Justice for the Simian One
Has ever a fictional character been so mistreated and maligned? The novelist Will Self (above) defends the reputation of King Kong
Saturday 20 May 1995
I wish to reclaim King Kong (or "Kong" as I, more familiarly, refer to him) as a hero of the primal, the natural, the embodiment - as it were - of embodiment itself.
The Kong image that lies at the core of the 1932 film of which he was the eponymous anti-hero, can be read in two countervailing ways. On the one view, we see a giant, gorilla-like creature, standing on top of the Empire State building, batting byplanes out of the sky and threatening the lives of all the humans in the vicinity. But on the Self view, Kong is engaged here in his finest hour; and the scene is a Gotterdammerung, in which a godlike figure protests against the hideous alienation of the urban scape in the most potent way imaginable.
But this alternative role for Kong as an early proponent of Direct Action, a road protester manque, is only one strand of my argument. There is also Kong the great lover. As the titles of the movie come up we are treated to an Arabian proverb: "And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty and stayed its hand from killing / And from that day it was as one dead."
Granted, he didn't altogether stay his hand from killing - there is the young woman he somewhat precipitately claws out of her apartment when he goes on the rampage in New York (and which of us haven't felt a little like doing that when on the rampage in New York), but that's as nothing when set against the poignant tenderness of his feelings towards "Ann Barrow", played by Fay Wray.
Kong and Fay are in fact made for one another. She, a poor young woman, picked up off the streets by the exploitative film director, Carl Denham, (whose speciality is the kind of film that destroys nature in order to portray it). He, a poor ape-colossus, of indeterminate age, who is being exploited by the same man. It is one of the great tragedies of modern cinema that their romance is thwarted.
Not only that, but the whole action of the film is also misinterpreted, actually within the context of the film itself. One of the aspects of the film that I most profoundly disagree with is the business of the giant wall that separates Kong and his Edenic realm of dinosaurs and rain forest, from the islanders who worship him.
In the film it is uncritically asserted that the islanders have built this wall to keep Kong out. On this interpretation Denham and his film crew are delivering the simple islanders (who are meant to be of Melanesian aboriginal stock, but whose appearance owes more to central casting) from evil, and thus represent the beneficent face of white imperialism. But you only have to take a cool look at the giant wall to see how patently absurd this is. It's obviously too big for the islanders to have built - each stone must weigh many, many tons. No, my theory is that the wall was built by Kong himself in order to keep humans out. All he wishes is to be free of interference.
And what does he get? A gang of dreadful American supremacists, trampling over the fragile peace that exists between Kong and the indigenes. What is the first action of Denham's party upon entering Kong's realm? To let fly with all their guns at a perfectly harmless stegosaurus. After that, can it be any surprise that Kong tries with all his might to repel Denham and his crew? But what damages his effectiveness is the coup de foudre - this Fay Wray thing.
Now, while not wishing to in any way condone male violence towards women, or suggest that when a woman says "No" to the possibility of sexual congress with a giant ape, she really means "Yes"; none the less, it is notable that when Kong gets Fay - literally - in his grasp, he doesn't crush her to death, or abuse her, but rather very, very gently, with teasing and delicate eroticism, he removes her skirt.
In this Kong encapsulates the paradox that is human sexuality. He is both "The Beast" that makes two backs; a defiantly animal act which you don't have to be a Freudian to believe manifests aggression in the pursuit of ecstasy; and at one and the same time he is the refined and courteous lover.
I venture to suggest that had Kong and Fay been left alone for a while, and given the opportunity to get to know one another a little better, she might have come round.
But, as it transpires, Kong is dragged back to New York by Denham and put on show as the "Eighth Wonder of the World", in front of a horde of giggling thrill-seekers. What greater humiliation for a creature formerly venerated?
Piled on top of this are further humiliations. Fay comes on to the stage with the poltroon who has stolen her from Kong - Jack Driscoll, the mate of the exploration ship. Driscoll flaunts his relationship with Fay in front of Kong. Then the final insult: Denham brings in the press, having primed them with the memorable exhortation: "Beauty and the Beast boys, play up that angle!" The paparazzi charge on to the stage and unleash a fusillade of flash bulbs in the face of our hero.
Is it any wonder that he reacts like some simian Jonathan Aitken against this massed phalanx of intrusive sleaze-mongers? And then, a sensitive precursor of Stephen Fry, he takes the only course available to someone so hounded by the press, he ups and leaves the theatre altogether. From then on he is locked into the grim inevitability of tragedy.
However, it isn't just through the narrative of the movie that I seek to remove the tarnish from Kong's image. His demonisation is highly significant at the symbolic level. The distinctions that have been traditionally drawn between man and beast have always been arbitrary. When chimpanzees were first discovered by Europeans, and their bodies subject to dissection, the similarities in anatomy between ape and human led theorists of the "chain of being" to place them between Caucasians and negroes.
Even with the advent of Darwinism, it can still be seen that the exclusion and demonisation of the great apes has always justified racism. To create an intra-species hierarchy, it is necessary to retain a rigid inter-species hierarchy. To label other races "bestial", it is important to have beasts with which to compare them.
Apes, particularly chimpanzees, are our closest living relatives. In the case of the latter, some zoologists estimate that we have in common over 94 per cent of our genetic material. Yet both species are in the process of being irreversibly damaged, and will almost certainly become extinct. This will be a tragedy of unparalleled magnitude. The study of chimpanzees, who only split away from us in evolutionary development some five million years ago, provides us with our best chance of understanding our own development as humans: what makes us unique.
But, more emotively, the destruction of our closest relatives will in an important sense diminish what it is to be human - and possibly will even destroy it. For, without their existence to shore up our difference, will we not perhaps collapse back into the slough of bestiality we have pulled ourselves out of?
In the 1932 film, one of the characters says early on that Kong is neither man nor beast. Really this could be applied to our highest aspirations for humanity, but in identifying what is essentially human, purely concerned with the mental, we are denying one of the most beautiful aspects of ourselves. For, in the final analysis, Kong is all body. In a world of the anti-natural, the plangently cerebral, don't we need to celebrate a person who roars defiance at the regimenting of existence by tiny minds? Please, next time you see the film he stars in, cheer when King Kong routs the humans, and weep as he goes down fighting.
n Will Self will be defending King Kong as part of the Radio 4 series `Devil's Advocate', broadcast tonight 10.45-11pm
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