12 December 2014
The big monkey with a big backstory: The Legend of King Kong
Merian C Cooper had a dream that an enormous ape was terrorizing New York City. This dream became King Kong, a movie of such legend that director Peter Jackson became obsessed with it. When finally he made his King Kong in 2005, his blockbusting homage was made with script and scene details from Kong’s very first appearance.
Still, why did Cooper dream of a giant ape? A lover of danger and thrills, Cooper was an early aviator and entrepreneur and also one of the first filmmakers to combine real location footage with staged scenes – long before the travelogue or wildlife documentaries were common. Cooper’s film Chang (1927) featured a memorably frightening elephant stampede. Cooper had the big screen curtain open wider to show the audience how dangerous the footage had been to film. These elephants were not special effects: they were real.
If Cooper had had his way with King Kong, he would have flown down to the Congo and filmed the real thing. Much like the elephant stampede, he had wanted to capture the excitement of a real ape fighting a komodo dragon. Without the funds to get to Africa, he took inspiration from the lost world genre - novels like Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912) and Edgar Rice Burrows’ The Last That Time Forgot (1918). A basic script by Willis O'Brien and Edgar Wallace was improved upon by Cooper with filmmaker Ernest B Schoedsack and Schoedsack’s wife Ruth, a screenwriter. Ruth doctored the King Kong script, making it more exciting, pacier and easier to shoot. In fact, Ruth wrote the film’s most famous line: “"Oh, no. It wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast." She based the characters of Carl Denham on Cooper and Jack Driscoll on her own husband. And so, King Kong was born.
The legend of Kong continues online, with sites devoted to his story. Fans say that Cooper’s dream wasn’t so outlandish. King Kong could have evolved from the 10 foot prehistoric ape Gigantopithecus. That creature could have become megaprimatus, a species of primate standing at 25 feet tall. Trapped on an isolated island, there could have been megaprimatus kong, an outcrop of the megaprimatus who grew to 50 feet in height - and King Kong could have been the last of them.
As for Cooper, you can see him as one of the pilots in the 1933 version, flying around Kong on the Empire State Building. King Kong and Cooper will always be part of film history – and Cooper has a star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame to prove it. All because of a big monkey dream…
Here on PictureBox you can watch the best modern Kong ever created – and one of which Cooper, Schoedsack and Ruth would have approved: Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong is the definitive version of the King Kong that should have been.
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