The Nightmare Vision: King Kong as Captivity Narrative

Culture Watch

Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

This holiday season the dreams and nightmares of Western culture are apparently battling for dominance at the Hollywood box office. The Disney studio’s film adaptation of the C. S. Lewis classic Chronicles of Narnia, with its Christian message of redemption, is being challenged for financial supremacy by director Peter Jackson’s King Kong, which continues to draw upon the dominant culture’s fear of the “other,” dating back to the captivity narratives of colonial America. Kong’s current status as number one at the box office suggests that cultural fear of the primitive “other” may outweigh the redemptive powers of a muscular Christianity.

Jackson’s King Kong, unlike the 1973 remake and various low budget cinematic reincarnations of the giant ape, is an attempt to do a faithful adaptation of the 1933 classic film; albeit with the flash of computer technology and contemporary special effects. Like his lavish Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson’s King Kong is an entertaining film, but what is perhaps most interesting about the continuing cultural fascination with the giant ape from Skull Island is how the legend of King Kong plays upon the racial insecurities of white Americans.

Kong represents both the brutality and nobility of the savage, while blond Ann Darrow (with Naomi Watts reprising the role played by Fay Wray in the original) as Kong’s captive symbolizes both the purity and vulnerability of white civilization. The mythology of King Kong draws much of its power from the contrast between Kong’s blackness and Darrow’s whiteness. Darrow is both repelled and attracted to the primitive Kong. The sexual ambiguity is titillating, but in the final analysis whiteness and civilization must be rescued by an appropriate white savior (in Kong this role is played by Adrian Brody as the writer Jack Driscoll) to remove the threat of miscegenation posed by Kong. It is no wonder that the 1933 version of Kong was reportedly Adolph Hitler’s favorite film and played into his racial theories outlined in Mein Kampf. The cultural appeal of Kong to Americans, however, probably resonates best with the history of race relations between white settlers and Native Americans as well as black and white Americans dating back to the brutal institution of slavery. These images of conflict are, of course, also apparent for the threat to white culture posed by the Asian and Latino “other.”

American colonials were enthralled with tales of white women torn from their communities by Indian raids. Perhaps the best known of these early accounts is that of Mary White Rowlandson, the wife of a Congregational minister. She was eventually ransomed and returned to her husband, while the narrative of her captivity became a best-seller in colonial America. In Regeneration Through Violence, historian Richard Slotkin asserts that in the captivity narrative “a single individual, usually a woman, stands passively under the strokes of evil, awaiting rescue by the grace of God. The sufferer represents the whole, chastened body of Puritan society, and the temporary bondage of the captive to the Indian is dual paradigm—of the bondage of the soul to the flesh and the temptations arising from original sin. . . .” Perhaps Narnia and Kong are not really so separate in Western mythology.

The popular captivity narratives soon found their way into American literature with James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. In the twentieth century, numerous Hollywood films employed the frontier experience to exploit the nation’s racial and cultural fears. One of the most classic examples of this genre is director John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) starring John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, searching for his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood), who was captured by the Comanche. Since she became the wife of Comanche chief Scar, Edwards plans to kill her and eradicate the sin of miscegenation. Instead, Edwards kills Scar and restores Debbie to white civilization.

By making Native Americans a product of the nineteenth-century frontier and generally ignoring them in contemporary American culture, filmmakers have reduced white racial anxiety regarding the Indian “other.” The racial implications of white and black, however, remain at the core of American society. Sexual exploitation of black women by white men was an integral part of the slave experience, but with the institution of slavery available to control the black population, fears of liaisons between black men and white women did not dominate white concerns. With the end of slavery and increasing efforts by black men to exercise the suffrage, whites became threatened by images of black empowerment. Culturally, these fears of black political power were often manifested in assertions that black men were preying upon white women, the symbol of white civilization and privilege. Accusations by white women of rape by black men were the excuse given for numerous lynchings and race riots, ranging from the violence against the black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma during the 1920s to the murder of Emmett Till in the 1950s. The racial divisions over the O. J. Simpson murder trial in the 1990s must be viewed within this context.

Early twentieth-century culture reflected these racial anxieties regarding miscegenation with Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman and its film adaptation by D. W. Griffith in The Birth of a Nation. In Griffith’s classic film, black men prey upon pure, white womanhood. In the image of blacks binding the blond Elise Stoneman (Lillian Gish) and the black brute Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) attempting to carry her off under his arm, we have King Kong and the blond Ann Darrow. In the case of Elise Stoneman, rescue comes through the formation of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who save white womanhood, civilization, and political power. Although not as crude as The Birth of a Nation, the film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1939) perpetuates similar themes when poor Southern whites and freedmen attempt to rape Scarlet O’Hara, symbolizing the rape of Southern civilization during Reconstruction. And efforts at integration during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement were met with the refrain that racial mixing would lead to miscegenation or as it was more crudely expressed by some Southern whites, “How would you like one to marry your sister.”

It is within this cultural context of racial relations and captivity narratives that we must place the powerful mythology of King Kong. Jackson attempts to offset the racial implications of the story by introducing a heroic black sailor Hayes (Evan Park), who is paternalistic in his caring for the young white Jeremy (Jaimie Bell) rather than sexually aggressive toward Darrow. Nevertheless, the natives of Skull Island, which is supposedly located near Sumatra, still tend to resemble the stereotypical Africans of an old Tarzan film, and they seem to enjoy placing the helpless young blond woman in bondage. Peter Jackson’s film is an entertaining high-tech action picture, but it is well worth remembering the powerful and dangerous cultural myths which have clouded our history and are embodied in the legend of King Kong.

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Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

Or explain Wal Mart's like classification listing of Planet Of The Apes with Martin Luther Kings biography...

Vernon Clayson - 2/9/2006

I've changed my mind, King Kong, the movie, is racist. If sheepherders can be called cowboys for the purposes of extolling a movie about homosexuals, a giant plastic ape can be considered a black man. If a live ugly little man can play the part of an ugly little dead man, yes, King Kong can be labelled racist. All is possible in this great country, we celebrate depravity beyond what even the ancient Greeks practiced.

Vernon Clayson - 1/8/2006

Ms. Kazmier, Spongebob as a point? Nobody thought anything about that until that old fool Robertson decided there was a sexual connotation in a cartoon character. Going back a couple of generations, why didn't these people seeing something sexual in every entertainment medium see evil in the Lone Ranger and Tonto, two men with all that time alone together, to say nothing of Red Rider and Little Beaver, a grown man and a child spending all that time together - can you imagine the hysteria engenered with the name Little Beaver in that context? Batman and Robin? Robinson Crusoe and Friday?
Ye Gads, the art world is lost in sexual decadance and in Friday's case, additionally politically incorrect.

Richard F. Miller - 1/7/2006

Ms Kazmier:

Because idiocy is a human, not a partisan condition. Black helicopters, Jews evacuating from the Twin Towers before they were struck, Bush = Hitler, Sharon stroking out because he withdrew from Gaza, Teletubbies concealing a "gay agenda," should I go on? Henry Adams famously observed that "politics is the organization of hatreds." Quite. And worse--in Adams's day, political parties hyperbolized only for votes, not money. Today, each delivery of the mail brings forth a variety of pitches, all aspiring to get me to "feel better" by contributing (check one): $20, $50, $100 or $1,000--for which I'll be blessed as a member of the "Patron's Circle" or some other balderdash.

Politicize if you will, but for every idiotarian you'll show me on one side, I'll meet your bet and raise you two from the other.

Lisa Kazmier - 1/7/2006

Then why were so many religious conservatives upset about SpongeBob and the Teletubbies?

Vernon Clayson - 1/6/2006

Come on, Mr. Chamberlain, you are trying too hard to make a case for the author's conjecture. He wasn't serious, he wanted to see how many would agree with his vacuous hypothesis, and calling it a hypothesis is giving him more credit than he deserves. You bit, he got you. The last movie I went to was The Good Fellas about 10 years ago and I concluded from it that all Italians are Mafia and murderous, "animalistic" with their girlfriends but very good family men. Long before that I recall many movies where white men played Indians who were bloodthirsty and murderous, and John Wayne said that these pretend Indians smelled like wet dogs. Charles Bronson played Indian parts, all craggy faced and muscular and who can forget Billy Jack, a half breed with martial arts skills. Oh, by the way, I've lived on a reservation and the movie version is all wrong, no wet dog smell or craggy faces, mostly regular people without martial art skills but great senses of humor.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/5/2006


A historian needs to understand how people thought at this point in time. Few people in American and Europe thought of themselves as simply animals. Most still believed that God had made humans different. Even Darwinians tended to see natural selection as having made a qualitative difference between the "lower order" of animals and humans.

Thus, in common parlance, even among the educated, calling someone "an animal" was insult. It suggested that the person was not fully human. Furthermore, racial theory in this time often placed Africans on a lower spot on the evolutionary ladder. That was because they were perceived not simply as less civilized but less capable of civilization because they were more animalistic.

And that is so on point!

Jay Hood - 1/5/2006

And, sometimes, a cigar is used by the powerful to screw the weak.

Vernon Clayson - 1/5/2006

Mr. Chamberlain is so not on point with his argument, had he stopped to think he might have recalled that we all are animals, albeit human animals in the primate species. I think the description of blacks as animals in a scientific manner is not inappropriate, Mr. Chamberlain is perhaps a white animal?? Most believe it's calling blacks monkeys, apes, etc., that constitutes the insult. King Kong is not an animal, it is a cartoon character, a representation of a gigantic primate.

Richard F. Miller - 1/5/2006

Still, as you pointed out, simian imagery has been used to characterize other groups, i.e., the perfectly white Huns of WWI fame. Moreover, ape-like imagery has also entered the vernacular along race-neutral lines, e.g. "hairy as an ape," or "stupid like an ape." My point is that once language and imagery assumes multiple meanings--applying here to whites, there to blacks, somewhere else to the hirsute or the stupid--it is divested of its singular meaning.

However, I do acknowledge the value of your statement that Cooper was Southern-born (and perhaps Southern raised)--it is potentially relevant to the analysis here, and a good starting point. It's the kind of factual analysis that is necessary to Briley's thesis although he seems unaware of its importance in substantiating his claims.

However, as more studied analyses often reveal about Briley's type of sweeping argument that attempts to support a single thesis with examples drawn from over three centuries (and many different milieus), the claims often fail on closer examination of the facts. (I'm putting aside here one obvious negligent citation from Gone with the Wind, already noted by a previous poster--Scarlet was attacked by thugs of several races but rescued by an African-American.)

For example, take his use of Mary White Rowlandson. Anyone even remotely familiar with 17th and early 18th century life on the Massachusetts' frontier knows that kidnapping--in both directions--was a very real threat--unlike King Kong, which is entirely fictional. (Incidentally, contradicting Briley's thesis, is that one of the most famous of these kidnapping accounts involved a man--Stephen Williams, "the Boy Captive of Deerfield.") Given the underlying historical reality of kidnapping and murder along the frontier (again, in both directions) how does fascination--anxiety about--these episodes become "racist?" Briley's type of analysis ignores the historical reality of his "evidence" and then seeks to re-read it based on his 2005 concerns. It's the flaw called presentism.

(By the way, given Briley's insistance of a link between racism and captivity stories, why isn't the public's fascination with today's most famous kidnap-murderers--serial killers--depicted along racial lines? Could it be that most serial killers are (statistically) in fact middle aged white men, and that public fascination--collective fear, really--is, as it was in 1700, focused on reality and not the gobbelins invented by those who delight in reading the record backwards? And if the literature of today's captivity narratives are not "racist"--then does Briley's thesis have any predictive value?

Steven R Alvarado - 1/5/2006

Next week Mr. Briley will explain the racist overtones found in "George of the Jungle".

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/5/2006

"But if you're going to argue that the construction was "racist"--a clear matter of ideology and prejudice, i.e., intent,--then show me where it is in the designer's intent."

Actually, no. A racist intent is not needed for a creation to evoke in the audience racist fears. Remember, the white society in this time period is quite racist by our standards. Black males are considered savage.

I don't know where he was raised, but Cooper was born in Florida. A southern white upbringing is even more likely to build the association between blackness, the black race , and savagery. I suspect that these associations were for most white Americans as reflexive as they were conscious.

Of course, apes had been used to portray the savagery of other groups. This WWI propoganda poster,, is one of the most famous.

Now the movie has, to my knowledge, no overt racism except for the portrayal of the black savages who worship Kong. I think that the savages may have acted as a label for Kong just as the Prussian hat on the linked posted labelled that ape as German.

I think one can argue that the creators were not being intentionally racist because of the sympathy shown Kong at the end, and that the "labelling" that I just mentioned was inadvertent. That strikes me as entirely possible.

However, audiences are not limited by the conscious intent of the creator. JRR Tolken makes that point in an entirely different context when he distiguishes between allegory (an attemmpt by the author to determine his creation's meaning) and applicability (the power of the audience to perceive themes regardless of the author's intent).

So, the movie's popularity at the time may have been, in part, because its black=savage imagery inevitably played upon the white/black racism in the audience.

Vernon Clayson - 1/4/2006

It's a movie, nothing more, compare it to the cartoons your children watch on Saturday morning. They are entertained and have no deep feelings about cartoon characters. Kong, or Tarzan, do nothing more meaningful than the cat tormenting the little bird. Get a grip.

Richard F. Miller - 1/4/2006

"Actually, the point of such analisis as the one in this article, is precisly to see how the narrative of the King Kong story was constructed upon the political and racial predjuices of its time, and how those ways to construct a narrative persist in the culture until our days."

"How the narrative was constructed...?" Think about your sentence here--'was constructed' implies the existence of a designer and builder. Easy enough to answer--the screenwriter and director. But if you're going to argue that the construction was "racist"--a clear matter of ideology and prejudice, i.e., intent,--then show me where it is in the designer's intent. If you're going to argue that somebody else, i.e., not the screenwriter and not the director, found the film racist, then your talking Rohrshach Blots and not evidence.

"There are other tools that are necesary for history, and among them, there is literary analisis."

Mr. Mendez, we agree here. But (as I think you're arguing) historical evidence is based on the totality of evidence, then (especially when arguing matters of intent) a "literary analysis" alone is insufficient--especially when other evidence *may* exist. I don't know whether the screenwriters or directors left papers for example, but I certainly wouldn't sign a paper purporting to be historical analysis unless I knew a lot more about the evidence supporting (and contradicting) my thesis. Granted, this may be too much to ask of Mr. Briley for the purposes of Op Eds, but it illustrates an important point--not everything that folks believe can or should entered into the public record. Again, this is the *History* News Network--and I for one would gladly be damned before writing an Op Ed that contained a theses either beyond my personal experience or academic expertise.

Sergio Alejandro M?ndez - 1/4/2006

Mr Miller:

I think there are things we got to set straight here:

1- There is a difference between saying the intention of the movie director was racist and saying that the narrative contains racist elements (I wish I could use italics here, but I don´t know how). As far I can see, the author of this post is discusing the elements used in the narrative of the movie, not if the movie director intended it to be a racist apology (and I do not think that was the case with the original or the Peter Jackson adaptation).

2. I am not sure how you can accuse the author of this entry of "presentism". Actually, the point of such analisis as the one in this article, is precisly to see how the narrative of the King Kong story was constructed upon the political and racial predjuices of its time, and how those ways to construct a narrative persist in the culture until our days. It may be the case the analisis is wrong, but I wouldn´t accuse it of "presentism".

3- History requires factual support, there is no question about that. But the discipline requires more than factual support. There are other tools that are necesary for history, and among them, there is literary analisis. The way a story (written or filmed) is constructed, tell us as much about the time it was created as the the biography of the storyteller.

Richard F. Miller - 1/4/2006

Mr. Mendez, I must apologize for being overly constrained by faraway standards such as "evidence." Evidence does not consist of blatant presentism, ie., reading the record backwards. Nor does it consist of slipshod transferrances, e.g. A = B, B = C, therefore, A = Q. (I'm referring here to Briley's risible claim that because Hitler reportedly enjoyed King Kong, King Kong must therefore be "racist." Given that his 1923 Putsch began in a Munich beer hall, Hitler might have enjoyed lager, too, although I'm not yet prepared to concede that all beer drinkers are Nazis.)

No, here is what evidence is all about:

1. That directors Merian C. Cooper or Ernest B. Schoedsack (of the 1933 production) harbored racist sentiments and/or that these sentiments figured into the film.

2. That story writers Cooper or Edgar Wallace harbored racist sentiments or that these sentiments figured into the film.

Mr. Mendez, I recognize that holding those like Mr. Briley to these standards would unemploy vast numbers of fatuous academics devoted to "Death of the Author" theories and other such narcissistic claptrap. But bear in mind that this is a *History* News Network--if Briley intends to make a sweeping argument about the history of cinema, spanning almost a century (and be taken seriously), he must first prove his points with external evidence that is material to his assertions--always tough to do when asserting matters of intent, e.g., racism, and tougher to do when attempting to connect such intent with evidence of a metaphorical nature. Instead, in the grand postmodern tradition, Briley treats the whole as one gigantic Rorschach Blot in which every swirl, stain or blank on the blot becomes evidence of "racism."

Of course, to render a genuine history would mean that Briley would have to perform some tedious work, such as accessing the papers of the aforementioned writers/directors (if such papers exist); consulting the production of notes of the original movie (ditto); reading microfilms of newspapers from long-ago reviews and interviews; consulting the papers of others who were closely associated with the production or the acting and perhaps delving into the principals' correspondence with studios and others.

Not easy, eh?

Sergio Alejandro M?ndez - 1/4/2006

Mr Miller:

My point was simply that it was not the Klan that held the monopoly on outrageous racist theories. Anyways, I am not still convinced by your claim that King Kong does not contain racist elements on its narrative. As much postmodern it sounds to you, there was clearly a thinking extended in most of the west that pretended that anything related to things like "jungle" and "wilderness" were "primitive" and "inferior"; that included blacks or non white natives who lived in such places. Those elements appear on the King Kong narrative. And as much as you despise that as "postmodern" inuendo, it doesn´t change the veracity of such claims. So no, I do not think that King Kong is simply an innocent movie about an ape in love with a white-blonde western girl. At least not the original movie, considering the context in which it was produced.

Richard F. Miller - 1/3/2006

No, but you do have to be a medium conducting a seance to believe that these same Stoddard-type figures would show up in a movie released in 2005.

Racism is rarely subtle. Why settle for a dumbbell story about an ape and a girl? The year the first King Kong was released, Hitler was appointed Chancellor on his rather explicit program. The same decade, blacks were being lynched regularly across the American South. The ideological racists you mention, e.g. Stoddard, Jackson, etc., never hid behind metaphors--or their historical retellings, like Griffith's Birth of a Nation was as explicit as they came.

Racism's preferred vehicle is never anything that requires much "deconstruction." The cartoon page from Der Sturmer is more like it.

Sorry. Mr. haven't convinced me that it's anything more than a yarn about an ape and a girl--unless you're arguing something about gratuitous self-disclosure by Mr. Briley.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/3/2006

Bill, Vernon

I suspect that, for a few generations after the rape at least, the Sabines might have viewd a travelling road show production of the Trojan Women as highly symbolic of more local events.

OK, that's a bit flip. But the distance we are from events does matter. The rape of the Sabine Women is ancient history, to us. The reduction of blacks in the imagination to animals is within living memory.

Sergio Alejandro M?ndez - 1/3/2006

". Of course, the "trope" of confusing simians with black people is something that only the pathological ignoramuses of the Ku Klux Klan would do--"

Hmm...have you actually studied the XIX and great part of the XX century? Racists theories were not precisly the belief of just some nuts in the Klan...they were the ordinary ideological drivel in many respected political circles in the main european nations, and yes, also in the US. And you don´t have to be a "postmoderm" to believe so.

Sergio Alejandro M?ndez - 1/3/2006

Mr Cameron

I couldn´t have said it better.

Bill Heuisler - 1/2/2006

Exactly, Mr. Clayson,
This so-called "context of racial relations" is just another attempt to exploit guilt. Briley's obsession with race runs counter to old issues many - white and black - would like to just forget about.

Hasn't Mr. Briley ever heard of the Sabine women or Helen of Troy?
Bill Heuisler

Vernon Clayson - 1/2/2006

It's merely a movie about a giant pretend gorilla and makes no statement about anything, no more and no less meaningful than the cartoons children watch on television. It's purely and simply a money maker for the producers and actors. Did the first movie, in the early 1930s, draw comparisons to the culture of those years, did it just scare the audience or were they titilated, as the author suggests, by the possibility a pretend gorilla and blonde beauty might become a romantic couple? Why does every stupid movie need a message or a meaning?

Kristine Boeke - 1/2/2006

Even if Jackson was showing a "human" side of Kong, he certainly made the "savages," who were clearly black in the Broadway show, to appear as subhuman. Their eyeballs were always even rolled into the back of their heads!

As for Kong as portrayed in the 1930s film, and Hitler's fondness for the film: The public had long identified gorillas with black men. Even in the Rodney King case in 1992, the police on the scene referred to him often as a gorilla.

Lisa Kazmier - 1/2/2006

Good point but if that's in the original, it was apparently too subtle for Hitler, reduced to some form of trickery to dilute the 'master race.'

Philip B. Plowe - 1/2/2006

In the story of King Kong there is a significant difference that separates it from other "miscegenation fear" and white supremecist mass culture.

Kong doesn't simply grab Ann Darrow and march off with the intention of ravishing her. He protects her from the dangers that fate has cast upon her.

The film also demontrates the mistake white men made in capturing Kong and bringing him to America. If this is symbolic of the slave trade, then it signifies how flawed and unjust such an act is.

Tarzan killed black men because they were without morals and uncivilized. Kong is captured and killed yet is not immoral. He recuses Ann from danger within the uncivilized jungle. He protects her from the biplanes.

The masculine feats perpetrated by Tarzan combined with his civilized restraint are duplicated by Kong.

Gary W. Daily - 1/2/2006

And sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Richard F. Miller - 1/1/2006

Bet you never knew how easy it was to become a postmodern reader of "texts?" Well, you, too, can master the art in just a few easy steps! Ready? Well, here goes:

First, find a postmodern, multi-culti trope. Try this one: the Others. Otherizers. Otherization.

Next, find a "text"--a movie, short story, novel, speech, whatever.

Then, locate the dramatic tension within the text--heroes vs. villains, black hats vs. white hats (oops! Am I racially "otherizing" here?), good guys/gals vs. bad guys/gals, apes vs. people, U.S. vs. jihadis/Nazis/Japanese/Red Coats/illegal whiskey distillers; if there's nothing that obvious in the plot, go directly to "seemingly unrelated" things, such as movies like "The Day the Earth Stood Still"--earth vs. aliens. Now how easy was that?

Next, introduce the notion that the "bad guys" are the "other" and the "good guys" are the "otherizers;" moreover, that the text itself is an exercise in "otherization."

Finally, take your own fantasies, political inclinations, agendas, whims, or aggressions, and have a ball! Project anything you please onto the text. If you like, the "otherizers" can be whites, white men, America, the West, Robber Barons, Globaloney, whatever. Then, make the "other" the oppressed de jour--racial/ethnic/political minorities, the "enemy," women, coffee bean harvesters, immigrants, or, if the foregoing categories are already taken, you can try to project your disgusting Uncle Max.

Wasn't that easy? You, too, can turn Fay Wray into Fay "white" Race and King Kong into African Americans. Of course, the "trope" of confusing simians with black people is something that only the pathological ignoramuses of the Ku Klux Klan would do--unless, of course, you've been specially licensed by postmodern text readings (and perhaps some of your own latent racism) to "see" what most ordinary folks have been missing since the original King Kong was made in 1933--a pleasurable way to waste an afternoon in between paying the mortgage and shopping for dinner.

Next course: Sample admission essays for Sandia Preparatory School.

John Cameron - 1/1/2006

A mentally contrived production for a mindless society.
Reminds one of governance.