Few characters in movie history have had the longevity of King Kong. In less than a dozen films, a few animated offerings, and a handful of print media, Kong has become part of the lexicon to such a degree that even people who have never seen a single frame of the films know his name. It all started in a studio in 1933.
King Kong was conceived by filmmaker Merian C Cooper. Cooper said the idea of a giant ape terrorizing New York City came to him in a dream and he liked it so much that he decided to make it into a film. This idea is not unprecedented. There is a long tradition of jungle films that generally follow the pattern of an explorer or scientist that enters the jungle and discovers a monstrosity. This basic premise was the building block that would become the 1933 version of King Kong which we will discuss in detail (along with the franchise’s rich history) below.
Let us begin with five of the mightiest King Kong collectibles and toys!
Released by X-Plus
This 11.4 x 11.2 x 5.6 inches figure is one of the few representations of King Kong in his 1933 film incarnation. His upright stance, equal length arms and legs and all over weight distribution makes him “unlike man or beast” as Merian C. Cooper once put it. His wide eyes and expressive face add to the almost human look and it’s that heavy brow and conical head which give the creature more of a missing link look. The wild hair that covered the film version is smooth and sculpted in this small but interesting PVC figure.
Released by Sideshow Collectibles
This replica statue was created based on the collection of special effects wizard / monster maker / film historian Bob Burns. It shows the armature that existed underneath the rubber and fur stop-motion model used to create King Kong’s performance as orchestrated by Willis O’Brien and his effects team. The armature is an identical recreation of the original with flexible fingers, jointed jaws, and period appropriate screws and tool marks as are present on the original. The replica has even been aged and weathered to be an appropriate representation of the original object. The “T-Rex Battle” Armature is a great representation of a one of a kind original.
Released by Polar Lights
This 9-inch model kit features King Kong from the 1933 film standing triumphantly over a defeated T-Rex in the swamp of Skull Island. Kong stands with his foot on the neck of the dead dinosaur and is beating his chest while looking into the sky. The conical head, furrowed brow and flattened features of the original hold out but this Kong bears his teeth in a triumphant growl. The uniform fur and the scales on the figure make this kit superior to most of the fully sculpted figures and sculptures out today.
Released by McFarlane Toys
This 14 x 13 x 6 figure is a representation of the 1976 King Kong down to the “chrome steel” chains and metallic presentation stand. Complete with Dwan (the ‘70’s Fay Wray analog) in a tight red dress, there is nothing happy or empathetic about this Kong. His teeth are bared and his eyes are flashed with red. This version is an amalgam of the film Kong and what a true gorilla looks like. The arms are longer than the previous version with longer fingers. The toes are longer, more jointed, and the big toe is pulled away. Also the molded fur shows a more natural pattern than the previous version. Additionally, this Kong has been through hell. There are scratches and scars all over his body that shows life on Skull Island was no picnic. This is a figure that I actually own having bought it during a visit to New York City at the FAO Schwartz toy store for my collection.
Released by Weta Collectibles
The 8 x 11 x 13 statue is based on Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong reboot. After escaping his confinement on the Broadway stage and then pursuit by the police and the army, Kong climbs with Ann to the top of the Empire State Building. Attacked by bi-planes, Kong leaps up and grabs one by its wing and spins it around causing it to crash. The details on the sculpt here is amazing. The Jackson Kong is much closer to a true gorilla with a barreled chest, long muscled arms and shorter but strong legs. The lean of the figure as it extends up into the plane makes the figure look very dynamic and even the small and intricate details like the tiny windows and ladder rungs on the building top and the soon to be doomed pilots make this an unforgettable piece.
Now that we’ve walked through the standout collectibles, let’s take a look at the history of King Kong!
King Kong: The Eighth Wonder of the World
In the 1933 film, filmmaker Carl Denham secures the steamship Venture for his latest expedition but is unable to secure an actress. He stumbles across the homeless Ann Darrow and invites her on the adventure of a lifetime. After weeks of secrecy, Denham reveals that their destination is Skull Island where a mysterious entity called Kong exists.
Denham, his film crew, and Ann land on the island and find a native village set behind a massive wall. Inside, they find the natives about to sacrifice a young woman to Kong as his “bride.” The chief spots them and angrily halts the ceremony and upon seeing the blond-headed Ann, offered the crew six of the village women. They rebuffed the villagers and returned to the ship. In the night, villages sneak onto the ship and kidnapped Ann. They tied her to an altar outside the wall and summon Kong who is revealed to be a giant gorilla-like animal that walks on two legs.
Kong takes Ann away and is soon pursued by Denham, Driscoll, the ship’s first mate that had fallen in love with Ann during the voyage, and a number of the crew. All are killed in incidents with dinosaurs that also roam the island except Denham and Driscoll. Driscoll continues to pursue Kong and Ann and Denham return to the ship for more weapons. Driscoll manages to rescue Ann and return to the village, where Denham has set a trap to now capture the pursuing Kong with gas. They capture Kong and bring him to New York.
Denham creates a theatre production where the chained Kong is revealed and Ann and Driscoll are brought on stage. Kong sees the frenzy of flash photography as an attack on Ann and breaks free. Everyone flees and Kong rampages through the city trying to find Ann and finally captures her again and climbs to the top of the Empire State Building. Armed bi-planes fire at Kong, who puts Ann down to fight them and finally falls off the building and dies, prompting the famous line “It was beauty that killed the beast.”
This movie was a true success for the time. It has now spawned two direct reboots and a couple of sequels, each with their own unique interpretations and cultural mores that were a product of their times.
In the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis reboot, which is set in the then present day, the team went to Skull Island in search of oil and the male protagonist is a primate paleontologist and environmentalist. At the end, Kong climbs the newly constructed World Trade Center.
In the “more faithful” 2005 Peter Jackson reboot, Denham was an unscrupulous filmmaker, Driscoll was a writer and Ann was a strong willed and assured woman who empathized with Kong. Even Kong himself was more three-dimensional and nuanced than previous incarnations. He wasn’t just a rampaging beast; he was seemed introspective and playful. And he was decidedly more gorilla like than the mostly up-right walking previous Kongs.
The upcoming 2017 Kong: Skull Island will be set in the seventies in Detroit, which will undoubtedly inform that story, but may also be informed by the time it is made. Even the 2013 stage play, while set in the Great Depression, features a contemporarily strong woman. The sequels, however, always seemed to go far afield. In the direct sequel to the 1933 film, Denham returned to Kong Island to find Kong had a son. In a 1986 sequel to the 1976 film, Kong survived his fall, a female giant ape was discovered and she gave him a blood transfusion. The two mated and had a son. In a 1962 Japanese created film and a remake set to be released in 2020, Kong fought his fellow giant monster counterpart, Godzilla. Because it was based in Japan, King Kong lost of course.
In each of the three Kong animated series, 1966’s The King Kong Show, 2000’s Kong: The Animated Series and 2016’s Kong – King of the Apes (currently airing as a Netflix original series), King Kong is practically domesticated and helps a family or team fight evil, monsters and even crusades for the environment. In nearly every instance, Kong was a more anthropomorphized creature than one that shows the characteristics of a true gorilla.
Just How Big Is King Kong?
One of the most unusual occurrences throughout the films is the ever changing size of King Kong. In the original film, Merian Cooper imagined Kong to be 40 or 50 feet tall, but stop motion animator Willis O’Brien scaled Kong to be 18 feet on Skull Island and 24 feet in New York City. Cooper played with the perspective of the film to make Kong appear to be 60 feet tall.
When they needed the bust for the close-up of Kong’s head, it was scaled to be that of a 40 foot ape and the mechanical hand and arm would belong to that of a 70 foot ape. Cooper was well aware of the size differences and didn’t care. He believed that viewers would be enthralled with Kong and not consider his size.
In the 1976 remake, Kong was 42 feet on Skull Island and 55 feet in New York City. Its unfortunate the sequel saw Kong going up to 60 feet and mostly walk on his knuckles.
In an interest to be more “realistic”, Peter Jackson and his Weta Digital crew created a fictitious species called Megaprimatus Kong, which was an offshoot of Gigantopithecus. This Kong was scaled to be consistently 25 feet tall and was much more gorilla like in his movements.
A Few Closing Thoughts On Kong
A lifelong love of monkeys and apes, monsters, and a slightly sad and sappy story means that I never had a chance when it comes to King Kong. Even the laughably bad sequels and the oversimplified animated series draw in each time because I just love Kong. I own five movie poster replicas and the aforementioned NYC purchased King Kong figure and it didn’t stop there. I was also drawn to the lesser and smaller ape films like Mighty Joe Young and its 1998 remake. I was drawn to the Planet of the Apes films (learn more) and have watched every Tarzan film ever made. Heck, I even liked George of the Jungle with Brendan Frasier!
Julius Schwartz probably didn’t actually say that “gorillas on the cover equaled sales”, but that didn’t stop me from buying every issue of any comic book with a gorilla on the cover, especially if it was Titano (fighting Superman) or Detective Chimp or Angel and the Ape solving crimes. I was never more worried for the Justice Society than when they had to battle the albino ape Ultra-Humanite or when the Flash had to fight Gorilla Grodd. Put a monkey on your cover and you have definitely sold a copy to me.
If I was a far smarter person, I’m sure that I could come up with some psychological reason for my love all things monkey (which I do use as a blanket term of all apes) but they are just cool to look at, both in real life and on the screen. As long as people keep making interesting stories with apes on the screen, specifically apes named Kong, I’ll be right there in the top row waiting.