U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Merian C. Cooper, King Kong, and American Mythology

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.

 [i]Slotkin, Richard, Gunfighter Nation: the Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America.

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