I first saw King Kong in 1957, when I was six. I was in first grade, and felt resentful that I now had to go to bed early at night. One evening my father said, “You can stay up. There’s something on the late show I want you to see.” He had an armchair in front of the TV and we always sat in it together. I was still small of frame. I fit, and I felt safe during monster films.
I was enthralled by King Kong, but two moments especially burst my small head open and stayed with me forever. The first was when Kong—after chasing the men who rescued Ann Darrow on Skull Island back to the ancient wall that hemmed him off from the island’s inhabitants—began slamming at the gate, straining it, finally smashing it open, roaring, then making his way into the helpless village, killing everybody in his path. It was thrilling cinematically, of course—the primitive quality of the special effects made it more rather than less credible, like a primordial dream, not something modern and precise and gleaming—but there was more happening. The rescuers gassed Kong, and he passed out. They thought they had a captive beast to take back to New York and put on display.
The other moment was when Kong broke free in New York after pulling out of his chains on a Broadway stage. He didn’t want to be captive. He still wanted the love he’d glimmered, and he would destroy what he needed to in order to reach that love. His was a righteous rage and vengeance. He terrorized Manhattan. He ripped apart an L train car, killing people aboard. He climbed buildings, looking for Ann, and dropped one woman to her death after he grabbed her mistakenly. Finally, after finding Ann, he carried her to the top of the Empire State Building, where fighter planes gunned him down—but not before he took one out.
The civilization had to kill him because it had unleashed something it couldn’t fathom or contain, a reality it wouldn't recognize about its own unconscious—something that, once beheld, was menacing to reason and safety.
I have seen that film at least 100 times since (even persuaded Elaine and Tessa to watch it, and even to view the failed remake of several years back), and over the years I came to understand what happened in those moments: Western civilization had enticed itself with this old god monster, sought him out and taunted him with the waste of love, enraged him, then tried to protect itself against his instinct. He rampaged and threatened to win.
We could look for equivalents in history then and since—they aren’t hard to find; we were between World Wars—but it’s still those moments, Kong breaking through the barriers of the Western mind, that make me wonder: Which is worse, the secret behind the wall or the civilization the monster never asked for? It also still makes that moment when Kong smashed the gates the most magnificent thing I’ve ever seen on screen.
Elaine and I saw the musical play King Kong on Broadway while in New York during early 2020. I enjoyed the stage effects in the first part (Elaine didn’t so much), though in the second half everything—song, dialogue, even the behemoth puppet—was un-involving filler. More important, the play skipped those two scenes I focused on above. Maybe it was too hard to stage them, but leaving them out altogether meant that the producers didn’t really understand King Kong. (Peter Jackson's version included those moments but failed them.) King Kong isn’t a love story, nor a story about a greedy man who brings a monster to town. King Kong is about the walls the giant creature broke through: The ego, superego and id all met in that instant. Kong—the beast of the unconscious—broke down the walls of suppression and entered the mind of our guilt.
It was never lost on me that my father had me close, his arm wrapped around me, during those minutes. I don’t know what the film meant to him, if it meant anything other than a thrilling and sympathetic monster tale (though I suspect he identified with Carl Denham, because he had worked for a short time—in younger dissolute days—as a merchant seaman in the Indian Ocean). I do know that, like me, he never failed to watch King Kong when it turned up on TV. The first few times I watched it after he died, I could still feel his arm around me.
Mikal Gilmore is the author of four books, including the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning memoir Shot in the Heart, and the 1960s cultural history Stories Done. He is a longtime writer for Rolling Stone.
If you haven't read it, do not, under any circumstances, miss his book Shot in the Heart.
"Godzilla vs. Kong" came out this week and while you may not find it bearable, the filmmakers knew their audience: kids.
Plus ça change.
This isn't the first time moviemakers pitted Id v. Id. In the New York Times, Robert Ito runs down the history behind the matchup between the Great Ape and the Gigantic (yet somehow adorable) Lizard.
In 1962, the Japanese film studio Toho released “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” an ambitious monster movie that pitted two of the most popular creatures in cinema history against each other in (supposedly) mortal combat. The movie boasted a drunken Kong; cringe-worthy brownface (with Japanese actors darkening their faces to play South Pacific “natives”); and a battle with a giant octopus — played by real octopuses.
The feature became the best attended Godzilla movie in Japan even today, reviving the franchise and setting the stage for scores of monster movies to come.
1962's King Kong vs. Godzilla
Brian's Playlist: I'm an Ape Man
King Kong ::: The Kinks
King Kong ::: The Jimmy Castor Bunch
King Kong ::: Big T Tyler
Movies Are A Mother To Me ::: Loudon Wainwright III
Kong ::: Neneh Cherry
King Kong ::: Jibbs
Jungle Blues ::: C.W. Stoneking
Ape Man ::: The Kinks
Old King Kong ::: George Jones
The Monkey Speaks His Mind ::: The Fabulous Thunderbirds