Giant monsters are always analogies. Godzilla, in early incarnations at least, is agreed to be a 30 storeys high metaphor for Japan’s terror of the atomic age. Not just the destruction it could cause, but the ineffable effects of nature itself.
When King Kong first appeared in 1933 the story was worked on by Edgar Wallace, a writer who as a reporter had covered the Second Boer War and the atrocities committed by Belgium in the Congo. A liberal (capital L too, he stood for David Lloyd George’s party for parliament), he would have thought hard about the fear of Africa engendered in the European white working class. A fear that built the idea of racial differences in order to excuse the slavery and colonialization.
That othering would be crucial to ‘jungle pictures’ of the sort that were popular when RKO made the first Kong film, cinema providing new ways to exploit any cultural fears to make a buck. They did as much to promote the trope of the Great White Hunter as turn of the century literature had done, and the wildness those hunters faced would — perhaps subconsciously — reflect a fear of reprisals for the treatment of Africa.
Meanings evolve: Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla film seems less nuclear-scare than to reflect American nervousness in the face of increasing episodes of seemingly random terrorism — such as the Centennial Olympic Park pipe bomb a few years earlier — which conventional forces could not contain. Peter Jackson’s Kong is more about how much Peter Jackson loves the process of filmmaking that anything to do with monkeys, like much of his output.
But Kong had already had a re-invention: in Birmingham. In 1972 the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation commissioned the statue to sit in Manzoni Gardens. (Yes, it was cigarette marketing all along. But more darkly the company was named after Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch director-general of the colony of New Netherland, their colony on the east of the USA.) Nicolas Monro was one of the few pop artists working in sculpture, so taking the brief to make something ‘city orientated’ he chose King Kong because of its association with New York City and, he said, “for my own petty reasons”.