The Strange Prehistory of 1995’s Congo

It was a camp classic in 1995, but did you know Congo was once going to be made in the early '80s with a real gorilla and Sean Connery?

“Congo is a dead project that will never be made” – Michael Crichton, 1983

Just about everywhere you looked in the summer of 1995, a pair of simian eyes stared back at you from the poster of Congo. Based on the best-selling Michael Crichton novel, Congo was billed as that year’s equivalent of Jurassic Park – another exciting creature feature with cutting-edge special effects and maybe just a tiny dash of horror.

“It’s a little like Alien at the beginning,” enthused director Frank Marshall, “in that it’s based in science fact, and like Indiana Jones at the end, with the lost city of Zinj.”

Determined to push Congo as a must-see summer film capable of competing with such rival pictures as Batman Forever and Disney’s Pocahontas, also out that year, Paramount launched an aggressive marketing campaign, reported at the time to be worth somewhere in the region of $12 million. Promotional tie-ins with Taco Bell and Pepsi pushed the advertising spend to about $97 million. As a result, Congo and its gorilla poster was on everything from bottles of cola to billboard posters to a new-fangled thing called the internet.

“You have to seem to be every place,” Paramount’s marketing boss Arthur Cohen told the Associated Press at the time. “You have to make the American public believe that they’re not good people if they don’t go to this movie.”

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The only cloud on the horizon, as far as the movie’s box office takings were concerned, was that critics were roundly scornful of Congo and its high-camp revival of old jungle adventure movies. Where Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park had been largely greeted with praise two years earlier, reviews for Marshall’s $50 million film contained words like “dreadful,” “goofy” and “second rate.”

Arthur Cohen had a response for this, too: “Congo is not about reviews.”

These days, Cohen might have said, “We made Congo for the fans.” 

At any rate, Cohen’s marketing campaign meant that he ultimately had the last laugh: Congo gave Paramount its largest opening weekend of all time up to that point, and eventually went on to make $150 million worldwide – a drop in the ocean compared to Jurassic Park, but a success all the same. But while all the advertising drums were sounding through the summer of ’95, one voice remained oddly silent: Congo’s original author, Michael Crichton.

Some journalists assumed Crichton was just off somewhere else, alternately counting his millions or busying himself with another project. Of the author and filmmaker, Congo producer Kathleen Kennedy – and wife of director Frank Marshall – simply said, “Michael sold the rights to the book years ago. He’s not involved with this movie.”

Oscar-winning screenwriter John Patrick Shanley, when asked whether he’d met with Crichton before adapting the author’s book, merely offered: “I guess we hang out at different restaurants.”

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There may have been a very good reason for Crichton’s silence: over a decade earlier, he’d planned to direct Congo himself.

By the late 1970s, Michael Crichton was enjoying the kind of career that most writers could only daydream about. His novel The Andromeda Strain had been adapted into a hit movie of the same name, directed by Robert Wise in 1971. Two years later, Crichton made his debut as a film director with Westworld – also a huge success. As a result, Crichton found himself in the unusual position of being in demand as a novelist, screenwriter and director; in 1979, he even adapted one of his own novels, The Great Train Robbery, which starred Sean Connery.

The experience on that movie was so positive that Crichton began writing a screenplay specifically so he and Connery could work together again – a jungle adventure called Congo, which paid homage to such pulp writers as H Rider Haggard. Like Westworld, which was a high-tech reworking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Congo would mix the old with the new.

Congo is a modern-day version of King Solomon’s Mines,” Crichton explained in 1980. “Besides updating the traditional story, I wanted to make use of the research on sign language for primates.” 

Congo was still only a title and a vague concept when he pitched it to 20th Century Fox producer Frank Yablans in 1979, and yet Crichton’s clout was such that he was handed $1.5 million in exchange for its rights. That paycheck was so huge, in fact, that the normally prolific Crichton wound up with a chronic case of writer’s block. Determined to get it done, he spent hour after hour lying in an isolation tank, gradually formulating his adventure story in the pitch darkness.

By the time Crichton spoke to the LA Times about Congo in 1980, the novel was written and due to be published by Knopf that August, while filming was set to commence on Congo: the movie in 1981. Although Crichton didn’t spell it out at the time, it seems likely that the role written for Sean Connery was Charles Munro, an archetypal “great white hunter” akin to H. Rider Haggard’s hero, Allan Quatermain. 

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read more: The Underrated Movies of 1995

As with many of Crichton’s previous novels, Congo soon went rocketing up the charts, and the way seemed to be paved for a hit movie. The plan appeared to be that Crichton would move straight onto Congo once he’d finished up on the sci-fi thriller, Looker, which came out in 1981. Fox were certainly happy with the adapted screenplay Crichton had written, but then the production hit a problem: Crichton was adamant that they use a real ape to play Amy, a gorilla capable of communicating via sign language.

Congo requires four characters,” Crichton said a few years later, “and one is an animal who’s on screen all the time for the whole movie. She better be charming and you better not see human eyes. You can’t have Rick Baker in a monkey suit.”

Determined to cast a real gorilla as Amy, Crichton and his team began hunting around for an ape capable of co-starring in a major Hollywood picture. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the drew a blank.

“…we went into pre-production and discovered that there were no gorillas at all anywhere in the world which were available for work in a film,” Crichton told Starlog magazine in 1984. “There are some gorillas used in research. We attempted to hire them and we couldn’t. Gorillas aren’t like chimps at all. They are an endangered species.” 

Unwilling to compromise on his ideal of not using an actor in a suit to play Amy, Crichton made the unusual move of recommending to Fox that it pull the plug on Congo.

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“I didn’t know what else to do,” Crichton said. “Spend $20 million and make a bomb?”

Fox, on the other hand, had other ideas; it wanted to press on with Congo without Crichton if necessary. According to Starlog, Fox “let Crichton go” and handed the project over to Steven Spielberg.

While it isn’t clear how long Spielberg spent deliberating over Congo, it seems that he at least considered it, since he thought he could bring Amy to life with the same kind of technology he used on E.T. and Jaws.

“I’ve had lots of success with mechanical creatures,” Spielberg said.

“Yes, Steven, but this isn’t a fish,” Crichton replied.

“If you really sit down and look at the problem and the requirements,” Crichton later added, “it’s worse than E.T. by a long shot, in terms of pulling it off. E.T. can be whatever E.T. wants to be, but a gorilla is a gorilla. We’ve all seen gorillas.”

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Eventually, Spielberg passed, and Congo was offered around to other Hollywood directors at the time – John Carpenter and Peter Hyams were two names dropped by Starlog – before the project was quietly put on the backburner. By 1983, Crichton was busy making the Tom Selleck sci-fi thriller Runaway, and as far as he was concerned, “Congo is a dead project that will never be made.”

Four years later, however, Crichton seemed to be making a fresh attempt to get Congo on the screen – with Sean Connery still in the lead. Crichton had just published his latest novel, Sphere, by 1987, and he claimed that “The movie’s finally going to be made this year.” 

Once again, though, Congo refused to happen; the project disappeared without trace, and Crichton went on to direct one more feature – the thriller Physical Evidence – instead.

Congo languished in Fox’s vaults for the next five years, until Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall brought the rights in December 1992; by this point, the buzz surrounding Jurassic Park – also produced by Kennedy – was already building, and Paramount was understandably keen to have its own piece of high-concept Crichton.

Paramount was certainly keen to sell Congo as a cutting-edge visual effects movie in the Jurassic Park vein; in February 1995, the LA Times hungrily snapped up the story of a bizarre meeting at Viacom, the Wall Street-based giant that had recently added Paramount to its bulging portfolio. In a room full of hard-nosed executives, Paramount Pictures boss Sherry Lansing stood up and reportedly uttered the following:

“You all know about Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford. Now, I want you to meet Paramount’s newest star.”

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In a scene reminiscent of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, a door then swung open and in walked Amy the gorilla. As told by the Times, the people in suits stood bolt upright and began glancing around at each other. “Okay guys,” Lansing said as the ape started walking around the boardroom, “she’s nervous around strangers so be careful.”

“They were all a little startled at first when Sherry brought a gorilla into the room,” Kathleen Kennedy said of the meeting. 

This story, which took up almost a third of a page of a broadsheet newspaper, might have implied that audiences were in for the kind of gob-smacking ape effects that Crichton couldn’t hope to muster in the early ’80s. After all, if an “electronically controlled gorilla” could fool a bunch of highly-paid executives, wouldn’t an average movie-goer be convinced that an ape could talk? That four-time Oscar winner Stan Winston was behind Amy’s design also seemed to imply that Congo really could side-step the unconvincing actors in suits that had long struck the fear of god into Crichton.

That Congo was being sold on its special effects rather than its cast was certainly telling. Sean Connery was nowhere to be seen by the time the movie went into production in the 1990s; by the time John Patrick Shanley had rewritten the screenplay, the role of the adventurer Charles Munro was renamed Munro Kelly, and was played by Ernie Hudson out of Ghostbusters.

Interestingly, newspaper reports briefly suggested that Tommy Lee Jones might join the cast at some point, but this never happened, either. Instead, Congo was populated by such actors as Dylan Walsh, Laura Linney and Tim Curry, while smaller roles went to Bruce Campbell, Delroy Lindo and Joe Pantoliano – solid character actors rather than Hollywood A-listers.

For the most part, and despite some extraordinary accents from Hudson and Curry, the human cast were largely upstaged by Amy and the film’s various other gorillas.

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“Most movie gorillas have human eyes,” Marshall enthused of his film’s apes, “but we used a real mountain gorilla’s skull and duplicate eyes.” 

As it turned out, film critics weren’t as easy to fool as Viacom’s higher-ups. They tittered at the sight of Amy sitting on a plane, Martini in hand. They guffawed at Tim Curry’s bizarre outbursts (“Stop eating my sesame cake!”) and gasped at the clod-hopping script; Ernie Hudson‘s character is introduced by breezily telling us, “I’m your great white hunter for this trip, though I happen to be black.”

As a B-movie that happens to be made with a $50 million budget, Congo remains a goofy delight. But despite Stan Winston’s best efforts with Amy, the movie’s pretty much as unrealistic as Crichton feared it would be back in 1980. By the final act, the screen’s awash with actors in hairy suits pretending to die from machine gun wounds. It’s all a far cry from Jurassic Park.

Then again, maybe a movie about explorers and a talking ape seeking a lost kingdom was always going to be tricky to translate to the big screen without it looking at least a little camp. Of the version of Congo that emerged in ’95, Frank Marshall himself may have summed it up best. “I think people think this is going to be a serious thriller, but there’s some mystery, intrigue and unexpected humor…” 

Whether it’s unexpected or unintended, it’s that humor that turned Congo from a ’90s event into an enduring cult oddity.