Last week Noah and I watched Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong together. What a great time! I know, I know – it’s the 3rd remake of the original. And yes, it’s about a big ape of all things. Or is it?
Like Titanic, I don’t have to worry about giving away the ending for you. As the crowds mill about the hulking corpse of Kong lying dead on the street at the foot of the Empire State building, a passerby comments, “They got ‘im.” Meaning, the planes did. And then Carl the moviemaker whispers, “No, it was beauty, killed the beast.” Earlier in the film, Carl had quoted an Arabian proverb, saying, “Lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty, and beauty stayed his hand. And from that day forward, he was as one dead.”
But King Kong isn’t even about beauty, though this latest attempt certainly explores the concept, lapping at the edges somewhat unconvincingly. I challenge you to watch this movie again, but with a particular lens in place – as you watch, ask yourself: What is a real man? And if you’re male, ask, What is it that a woman truly needs from me? Then sit back with your popcorn and prepare to be moved. Even my ten year old was shaken by it. Sometimes the most powerful message in a piece of art is the one we didn’t realize was there, as it takes on a life in itself, overshadows all the somewhat clumsy or eloquent things we tried to say on purpose. This is one of those times, one of those movies.
Ann Darrow is the beauty Kong falls for, but this particular version of the film does something none of the earlier versions even hint at: It has Ann falling in love with the great ape, totally smitten to the point where she would risk her life trying to save him, trying the save the love he represents. As I watched, I looked into her eyes, captivated by what I saw: An ache, a longing, an awakening.
The world has let her down, left her to sink into the beige obscurity of the great depression. She is a stage actor dreaming of being noticed, of finding her big break. But her theatre company goes broke, leaving her on the streets. “You’re not bad looking,” a slimy businessman advises her. “Use that.” He steers her toward a “skin” gig, and she can’t bring herself to do it, praise God. But still, the cry of her heart – “Why does no one notice me?”
She thinks she’s been noticed by Carl, the film producer, who puts her in harm’s way on mysterious skull island because he is seeing her through what she can do for him – his ambition for his own greatness.
And then she thinks she’s been noticed by Jack,the writer on the voyage, who falls in love with her but is too afraid to tell her so. True, he attempts a daring rescue on the island, helping her escape the clutches of Kong atop his mountain lair – but once back in New York, he lets his love go. He lets his inability to stand up and be a man get in the way of his love, and it evaporates. As it turns out, Jack does have a man there within him, but he needs the untamed passion of Kong to draw it out of him.
Kong, you see, is the only ‘man’ in Ann’s life who sees her, really sees her for who she is. Early on Ann thinks she has to perform for the ape, just like she has for every other man – and it works for a few minutes, until he is bored of the show. “That’s it, that’s all there is,” she retorts, out of breath. Kong lets her escape. But there is more, much more.
A bevy of T-Rexes closes in on Ann and Kong swings in to the rescue, taking savage wounds and bites from her enemies to save her from their jaws. As she watches his raw protection of her, Ann is awakened to Kong’s heart (for her!) and comes along with him willingly to his lair. She looks deep into his eyes and the look of wonder on her face is stunning: She realizes, “He sees me. He treasures me. He will fight for me.” Look at her as you watch: This is how a woman wants to be seen! The unlikely pair spends a glorious sunset in each other’s arms, simply being together. She falls asleep next to his muscled breast. Of course, this is not romance in the sexual sense – but it introduces all the other stuff that makes real romance what it is.
And then, when Jack “rescues her” from the savage Kong, does Kong let go of her, shrug his shoulders? No! He charges through the jungle on a mission to get his beauty back. He cannot live without her. Even in chains in New York later on, this is what has broken his spirit: He misses Ann.
And she misses him. Back in New York we find Ann on a chorus line, a cookie cutter girl playing a role anyone could play. She is dying inside until she is reunited with Kong, who takes her to the top of the world again. Literally. When the ape looks at her, she begins to believe again, begins to see herself through his eyes.
And the man in Jack must battle both his own spinelessness and the wildness and passion in the ape to finally see Ann for who she is – someone worth fighting for, the beauty he so deeply craves. Even as the mighty Kong slips off of the top of the building to fall to his death, Jack steps in, takes the beast’s place holding Ann in his arms. He is becoming a man, true – his own fierceness is emerging – but we still wonder in the closing moments whether Jack will prove as loyal and life-giving as his primate competition. We find ourselves hoping Jack will find it in his heart to do the same, because Ann has now tasted the real thing and will probably not settle for less. Kong saved her, not from the planes, but from the lie that she was beginning to believe about herself, doubting her god-given beauty and what she had to offer the world.
This movie is about seeing the true essence and beauty of a woman and being willing to fight for it. It’s a rare gift when a movie speaks this clearly.