Masculinity in Jackson’s Kong

My post examining racism in the 1933 King Kong gave me a new appreciation for Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, and the changes he made to remove or at least minimize the unconscious prejudice of the movie. So much so that I decided to pop in the Blu-ray and give it another watch. While I’m a fan of Jackson’s version, I won’t deny the film definitely has bloat. It’s a massive movie, clocking in at over three hours if you watch the extended edition (yes, there is an extended edition).

That said, I always find that there’s a lot more that I like in the film than dislike and, even after numerous viewings, I’m still catching new things. This time – well I picked up on a greater thread that I hadn’t noticed before. Oh sure, I’m seen pieces, but I never realized just how much was there. Way too much to be coincidence, that’s for sure.

Now – I still don’t know what everything means or even how much I think it works. But that’s the benefit of having a blog. I can write out my thoughts and see if they make sense. And who knows, maybe someone will tell me this was all obvious and I was very late to the party. Let’s look at masculinity in Peter Jackson’s King Kong.

Defining Masculinity

Okay, before we get too far – I want to clearly establish masculinity as it is a term I’ll be saying a lot. Merriam-Webster defines masculinity as “the quality or nature of the male sex: the quality, state, or degree of being masculine or manly.” Yeah, so every emotion or trait that is traditionally associated to being male qualifies – I’m talking toughness, I’m talking bravery, I’m talking stoicism; I’m talking about having major insecurities around showing certain emotions.

All of that, for better or for worse, is commonly understood as masculine. Now, it is worth saying that there is an effort underway to redefine masculinity, especially to save it from the negative or “toxic masculinity” that currently plagues our society. For the record, I’ve always thought our decision to associate certain emotions and qualities based on sex was, well, one of the dumber things we’ve done as a species. But this isn’t a post about my broader personal beliefs. Now that we’ve got our definition, let’s get back to King Kong!

Changing Jack Driscoll

Jackson’s Kong is in many respects a very straight-forward remake. The year is still 1933, the setting is still New York/Skull Island, Anne is still a struggling actress and Carl is still a director. Most everywhere you look, things are the same.

Except with Jack Driscoll.

In the original film, Jack Driscoll is first mate aboard the Venture. He is a sailor who behaves well, with every one of those traditionally masculine qualities. He’s tough, he’s rugged, and he has a hard time expressing himself. In the Peter Jackson film, we get a decidedly different Jack.

Gone is the sailor – instead we’re treated to a screenwriter. Yeah, he’s one of Carl’s film guys. And in case you’re wondering: “Well maybe he’s a film guy but he could still be brawny and heroic and all that other stuff,” the answer is “not really – at least not initially.”

Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.

Jack in 2005 is the definition of a reluctant protagonist. Heck, his first real act is to try and leave the boat before it can set sail. He is very uncommitted to the quest of Carl Denham’s movie. He is also (and this he does share with his original counterpart) very ambivalent toward Anne.

So why this change? Well, I think it’s to make Jack’s subplot all about masculinity and his evolving relationship with what it means to be a man/be a hero.

“It’s Not about Being Brave”

In Act I (the journey to Skull Island), Jack interacts with many characters. It is partly through him that we meet the sailors – namely Jimmy and Hayes. Interesting because their subplot also revolves around masculinity. See, Hayes is the first mate in this version and he’s a disgruntled World War I veteran (because, you know, black servicemen weren’t exactly honored the same way white ones were).

In Hayes, we see a character who is tired and just wants to make his way in the world. He’s never seen as one to encourage violence but he is looked to as the authority figure whenever anything goes wrong. To put it another way, Hayes is very much a warrior in the garden whereas Jack is soon to become a gardener gone to war.

Jimmy, by contrast, is young and all about proving himself. He spurns what he sees as false authority (actor Bruce Baxter and Carl Denham) while being fiercely loyal to Hayes. Whenever there is a chance to prove himself, Jimmy wants to take it – even if that chance means grabbing a gun and diving into the dinosaur-infested jungles of Skull Island.

When Anne is taken, all three go after her – and we understand them to have the noblest of intentions. They just want Anne back. However, soon the quest is proven to be more than a stroll through the trees and many of the sailors (and Baxter) want to leave. When this happens, Jack confronts Baxter about being a phony – labeling him (unfairly I think) as a coward. Baxter’s only response is to say that there is nothing traditional or Hollywood about being brave or being a hero.

At this stage, I think Jack is more like Jimmy. He wants to prove himself and he sees things in black and white. There is either bravery or cowardice. Those who fight and those who must be weak. It is worth noting that Hayes does not disparage anyone – ever, for wanting to rest or wanting to quit. Unlike Jack, he does not seem to have a problem with people valuing their own lives over Anne’s safety.

Hayes and Kong

I think it is more than coincidence that both Hayes and Kong die before falling down chasms. The shots of the two falling are filmed similarly and we get a resting corpse image of each lying at the bottom of their respective chasms. They also both die trying to protect others. Kong dies defending Anne from the perceived threat of the planes and Hayes dies trying to buy time for Jimmy, Jack, and the others to run away.

But the sailors don’t run – as Jimmy says “I ain’t a coward.” So things go from bad to worse for that group. If Jackson is making a commentary about heroics and masculinity it appears to be this: the true heroes (or the true men) don’t go looking for fights. They only battle to protect those they care about. As King Kong is a tragedy, this almost always ends in death. In some ways, Denham can be seen as a perversion of this lesson – he protects/values the camera above his fellow human beings (in most cases).

It also places Anne in this path as, at the end of Act II – she tries to fight to save Kong, resisting and distancing herself from Jack in the process. Jack, who has been all about his macho quest for Anne, is left with none other than Jimmy as the sequence ends. While Jack saw Kong as a threat – we the audience and Anne know the truth.

So where Does this leave Jack?

Jack in Act III is separated from Anne by virtue of his inability to tell her his true feelings and by his seeming reluctance to understand why she cares for Kong. Now here is my real question: I’m still not sure what the ending really says in regard to this subplot.

Do Anne and Jack truly reconcile after  Kong’s death? We don’t see them kiss ever again – instead the movie just ends with them hugging. So perhaps, while there is peace now between them, the chance at more has passed. I’m not sure.

But – as I write this – it occurs to me that Jack’s relationship toward Kong does seem to shift, however slightly, in Act III. After he watches Denham’s horrific show – and after Kong escapes – Jack’s concern doesn’t seem to be just for Anne. He doesn’t go looking to save her – instead he tries to lead Kong away from the populated areas of New York.

What’s his end goal in doing this? Unclear. Is he trying to lure Kong away to save him or to make him an easy target for destruction? Has he learned that Kong is a thinking creature with emotions – or does he still just see him as a threat?

There’s just not enough to say (given that the movie is so long, this can be viewed as a failure). But what’s in Jackson’s Kong is truly interesting. In addition to its commentary on exploitation and imperialism, Jackson has definitely woven his thoughts on masculinity into the script. I just wish I had a little more clarity on the ending message in regard to Jack Driscoll’s character arch.

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