A continuation of guest poster Chris Arnold’s series on King Kong and American intellectual history.
And the Prophet said:
” And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty.
And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day,
It was as one dead”
With these faux ancient words Merian C. Cooper gave life to the powerful 20th century American version of Beauty and the Beast archetype that is the myth of King Kong, As Richard Slotkin posits
“Myth expresses ideology in a narrative… myths are formulated as ways of explaining problems that arise in the course of historical experience. The most important and longest lived of these formulations persist over long periods of time.”[i]
The King Kong myth has had at least 6 major iterations in just over eighty years. What accounts for this vitality? Did the Kong myth offer successful solutions to cultural problems impacting Twentieth Century America? Which problems were these? A fruitful approach to answering these questions begins with an examination of the myth’s initial creator.
Merian Cooper led a life as cinematic as one of his films. A native Floridian born in 1893, Cooper was a descendant of the planter class of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. He was raised on tales of his ancestors’ acts of martial glory in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Another formative experience of his childhood was reading Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa by Paul Du Chaillu. With its lurid tales of native African women carried off by spirit gorillas, reading Du Chaillu’s popular volume was an experience that heavily influenced Cooper in the shaping of the Kong myth. During World War I Cooper served as a pilot on the western Front in World War I and helped to create a volunteer air squadron to defend Polish sovereignty against Bolshevik incursions in 1919 and 1920, which helped incubate his fierce life long anti Communism and conservatism. Peace time did nothing to calm his thirst for grand adventure. In the Twenties Cooper, with his partner Ernest Schoedsack, filmed documentaries of life in “exotic” lales such Persia and South East Asia. He also became instrumental in building what would become Pan Am airlines in the late Twenties. In 1929 he began formulating a scenario for what he called a “gorilla picture” that involved a Giant Gorilla, kidnapping a damsel, fighting dragons and being brought low by Twentieth Century Technology. This scenario, in its final form became King Kong.[ii]
Cooper was clearly a brave and energetic man but very much a man of his class and time. As an early 20th Century Southerner with deep roots in the planterocracy, his ideological commitments were shaped by the apartheid society which reared him. This is demonstrated by the parallels between King Kong and Birth of a Nation, The other early 20th century cinematic spectacle created by another white upper-class southern man, D. W. Griffith. In both films the antagonist “is the epitome of the white man’s day dream of the brute black, the heartless mindless foreigner, feasting on violence and rapine.”[iii] The genealogy of this disturbing American discourse of race and primates can be traced backwards to the scientific racism of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia ( in which the author of the Declaration of Independence speculated on the copulation of apes and Africans) as well as earlier colonial and English texts.[iv]
The Kong myth initially appears to reinforce this mythic narrative. The story of a bestial black figure that threatens civilization through the abduction of White Womanhood ( Cooper, the child of white southern aristocracy, was responsible for the racial shift in the identity of the damsel from du Chaillou’s African maidens) appears tailor made for a cultural product of Nineteen- Thirties America, A period that saw the legislative defeat of anti-lynching efforts in Congress and was described as the nadir of American race relations. In this culture the ideological Specter represented by Kong haunted the fears and nightmares of Whites while exacting a brutal and bloody toll on African American men.
Combining Du Chaillou’s popular exotic tales with a deeply American racialized intellectual tradition Cooper and his collaborators began shaping a story that was not only, as critic Cynthia Erb noted, a pastiche of many film genres of the 1930s[v], but also a cultural pastiche of toxic racial myths as well. So deeply rooted were elements of the Kong myth in American culture that it is not hyperbolic to add to Michael Rogin’s observation so that Gus and Silas Lynch( the predatory antagonists of Birth of a Nation)… and Kong were all Thomas Jefferson’s children. [vi]
Now that that we have established the racialized ideological sources of the Kong Myth, in my next post I hope to interrogate the 1933 text itself as well some of its critical readings to demonstrate the text’s various mythic structures and its uses for the cultural scene of 1930s America.
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.
New York:Harper Perennial, 1993. 6.
[ii]This sketch of Cooper’s life is taken from the very useful but also very popular and adulatory biography Living Dangerously: the Adventures of Merian C.Cooper Creator of King Kong, Mark Cotta Vaz, New York: Random House, 2005.
[iii] Greenberg, Harvey Roy quoted in Regester, Charlene The Cinematic Representation of Race in The Birth of A Nation: A Black Horror Film in Thomas Dixon Jr. And the Birth of Modern America. Michelle K. Gillespie and Randal L. Hall eds. LSU Press, 2009. 171.
See both Jefferson’s Notes on the State Of Virginia and Winthrop Jordan’s masterful White Over Black for numerous examples of this ‘revolting discourse.
[v]Erb, Cynthia Tracking King Kong: A Hollywood Icon in World Culture. Wayne State University Press, 2009. 34.
[vi] Rogin Michael, The Sword Became a Flashing Vision. D.W. Griffiths Birth of a Nation. 166. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~DRBR2/rogin.pdf