KONG: His Life and Fall
By Arn McConnell (Vol. 1, No.4)
I've touched the highest point of all
And from that full meridian of my glory
I haste now to my setting. I shall fall,
Like a bright exhalation in the evening
And no man see me more
Oh! She has a beauty might ensnare
A conqueror's soul, and make him leave his
At random, to be scuffled for by slaves.
Carl Denham has been called, alternately, a "voyeur...who prefers to get his kicks vicariously and immaculately," a "daredevil hero," "a fool for risks," and "the greatest showman since Barnum." (1) Feelings are so mixed on Denham that even today, people argue whether he was a hero, villain, or man caught up in circumstances beyond his control. (Forty-six years after the event, Carl Denham has the dubious honor of sharing this reputation with Richard Nixon.)
Whether Denham was completely responsible for the Kong Disaster or not, he was certainly the most responsible. For it was Denham who started the ball rolling in the first place.
He first heard of Skull Island in 1928, while he was filming his second film, Jungle Peril, (Vitograph Studio). To escort his cast and crew to Africa, Denham had employed the services of a Norwegian barque skipper. (Unfortunately, the skipper's name has been lost in the passage of time.) Denham, already known as something of a reckless fellow, learned from this man of the existence of an isle in the East Indies. (2) The island was originally discovered in 1893 by a British tramp steamer. Although the ship never landed, the island was sighted and recorded on the ship's charts. (There is some confusion about the matter, but it appears the steamer was running from pirates at the time.) Some say that it was Orcival "Orc" O'Rourke himself who took the island's bearings, but there is no conclusive evidence that O'Rourke, an American by birth, was ever aboard a British ship. (O'Rourke's adventures were detailed in the dime novels by F.M. Walker.)
The skipper of Denham's Norwegian barque, however, not learned of Skull Island from the British. About five years before the filming of Jungle Peril, the skipper had run into a canoe that had somehow been carried out to sea. Inside the canoe were two natives of Skull Island, both dying. One of the natives, before he died, gave the Norwegian barque skipper a crude map of his homeland, which the skipper in turn passed on to Denham. What Denham saw on that map was enough to get him going. (3)
Three years was a short time for Denham to prepare. he needed many costly items and people for his project, and it remains a sign of the man's showmanship and stamina that he managed to finish preparations within the allotted timespan. Among the things Denham did between late 1928 and May of 1931: He "rented" (some say purchased) a steamer, the Wanderer, and amassed a huge crew; he somehow got Dr. Clark Savage, Jr. to create a cargo of potent anaesthetic gas bombs for him (4); he talked Capt. Joseph Clegmont Englehorn, the eccentric sea explorer and trader, out of retirement to skipper the Wanderer-- and he somehow finagled his studio to foot the bill for the whole thing. This was probably his greatest achievement, considering the tenuous justification for the project. No one, not even Captain Englehorn, was at first told where the Wanderer was going. No one, not even Denham's studio, was given more than an inkling of what his mysterious project was about.
As anyone who has seen the Cooper-Schoedsack production of the Kong Disaster knows, what it was that Denham saw on that map was a gigantic wall. Denham knew, in a way that only a man with a feel for film can know, that there was something never seen before behind that wall--and Denham would not only be the first to see it, he would be the first to film it also.
Only one problem remained in May, 1931: Denham needed a girl. He planned to follow the same formula he had used in Jungle Peril--it would be a documentary film, but with a basic pre-arranged plot. Who knows where Denham first got the idea for a Beauty-and-Beast motif? Perhaps the motif held some vague fascination for Denham. Certain traces of it can be found in his first film, Natives (1925), but Natives was a "straight" documentary, highly influenced by Nanook of the North (1922), so it is undoubtedly coincidental.
Everyone knows how Denham found his first girl in the poverty-stricken slums of New York. Ann Darrow was originally from the country, but had moved to New York to start an acting career. (5) To her, this project of Denham's--the same project that other actresses had turned down as too dangerous--was the perfect avenue out of her present despair. She agreed to join him, and the project was begun.
Thus it was that same night, the Wanderer, with its large crew and mysterious cargo, and two passengers, sailed off for parts unknown from a decrepit Hoboken pier. Only a handful of those who left would ever return.
Delos Lovelace gives an approximate idea of where Skull Island was located. He says the Wanderer traveled on past Hawaii, past Japan, past the Philippines, Borneo, and Sumatra on a southwest course. The trip was spent, for Ann, by filming with Denham and developing something of an intimate relationship with John (Jack) Driscoll, the first mate. Most of the other crewmembers avoided Ann, (everyone knowing what notorious bad luck women are aboard a ship), but she also got to know the skipper and an old crewmember by the name of Lumpy(6). (There was no Chinese cook as portrayed in the movie.
When Skull Island finally loomed on the horizon, they could see why it was so-named. At the center of the island, amidst the dense foliage that covered the east inland area, was a mountain shaped vaguely like a skull. It was probably at that moment that Carl Denham realized for sure that he had made the correct choice for his project. A landing party was formed almost immediately upon sighting the shore.
Perhaps one of the most dramatic scenes in the Cooper-Schoedsack film is the scene in the native village. With the fine acting of Robert Armstrong and Noble Johnson in particular, the impressive set, and the foreboding Max Steiner score, it has left goosebumps down the spines of film buffs. In reality, the moment was every bit as dramatic as its cinematic version. If not for the presence of Ann, and the experience of Captain Englehorn, no doubt the story of the Kong Disaster would have ended there. Instead, it merely acted as the prelude to even more drama.
The bartering scene, where the natives wanted to buy Ann, and the capture of the golden-haired beauty from the Wanderer that night are reproduced fairly accurately in the movie. Kenneth Bernard, n his essays on Kong, is probably correct though--it seems likely, since the natives were in the practice of offering virgin brides to their mysterious god, that they must have made some sort of gynecological examination of Ann--an experience which must have seemed more horrible to Ann than anything possible.
The great walls, the pillars...all are faithfully recreated in the movie. Ann, who surely fainted during the native examination, came awake at the wrong time--just as Kong arrived for his new bride.
What exactly was Kong?
The movie shows him as a giant gorilla standing anywhere from twenty to sixty feet tall. This last figure is patently impossible. Nothing can survive on Earth that is fifty or sixty feet tall, due to the inexorable force of gravity and the relative weakness of the mammalian bipedal pelvis.
Nor could Kong have been a gorilla. Gorillas simply aren't found in the East Indies. Especially gorillas as intelligent and humanoid as Kong.
Lovelace places Kong at twenty feet high. This is further corroborated by PJF in his account of Timothy Howler's experience with Kong, "After Kong Fell." A being twenty feet tall with the proper pelvic configuration is possible. But what is Kong? The tallest primate known to modern science was the gigantopithecus, which stood anywhere from twelve to fifteen feet tall. At twenty feet, Kong is still a good eight to five feet taller than the gigantopithecus. Could Kong have been a specimen from some heretofore undiscovered species of primate? This would explain his pronounced intelligence, his (relatively) short body hair, and his near-human posture. Also, it would strengthen the many claims that Kong, once in New York, headed for the Empire State Building for the structure's symbolic value. But more on that later.
No one can fully appreciate the terror Ann must have experienced to be plucked up by a giant simian, as no one has ever been in such a predicament. But even then she could not have perceived what was to come.
Jack Driscoll, Carl Denham, and the crew were soon cognizant of Ann's disappearance from the deck of the Wanderer. They arrived at the village in time to catch a glimpse of Kong disappearing into the jungle with her. They set off immediately after the ape, little realizing the dangers that lie ahead.
As the jungle sequences in the movie are authentic and well-known, I shall spend little time on them. However, the presence of dinosaurs on the island is worthy of comment. If Skull Island was just southwest of Sumatra, it would have been in the same latitude as the Amazon basin, where Maple White Land is purported to lie. (See the author's "The Land That Maple White Found," in The Wold Atlas #1) Perhaps climate has more to do with the continued survival of prehistoric fauna than is currently believed.
Few are unaware nowadays of the censored scenes in the movie in which Kong removes portions of Ann's clothing. Surely Ann realized by this time that Kong had more in mind than simply eating her. It seems unlikely though that Kong had time enough to do anything more than leer at her before Jack arrived at Kong's palace in Skull Mountain.
Ann's escape obviously enraged Kong. For the first time in eons (presumably), the great native wall was not sufficiently strong to keep Kong from destroying the village. The fact that Kong went to such measures to take back his golden-haired bride is an indication that Kong felt more for Ann than hunger or sexual craving. Unfortunately for Kong (but fortunately for the crew of the Wanderer), the gas bombs developed by Doc Savage were more powerful even than Kong in all his rage.
It should have been foreseen that Denham, with the ape lying unconscious before him, would not be content with merely filming Kong. Now that Kong was in the producer's hands (figuratively speaking, of course), Kong would be taken back to New York for exhibition.
Where was Kong displayed? The movie, Lovelace, and PJF all say it was in a lavish theater auditorium. Willis O'Brien, the genius behind the movie's special effects, showed Kong being displayed at Yankee Stadium in his original drawings, however. Most people go along with the theater hypothesis. (7) It is possible, after all, that the Yankee Stadium drawing was another in the list of fictions employed by the makers of the Kong film.
We have three versions of Kong's escape from his chains in the theater: The movie's, Lovelace's, and Farmer's. They all jibe fairly well. It was undeniably a melee--people screaming, running, deserting their children, being crushed by Kong, being crushed by each other.
PJF tells us that Kong originally headed for midtown Manhattan in his search for Ann. Everyone knows how he demolished an elevated train, and how he killed a woman he had mistaken for Ann. He stepped on cars and people indiscriminately--buildings were partially or completely destroyed. And those few people who were lucky enough to escape with their lives would still bear indelible scars for the rest of their lives.
When Kong finally found Ann, everybody knows where he went. The Empire State Building--the structure that acts as a home for Doc Savage--the great phallus of New York--the Skull Mountain in the midst of the concrete jungle. Where else could Kong have gone?
There was approximately an hour between the time Kong retook Ann and their arrival at the ESB. What happened during this hour? We know from Farmer that Driscoll would later break his engagement with Ann because he felt Kong had raped her. Since Driscoll would not have accepted this without conclusive proof, and since he was still engaged to here before Kong recaptured her, Kong must have raped her somewhere between the apartment she was taken from and the ESB.
Those of you who argue that a giant ape could not possibly rape a human woman are urged to consult "After King Kong Fell." As Farmer points out, Kong, at twenty feet high, would have had an erect penis only twenty-one inches long. (8)
No one knew of the rape at the time, though. All they knew was that a giant ape was running rampant in New York--heading straight for the Empire State Building.
Calls went to the USAAF Roosevelt Field in Long Island. Exactly how many airplanes responded is still a matter of debate. Farmer says five. The movie shows fourteen or fifteen. Lovelace says six. Jim Harmon, in "The Life Story of King Kong," says four, Herb Trimpe, in his comic strip, Rodger Farnsworth USAAF, says five also. Just averaging it out, there were most likely seven. Most of them were famous pilots--Rodger Farnsworth;G-8; "Smilin'" Jack; Jimmie Allen; Tommy Tompkins; and the pilot killed by Kong, Sam Kelly. Together, their bullets raked Kong's hide in a deadly tattoo.
And Kong, the monster--Kong, the tragic hero--Kong, the eighth wonder of the world...fell.
A lot of what followed Kong's death is told by Farmer. First, Mayor Jimmy Walker arrived. Then Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. Doc Savage came riding up on the running board of a limo, presumably having just arrived from the case Lester Dent called The Lost Oasis. Everybody started claiming Kong's body, from the owners of the Empire State Building to the New York Transit system. (9)
What finally happened to Kong's body? Farmer tells--or rather, hints-- at the fact that it went to Britain, because Skull Island was officially a British possession. Yet it has never been seen since that fateful night. The matter brings up the even greater question--
--Why is the Kong Disaster so thoroughly forgotten nowadays? The legend has been written off as fiction. Surely something so dramatic, so ultimately tragic would remain in the minds of America.
Imagine, if you can, what would have happened if the Kong Disaster had not been covered up. The very morale of the U.S. would have sagged incredibly. Panic would have run rampant. (10) Surely America's organized religion, presented with the case of the humanoid Kong, would have been hard-pressed to defend their doctrine against evolution. And, perhaps most importantly, imagine the existence of Skull Island being made public knowledge...!
It was obvious to the government that something had to be done. Emergency sessions were called. The President met with experts from a thousand fields to determine some proper way out of the mess.
Of course, part of the problem was easily solved. A news damper was put on New York, to prevent the press from spreading the Kong story all over the country. The sheer trauma of the event wiped the memory of that night from many eyewitnesses' minds. Still, there were too many people who remembered Kong, remembered Skull Island--what of them?
The answer can be found in Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders (1957). Packard quotes Drs. Ernest Dichter and Louis Cheskin, in 1957, as saying that they were involved in a field called "motivational research," or M.R. for short, for over twenty years. M.R. is the application of social sciences--psychology, sociology, archaeology, etc.-- to mass manipulation. M.R. is what makes people buy what they do, makes them think the way the manipulators want them to think. Imagine M.R., several years before it was supposed to have been invented, applied to the Kong Disaster.
Of course, even a manipulation of the masses like M.R. would not totally be successful on some individuals, which is why portions of the Kong Disaster are still available to us. those who were severely affected by Kong might never forget--like Timothy Howller. Others might have a partial memory of the event, perhaps on a subconscious level. (11)
The memory of that night in 1931, therefore, through the use of psychological manipulation, was systematically erased from the minds of all involved. The final "blow"
in this "brainwashing" campaign was a movie released in 1933. This movie was the most powerful strike to our memories of the event of all. It would make sure we considered Kong the product of a strange imagination for the rest of our lives, as a nation.
It was released by RKO. It was called King Kong.
And what of Carl Denham, Ann Darrow (12), and Jack Driscoll?
Driscoll, as mentioned previously, broke off his engagement with Ann soon after the Kong Disaster. Ann sued him for breach of promise, but the case was never brought to trial. Ann also sued Denham for indignities she had suffered because of Kong, but at the time Denham had already been sued penniless, and was going to prison to face a manslaughter charge. The charge was later dropped, but soon after being released from prison, Denham was murdered by the Skull Island witch doctor. (13)
King Kong lived--King Kong fell. Our memory of the event was obliterated, but the legend, the ineradicable legend, remains. It will always remain. For Kong was more than a big ape, and much, much more than a monster. Whether in reality or fantasy, Kong embodied something in us all. It is an indefinable quality perhaps, but it exists within us all the same. Kong was the original natural man--and for his death, there can be not epitaph.
1. These quotes can be found in: R.C. Dale's "Narrative, Fable, and Dream in King Kong;" Claude Ollier's "A King in New York;" Delos Lovelace's King Kong; and Alexander Sheehan's The Golden Avenues, respectively.
2. See Lovelace's King Kong.
4. See PJF's Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life.
5. There is no record of an Ann Darrow appearing in any movie before 1931 that I can find.
6. "Lumpy," (nee William Piedmont), retired in San Francisco soon after the Kong Disaster.
7. Some people say that theater was Radio City Music Hall, the same theater where the Cooper-Schoedsack film made its New York debut.
8. We may safely assume Kenneth Bernard was being jocular in his estimate of a twelve-foot erect penis.
9. "Denham himself didn't want the body touched until the taxidermists he had contacted arrived. he was bound to display Kong dead if he couldn't display him alive." (PJF)
10. The Kong Disaster occurred only seven years before America panicked over a radio program dramatizing a Martian invasion.
11. It is very important to note that, in 1933, movie reviewer Mordaunt Hall wrote: "Robert Armstrong gives a vigorous and compelling impersonation of Denham." (Italics mine.) Since he was supposedly reviewing a fictional movie, why did Hall use the word "impersonate" rather than a more suitable verb, like "portray?" the answer, of course, is that Mordaunt Hall had partial memory of the original event. (His review appeared in the New York Times.)
12. It seems likely that Ann's name wasn't Darrow at all. In Mordaunt Hall's review of the movie, her name is given as Redman. Farmer, also, calls her Redman in his "After King Kong Fell." (This was later changed when the story was reprinted in The Girl in the Hairy Paw, a collection of Kong-related essays. Here, her name is Darrow again.) Going back to note five, there is only one mention of an Ann Redman in pre-1931 castbooks, as an extra in FBO Studio's Those Happy Girls, released in 1929.
13. The witch doctor was brought back on the second expedition to Skull Island. If the movie, Son of Kong, is factual, then this expedition occurred around the same time as Skull Island's sinking, which PJF places in 1932-1933.
Farmer, Philip Jose, "After King Kong Fell," Omega, (ed. by Roger Elwood), 1973
______________, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, 1973
Gottesman, R. and Geduld, H., eds., The Girl in the Hairy Paw, 1973
Harmon, Jim, "The Life Story of King Kong," Monsters of the Movies, June 1974
Lovelace, Delos W., King Kong, 1932
McConnell, Arn, "The Land that Maple White Found," Wold Atlas, January 1977
Packard, Vance, The Hidden Persuaders, 1957
Sheehan, Alexander, The Golden Avenues, 1945
Trimpe, Herb, "Rodger Farnsworth, USAAF," Big Apple Comix, 1975
Walker, F. M., the Orc O'Rourke series, 1898 on.
Return to the Wold Atlas page
Return to the Wold Newton Chronicles
All rights reserved. The text of this article is copyright 2000 by the author, Arn McConnell. No copying or reproduction of this article or any portion thereof in any form whatsoever is permitted without prior written permission and consent of the author.