King Kong: An Entertaining Monster

Nigel Watson

Talking Pictures alias






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King Kong has been regarded as a symbol of the unrepressed id, the lumpen-proletariat or the Afro-American, however Goldner and Turner prefer to regard the film as ‘a highly entertaining, shrewdly conceived work of pure cinema.’ (1) For them it was enough to know that the film was popular and made a considerable profit for its creators. Others would say that its success was due to social tensions and inadequacy that produce a need for utopian fantasies that can (temporarily) appease such feelings. (2

Released in April 1933 King Kong provided an escape from the economic concerns of the Great Depression that were then at their peak. The film itself shows women queuing for a nights' food and lodgings, it is here Ann Darrow is so down-and-out that she has to resort to stealing her food before Carl Denham saves her. Ann is alienated from any stable family, employment or home by the economic situation that has made life in the city unbearably frustrating and dangerous. 

The utopian aspects of the film can be examined through the use of Dyer's classification system which has five major features. These are energy; abundance; intensity; transparency and community. With regard to energy, we are treated to the fights on Skull Island between the dinosaurs, King Kong and the ship’s crew. On their make-shift raft and in their dealings with the natives and the final capture of King Kong the men show that they have the capacity and energy to take-on all comers even if it means death. Carl Denham himself is a fearless adventurer who as one of the ship's crew says "ain’t scared of nothing." By getting financial backing from business executives and other wealthy men sitting in their plush executive office chairs Denham was able to sail to any part of the globe in search of adventure for his film. Through financial backing Denham can sail to any part of the globe in search of adventure for his film. They have abundant resources and if their exploitation of Kong in the city is successful they are likely to make massive profits that will help them escape the general economic problems. 

King Kong does battle
                  and saves the girl.There is a good deal of intensity in the film. There is the unambiguous battle between men, dinosaurs and Kong. That the screaming Ann should be saved from Kong is never doubted, any moral dilemma about fighting otherwise extinct monsters is swept aside by the fact that they are so set on killing and eating any living person. 

The transparency category that takes note of the straight forwardness of relationships without the ambiguities of everyday life is fulfilled in King Kong. The love between Ann and John Driscoll is simply and directly presented even though John is wary of her at first. Ann represents beauty and Kong the beast. 
In the community category we can see that it requires a larger than usual crew to get to Skull Island. Through their cooperation they are able to capture Kong and take him back to the U.S.A. And it takes a group of aircraft to shoot Kong down from the Empire State Building. In addition, the group of sailors led by Denham is able to deal with the natives they encounter without too much difficulty. Their consensus view of the world, which is not tinged by superstition and magical ritual is able to deal with Kong in a direct manner. Thus the white man's group is shown as superior in his relationship with the world and therefore can legitimately exploit anything in the world for his own benefit at the cost of ‘primitive’ natives. 

The cumulative effect of these features is that they provide reassurance to the audience. Through human energy and a sense of community abundance can be obtained. The doubts and concerns of our lives are temporarily replaced by our concern for the characters in the film whose problems and relationships are simple and resolved by the end of the picture (the qualities of intensity and transparency cover these features). The emphasis on the adventurer rather than the thinker allows the uneducated poor to identify with the characters in King Kong

The concentration on adventure, pace. excitement. and incidents that would never occur in real life in King Kong came about due to Cooper's belief that,

 “The world is getting smaller every year. I mean, it's becoming too civilised. I can remember when the world was a grand old place - a place full of unexplored lands - choked with adventure...But now, what's a fellow to do? Where is he to go?" (3
The centre of civilisation, the city and its greatest achievement the skyscraper becomes the prison and place of execution for King Kong. As Denham says, "He was a King and a God in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilisation merely "a captive, a show to gratify your curiosity." The film itself criticises the film industry and the idea of entertainment. Early in the story Denham has to obtain a woman because the film has to have a love interest to "gross twice as much" in the box office. The co-directors and producers of' King Kong, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack were both men of action who had produced semi- documentary films in exotic, dangerous, foreign locations. Their 1929 film Chang was successful but was criticised for its love interest. Their dissatisfaction with the demands of civilisation could be played out in King Kong even as it pandered to the perceived taste of the audience. The rich audience who pay to see' the subdued Kong and the newsmen represent the cynical people who are the product of the city and have no conception of the elemental and natural aspects of existence. The crowds who run from Kong in the city are helpless and unorganised and have to rely on their technological superiority - an anonymous form of organisation - (in this case aircraft and bullets) to save them. Yet, this same technology traps them on the elevated railway train, and prisons them in rooms where Kong can easily grab them. There is the double-bind that we wish to return to our more primitive and natural roots but at the same time we cannot shed our technology and our rational mode of thinking that makes Denham "superior" to the natives on Skull Island. 

Civilised man might be rational and yearn for utopian values but the public and the entertainment industry does have a great interest in the irrational and dystopian. This is displayed in the mass media. preoccupation with death, scandal, disaster and any kind of threat to the existing order of things. 
If we regard King Kong in a dystopian light then we can see how it plays on the audiences' unconscious fears and desires. In the context of the depression we can see that the failure of the economic system renders men and women useless and surplus to requirement. The characters in the film do not permanently escape this situation but return with a drugged Kong who is a representative of nature subdued. From a Freudian viewpoint it reveals that in civilised society our natural inclinations and desires are chained and bound; when it is not repressed by social codes it kills and wrecks without any regard for anyone or anything. What actually kills Kong is his infatuation with Ann, this vision of beauty prevents him from allowing his id full rein. As soon as Ann, a representative of society and the white-person's world infiltrates Kong's world his power is diminished. As Denham declares at the end of the film, "It was Beauty killed the Beast." Beauty and her civilisation is the snake that enters Kong's Garden of Eden. 

In the city the jungle God becomes a monster because of the city's worship of money. Ironically this film that concentrates on individuals, the supremacy of love as opposed to wealth (the death of Kong allows Ann and John to be united but deprives them of a source of riches), and the values of nature, is created by means of complicated technology in order to obtain wealth and is aimed at an anonymous audience that mostly lives in cities. 

On the one hand you can argue that King Kong is pure entertainment because it diverts the audience from its own immediate and direct concerns. Indeed, it shows how lucky they are to be from the dangers of the jungle and that money is not everything. On the other hand the utopian aspects of King Kong are undermined by its portrayal of the city as an alienating anonymous machine that has no heart, and that we are all tainted by civilisation. The film highlights disturbing contradictions in ourselves and our society and King Kong can be read as a symbol for our deep archetypal anxieties. 

If we regard entertainment as just pure escapism we must ask why certain escapist films are more popular than others. Certainly, King Kong indulges our utopian dreams of escape, but the death of Kong leaves us with a sense of loss and regret. Although the status quo is restored the assumptions of civilisation are still left unresolved. King Kong questions the authenticity of our lives and makes us consider why we desperately need to escape in the first place. This makes the proposition that entertainment films are nothing more than the delivery of pleasure for profit questionable and we must take account of their articulation of barely conscious anxieties as part of their allure. 


1. Goldner, Orville and Turner, George E. The Making of King Kong, New York, Ballantine Books, 1975, p. 9. Return.

2. Dyer, Richard. 'Entertainment and Utopia' in Movie No 24. Return.

3. Goldner and Turner, ibid p. 77. Return.


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Material Copyright © 2001 Nigel Watson