I’ve recently watched Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong. It’s the fourth or fifth time I’ve seen the film. One might call it a guilty pleasure but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s more than that. I think there’s something about this morality tale that makes it a story for our times.
At first glance it’s a straightforward beauty and the beast fable. Naomi Watts as aspiring actress Ann Darrow is offered to Kong as a human sacrifice but softens his heart with her beauty and charm. Film maker and impresario Carl Denham, played by Jack Black, cynically uses Kong’s attraction to Darrow to lure him into captivity. “We’re millionaires boys. I’ll share it with all of you,” he says as Kong succumbs to a massive dose of chloroform.
Then it’s off to New York where Kong is put on display for the well-heeled. The plot is so well known that it’s hardly a spoiler to tell you that he escapes, climbs up the Empire State building with Ann Darrow in one hand and is eventually killed by machine gun fire from a squadron of biplanes.
When Carl Denham stood beside Kong’s corpse and delivered the punch line –”It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast” – I found myself raging at the screen: “No it wasn’t, you fool. It was your greed and stupidity.”
In that moment, it seemed to me that Kong represented the whole of the natural world and Carl Denham represented our – humankind’s – unthinking and self-aggrandizing exploitation of nature. The world is ours to plunder for profit say the money-makers in the film; ours to destroy if we cannot keep it under control. But by saying one thing, the film ironically invites us to consider its opposite:
It’s beastliness that kills the beauty.
That’s the moral of this tale.