Friday, November 07, 2008

The Lost Kong

By Brent Saltzman

[Scott sent me an essay by one of his undergraduate students, and I had to admit it was pretty good.]

[An intro from Scott: Brent Saltzman is a quiet kid (at 8am most kids are pretty quiet), who hails from Woodbridge Va and is a freshman here at Radford University, where he plans to major in Social Science (I'm going to see if I can persuade him into at least an English minor) who is currently taking my English 101 (Freshman Comp) course. He is leading rusher on our club football team (now with helmets!). He hopes to one day either become a screenwriter or a high school sociology teacher/football coach. He learned everything he knows about Lord of the Rings from South Park and considers himself an Indiana Jones person. He also has a blog where he regularly writes about sports.]

America has developed somewhat of a reputation the past few decades as being sort of a brutish character in the global theater. After going to war with countries a tenth our size and flexing our muscle with our constant glorification of militarism and violence, we’ve become the short, stocky, thick-headed bully on the block. Proof of this can be seen right down to our materialistic productions; American cars are known for their noise, power, and intimidating aesthetics (I get scared when I see Dodge Chargers glaring at my puny little Honda Civic) and our music stars are celebrated according to how many people they’ve claimed to rape and maim (yeah, you, Akon). If ever one wanted to get a serious look at how we stack up and set ourselves apart from other nations, you need look no farther than our movies. While foreign movies concentrate on character development, writing, dialogue, story, and emotional appeal, our movies concentrate on blowing as much stuff up as possible within a 90 minute time frame. Well, maybe not all of our movies…just the ones that make money. There really is no better analogy to this motif than what can be observed through the comparison of two of what are considered the greatest achievements in the history of cinema: 1925’s British film The Lost World and 1933’s American film King Kong.

The 1920s brought about an onslaught of cinematic achievements. The technology to capture moving pictures was fresh and the first film to put an extensive use to the infant concept of “special effects” was The Lost World, a film that has probably been forgotten by anybody who isn’t old enough to have seen it in theaters. Though a silent film that relies on a piano in the background and a slideshow of dialogue, it has laid the groundwork for special effects with its beautiful (for back then) and accurate (for back then) depictions of dinosaurs as a group of explorers traverses the South American jungles in search of, well, a lost world. The group inevitably finds a world of dinosaurs and—very intelligently—brings one back to the mainland where it proceeds to wreak havoc on the locals, thus teaching us that wild animals should remain in the wild, or back in time, or in some lost world, or whatever. This plot should probably sound familiar, because a scant eight years later another film would come out in America that followed the exact same formula yet, for some reason, has remained far atop its predecessor on the pendulum of historically popular films.

1933 was a good year if you were into monsters with the first sightings of the Loch Ness Monster and the release of Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong (not so much a good year if you were into, you know, the stock market). The story about a group of documentarians stumbling across an island of dinosaurs and a giant monkey is considered by most (and by most I mean me) to be the world’s first Michael Bay movie, and yes, I’m aware that Michael Bay wouldn’t be born for another thirty years, but I don’t care. King Kong is a special effects showcase that sucks the entire plot out of The Lost World yet none of the wonder or originality and makes use of our bloated technological achievements. While Kong remains the more popular of the films, it may be for all the wrong reasons, and the more the two are seen and delved into, the easier and more obvious the comparisons between the two are to find. The Lost World truly represents the stereotype around the British culture while King Kong does the same for the American culture.

When first examining how the two films represent their respective countries we can first take a look at one of the most important aspects of any given film: motive. Why do the characters do what they do? Why do these two groups of people go out searching for these lost worlds or skull islands? In The Lost World, the enigmatic Professor Challenger puts together a team to go out and search for his missing friend who was lost in the Amazon, leaving behind only a notebook full of sketches of dinosaurs (that are really good by the way). In King Kong however, the scrupulous Carl Denham is making a documentary with the hopes of revitalizing his career and making a ton of money in the process. So in other words, the British film’s motive for its characters is nobility while the Americans’ is greed. That sounds pretty accurate considering how much of our American society (and by much I mean all) is based off of making a profit. If it’s not profitable, chances are it won’t be done. Carl Denham wouldn’t have gone off and put himself in the middle of a dinosaur-infested island if it was for charity.

In The Lost World, the adventurers cross a fallen tree to arrive on the plateau of dinosaurs, only to have the tree fall off a cliff, trapping them in the jungle with the beasts. They subsequently spend the rest of the film searching for a way off, worried only about self-preservation and getting home in one piece. The Americans in King Kong, however, aren’t stranded. They have a boat and can go back any time they wish, but instead, when the pretty girl is taken by the giant monkey (who, annoyingly, goes from 25 feet tall to 100 feet tall then down to 10 feet tall within a few minutes), all of a sudden it’s up to the manly Americans to save her. Thus we have the first “damsel in distress” scenario ever to appear in cinema (that may not be true but I’m going with it), where the hot blonde must be saved by the stoic hero with bleached teeth and just the right amount of stubble. Once again, there is the obvious representation of the stereotypes for the given countries. The British are trapped and are only worried about escape while the Americans—bold and manly as we are—rush in to save the pretty girl.

There’s a point in the end of both films where the two main beasts of the films are brought back to the mainland. In The Lost World, a Brontosaurus is brought back to London, while in King Kong, the giant monkey is brought back to New York (though I’ve never understood why…I think bringing back a dinosaur would’ve been more impressive, but whatever). Consequently, both escape from their respective shackles and stomp about their respective cities. The climax to both films is different, though. In The Lost World, the Brontosaurus falls into the River Thames and swims away, probably back to the Amazon (though more realistically to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean unless it’s somehow also a Michaelphelpsosaurus). It’s a peaceful, serene scene that delivers the message of nature returning to nature. King Kong, however, goes a different route, and makes an attempt at coercing us into feeling for Kong as he falls to his death from atop the Empire State Building while also establishing that our pretty girl in the film, Ann, is in love with him. Once again, we have a Michael Bay moment. Kong has spent much of the movie stomping and killing and eating innocent people and now we’re expected to feel bad for him? The Lost World, while not a very bold ending, it at least attempts to make a statement about nature while King Kong wants us to glorify and sympathize with and like what is basically a bad guy (yeah, you again, Akon). It’s stubborn in a way, but it’s also the first film whose main protagonist is a badass, and what’s more badass than walking around stomping and killing and eating people (besides maybe raising pit bulls)? And of course, while Kong lay dead on the pavement, Carl Denham resorts to the manliest of manly excuses that so epitomize King Kong: “It was beauty that killed the beast.” That’s right, people, according to the 1920s male-dominated American world it was women who caused the problem. Red-blooded American all the way through. This would lay the groundwork for American movies celebrating the badass like Hans Solo and Mad Max while The Lost World would do the same for respectful endings that seem to celebrate nature and returning to normality.

Watching the two films paints a portrait of the stereotypes for their respective countries, and I could spend pages upon pages describing every nuance, but at the end of the day, just the tone of the films is enough to make the division obvious. The Lost World is a slower, more elegant film with less destruction and a tighter story with a more poetic ending. King Kong is a big, explosive, Americanized version that sacrifices story for special effects and violence. Yet ask any kindergartener and Kong will be the more recognizable figure in film history and that’s because, just like is true in all of life, the biggest jerk wins. And King Kong is a jerk. It’s a pushy film that uses its aggression and brute strength to engrave itself in your mind while The Lost World is more subtle, more soft spoken, and consequently further into the background.

At this point it probably sounds like I have taken a very negative approach to America but let me assure you that I haven’t. The Lost World and King Kong are both great films, but for different reasons. Our aggression, our enthusiasm, our badassness is what makes America and King Kong awesome while The Lost World’s chivalry and soft, poetic nature makes it timeless. In the end, though, The Lost World is the original dinosaur maverick, while King Kong, in the good old American way, is our metaphorical middle finger to Great Britain.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful comparison, but I would not consider Kong the "bad guy" after he was kidnapped from his island, then angered by the photographers and prodded into lashing out. He always struck me, and I think most people, more as a tragic character who over-reacted to the wrong done to him (although how could he really know how to act?) than an intentionally evil villian.

Maybe that makes Kong the perfect American: Too big to control himself, wants to do the right thing (for himself and the girl, at least) and has no clue how to do it, but he's sure gonna try.

Sympathy for Kong is a lot different than cheering on Freddy Kruger because he has better lines than his victims. (Uh-oh, I'm starting to think about how "King Kong" stacks up next to "Carrie.")

Anonymous said...

First of all, I would like to thank Brent for giving me a respite from the 30 or so Juno/Knocked-up Comparative analysis papers I had to read through (my own fault for suggesting it).


I'm curious what you thought of Peter Jackson's Kong... I already know you just 'skip ahead to the dinosaurs' but it dids seem that Jackson tried to give more emotional depth to the story... depth that he always saw in the story... Kong is definitely a more sympathetic character.

I always thought it was great in the Jackson version how Naomi Watts won Kong over with her personality (the little scene where she makes him laugh) and, in the end, the 'beauty' that kills the beast isn't the girl but the sunrise from atop the empire state building. In a way, it's kind of a happy marriage between the endings of the original and the Lost World.

James said...

I haven't seen the original for comparison, but I didn't sympathize with Jackson's Kong at all. The only characters I liked in the entire movie were Billy Elliot and the Noble Savage.

That's interesting about the monster boom coinciding with the Depression - Joe "Steampunk" Kelly's new series Four Eyes is about an alternate 1930s USA where dragons exist, and are used in underground fighting rings.

finsof72 said...

The biggest problem I think with Jackson's Kong is not so much the love between Darrow and Kong in that he tries to squeeze in a love between Darrow and Driscoll which is never entirely sold. In fact at the end where Driscoll, bird-nose and all, arrives at the top of the Empire State Building to meet Anne is almost entirely lifeless and devoid of any real emotional impact. Honestly, I think Jackson's Kong does a better job of making me sympathize with him due mostly to his appearance and advances in special effects which made him more human-like. There is a scene near the end which shows Kong sliding across a lake of ice, having fun, that seems very unneccessary and only works to pad on, or try to pad on, any emotional depth.

I think if Jackson really, really wanted to make us feel for Kong, he wouldn't have had him kill anybody, because every time I tried to feel any empathy, the big monkey turns around and either bites someone's head off or throws my favorite character (I can't think of his name but my mom refers to him as "the hot black guy") against a cliff and kills him. It's those sort of things that totally kill any feeling I might've had for him. Even my pet Savannah Monitor would never hurt anyone, and he's a lot further removed from human-like status than Kong.

Asked to choose, I'd probably take the Jackson Kong over Cooper's Kong simply because it is indeed far superior in enterainment value, while the orignal may be a grandiose piece of filmmaking nostalgia, it's really not all that great. I grew up with it, and as a little kid I'd stare in wonderment at the stop-motion dinosaurs on screen but now I prefer the digitized versions. Especially the 3 Rexes v. Kong fight. It's awesome.

Cory Gross said...

Interesting essay!

I don't want to throw your thesis entirely for a loop, though, in saying that while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel The Lost World was indeed British, its 1925 silent film adaptation was an American film. It was produced by First National Pictures, filmed in Hollywood, and its effects team went on to bring King Kong to life.

My own site, Silent Movie Monsters: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, has more info about that.

finsof72 said...

Yeah that pretty much ruins it. Is my grade still intact, scott91777?

Anonymous said...

I shall have to fail you now... just kidding. Actually, while you may have gotten your facts wrong, your underlying point of spectacle triumphing over subtlety remains a valid one. (i.e. the 'prestige picture' vs the blockbuster).

Anonymous said...

Oh, and we correct each other on gaffs here all the time... it's what geeks do :) There's always someone who knows more about your topic than you.

Christian O. said...

How's the racism depicted in both films?

Cory Gross said...

Well, King Kong has the advantage of ethnic minority characters being played by people of that minority. Unfortunately the same can't be said for The Lost World. Of course, stereotypes remain, whether the accent spoken by the Chineese cook or written for the African(-American?) porter.

Anyways, I'm glad I'm not costing anyone grades! I'd hate to be that jerk! There's still a lot of fruitful discussion to be had out of it.

I did enjoy the "shadow-side" reading of Kong... The dark underbelly of what is an otherwise delightfully bombastic 1930's adventure film. I also enjoyed how you picked up on something a friend of mine notes whenever it comes up in conversation: "Oh sure, MEN went to the island, MEN captured it, MEN made it go haywire and MEN shot it down, but it was a WOMAN that killed it. $%#@& that!"

You might have gone a little easy on The Lost World's motivation though. Both films develop it out of the primary (sterotypical) cultural institution of the day. For King Kong it is the Hollywood film producer. For The Lost World it is the pith-helmeted British explorer, a functionary of the Empire. But The Lost World's subplot of the rescue of Paula White's father was a very American addition: the love interest.

Some of what you discuss might also be a technical necessity. In 1925, Willis O'Brien didn't have the technology to make the dinosaurs and the humans interact like they do in the novel. The film was forced into a more subtle ecological revelry. O'Bie figured it out by 1933 and thus the subtlety gives way to terrorizing monsters.

Anyways, sorry to be rambling on. Thanks again for probably the most interesting analysis of the film in years.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of when I discussed Jaws in class... the fact that the mechanical shark failed caused Spielberg to shoot around it... resulting in a great sense of buildup and supspense for the 'shark moment'.

finsof72 said...

While up all night getting slaughtered in Gears of War 2, Thursday, I was told by one of my friends, who did most of the slaughtering, that Stephen Colbert did a take on King Kong a few years ago, comparing King Kong to George W. Bush and Darrow to America...Bush trying to save America while along the way destroying everything else...or something like that. Like I said it was a friends of mine who actually didn't care enough about life to stand in line for 5 hours for a video game so I don't know how valid his words are and I'm waaaayyy too lazy to research it.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I think I remember Colbert doing that actually... Great Minds think alike!

sexy said...
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