I love King Kong. A giant ape was definitely needed for my Lost World project. And a gap in my personal film history had to be closed. But everything in order.
The giant monkey in the jungle
King Kong can be considered a true myth of Hollywood cinema. One might assume that the giant ape, like so many other creatures of the monster movie, would spring from a literary model. But in fact he was invented for the first film King Kong* in 1933. Even though today he appears as a giant gorilla, he doesn’t belong to any known ape species. By the way, did you know that once upon a time there really were giant apes on Earth? With about 3 meters Gigantopithecus blacki was certainly no King Kong, but still significantly larger than a man.
Back to the film: This first film version was a sensation. The trick technology was groundbreaking for the time, something like this had simply not been seen before. I particularly like the original German title in this context:
“The Fable of King Kong – An American Animated and Sensational Film.”
Well, if that’s not successful marketing…
The medium of film was still in its infancy. King Kong was also the first film ever to have dialogues accompanied by music. Incidentally, a first draft for the screenplay was written by none other than crime king Edgar Wallace – but apparently with miserable results, so that the draft was not used. Nevertheless, Wallace was listed as an author in the film – good for him.
In general, there are many anecdotes to tell about this film. Because it was made so early, a lot of things were tried out and some were used for the first time. The spectacular special effects came from the animation technician Willis O’Brien, who was not only a pioneer in the development of stop-motion, but also had a great interest in dinosaurs. 8 years before King Kong, he was already able to bring dinos to life in The Lost World and thus attract attention. In the 1930s, there was no Oscar category for special effects. O’Brien received it instead in 1950 for Mighty Joe Young* – probably meant rather retroactively.
Importance of the film
The release of King Kong was a sensation. There was a great interest in exotic animals even then, but much less contact. Fewer zoos, hardly any movies, no Internet. The most likely way to encounter adventure in the wild was in novel form. King Kong was not the first monster movie, but the best so far. Accordingly, it broke audience records, spawned several direct sequels and, of course, caused countless rip-offs.
The film has had an undeniable impact on the advancement of animation in film and, of course, has left its distinct mark on pop culture. Who doesn’t immediately think of the ape on the Empire Statebuilding when they think of King Kong? Nowadays, probably not even that many people have seen the original, but everyone knows the pictures and illustrations. Fay Wray’s horrified expression, her legendary scream, the shape of Skull Island, all these are timeless relics of film history.
O’Brien was able to work on further King Kong films due to the great success and, as mentioned, even bagged an Oscar for it in 1950. But more importantly, while working on Mighty Joe Young, old animation pioneer Willis O’Brien collaborated with young animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen on one of his first films. In a sense, a passing of the baton among legends. But Harryhausen will be mentioned elsewhere.
King Kong and the Remakes
Of course, it’s clear that there had to be many, many sequels and eventually remakes. The sequels were sometimes more, sometimes less close to the original plot. The old film crew of the original shot two more sequels (Son of Kong,1933 and Mighty Joe Young, 1949). In Japan, the Tōhō studio made its own films in the 1960s, most famous in this country for the Godzilla films. Legendary is for example the title King Kong vs. Godzilla from 1967, which has little to do with King Kong and works as a genuine Kaiju film. Interestingly, the Japanese films will still play a greater role for the present than the originals.
Back to Hollywood! Of course, the giant ape wasn’t forgotten and various remakes were attempted over time. In 1976, a remake was made* that brought the action into the present. The film was produced by Conan producer Dino De Laurentiis and directed by John Guillermin, who made this film after Flaming Inferno and before the legendary Death on the Nile adaptation. With Jeff Bridges (already promising) and Jessica Lange (first ever film role!) also great cast. Everything looked like a success, but the film received a mixed reception. Financially it did okay, a few awards were won by Jessica Lange and technical categories, but the critics were anything but enthusiastic. I find the anecdote nice that a gigantic robot Kong was built especially for the film, but then it was so unconvincing that it hardly appears in the film. The following scene gives a good impression of how Kong was imagined at the time or how he could be staged:
I recently watched the film for the first time and can no longer find access. Between the original and the remake “my time” it remains strangely alien to me, although it is charmingly played and has its beautiful moments. Other things just seem bizarre and strangely embarrassing (see the scene above). Nevertheless, I know of course that he still has many fans and it was certainly an experience to see him in the cinema back then.
Peter Jackson and his favorite monkey
After that, however, there was again many years of silence in Hollywood, until none other than Peter Jackson, after completing the Lord of the Rings saga, realized another heartfelt project with the King Kong remake from 2005*.
Peter Jackson is a big fan of animation in film. None of his films is without special effects, some rather sparse (Heavenly Creatures), but most excessive (think Braindead!). In documentaries, you can see how Jackson is fascinated by Ray Harryhausen and other animation specialists, and even as a child tried to recreate monster movies with his first Super8 attempts. The original King Kong is a major influence on his development and was actually supposed to be filmed before HdR.
I already liked the early Jackson films, but after The Fellowship I was a definite fan and was really looking forward to his vision of King Kong. The fact that Gollum mime Andy Serkis would also play King Kong with the same technique promised great things. To make a long story short: I still love the movie. Even after 17 years I can still watch this King Kong. You can tell how much respect and love Jackson has for the original. The film is a great adventure film that builds on and modernizes the strengths of the original without blurring them. Some of it is perhaps too epic and some scenes could have been shortened. But all the adventures in the jungle are exactly what keep me interested. Despite everything, I think the original is the better film. Jackson’s version I can watch well as an homage and have more fun with it, ultimately I enjoy the effects the most.
The extent of Peter Jackson’s reverence for King Kong is also well illustrated by the following anecdote: The original film contained a scene in which Kong throws the adventurers into a ravine where they are eaten by giant spiders. The scene was shown only once to a test audience, which reacted to it so disturbed (in 1933!) that it was cut out and never used again. In the course of remaking the film, Jackson simply reshot the scene for fun and released it as bonus material. That’s dedication! You can get an idea here:
King Kong and Godzilla
I have been less enthusiastic about the recent approaches to King Kong, which, as mentioned above, can be traced back to the Japanese studio Tōhō. As part of the Japanese films featuring King Kong, the first film to be released was The Return of King Kong in 1962, which was also the third, original Godzilla film and featured the first clash between the two giants. Based on this tradition, the Godzilla remake was made in 2014, which established a new MonsterVerse and allowed the reboot Kong: Skull Island in 2017*.
I have a split opinion on this film. Kong is phenomenally directed and I like the general look of the film. However, it is also superficial and stupid and demands absolutely nothing from its actors. How someone like Brie Larson can give herself up for this can probably only be explained by the check. Still, the film was a success and at least led us to the gigantic clash: Godzilla vs. Kong from 2021.
There’s no question that everyone was looking forward to this movie just for the heck of it. You wanted to see how Godzilla and King Kong beat each other through skyscrapers and lay whole cities in ruins. NATURALLY, any plot from the start could only be exposition for the next melee. Still, I would have liked to have been surprised a bit and not presented with such baloney. But as I said, we all just wanted to see monster headbutts anyway. And that’s what we got. Nevertheless, I don’t care about the film at all. I can only really remember the fight on the aircraft carrier and something inside the earth with a magic axe.
Not a great moment in Kong’s (film) life, but at least I found the monkey much more sympathetic than the titan. Here’s the trailer, which at least gives an impression of the worth seeing aircraft carrier scene:
Kong as a miniature
For my Lost World project, it was clear from the beginning that King Kong would be part of it. The Kong from the original adventure movie, of course, not the later action Kong. There are a few nice models of giant apes that are meant to be more or less Kong. Of course, you have to make big compromises on scale: A monkey scaled for my 28mm tabletop miniatures would be huge. So the model has to be much smaller in proportion, but still believably larger than the human models.
In the end, I decided on “Kabaka Kwana”, the Ape Lord from Reaper Miniatures. He seemed to have the right size, pose and design. The rather hefty price is justified: Kabaka is a solid block of metal, probably the heaviest model I’ve had my hands on myself. There was little to clean up, and assembly (two-piece torso plus all extemities) was quick. I positioned the right raised arm a bit differently with Green Stuff, as I wanted it to look more like a lunge against a human-sized opponent. I also placed the left arm more extended forward, so it looks more dynamically like a wide reaching step. This is the result:
I am super happy with my King Kong model. It does exactly what I hoped it would and makes a great impression next to the other figures in the Lost World project. Maybe one day I’ll have him meet the T-Rex as well?
Homage to Fay Wray
Part of the charm of the original film is, of course, Fay Wray, the actress who plays the “white woman”, that is referenced in the german title “King Kong and the white woman”. Her iconic performance also prompted Naomi Watts in Peter Jackson’s remake to stick closely to that template, no doubt limiting herself to do justice to the homage. My own Kong model was unthinkable without a woman, so I was overjoyed when I stumbled across a matching miniature in a set from Pup Figures completely by accident:
To express beloved movie characters in this way in my collection is always a highlight and makes the most fun of the hobby. I hope you like it too!