Can't go ape over `Kong' remade as a chick flick

December 24, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

Hollywood's Christmas gift to us all: the classic King Kong, remade as a chick flick.

I think I was in my mid-teens when I saw the original King Kong. It was at a theater near the corner of North Avenue and Charles Street. I can't remember the name. But I can remember who I was with when I saw it.

There were about 40 of us, guys from different Baltimore high schools, all part of an Upward Bound program at the Johns Hopkins University. Most of the guys came from what a newspaper told us were "poor families." Most of us were black. It was the summer of 1967 or 1968.

The goal of Upward Bound was to give us supplementary education and broaden our cultural horizons. That's why we were in the theater, which specialized in showing classic films of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. The first movie we saw was Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, the Russian director's propaganda film about German knights in helmets shaped curiously like buckets who invaded Russia in the 13th century.

Being who we were -- teens, male and goofy -- we promptly dubbed the invading Germans "the bucket heads" and rooted for the Russkis. One of us, a guy named Alphine Jefferson, had a distinctive, high-pitched laugh that made it sound as if he had the hiccups. I don't know who it was, but one of us -- I think it was one of the guys from Edmondson High -- had the bright idea to mimic Alphine's laugh during the movie. Soon the whole group joined in. (Please don't ask why we thought Alexander Nevsky was a comedy.)

Picture the scene: 40 male teenagers, most of them black, in a movie theater mimicking Alphine Jefferson's laugh, cackling like idiots. I saw an old white guy come in the door, check out the scene and turn around and walk right back out.

It was in this spirit of merriment that we all saw the 1933 version of King Kong. The story was simple: Movie director takes beautiful (white and blond) actress to South Sea island where they meet a huge gorilla with unresolved anger-management issues. Ape takes woman in "bride of Kong" sacrificial ritual. Woman is terrified. Hero rescues woman. Ape is captured and taken to New York City, where those unresolved anger-management issues lead to his undoing.

Keep in mind the one theme throughout the movie: From Skull Island to New York City, the woman is terrified of Kong. She knows that she's a tiny human female, and this thing the giant ape has for her just ain't gonna work out.

Now, clearly some 40 teenage black boys in the 1960s saw, to put it mildly, some problems with the original King Kong. For instance, with testosterone surging through our young bodies, we positively drooled when the shots of the black teenage girl who was the original bride of Kong flashed on the screen. We didn't buy at all the notion that Kong would prefer Ann Barrow, Fay Wray's character, to the native girl. A few of the guys didn't appreciate the Chinese cook's "crazy black man been here" line, either.

But for all its political incorrectness -- the racism, the sexism, Jim Thorpe hamming it up as one of the black native dancers (yes, that Jim Thorpe!) -- I find myself preferring the original King Kong. I certainly prefer it to the remake currently stinking out a theater near you.

Remember the premise of the original movie: woman terrified throughout the story by giant ape with serious species-identification problems. In the remake, Ann Barrow is initially terrified. Then she falls in love with the big ape.

Chick flick.

That's not the only thing wrong with this latest version. For some reason, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens -- who co-wrote the screenplay with director Peter Jackson -- included references to Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness in the movie.

Two characters named Hayes and Jimmy discuss portions of Conrad's book just before they head onto Skull Island. The only redeeming part of the scene is that Hayes is played by Evan Parke, a black actor, which means in the latest version a black character gets to say something other than "Kama Sambay Kong."

That's more than can be said for Heart of Darkness. Blacks in Conrad's work -- hailed as an anti-imperialist tome -- speak only in grunts and monosyllables. And it's time to put to rest the notion that Heart of Darkness is an anti-imperialist work.

Actually, author Adam Hochschild has already put it to rest in his book King Leopold's Ghost. Hochschild points out that Conrad was protesting the brutal and murderous methods Belgian King Leopold's minions used in the Congo in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Conrad, Hochschild wrote, heartily embraced British imperialism.

Whatever Conrad's views on British or Belgian imperialism, they have no place in a remake of King Kong, which was a simple movie with a simple plot for a simple time.

Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace collaborated on the screenplay for the original King Kong. Where are they now that we really need them?

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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