There was a scene cut from the original, 1933 King Kong in which the mighty gorilla gently probes an unconscious Fay Wray with his finger and sniffs it. The censors didn't approve, my dad explained to me when I was around 8, as we meandered past the pongids at New York's American Museum of Natural History. And do you know why?, he continued rhetorically. Because it was indecent. Bestiality! Pornography of the worst kind. I was quiet, too young to grasp the prurience. That finger, he continued without noticing, was foreplay. There was silence, indicating my confusion. Sex smells, he said. Someday you'll find that out yourself.
Such was my indelicate initiation into the birds and bees. It was an odd infusion of information that did clarify, among other things, the explicit sexuality of John Guillermin's 1976 remake, with its languorous embellishment of that infamous missing scene into a soft-core sequence culminating in Jessica Lange bathing sensually in a waterfall while seated in Kong's black leathery hand. Kong fell in love with Dwan, Lange's astrologically attuned, spaced-out 1970s starlet. And Dwan, of course, loved Kong in return. As did Ann Darrow in Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's original. And audiences through the years, including Pauline Kael, who intended a deep compliment when she wrote that the 1976 version was "a joke that can make you cry" and called the story a "great romance."
It's a deeply rooted romance, us and the Great Apes. Long before gorillas were known outside their jungle homes, man-beast myths permeated every culture and peopled continent. As far back as Gilgamesh, the Sumerians recounted the story of Enkidu, a wild, hairy outsider who is eventually civilized. Thus were man and man-beast joined in the earliest practice of literature.
Or perhaps before, as the fossil record shows. In 1935, two years after Cooper and Schoedsack's Kong stunned moviegoers with its 40-foot gorilla, Dutch paleontologist G.H. von Koenigswald wandered into a Hong Kong pharmacy and pulled a fossilized molar from the pile of "dragon bones" on sale. The tooth was the first evidence of an actual beast: Gigantopithecus blacki, a prehistoric ape that stood 12 feet tall and weighed more than half a ton. Giganto, as the extinct species is affectionately called by admirers, was the largest primate that ever lived. And there's new evidence, unearthed only last month by geochronologists, confirming what many anthropologists had long suspected: The creature lived alongside modern Homo sapiensand our erectusancestors for a million or more years. It's the cultural memory of Giganto, the theory goes, passed down through oral tradition, that carved out a central role in our mythology for a giant ape.
This fundamental affinity may be why Kong's bold ascent of the Empire State Building—symbolically snatching the literal peak of human progress—became one of the most enduring cinematic images of all time. And why the original film broke all box-office records and spawned dozens of sequels, copycats and remakes. As for the love story, Cooper and Schoedsack billed their film as "the strangest story ever conceived by man," but travelers' tales and local lore had long portrayed the gorilla's ferocity and proclivities for our women. The actuality of the man-beast, after all, was still a novelty: It was only in 1855 that a live gorilla was first seen by Western eyes, and no specimen arrived in the United States until 1902. Wild stories circulated about sex rites in Gabon, and orangutans raping tribeswomen in their Borneo villages. In a classic case of psychological projection, the gorilla became a repository for a Victorian imagery of horror: monstrous, savage, wildly sexual—unhuman, according to the charitable view of ourselves at the time. It took another six decades before American zoologist George Schaller's labors in the African rainforest, followed by Dian Fossey's long-term intimate cohabitation with the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, showed gorillas to be gentle giants spending their mild-mannered days mostly eating foliage or napping.
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Cooper and Schoedsack's vicious Kong certainly did not nap. But their clever humanization of the gorilla did anticipate seven decades of research that reveal a much more nuanced animal than was known at the time. Gorillas have their own language, and we've watched Koko learn ours for years. As a female named Leah in northern Congo demonstrated on film this year, gorillas use tools in the wild. Their ability to tell lies and play mental games (in both senses of the term) with researchers demonstrates the self-awareness once used to draw the cognitive division between us and the animal kingdom. For these reasons, there is a movement to reappraise that division and join the classifications of great apes and humans. The genus pan, under which chimpanzees reside, has already been moved to the hominidae family, right next to us homos. Gorillas might be next, and some biologists even argue that it's we who should be joining the great ape family rather than the other way around. Either way, it's now clear that we're all much closer cousins than the Victorians could have imagined.
Perhaps even kissing cousins. Cooper and Schoedsack weren't entirely off their rockers when they cast Kong and Fay Wray in a "great romance." Humans share enough DNA and chromosomal similarity with both gorillas and chimpanzees—we're 99 percent genotypically congruent with chimps—that offspring might be possible, were biologists unscrupulous enough to try it. There's always suspicion they may have already; for some reason, Japan often gets fingered as the place that has secretly developed primate crossbreeds. And then there was the case of Oliver, a circus chimpanzee who seemed so human—he lived with a family in South Africa, where he liked to feed the dogs and sip whiskey while watching TV—that he was tested for human parentage. He came up negative, but in the end Oliver had to be sold because he developed an overpowering sexual interest in his female owner and woman visitors.
On the Island of Dr. Moreau, such monkey love is a perversion, a human foible and horror. On Skull Island, it is, of course, the source of redemption. And the great achievement of Peter Jackson's technical modernization of the original adventure story is that he finally presents a Kong who shows genuine emotion. Whereas the 1976 version was perhaps the most overtly sympathetic to the beast—Jack Driscoll having been replaced by Jeff Bridges' hippie primatologist who champions Kong's right to live unmolested—Jackson's Kong is so expressive that he elicits the most sympathy of any beast in cinema history. Born of incredible special effects and a vibrant visual imagination, Jackson's Kong is the most convincing character in the film.
Both a ruthless fighter and a gentle giant, this Kong battles a herd of tyrannosaurus rexes to protect Naomi Watts' radiant Ann Darrow—and then does curl up for a nap with Darrow nestled up in his hand. Half Kong, half Koko, Jackson's gorilla attacks only in self-defense and clearly prefers to quietly enjoy the sunset and sunrise with his new lady love—and sign to her about its beauty. It is just as tragic, then, as the true fate of Fossey's mountain gorillas, when Kong must be inevitably sacrificed to the human impulse for civilization. A century and a half after materializing out of myth into reality, the gorilla still serves as a mirror, now reflecting more human shortcomings than superiority. As science unites us in phylogeny, and some thinkers like Peter Singer even suggest that great apes should have human rights, I wonder whether gorillas and chimps would be flattered or insulted by reclassification. If you asked Koko or Jackson's Kong, they'd probably want to stay right where they are.