Kong: Skull Island marks the return to theaters of one of the greatest American screen monsters, 84 years (and three days) after he changed movie history in the original King Kong. He’s never had a long-running series like the ones we’ve covered for Planet of the Apes or his chief rival to the monster monarchy, Godzilla. But he’s still appeared in a handful of movies, remakes, and sequels, and spawned cartoons, books, comics, ripoffs, and even a stage musical. So it’s still worthwhile to kick off our week of King Kongtent with an overview of the career of Skull Island’s most famous resident.
KING KONG AT RKO
The original King Kong is one of those movies that is so famous and pervasive I’m not sure it really needs summarizing. But just in case, it’s about a filmmaking expedition to a mysterious and dangerous island that, after much adventure and peril, returns to New York with Kong, the island’s most ferocious inhabitant, in captivity. Back in New York, Kong escapes his chains and goes on a rampage that ends in one of the most iconic climaxes in cinema history. (Seriously, if you haven’t seen King Kong, go watch it right now. It’s great!)
King Kong was the brainchild of filmmaker and adventurer Merian C. Cooper. Cooper was a colorful character (a fighter pilot, two time POW, and explorer whose associates ranged from spies to African royalty) and he had already achieved much in his childhood passions of aviation and exploration by the time he became a filmmaker. He had been fascinated by gorillas ever since reading about them in Paul Du Chaillu’s Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa as a young man, and he was more recently inspired by W. Douglas Burden’s 1926 expedition to the Komodo Islands, from which Burden returned with twelve dead Komodo dragons and two live ones. Cooper’s conception of King Kong would ultimately indulge all of his great interests in one project, and the film was set up at RKO with his frequent collaborator Ernest B. Schoedsack, and special effects genius Willis O’Brien. Realizing they could combine Cooper’s vision of an adventure movie featuring gorillas battling Komodo dragons, the impressive jungle sets built for Cooper & Schoedsack’s adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game, a climax with airplanes circling the recently completed Empire State Building, and the spectacular stop-motion creature effects Willis O’Brien had been designing for the never-to-be-completed film Creation, Cooper developed a screenplay with a series of writers in early 1932 (the last of whom was Ruth Rose, Schoedsack’s wife, who incorporated autobiographical detail, changing the expedition’s goal from hunting to filmmaking, and patterning the main characters Carl Denham, Jack Driscoll, and Ann Darrow after Cooper, Schoedsack, and herself). Schoedsack directed the live-action elements on several stages over eight months (Kong and Most Dangerous Game alternated shooting in the jungle sets by day and at night respectively). In that same time, Cooper supervised the special effects sequences as O’Brien and his special effects crew used a broad array of techniques (including stop-motion animation, miniatures, matte paintings, rear-screen projection, optical compositing) to bring the film’s jungles, dinosaurs, and title character to life. When the studio balked at having an original score composed for the film, Cooper paid composer Max Steiner $50,000 for the work (the studio later reimbursed him) and the influence of Steiner’s work on the film (utilizing leitmotifs and recorded with a full orchestra) is still felt today. Released by RKO in March of 1933, the film was a smash, vaulting Cooper to head of production at the studio. King Kong received generally positive reviews and was such a financial success that a sequel was rushed into production under the stipulation that it come out in December the same year (both because the studio was anxious to get it out while Kong was still fresh in the audience’s memory and to head off any ripoff films by their competitors).
The resulting film, Son of Kong, can fairly be characterized as a cheapie cash-in sequel, but that also sells it short. Sure, it’s a footnote to one of the greatest films ever made, but it’s a fascinating and enjoyably strange footnote. Recognizing that it would be impossible to top the original, particularly with the budgetary and time constraints they’d be under, returning screenwriter Ruth Rose noted, “If you can’t make it bigger, make it funnier,” and the film is a much lighter affair than King Kong (literally! in addition to incorporating goofy comic beats among the thrills in the action scenes, the film trades the moody, lush fairy tale look of the original film for a brighter look). Son of Kong picks up shortly after the original film, and follows a chastened Carl Denham (who is now the clear hero of the film, and even gets a romantic story). Ducking process servers, swamped in lawsuits, and hounded by the press, Denham gets a tip from a friend that a grand jury indictment is imminent, and leaves New York with an also returning Captain Englehorn aboard the Venture. They knock around the Pacific delivering cargo, and during a stop in Dakang, they run into Nils Helstrom, the Norwegian skipper Denham got the map of Kong’s island from in the first place. Hellstrom is in his own legal trouble and convinces Denham and Englehorn to return to the island in search of a lost treasure. They’re joined by a young woman, Hilda Peterson, who stows away on the ship and has her own backstory with Hellstrom. In short order, Denham, Englehorn, Hilda, Hellstrom, and Charlie (the cook, and third returning character from the original film) are stranded on Skull Island and encounter the son of Kong. The smaller, goofier, sweeter-natured little Kong is their companion through a brief whirlwind of Skull Island adventures (featuring some dinosaur models that had gone unused in the original film and a few strange additions, like a giant black bear), until he meets his heroic end saving Denham as the entire island crumbles into the sea.
The film wasn’t especially successful and enjoys a somewhat negative reputation, but it is particularly interesting (especially when set against the approach of subsequent takes on the story and characters) less for it’s attitude toward Kong or Skull Island than for its attitude toward Carl Denham.
Everybody knows Kong is a giant gorilla. The character’s origins lie in Merian Cooper’s boyhood fascination with the animals (inspired by the same book, Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa, that instilled in him the dream of becoming an explorer). But even within that basic framework there is room for slight variations that really made that first Kong unique and iconic. For one, Kong’s proportions aren’t exactly those of a gorilla. In part to ease the process of animating the puppet, as well as an effort to maintain his ferocity and keep him from looking comical, his belly and butt are flatter than a typical male gorilla. His posture is more upright, his sagittal crest less pronounced (his head doesn’t have quite the same bullet shape), and his eyes have much more white in them. With the original as a template, that meant that every subsequent take on the character has had to reckon with the decision to make their Kong either more ape or monster (a decision informed and complicated by the techniques used to portray him). The ape suit Kongs that appeared in King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes are of a piece with the design sense in other kaiju/tokusatsu films of the era, with Kongs that walk upright. The suit in King Kong vs. Godzilla is surprisingly mangy looking, with a very inexpressive face, while the one in King Kong Escapes is more charming, with wider eyes and cuter features (perhaps owing to the project’s origins as an adaptation of the animated Kong TV show). As he is portrayed in the King Kong remake from 1976 and its sequel King Kong Lives, Kong tends a little more toward gorilla in its design, but he also still walks upright most of the time. Peter Jackson’s King Kong offers, in some ways, the most radical redesign of King Kong yet because it leans much more toward the gorilla side of the equation. Back are the heavier belly and buttocks, the pronounced sagittal crest, and a hunched forward posture (though you can still see the whites in his eyes). He even has silver coloration in the fur on his back. We’ll get a better look at him this weekend, but the Kong in Kong: Skull Island appears to be swinging the pendulum in the other direction again, with a smaller sagittal crest and more upright posture reminiscent of the original.
Though it is one of the lasting iconic concepts in the film, Skull Island is never referred to by name in the original King Kong. In that movie, only Skull Mountain is named. Furthermore, Denham and Englehorn only refer to it as “Kong’s Island” in Son of Kong. In the 1932 novelization of King Kong by Delos Lovelace that came out in advance of the film, the island is called Skull Mountain Island. In the 1976 remake, the island isn’t given a name, but there is reference to it being “the beach of the skull.” It seems that it was first referred to as Skull Island in RKO publicity materials, but it wasn’t actually codified by that name on film until the 2005 remake.
In the original film, the island’s location is roughly 12°S 78°E, off the coast of Sumatra. It is generally depicted as lying shrouded in a fogbank, and in addition to its exotic animal population it often is depicted with intriguing geological elements (it is unstable and sinking into the sea in Son of Kong, riddled with steaming oil or tar pits in the 1976 film, and volcanic in the 2005 version). The human population is also an atavistic remnant (or later arrival) from the seemingly advance civiliation responsible for building the enormous wall that separates them from the most dangerous animals on the island.
If you want to go yourself to where Skull Island is now, Google Maps now has you covered.
THE SPIDER PIT SCENE
The original King Kong also bears the distinction of having one of the most highly coveted deleted scenes in film. In the film as it now stands, Kong shakes the terrified crewmen off the log during their pursuit of him, reaches down to grab Jack Driscoll out of his hiding place, and is called away to battle by Ann’s screams of terror (she’s being menaced by a T-Rex). In its original conception, after Kong threw the sailors to their doom, we cut down into the pit to see what happened to them. And the answer was that they survived the fall only to be devoured by a variety of horrible creatures (a spider, a cephalopod, a crab, etc.).
There is evidence that the scene was filmed, in the form of stills and puppets, and rumors abound that it was cut because preview audiences found it too horrible to contemplate, even when set against the other thrills and chills on Skull Island. But if the scene was ever completed (and there is further suggestion that it existed at some point in a memo from Merian Cooper where he said the scene should be cut because it “stopped the story”), no copy of the footage has since been found, and it remains a Holy Grail for film fans, on the list with Welles’s cut of The Magnificent Ambersons, or Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight.
Super-fan Peter Jackson not only incorporated the spider scene into his 2005 remake (justifying it in the story by sending Jack and Carl into the pit with the rest of the men), but he also had his team at Weta Workshop shoot an entire recreation of the original sequence as a bonus feature on the King Kong DVD (and Blu-ray).
KING KONG IN JAPAN
In a surge of cinematic-universe-building enthusiasm, Legendary Pictures announced in 2015 that not only were they producing Kong: Skull Island alongside the previously announced sequel to their 2014 Godzilla, but they were also going to make Godzilla vs. Kong for a 2020 release date. Naturally, fans thrilled to the idea of the rematch fifty-eight years in the making, but the announcement was as surprising as the idea is obvious, involving negotiating a bunch of different companies interests (Legendary had to at least figure things out with Toho for Godzilla, Universal for Kong, and Warner Bros as their distributors for these movies). Still, such considerations are par for the course when bringing cinemas two biggest titans together.
Before anybody was talking about pitting Kong against Godzilla, Willis O’Brien was looking to return to the site of his greatest triumph, pitching a sequel to the 1933 original called King Kong vs. Frankenstein, which would have seen Kong battling a giant creature assembled by the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein in the streets of San Francisco. O’Brien hooked up with independent producer Jerry Beck, and when Beck was unable to find interest in the project at RKO or Universal, he took it to Toho (the home of Godzilla) without O’Brien. Toho and Beck made a deal with Universal for American distribution of the film, replaced Frankenstein with Godzilla (marking the first time that either of the two monsters would appear in color on film), and ended up producing the most successful Godzilla film ever.
Representatives from a pharmaceutical company travel to Faro Island in search of a narcotic berry, but they find a native population living in fear of Kong. As the pharmaceutical crew capture him and bring him back to the mainland, Godzilla is accidentally freed from a glacier and also heads toward mainland Japan. From there, we hit the staples of both Kong and Godzilla movies (Kong falls for a woman and climbs a building, Godzilla confounds military attempts to destroy or even corral him), and it all comes to a head at the base of Mount Fuji.
Four years later, Toei Animation, a Japanese animation company, produced The King Kong Show for the American company Rankin/Bass. The show ran for twenty five episodes (including an hourlong pilot) over three seasons, and follows a Kong who befriends a young boy, Bobby Bond, and his family, accompanying them in fighting mad scientists (including the villainous Dr. Who), aliens, and other monsters.
After the smash success of King Kong vs. Godzilla, Toho had first attempted to create a sequel rematching the two creatures. When that didn’t work out, at the behest of Rankin/Bass they developed a King Kong film called Operation Robinson Crusoe, but when that too was rejected, they just replaced Kong with Godzilla. The resulting film, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, retains hints of the swap (Godzilla develops an uncharacteristic crush on Kumi Mizuno’s character, and like the Kong in King Kong vs. Godzilla who is revitalized by electricity, the slumbering Godzilla in Ebirah is revived by a lightning strike). After that, Toho and Rankin/Bass took another shot, this time adapting concepts from The King Kong Show into the 1967 film King Kong Escapes. In the film, while our human heroes run through an abbreviated version of the typical Kong events (Kong fights a carnivorous dinosaur and a serpent and falls for a pretty blonde), Dr. Who’s Mechani-Kong (exactly what it sounds like) malfunctions and proves incapable of mining the dangerous and radioactive Element X. He abducts the real Kong to do the work and, after Kong’s human friends get involved, the film climaxes in a battle between Kong and his robot twin.
After King Kong Escapes, Toho had interest in including Kong in 1968’s kaiju extravaganza Destroy All Monsters, but their rights expired, and Kong and Godzilla (or any of Toho’s menagerie, for that matter) haven’t shared the screen since.
SIDE NOTE: Before the real King Kong came to Japan, there were two lost films that tantalize Kong and kaiju fans alike. Wasei Kingu Kongu (or Japanese King Kong) was made in 1933, and told the story of a poor man who, inspired by the release of King Kong in Tokyo, dresses up as a gorilla and gets a job in a theater, hoping to earn enough money to merit the respect of the rich man whose daughter he wants to marry. And 1938’s King Kong Appears in Edo was a two-part film where a trained gorilla named King Kong is involved in a kidnapping and extortion plot. There is some confusion as to the size of the ape in question, since some publicity stills (the only surviving images from the film) depict the ape as human sized and some depict it as gigantic (and the suit actor referred to it as a “giant gorilla” in an interview in 1988). So it may have been the first daikaiju film, predating Godzilla by sixteen years. Unfortunately, both films are lost.
DE LAURENTIIS’S KING KONG
In 1976, there were actually two rival King Kong remakes being developed. Due to the thorny rights situation surrounding King Kong and King Kong, both Universal Studios and producer Dino De Laurentiis found themselves working on Kong projects. The Universal version was to be a 1930s period film titled The Legend of King Kong, directed by Joseph Sargent from a screenplay by Bo Goldman, starring Peter Falk as Carl Denham. De Laurentiis was working on a modern update, written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. When word got out that Universal was pushing forward to get their film into production and released first, De Laurentiis doubled down himself, starting production with the goal of having the film out by December of 1976. He’d effectively called Universal’s bluff (they cancelled their project and wouldn’t finally exercise their remake rights until 2005).
The De Laurentiis version went forward with director John Guillermin, a cast that included Charles Grodin, Jeff Bridges, and newcomer Jessica Lange, a Kong designed in a collaboration between Carlo Rambaldi and Rick Baker, and a climax set atop the World Trade Center (the new tallest buildings in New York). Baker himself performed inside the Kong suit in the film, and Rambaldi’s team also contributed a forty foot tall mechanical Kong that proved to be more impressive for publicity than for filmmaking (it was difficult to make appear convincing, and only appears in a few shots in the finished film).
The updated story follows an an expedition to search for new oil reserves on a previously undiscovered island (incorporating both the energy crisis and the effect of programs like Landsat on our view of the planet). Charles Grodin’s character, Fred Wilson (the stand-in for Carl Denham), is a greedy oil executive. Jeff Bridges is primate paleontologist Jack Prescott, and Jessica Lange is Dwan, an aspiring actress (Dwan switched the “w” and “a” thinking it’d be more interesting that way). The film hits the main Kong signposts (mysterious wall, the girl abducted for the sacrificial ceremony, Kong is captured and brought to New York in chains, tragic climax on a tall building), but the approach and tone are quite different. Instead of a thrilling adventure film, Di Laurentiis and Semple pursue a lighter, witty tone with notes of camp (Dwan accuses Kong of being a “male chauvinist ape” and asks him his sign). Skull Island is much less populated with fantastic creatures (aside from Kong we see only a quickly dispatched giant snake) and Dwan takes such a liking to Kong that she ends up pleading with him to not put her down before his battle on the World Trade Center. De Laurentiis famously told Time Magazine, “No one cry when Jaws die. But when the monkey die, people gonna cry.” And they gave it an honest try, amping up both the violence (Kong is so drenched with his own bright red blood by the time he succumbs that I find it more disturbing than moving) and the pathos (Dwan reaches out in shock to comfort a dying Kong as he slips past her grasp and falls off the building). And the ending is, if anything, starker than the original. There’s no Denham to deliver tragic perspective about beauty killing the beast (Grodin is stomped right after Kong busts loose), and even Jack and Dwan, both distraught, are unable to comfort each other as they are pulled further apart by the crowds gathering by Kong’s corpse.
The 1976 Kong certainly has elements to recommend it, and it is a satisfying and well-produced monster movie for the era, but in removing the pulp adventure content, they’re left with a movie that, at 134 minutes, feels thinner than the 100 minute original.
Still, De Laurentiis’s King Kong was a great financial success. Of course, it had such a definitive an ending that you’d be forgiven for assuming there wasn’t much room for a sequel. But then I’d tell you that NBC eventually paid De Laurentiis nearly $20 million for television rights for the film and you’d understand why, ten years later, De Laurentiis produced King Kong Lives.
Picking up where the previous film left off (quite literally, the movie opens with the World Trade Center scene from King Kong), we quickly learn that Kong wasn’t dead dead at the end of the film. A medical team led by Dr. Amy Franklin (Linda Hamilton) was able to restore a pulse, and he’s been comatose for nearly the last decade. So long, in fact, that he’s going to need both a new heart (they happen to have completed work on an enormous artificial heart that they’re just waiting to transplant) and a blood transfusion to make up for his deteriorating blood supply. They haven’t been able to identify a donor species, but luckily adventurer Hank Mitchell has just discovered a female Kong in Borneo. She is brought to America and Franklin’s team restores Kong to consciousness. Of course Kong and Lady Kong escape and go on the run together, pursued by the military. Kong is injured and presumed dead, and Lady Kong is brought back to captivity. Kong’s artificial is failing, and it turns out that Lady Kong is pregnant! Can Kong free his lady love, defeat the military forces that are pursuing him, and live long enough to see his child born?
King Kong Lives has a poor (and not entirely unwarranted) reputation. It’s chintzier than the 1976 remake in pretty much every respect, and it’s human characters don’t have the same connection to the Kongs of the film that Dwan did. It also feels perhaps even thinner story-wise than the last film, with a stretch in the movie’s second half where everybody, Kong and human alike, seems to just be waiting around. Still, returning director John Guillermin keeps things moving for the most part, and there are certainly sights that can only be found in this movie (Kong having open heart surgery, Kong in a mutually loving relationship, Kong snacking on alligators like they were pretzel sticks). And if it’s a cheaper film, it matches that vibe with nastier violence. Kong eats a dude and spits out his hat (I couldn’t find a clip on Youtube of the scene where he straight up picks up a man and snaps him in half with a surprising amount of gore). But for all these (admittedly mostly interesting to the Kong Kompletist) virtues, audiences at the time didn’t go for it, and Kong would not live again for nearly thirty years.
PETER JACKSON’S KING KONG
Peter Jackson first attempted to mount a remake of King Kong in 1973. He was twelve years old, and he cut up his mother’s fur coat to provide the fur for his Kong. He eventually abandoned that project, but it resurfaced in a very different context when he was working on The Frighteners for Universal in 1996. He developed a script with the intention of shooting in the summer of 1997, but the project stalled due to a glut of competing projects (Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, Disney’s Mighty Joe Young remake, and Fox’s Planet of the Apes redo that itself wouldn’t surface until 2001). Jackson, of course, went on to direct the Lord of the Rings trilogy, to tremendous commercial and critical acclaim, and finally returned to Kong with an entire homegrown film industry at his disposal and the kind of creative (and, to an extent, financial) blank check that only a success on that level could provide.
The resulting film is a sprawling three hour (the extended cut on DVD & Blu-ray is, at 200 minutes, literally twice as long as the original film) long fantasia of everything Peter Jackson loves about the original King Kong.
The story is essentially the same as the original film. The action returns to the 1930s, and Carl Denham recruits struggling young woman Ann Darrow to join a movie-making expedition to a mysterious island. Once aboard the boat, she meets Jack Driscoll (here a playwright instead of first mate of the ship). The broad strokes of what follows match the contours of the original film (abduction, sacrificial ritual, Kong!, adventures across the island, Kong in chains, rampage in New York, Empire State Building), but Jackson and company embroider each moment with something extra. Sure, each bit of dinosaur action is blown out into a whirlwind setpiece, but even small moments are explored more thoroughly and freighted with additional weight (Ann taking her first step onto the gangplank of the Venture is blown up into an Epic Moment of Great Import). Not all of this directorly enthusiasm is productive. There are whole characters and storylines that just fizzle out (before disappearing from the closing New York section of the film altogether). And despite all of the resources at their disposal, some of the action impresses more in the conception than the execution (I’m looking at you, brontosaur stampede). But the stuff that does work works like gangbusters, and the extended running time makes room for a richer exploration of the emotional story that he sees in the material (so you don’t just get more dazzling Kong fights, but also a series of scenes that tenderly chart the development of Ann’s relationship with Kong). The work that Andy Serkis and the team at Weta did in realizing Kong for the film is really stunning. And there’s a sequence late in the movie where Ann and Kong find themselves alone on the ice in Central Park that is as lyrical and lovely as anything else that year.
Ultimately, as a fantasy adventure film, Jackson’s King Kong satisfies (and even impresses). But for Kong fans, it is essential viewing.
GRANDSON OF KONG
The original King Kong is a foundational text in fantasy and adventure cinema, and while its influence is obvious in films like Valley of Gwangi or Jurassic Park, there’s another thread of its influence that extends to movies as diverse as Chinese/Korean gorilla-plays-baseball movie Mr. Go or E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. This creative lineage runs right through 1949’s Mighty Joe Young. Produced by Merian Cooper, written by Ruth Rose, directed by Ernest Schoedsack, and featuring effects work by Willis O’Brien, the movie’s sweet story of an uncanny friendship between a human and creature provides an irresistable template. If Son of Kong was the kinder, gentler King Kong, then Mighty Joe Young is the kinder, gentler Son of Kong. It tells the story of Jill Young, a young woman raised on a ranch in Africa, who adopts and raises a giant gorilla from infancy (she names it Joseph). When nightclub owner Max O’Hara (played by King Kong‘s Carl Denham, Robert Armstrong) travels to Africa to look for animals to showcase in his new nightclub, he convinces Jill and Joe to come back with him as the star attraction. They prove wildly popular, but as they grow homesick, show business begins to sour for them, and when Joe is taunted by some drunken audience members he lashes out, wreaking havoc in the nightclub. Joe is sentenced to death, and when O’Hara, Jill, and O’Hara’s sidekick (and Jill’s love interest) Gregg break Joe out to save him, they stumble across a burning orphanage, offering Joe a chance to redeem himself through heroism and earning his freedom to return to Africa with Jill and Gregg. It’s a charming film with excellent character animation by a young Ray Harryhausen.
In 1998, Charlize Theron and Bill Paxton starred in a remake of Mighty Joe Young for Disney. Stripping the story of the show business angle and reorienting it as an environmental fable, the movie flopped on its original release and hasn’t exactly been rediscovered in the years since, but as a family film in the vein of the original, it’s pretty good. And it has one truly stellar element to recommend it: Mr. Joseph Young of Africa himself. Accomplished with a combination of suit performing, full-sized animatronics, and digital effects, the 1998 version of Joe is a genuinely impressive creation, worthy of O’Brien and Harryhausen’s work in the original.
KNOCK-OFFS & CURIOS
If Mighty Joe Young is basically an unofficial Kong film, thanks to its shared creative team, there were a handful of films that accompanied the 1976 remake that more directly ape (sorry) the original film, without any such connection. Here’s a sampling of the most notable entries:
Konga, which predates the bumper crop of Kong-ish movies in the late 70s, is a British and American co-production starring Michael Gough as Charles Decker, a botanist who returns from Africa with a method of growing plants and animals to enormous sizes. He experiments on a chimpanzee, using his serum to turn it into a gorilla-sized ape and sends it out to murder his competitors in the scientific community. When he sends Konga to murder an opponent and tries to seduce the dead man’s lover, Decker’s own assistant jealously pumps the chimpanzee with a greater amount of the serum and Konga grabs Decker and goes on a rampage. Konga establishes a nice baseline for King Kong rip offs: not a patch on the original, but offering charms of its own. In this case, Michael Gough gives an enjoyable hammy, malevolent performance.
Queen Kong (1976)
This is a really strange one. A straight-faced Airplane!-style spoof film (four years before Airplane!) telling a gender-flipped story about an all woman film crew that convinces a ditzy blond man, Ray Fay (Robin Askwith, looking pretty Mick Jagger-y), to star in their new jungle movie. Featuring a couple of musical numbers, a Kong with breasts, and a happy ending with Ray and Kong heading back to the jungle together to live in bliss, it’s hard for a modern audience (or maybe even any audience?) to parse exactly whether the movie is mocking feminism or positively glorying in it. Presumably produced to ride the wave of Dino De Laurentiis’s Kong remake, the film wasn’t actually released in its native England (or the United States) due to legal action by De Laurentiis and RKO.
A Korean/American co-production that was expressly rushed into production to take advantage of the 1976 remake, it kind of haphazardly riffs on the Kong story (it begins with the ape already captured aboard a boat, and he later falls in love with a blonde actress). As a film, it’s lurchingly paced and very cheap looking, but there is plenty of giant ape action. It is most notable, however, for its puckish sense of humor. There’s a movie director character named Dino that can’t seem to get the footage he needs, the film opens with the ape killing a great white shark (the year after Jaws), and it has become internet famous for this .GIF of the ape celebrating a victory:
Mighty Peking Man (1977)
This Shaw Brothers movie is justifiably the most well-regarded of the 1976 Kong cash-ins, as it best strikes the balance between satisfying as a movie (you know, something with a story and characters) and the bonkers silliness that all of them indulge in. The film follows a young man who travels to the Himalayas to search for a gigantic ape-man and discovers both the Peking Man of the title as well as his companion, a blonde woman in a fur bikini. He convinces them both to come back to Hong Kong with him, and things go Kong shaped (though the story does take some unpredictable turns on its way there). The model-work in this one puts it a cut above its fellows, and the design of the Peking Man is also unique and interesting when compared to his rubber gorilla mask brethren.
The Mighty Kong (1998)
Definitely in the curio category, this is an animated adaptation of the original film, starring Dudley Moore as Carl Denham and featuring original songs by the Sherman Brothers. And Kong lives in the end.
Kong: The Animated Series (2000-2001)
An animated series that ran for forty episodes over two seasons, the show followed Jason Jenkins, the grandson of a scientist that cloned the original Kong after he fell from the Empire State Building. Using a “cyber-link” that allowed him to merge with Kong, he has to retrieve stolen Primal Stones and defeat a demon. The series was followed by the direct-to-video movies Kong: King of Atlantis in 2005 and Kong: Return to the Jungle in 2007.
King Kong (the 2013 stage musical)
That video is from a musical adaptation of King Kong that opened in Melbourne, Australia in 2013. Its Kong is reportedly the largest puppet ever used on stage, and requires 35 puppeteers to perform. Reviews were unenthusiastic about the book and score, but were quite impressed with the realization of Kong himself onstage. Plans were announced for it to run on Broadway, but they’ve been delayed thanks to both creative changes (the Melbourne production’s director and book writer are no longer involved) and the logistics of mounting the production in a new venue. I’ve got my fingers crossed it makes it over here in some form.
Kong: King of the Apes (2016-Present)
Set in the year 2050, this is a currently running animated series on Netflix in which Kong is framed by an evil scientist for destroying Alcatraz Island’s Natural History and Marine Preserve. He must flee from the authorities and work with some kids to stop the scientist’s plot to terrorize the world with robot dinosaurs. I mean, I’m glad there’s some interest in Kong and all, and maybe I’ll give this a try with my niece, but we’re pretty far afield here.
Whew! Now you’re as prepared as you can be for whatever’s waiting for us on Kong: Skull Island.