1933’s King Kong is one of my favorite movies. When I was young, under five-years-old, I saw it for the first time on a flickering black and white TV on a Saturday afternoon, and became obsessed with dinosaurs, adventures, and especially King Kong himself. That’s right, my first love was a giant ape.
The first movie I remember seeing in the theater was the 1976 remake of King Kong, which was okay for my six-year-old eyes (it’s terrible), but I couldn’t believe that they cut out the dinosaurs. Giant snake? Fine. But not as cool as dinosaurs. Also, I will always love Jessica Lange, who is as beautiful today as she was through the ape’s eyes. So I guess my second love was Jessica Lange. She still comes after the giant monkey. Sorry, Jessica! The Peter Jackson labor of love remake of King Kong from the early ‘00s is okay, but mostly a misfire with some nice moments. That movie is long as hell!
On March 10, 2017, we are getting Kong: Skull Island, a spin-off into the world of King Kong. The first question you might be asking is, why? Why is King Kong important? Why would anyone make another movie about Mike Brown’s first love, the giant ape?
Firstly, Hollywood is always obsessed with it’s own history and King Kong is one of the most important and greatest movies ever made.
Everyone from the Library of Congress to The American Film Institute to the venerable men and women of Rotten Tomatoes have hailed it one of the best films of all time, usually settling in somewhere around #20. For generations, King Kong was their Star Wars, a movie they saw that just blew them away with story and effects and tough guys. Dock workers found themselves crying at the end because the monster is killed. No one cries (or believes it) when Freddy Krueger dies. But in 1933, people found themselves crying over a giant ape that had killed a lot of people over about two hours, stomping them, eating them, dropping them, or knocking their planes from the sky.
King Kong set the gold standard for effects until somewhere around 2001, the movie, not the year. I’ve read interviews with effects wizard Ray Harryhausen who said that the movie quite literally changed his life. (If you don’t know who Harryhausen is, he did stop motion effects on countless movies but might be best known by contemporary audiences for the original Clash of the Titans, which utilizes the stop motion camera work used in King Kong.) He had seen movies with people in gorilla costumes in movies and he knew Kong wasn’t that, but he didn’t know what it was. Can you imagine that? Seeing an effect and not knowing how it was possible? In this age of “Googling,” we know everything immediately! Harryhausen didn’t find out for years!
I’m assuming that Harryhausen’s reaction wasn’t unique. He went on to work with Willis O’Brien, the special effects man, who was Harryhausen’s inspiration, who created Kong. Techniques used in King Kong are in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Empire Strikes Back, and the original The Terminator movie. I can’t really overstate how important Kong was to movie makers.
King Kong is also one of the weirdest ideas for a movie that I can think of that also totally fit the zeitgeist of the time.
Callow filmmaker in search of fortune and glory finds a map to a hidden island purported to hold wonders, which turns out to be real. Of course, he takes a beautiful actress with him. There’s a giant ape, Kong, on the island who sort of falls in love with the actress. Kong gets knocked out, transported to New York, where he becomes a Broadway star! Until he gets scared, grabs Ann, and climbs the Empire State Building.
One fun note about Faye Wray, the original actress who played Kong’s lady love, the audio from her screams in King Kong were frequently used in other movies when the actress’s screams weren’t up to snuff. Trivia!
The creators of King Kong, Merian Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, were adventurers. Cooper in particular was an amazing man who joined the National Guard in 1916, learned to fly a plane, and quickly found himself a bomber in World War I. After the war, he volunteered to support the Polish army against the USSR, got shot down, and interred in a Soviet prison camp, which he escaped, and walked to Latvia. So Merian Cooper was no Hollywood phony. I think he might have later supported Joe McCarthy, but I’m ignoring that. Lots of people did! Hell, after you’re in a gulag for any length of time, you’re allowed to hate commies. I’m not exactly sure where Schoedsack and Cooper hooked up, but Schoedsack was a camera man and they started making movies where they would go to exotic places and film wild animals doing terrifying things, maybe Schoedsack would dig a hole and hide himself and a camera in it while Cooper chased a herd of Cape Buffalo over to the hole. Eventually, they found themselves in Hollywood looking for an idea.
I mentioned the zeitgeist earlier, and one of the things that was still strong in Cooper’s mind was the discovery of Komodo dragons by Europeans. So there it is, 1912, and a new species of animal was discovered! “Discovered” by Europeans. The people on Komodo probably knew all about the dragons. These giant monitor lizards sound amazing on paper. I don’t think anyone outside of Komodo got to see them until almost 1930, when a breeding pair was put on display in London.
Also, people had known about dinosaurs for a while. I think the Chinese called them “dragons.” But dinosaurs were becoming well known at this time with many museums stirring people’s imaginations with not only the bones, but paintings of likely looks for the most popular species, which was the Tyrannosaurus Rex even back then.
So what else could be out there?
Maybe a giant ape named Kong who lived on an island with dinosaurs who he had to constantly fight? Of course, no one really thought that, but it wasn’t as crazy as it might seem now. Hell, there were reports out of Scotland even then that that a diplodocus was living in one of their lochs. Although if you look, a lot of Loch Ness Monster sightings were in 1933. I don’t know if it was inspired by King Kong or just the zeitgeist I keep mentioning, but something was in the air about giant monsters.
I don’t want to get too far into the racism of the time, but Hollywood— and the United States— was extremely racist in 1933. So I know this isn’t anything to jump up and down about, but I don’t think King Kong has any black face actors and had many black actors in it. So… that’s something. But I do think that so much of Kong is great, it’s hard not to point out it’s one drastic flaw, a very dated view of black actors, even the idea that black people live in the South Pacific. So it’s not all great!
King of Skull Island
Okay, that was a pretty deep dive into King Kong, but other than trying to re-capture the magic of one of the greatest movies of all time, why make another movie? You know all those attempts at sequels to Gone with the Wind have been terrible, right? Actually, the more beloved a movie is, the more it’s probably a mistake to make a sequel. Remember Return to Oz from the ‘80s? It’s actually a decent movie, but it was a flop. On some level, telling a new story about this kind of thing usually doesn’t work.
And no movie can plan to have ground-breaking effects or become one of the greatest movies of all time. I bet when they were making Jurassic Park, they wished they could do more with computer effects. But of course, that movie holds up so well today because of the mix of CG and puppets— and of course, is an homage to King Kong. Hello, giant doors! But I don’t think from the trailer that Kong: Skull Island is using anything new, just reasonably good CG. They also made Kong look more like his ’33 model, not like the actual silverback gorilla that Peter Jackson envisioned.
I’m going to have to point my finger right at the success of the Marvel movies and their shared universe as the real reason that Kong: Skull Island is being made.
All of these interconnected super hero movies are basically printing money for Marvel and other movie makers are trying to get in on it. Universal is doing a complete reboot of their monsters: the mummy, Frankenstein, Dracula, and probably the gill monsters. They’re coming out with a series of movies meant to bring them into the 21st Century. And Legendary pictures is setting up a King Kong/Godzilla shared universe. How do I feel about this? Great! If the movie is good, I hope they make all the money in the world. I guess there are some The Force Awakens in there too. Hey, you can go home again, at least financially. It’s gotten fashionable to criticize The Force Awakens, but not only was there a lot to like in there (Gonk!), but that movie made a boat load of money. And how was it successful? By respecting the past and looking towards the future. I’m hoping that Kong: Skull Island follows that same path.
The story of Skull Island always left a lot of questions.
For instance, why would anyone give a giant monkey a human woman to appease it? Would that work? Where did that idea even come from? Well, I’d like to think it comes from the same place that the idea that medieval villages would sacrifice a virgin to a dragon came from. But that story never made sense to me either. And Smaug (The Hobbit) wanting gold? It’s baffling attributing human desires to dragons. So maybe we’ll get some kind of explanation. Also, I always saw Kong’s role as a protector when I was young. There were all those dinosaurs around. I assume Kong kept them away from the people. As an adult, I’m not sure what the movie was trying to say about all that, but it doesn’t really need to make sense because it is awesome.
I’m all for shared universes.
The Godzilla movie was okay and I know that Legendary is gearing up for a Godzilla vs. King Kong movie, which I will definitely see.
Of course, I always have trouble with the idea of a Godzilla vs. King Kong movie idea because King Kong is 25, 30 feet tall and the latest iteration of Godzilla is about 300 feet tall. King Kong is a monster that could conceivably happen, we used to have 25 foot tall fire lizards walking around. Godzilla is an unstoppable Lovecraftian hell beast who could never actually exist outside of a nightmare. Of course, I like Godzilla. But you can’t really interact with him. King Kong can look you in the eyes right before he throws you to the ground. As much as I hate to admit it, I’m not sure how Kong could fight and beat Godzilla, who breathes fire, for God’s sakes. Kong has fur!
But I’m willing to believe that Legendary has already thought of these issues and I would be really surprised if we didn’t see Kong in the same role as the Legendary Godzilla from the latest movie, a protector of some kind. They are probably going to be working together against a threat: Godzilla against a monster mother, Kong against something much shorter.
And, yes, the odds are stacked against a great Godzilla/Kong movie working. Hell, all the things I mentioned that made Kong great, zeitgeist, effects, are working against it now. But could it be good? Hell, yeah! I don’t think anyone thinks Skull Island is going to be the greatest movie of all time. But they seem to have captured the idea from the original movie of an adventure, which I like a lot. I’m picturing more of an Indiana Jones-style film with this. And with a shared universe, I’m hoping that Kong wins this time! No one is taking this Kong off his island. I’m betting a lot of asses are kicked by a giant, angry monkey. I could watch that all night.
One more thing that keeps rattling around in my head is that in King Kong, Kong is the last of his kind. But who knows what happened to his family? This is a prequel. There could be a Queen Kong or a Grandpa Kong in it! If there is, I’ll be that guy who can’t help but to stand up and cheer in the theater! I love you, baby Kong!
But here’s what else I’m hoping: That whomever is making this movie has a sense that it is important to have a good King Kong movie. With The Force Awakens, there was this idea that a bad Star Wars movie was somehow a betrayal. I get it. Disney is making Star Wars movies so that they make money. But they will make a lot more money if the movies are good. I’m hoping that Legendary believes that same thing about King Kong.
I liked the trailer! And I have high hopes. So in just a few months, I get to sit down for a few hours with my first love. That’s worth something!
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