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Issue #10

The Making of King Kong: A Natural Horror Adventure Buy now from Movies Unlimited! 

Emily E. Pullins

“I wanted to produce something that I could view with pride and say, ‘There is the ultimate in adventure’.”

—Merian C. Cooper

The great prehistoric beast, King Kong, has thrilled audiences since his cinematic debut in 1933. The success of King Kong is primarily ascribed to the compelling nature of this monstrous beast and the state of the art special effects that brought him to life. Less often recognized is the extent to which the success of King Kong can be attributed to its place in the history of both documentary and classic Hollywood cinema. To truly understand the forces that conspired to create this awesome ape, we need to consider the origins of filmmaking, early natural history film, and the birth of film genres.

Our fascination with capturing wildlife on film dates back to the earliest moments of motion picture history. Wildlife was the subject of some of the first pictures depicting movement. The two most famous examples were the first “slow motion” moving pictures of a running horse taken by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878, and in images of birds in flight taken by Etienne Jules Marey in 1882. All manner of creature, including apes, were filmed for studies of motion and zoology in the early years of the motion picture. Short scenes of animals running, flying, leaping, walking, and occasionally dying served as research “data” and provided popular entertainment. A few years later, improvements in filmstrips, cameras, and projection technologies would result in new research and entertainment possibilities—particularly the ability to make feature-length films. The representation of wildlife in film has been influenced by social movements in the literary and visual arts, by the creation of commercial film industries, by the formation of the modern biological sciences, as well as by advances in film technologies. This was certainly the case with King Kong.

The building blocks for King Kong began in popular literary genres from the turn of the century. King Kong is based on The Lost World (1912) an action adventure safari novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This story has been told in numerous literary, television, and film adaptations, perhaps the most recognizable being Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. In an attempt to circumvent royalty payments, the story of King Kong was substantially altered to not resemble Doyle’s masterpiece. To the viewer, however, all the tell-tales signs of the original story are there. For example, the dinosaurs of the Lost World are also found in King Kong’s ancestral home, because the monstrous Kong exists in a world that escaped the ravages of time. Doyle’s work is similar to other novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack London, and Ernest Thomas Seton: their characters all undertake adventure and exploration in an “exotic” jungle or wild land setting, with plots about overcoming nature and “embracing natural law” in order to survive. Unlike most horror stories, these adventure stories relied on “super nature” phenomena instead of the supernatural as a source of tension and terror. Authors and filmmakers often relied on biological themes—most often evolution—to replace the supernatural forces that explained the situations their characters found themselves in. From The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) to Tarzan of the Apes (1912), adventure stories explored “wildness” in the new world—new, at least, to the western, industrial citizen—tales usually set in the tropical jungles of the southern hemisphere. In King Kong, we see not only elements of the popular action adventure novels of the time, but also of the wildlife cinematographer in action through the character of Mr. Denham, filmmaker and safari hunter.

Mr. Denham finances a safari in order to make a jungle movie that features him hunting big game alongside the beautiful, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray). As the film begins, yet another Hollywood agent arrives to inform Mr. Denham that no actresses will work with him on his adventure film. Desperate for a beauty to contrast with the beasts in his adventure film, Mr. Denham takes to the streets to find his lead actress. The lovely (and very hungry) Ann quickly accepts his offer, a decision she will soon regret.

Along with the dashing captain, Jack, the crew ships off to a remote island somewhere near Africa in search of a legendary, monstrous animal. This “secret” island is not found on published maps. “There’s something on that island that no white man has ever seen,” exclaims Mr. Denham. When ashore, motion picture camera in hand, Denham follows the sound of drums, quickly arriving at a tribal ritual. The natives, furious with this interruption, insist that the intruders leave, but not before they catch sight of the white-skinned, blond-haired Ann. Later that night, Ann is kidnapped and brought to a ritual site for sacrifice to the great King Kong. Ann is seized by the giant and taken deep into the jungle. This island is home to a menagerie of giant creatures: Kong, giant snakes, and dinosaurs.

Meanwhile, Jack, Denham and their crew track Kong through the jungle, guns and pith helmets in tow, battling dinosaurs on the way. As in the Lost World (1928), the adventurers are successful in rescuing poor Ann and capturing their prey, securing Kong in the cargo hold, and putting him on public display as a living artifact of natural history. As in The Lost World, the monster escapes (of course) to wreak havoc on the civilized world, only to be vanquished in the great showdown between man and machine atop the towering skyscraper.

King Kong was co-directed by Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, who made some of the earliest film documentaries in the history of motion pictures. The jungle settings, animal anatomy, story characters, and animal behavior in King Kong were created from the directors’ lived experiences on safari. Schoedsack and Cooper made two of the most famous early films that featured wild animals and native peoples in their habitats, “nature drama” films that would help to establish the documentary film type formally defined in later years. Through their field work, filming and production of Grass (1925) and Chang (1927), Schoedsack and Cooper developed a strong working relationship and a shared set of adventures that would contribute to their King Kong project a few years later.

Mr. Denham is the embodiment of Schoedsack and Cooper’s experiences as safari adventurers and wildlife filmmakers, evident in some of his best lines. “[I shoot the film myself] ever since the trip I made to Africa,” says Denham. “I would have made a swell picture of a rhino but the cameraman got scared. That darn fool. I was right there with a rifle. Seems he didn’t trust me to get the rhino before it got him. I haven’t used a cameraman since then. I do it myself.” In silent safari films such as Simba (1927), scenes of large, dangerous mammals charging the camera only to be shot to death within a split second of charging the cameraman were quite typical. Schoedsack and Cooper had similar first hand experiences while shooting Chang. They narrowly missed being attacked by a tiger that chased them up a tree, and their crew was, at various times, threatened by pythons and stampeding elephants.

Schoedsack, the most experienced and animal-wise adventurer of this duo, expressed great pride in what he saw as the natural, epic drama of their films. “We focus our lenses, not on silly close-ups of love-sick females, but on the elemental clashes between nations and their fundamental problems, between man and nature.” Cooper, however, was seeking greater popular success in his filmmaking. Cooper realized that the public was far more attracted to baser impulses—romance, excitement, conflict, and the resolution of conflict. Cooper sought to fuse the characteristics of two genres—the terror and beauty and the beast romance of the horror story with the excitement, adventure, and exoticism of the jungle safari—to create a fantastic safari film that “really” delivered.

Stop-action animator William Harold (Willis) O’Brien also drew on “real” nature for King Kong. O’Brien’s Kong is still lauded as one of the most spectacular stop-action creatures in film history. The animal’s motion, its extraordinarily wide range of expression and emotion, and its fearsome interactions with other splendidly rendered creatures stunned audiences in 1933.

By the time he was approached by Cooper, O’Brien had already gained experience in creating “realistic” animal forms on film. Using dinosaur bones from the American Museum of Natural History, and consulting with the museum’s paleontology experts, O’Brien also worked on the The Lost World dinosaurs. For sculpting Kong, similar information was gleaned from the zoologist at the American Museum of Natural History, including the exact measurements for a bull gorilla. Plants from known jungle settings were meticulously constructed and artistically dramatized with cutting-edge special effects to create Kong’s island home. O’Brien also studied the slow-motion film research that chronicled the movement of animals in order to achieve life-like motion in stop-action animation. O’Brien placed the “real” proportions of Kong’s frame in a relatively smaller world, creating a beast of awesome stature that dwarfed the modern metropolis.

Perhaps most importantly for Kong’s effect on the audience, O’Brien had a profound appreciation for the need to make a connection between humans and animals in the characters that he created. For O’Brien, this was often done by giving his animated creatures “human” qualities, particularly in their facial expressions—compromising their realness in the process. For example, in King Kong, Kong walks more like a man than a gorilla, and his facial expressions are far beyond what is “normal” for a gorilla. But O’Brien and Cooper were aware that their audience would connect to Kong through his compassionate towards Ann, the object of his affection. Kong’s expressiveness is more human in order to create this “human-animal” effect.

Cooper was one of the first Hollywood producers that became disenchanted with the effort to capture the “natural drama” of the real world on film, and helped to create the Hollywood film industry as we know it, a film industry focused almost entirely on creating fictional stories. King Kong so successfully fused the action-adventure and horror genres that seventy-five years later it still stands as the classic of the genre. It has been imitated many times, in films such as Nabonga, Mighty Joe Young, Congo, and even Jurassic Park, and remade only once (1976). From 1933 on, the “natural drama” (documentary film) would forever be the circus chimp standing in the shadow of the 2,000 pound gorillas, King Kong and the Hollywood horror-adventure movie industry.

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This piece owes much to three fantastic books on the subject of King Kong and wildlife in film: Goldner, Orville and George Turner. 1975. The Making of King Kong. ASIN: 0498015106. Oak Tree Publications; Erb, Cynthia. 1998. Tracking King Kong: A Hollywood Icon in World History. ISBN 0-81432-6862. Wayne State University Press; Mitman, Gregg. 2002. Reel Nature: America’s Romance with Wildlife on Film. ISBN 0-674-71571-3. Harvard University Press.

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Emily E. Pullins invites you to join her in watching a new genre unfold by participating in further discussion about the BioHorror genre at her BioHorror website.

Copyright © 2003 by the author. All rights reserved.