On Moral Ambiguity

“There are precious few at ease / with moral ambiguities / so we act as though they don’t exist.”

That’s a lyric from the show Wicked, in which the Wizard – here portrayed as wholly a bad guy, rather than an ultimately harmless ‘humbug’ – sings about why he deceived the ignorant and superstitious people of Oz. I find that rather funny: here is a character who is thoroughly villainous, singing to another character who is thoroughly virtuous about how morally ambiguous their situation is. This in a play that is almost painfully black-and-white in its ideas of morality. The ‘ambiguity’ is simply that a character who, in the context of the story, is considered a good guy by most people is actually a bad guy and vice-versa.

I was never that impressed with Wicked as a story (the music’s very good, though), partly because it is so very one-note. Elphaba is a good girl whose only flaw is that her attempts to do good always backfire, and to whom the world is completely unfair for no other reason than that she has green skin. She never accomplishes anything of note, nor, apart from precisely one song, does she ever come close to cutting the impressive figure of the Wicked Witch of the West, to the point where you have to wonder why anyone is afraid of her (even if it’s propaganda, why would the corrupt government try to build up someone who is in fact so thoroughly ineffectual?). She even needs to be rescued by her boyfriend at one point, mostly because she doesn’t actually know how to do magic; she simply has ill-defined powers she doesn’t understand due to circumstances outside her control (Why is this show considered ’empowering’ again?). Meanwhile, the Wizard is completely villainous, though equally unimpressive, while Glinda is only character who could seriously be called ‘ambiguous’ just because she’s too shallow and ditzy to do the right thing until the very end, when she abruptly grows a spine. And the people of Oz are portrayed as complete hypocrites or superstitious morons, ignorantly confident in their own rectitude while viewing the world through the narrowest and most empty-headed of lenses.

There are a lot of ways to describe this, but a depiction of moral ambiguity isn’t one of them.

This is something I notice a lot in modern fiction: modern writers always seem so confident that they are more realistic and complex and full of ‘moral ambiguity’ than stories from the past, when it’s most often quite the reverse. All they do is portray figures who were generally shown to be good before as being evil and vice versa and call that moral ambiguity, or realism, or some such thing.

For a good example of what I mean, compare the original King Kong with Peter Jackson’s remake. In the latter film, Kong is almost entirely a positive character. Sure, he’s implied to have killed many people before, and he kills many people here (the film is extremely inconsistent in its tone), but he’s never really portrayed as wrong for doing so. Ann stops being afraid of him pretty quickly, and she’s completely on his side by the midway mark. Meanwhile, Denham is, if not evil, at the very least a very unsympathetic character; a thoroughly myopic buffoon who causes most of the problems of the film and continually endangers the people around him while doing little or nothing to redeem himself. The same with the ‘human world’ of 1930s New York, which is pretty much played completely as something to be despised.

Now, in the original it was different. Kong was neither the good guy nor the bad guy, he was simply a wild animal; magnificent and sympathetic at times, but always dangerous and unpredictable. Ann never stopped fearing him, for the very good reason that, even though Kong protects her and seems to love her after his own fashion, he’s still a very dangerous creature with little idea of consequence or morality (as shown in the scene where he curiously starts stripping her clothes off). Moreover, his compassion extends only to Ann; everyone else he pretty much kills without a second thought (including a random innocent woman he mistakes for Ann). We sympathize with Kong, but he’s not portrayed as a positive force.

Denham is also a more ambiguous character. Like Kong, he is admirable in his own way, but also rather dangerous. He’s willing to expose other people to danger, but he’s also always going to do what he can to protect them (note his story about the cameraman and the rhino). He takes massive risks, but he isn’t callous about his people, and he’s perfectly willing to put his own life on the line for Ann’s sake (in fact, everyone of the crew practically jumps at the chance to run to her rescue, to the point that they have to turn people down). Yes, he makes a huge mistake in bringing Kong to civilization, but he does it for understandable motives and he at least tries to avoid any unnecessary risks, warning the reporters off when their flashbulbs enrage the monster (in the remake, Denham urges them on to take more photos).

In short, Denham in the original is a basically good man carried away by hubris. Denham in the remake is a callous moron who carelessly gets people killed. Kong in the original is a magnificent, but dangerous wild animal tragically destroyed by his encounter with civilization. Kong in the remake is a victim of the myopic greed of men in the benighted past.

Or take another example: in the original Mighty Joe Young we had the character of Max O’Hara (also played by Robert Armstrong), the show promoter who convinces Jill Young to sign a contract bringing Joe to the States to put him on stage. When she decides she’s had enough, he promises her that after one more show they’ll send Joe home…then keeps pushing the final show back further and further to squeeze a little more cash out of him, until Joe finally snaps and goes on a rampage.

Now, in a modern film, O’Hara would almost certainly be portrayed as thoroughly bad guy: a heartless corporate suit whose only concern was money. But he isn’t: he’s genuinely a decent, kind-hearted man (we see him defending one of his cigar girls from some loutish drunks) who was simply carried away by greed. After things fall apart, he comes to his senses and puts everything on the line to make amends.

That is real moral ambiguity: fundamentally decent people doing bad things because they were tempted or carried away in the moment or because it ‘seemed like a good idea at the time.’ Or ultimately positive forces (such as the civilized world in the original Kong) committing grave errors or being forced by circumstances to destroy something magnificent because there’s no other way.

Wicked has no moral ambiguity; it’s just a good person being ostracized because the people around her are mostly horrible, then ineffectually opposing a corrupt government and bigoted populace. It is only the fact that these characters are ostensibly ones we know from another source where they played different roles that makes it appear to be anything else (ditto for Maleficent).

And this is pretty much how most of the supposed ‘realism’ and ‘ambiguity’ works in contemporary fiction: take a label that the writer imagines means “good guy” for the audience and slap it onto the villain. So, the ‘ambiguity’ is that the police officer is corrupt, or the priest is a hypocrite, or the US Military is evil (was anyone surprised in Daredevil when the Punisher’s former commander turned out to be a bad guy? Does anyone actually expect Muslim extremists – rather than evil veterans – to be behind terrorist attacks in contemporary fiction?).

In fact, of course, this is actually far more one-note and black-and-white than older fiction tended to be. In The Longest Day, for instance, there’s a scene where a US soldier guns down some Germans trying to surrender because he didn’t know what ‘Bitte! Bitte!’ meant (it means ‘please! please!’). That doesn’t mean the Americans are suddenly the bad guys and the Germans the good guys. It doesn’t even mean that this particular soldier suddenly becomes unsympathetic; it’s just one of the tragic mistakes that happens during a war (The Longest Day has a lot of that sort of thing: these days it probably would be condemned for being too sympathetic to the Nazis). Likewise, there’s the scene in The Lord of the Rings where Sam wonders whether the dead Haradrim soldier was really evil after all, or whether he was just a normal person who would much rather have stayed home.

Now, both The Longest Day and The Lord of the Rings are fairly ambitious and sophisticated works, but as the examples from King Kong and Mighty Joe Young show, this extended to lighter fare as well. Just consider, say, The Mummy, where Imhotep is a monster, but also somewhat sympathetic in his deathless love. Or the way Creature from the Black Lagoon created sympathy for the murderous Gill Man, far more so than for at least one of the human characters, who is nevertheless mourned when he gets killed and goes down in the process of partially redeeming himself. Or take The Thing From Another World, where the obsessive Dr. Carrington’s insane actions are discretely erased from the record after the monster is defeated.

I could go on; the point is that I see much more genuine moral ambiguity in old works of fiction that came from a real understanding of right and wrong than in modern works that self-consciously try to be ‘edgy’ or ‘subversive’.

Trivia Break: Queen of the Monsters

I’d like to introduce you to actress Mie Hama. She’s a rather interesting person: born during World War II to blue collar parents, her home was destroyed in a bombing raid and she grew up poor. By the age of sixteen, she was working as a fare collector on the bus, and it was there that Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka found her and decided she might make a fine actress.

Mie Hama

Something must’ve caught his attention. Can’t quite put my finger on it…

Anyway, Miss Hama went on to become one of the most popular actresses of the Golden Age of Japanese cinema, and even to have some success outside it (more on that later). But at the height of her career she quit acting to get married and start a family, wanting only a “normal life.” She had four children and later became a popular TV and radio host, authoress, and advocate for traditional Japanese farming.

Now, Miss Hama has a peculiar distinction in the film world. As far as I know (and all things considered, I think I would know), she is the only actress to date who has been menaced by both King Kong and Godzilla, AND romanced by James Bond.

How’s that for a resume?

(To be fair, Akiko Wakabayashi also co-starred in You Only Live Twice – and plays a rather larger role – as well as having a role in King Kong vs. Godzilla, but she never interacts with either of the monsters).

Akiko Wakabayashi. Seems only fair to put her photo up as well.

Miss Hama was one of the stars of 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, during the course of which the train she is riding is wrecked Godzilla, who then briefly (and presumably inadvertently) pursues her into a ravine, where she’s rescued by her boyfriend.

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Hama vs. Godzilla

Later, as she tries to evacuate Tokyo before the approaching King Kong, she boards another train, which unfortunately runs directly across the path of the giant ape, who does what he does. Somewhat fortunately for her, Kong notices her and takes a liking, meaning that she gets to serve as this film’s version of Fay Wray (Kong climbs the Diet Building in this one). Kong is then knocked out by gas bombs and she is rescued before the great ape is airlifted to his showdown with Godzilla.

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Hama vs. King Kong

Some five years after tangling with the two greatest monsters of cinema, Miss Hama was picked to co-star alongside Sean Connery (and fellow King Kong vs. Godzilla alum Akiko Wakabayashi) in You Only Live Twice, the fifth James Bond film. She plays the role of Kissy Suzuki, a Japanese agent assigned to pose as Bond’s wife while he’s undercover as a 6’2″ Japanese fisherman (granted, not the most convincing development in the history of the franchise). Kissy doesn’t really have a lot of screen time (she isn’t even introduced until an hour and a quarter into the two-hour film), but she manages to put what time she has to good use by steadfastly, and amusingly, resisting Bond’s attentions until the very end (“We’re supposed to be married!” “Think again, please; you gave false name to priest.”) and providing some solid back-up for Bond during their reconnaissance of Blofeld’s base. That, and spending about 90% of her time in a bikini.

Hama vs. Bond

Miss Hama later told stories of how difficult the experience of being a ‘Bond Girl’ was. Though she was a popular actress in Japan, she was still a fairly normal, down-to-earth person and so found herself overwhelmed by the publicity and pressure of the big Hollywood production. But, she said, Sean Connery – who also had a working class background – was very kind and chivalrous to her, constantly checking to make sure she was okay and looking out for her during the long shoot. Later she commented that her chief regret about the film was that she was too shy to try to get to know him better.

That same year, she tangled with Kong again as the villainous femme fatale Madam Piranha in the delightfully silly US-Japanese co-production King Kong Escapes (which is basically what happens when a King Kong film and a James Bond movie are put through the brundlefly machine together). This time around she’s a bad girl: a spy from an unknown foreign power in league with the villainous ‘Doctor Who,’ who intends to conquer the world with a mechanical copy of Kong (so, yes; it’s a pseudo-Bond film where King Kong battles Doctor Who, a Bond Girl, and MechaKong. Japan, ladies and gentlemen!).

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Be honest; would you accept a drink from this woman?

So, there you have it; the girl who tangled with King Kong, Godzilla, AND James Bond and lived to tell about it. Now that’s a strong woman!

No, this post was not just an excuse to share pictures of a beautiful woman. Not *just*…

New Federalist Essay

My latest piece is up at The Federalist, using King Kong and Godzilla to describe the human condition. Because I do that sort of thing.

Sample:

I say an anti-war message doesn’t suit Kong because, especially as depicted in this film, Kong is a warrior, and really doesn’t have the option to not fight. His presence is the only thing that allows the island’s natives to live in a cartoony utopia (that, for some reason, doesn’t include smiling) and possibly prevents the rest of the world from being threatened. Godzilla was in much the same position in the previous film, as the only thing standing between humanity and destruction by the electricity-draining MUTOs.

In either case, the image is of a world that is only allowed to continue in whatever state of peace or safety it has because there’s a ferocious warrior standing guard, ready to push back the things that threaten to destroy it. “Godzilla” made this link explicit by casting soldiers as its human leads (in fact, “Godzilla “was the closest thing to a pro-war, or at least pro-warrior, movie I’ve seen in a long time), while “Kong” has its chief human warrior character as an Ahab-like antagonist.

The good news is that “Kong” has more than enough sheer creativity and enthusiasm for the material that makes it worth sitting through tired anti-Vietnam agitprop. Also, the medium undermines the would-be message. The very nature of a kaiju film like this forbids any kind of triumphant humanism. In a world where monsters the size of buildings stand guard against creatures that can shut down a city with a single move, there really is no room to hope that mankind has the wherewithal to end the perennial ills of the human condition.

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