as long as they are hunting for sustenance), and several more floors in my skyscraper of steadily growing misanthropy. None of these side effects distracted me very long from the swell monster battles and adventure that were set to take place in the next hour, but they combined with other forces at work in my life at that time. I do remember my reactions very clearly on my second opportunity to see King Kong, so moved was I by the experience, and I have found myself thinking about them quite a lot any time that I watched the film from that day onward.

These feelings are not necessarily implied or even meant by the film (Creator and producer Merian C. Cooper was, after all, a big game hunter, and Denham is basically a stand-in for Cooper.) But that is what I read into it then, and that is what I read into it now. Such feelings made a movie like King Kong come alive even more for me, even as a kid. And they are probably why it made such an impression on me. It adds to the tragedy of the film's ending, where Denham places the blame for Kong's death on a Manhattan street as being due to "beauty" (meaning Ann Darrow), when in fact, he is the progenitor of Kong's demise. The Big White Hunter has been tamed by tragedy, and he can't bear the load.

It's only a monster movie, you know...

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