Guest post by Chris Arnold.
Over 30 years ago, Chuck Reilly, a recently retired steel executive had a problem. In the scope of his personal life history of serving and losing a brother in the Pacific, rising from labor to management and raising 7 children (including one with special needs) it was not one of the more important ones. However, in the moment, how to entertain or rather distract his 3 grandsons of 6, 5 and 4 on a quiet Sunday afternoon was a crucial issue. After some negotiating (a skill sharpened by his years as the Foreman of bar finish at Crucible specialty metals) he had Chris, Mike and Jason all situated around his easy chair. He began, “a long time ago some explorers were looking for oil, they heard about a possible oil well on a pacific island so they got a boat and sailed there…” and within a few minutes his problem was solved as the boys were regaled the American myth of King Kong.
Few memories of my childhood have such a strong or even obsessive hold as the first time my grandfather (who a few generations earlier, would’ve been a shoe-in for the village Seanchai) retold the story of King Kong. I’ve been thinking a lot about that incident as the latest cinematic iteration of the Kong myth, Kong: Skull Island premieres this week. While this new Kong movie can be explained by yet another case of Hollywood’s mining of our collective nostalgia for products to sell or as South Park Memorably and wickedly satirized it “member berries,” I would argue the Kong movies differ in significant ways from the other franchises of the current pop culture scene. In fact I’ve been revisiting some thoughts I’ve had for a while on what exactly is the Kong myth and how it works in 20th century American culture. Since the original 1933 movie roughly every 20 years has seen a major cultural reproduction of the Kong myth. 1954’s Creature From the Black Lagoon, Dino DeLaurentis’s remake of the original King Kong in 1976, Disney’s 1993 Beauty and the Beast, 2005’s Peter Jackson remake and now finally Kong: Skull Island.
In each instance, using the fairy tale archetype of the Beauty and the Beast, twentieth century popular cultural producers fashioned a uniquely American text that not only delineated but reinforced and in rare occasions transgressed cultural discourses of violence, history, gender, beauty, monstrosity and racial other. This myth was so powerful that it escaped the fetters of its original medium (as the above personal and anecdotal evidence suggests) and has become a colossus that stalks the 20th and 21st century American cultural landscape. It is, to use Lawrence Levine’s phrase, a major element of Industrial era folklore.
While I’m far from the first person to write analytically about Kong, I think there remains a great deal to be said. Following the intellectual trail blazed by Richard Slotkin, I hope to excavate roots of the Kong myth’s cultural genealogy, then, through an examination of the producers of each text of the Kong myth as well each text itself hope to demonstrate that the myth of Kong and its uses are as beneficial to understanding American culture as the myth of the Frontier has been for earlier periods of American history.
Chris Arnold has an M.A. in history from SUNY Brockport. He is an independent researcher and historian. His most recent project involves editorial and research assistance on Dr. John P. Daly’s forthcoming history of Reconstruction as a southern civil war. Areas of research interest include American cultural, religious, and political history.