Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
King Kong Movies

A number of movies have been based on the premise of 1. In early 1996 it was reported that another remake was on its way, this time from Universal.

1. King Kong US movie (1933). RKO. Exec pr David O Selznick. Dir Merian C Cooper, Ernest B Schoedsack. Chief technician Willis H O'Brien. Screenplay James Creelman, Ruth Rose. Novelizations King Kong * (1932) by Delos W(heeler) Lovelace (1894-1967), King Kong (graph 1970) by Alberto Giolitti – which was a Graphic-Novel version – and an illustrated version, Anthony Browne's King Kong (graph 1994), as by Anthony Browne although the authorship of its text is unclear. Starring Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham), Bruce Cabot (Jack Driscoll), Fay Wray (Ann Darrow) and "King Kong (The Eighth Wonder of the World)". 100 mins. B/w.

Ruthless moviemaker Denham takes his team, including starlet Darrow, to an uncharted Island, legendary home of the god Kong. The Lost Race they find there worships the giant Ape-god, and Darrow is seized from the ship's deck as a Human Sacrifice. Denham's men, led by ship's mate Driscoll, pursue, fighting Dinosaurs in a Tarzan-esque jungle until Driscoll saves her. Kong is captured and shipped back to New York, trained, and put on stage – a scene parodied in Young Frankenstein (1974; > Frankenstein Movies). Flashbulbs terrify the chained, seemingly crucified Monster; he panics, and charges through the streets of New York, creating mayhem. Seizing Darrow, he climbs to the pinnacle of the Empire State Building – a symbol of civilization which dwarfs even the huge jungle king – from where he is shot down by aeroplanes.

KK is a classic of the Cinema, the forefather of the Monster Movie and, arguably, of the Jungle Movie (although in neither case the first), a significant new variation on the old theme of Beauty and the Beast, a triumph (for its day) of spfx . . . It becomes hard to see it for what it is: an extremely good movie. Wray's performance is far better than usually remembered, and the emotional dynamic of the plot far more sophisticated. Kong's touching demonstrations of apparent love for the struggling, shrieking Darrow (or is it only that he's fascinated by this endlessly mobile trinket? or by her blondeness?) are juxtaposed ably with scenes of him thrusting screaming extras into his great maw. It is the triumph of KK that our sympathies come to reside with the monster.

KK's credits acknowledge it to be based on a story by Cooper and Edgar Wallace, but it is unclear how much Wallace, who died in 1932, was involved. KK was hurriedly sequelled by 2, and was remade as 3, in turn sequelled by 4. King Kong Versus Godzilla (1963; > Godzilla Movies) and King Kong Escapes (1967) exploited the name. [JG]

further reading: The Making of King Kong: The Story Behind a Film Classic (1975) by Orville Goldner and George E Turner; On the Other Hand (1989) by Fay Wray (1907-2004).

2. Son of Kong US movie (1933). Radio. Exec pr Merian C Cooper. Assoc pr Archie Marshek. Dir Ernest B Schoedsack. Spfx Willis O'Brien. Screenplay Ruth Rose. Starring Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham), Helen Mack (Helen), John Marston (Helstrom), Frank Reicher (Captain Engelhorn), Victor Wong (Charlie). 69 mins. B/w.

The sequel to 1. Rarely has a direct sequel been so poor compared to its original: in desperation it was billed as "a serio-comic phantasy". The entrepreneur Denham, fleeing from his creditors in New York after the devastation caused by King Kong, returns to Kong Island and discovers a smaller version of the original. An earthquake destroys the island, but Kong Jr saves Denham so that he can marry pretty Helen, picked up along the way. [JG]

3. King Kong US movie (1976). Paramount/Dino De Laurentiis. Pr Dino De Laurentiis. Dir John Guillermin. Spfx Carlo Rambaldi, Glen Robinson, Frank Van Der Meer. Screenplay Lorenzo Semple Jr (1923-2014), published 1977. Based on 1. Starring René Auberjonois (Roy Bagley), Rick Baker (King Kong), Jeff Bridges (Jack Prescott), Charles Grodin (Fred S Wilson), Jessica Lange (Dwan). 134 mins. Colour.

A loving recrafting of 1, rewritten in order to update the story and render the circumstantial details more "plausible": notable differences of detail are that the expedition is mounted by an oil company (Petrox) rather than a movie producer, that there are no Dinosaurs on the island (although a giant Serpent appears), that the actress Dwan – picked up from a sinking pleasure yacht – is somewhat hardbitten rather than an ingenue, that the chief protagonist, Prescott, is a stowed-away primate-sociology professor, and that the denouement involves the twin towers of the World Trade Center rather than the Empire State Building. Oddly, the "realistic" framing has the effect of giving the central plot a greater sense of fantastication than in 1, an effect enhanced by the direction: Guillermin had directed and cowritten Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (1959) and Tarzan Goes to India (1962), and the scenes on the island are distinctly reminiscent of Tarzan Movies, with Bridges in the role of the Jungle Lord. While this is no cinematic landmark, it is a considerable movie, with a sparky screenplay, several good performances and Oscar-winning spfx.

All copies of the UK/Italian sex comedy Queen Kong, released about the same time, were apparently bought by De Laurentiis to avoid perceived competition. [JG]

4. King Kong Lives US movie (1986). De Laurentiis. Pr Martha Schumacher. Dir John Guillermin. Screenplay Steven Pressfield, Ronald Shusett. Starring John Ashton (Nevitt), Peter Elliot (King Kong), Linda Hamilton (Amy C Franklin), Brian Kerwin (Hank Mitchell), George Yiasomi (Lady Kong). 105 mins. Colour.

Little-liked sequel to King Kong (1976), at whose end Kong was, we find, not dead but comatose: a team led by Dr Franklin maintains him on life-support while waiting for the completion of an artificial heart. Indiana Jones-style adventurer Mitchell discovers a female, Lady Kong, and brings her to the USA where she is used to give Kong a blood transfusion as the artificial heart is installed. On recovering, Kong whiffs her pheromones, breaks free and liberates her, and the pair head for the hills. The army under Nevitt recaptures Lady Kong, and Kong is presumed dead; but months later he emerges to storm an army base, free the now pregnant Lady Kong, and see the birth of his son before dying in a hail of bullets. She and child are given a reserve in Borneo in which to find their destiny. [JG]

Addenda
Gary Westfahl comments: "There are no grounds for excluding King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes from your list. These films did not merely 'exploit the name'; both featured KK as a leading character. In fact, the origin of the first movie was a Willis O'Brien proposal for a movie entitled King Kong vs. Frankenstein; but the US producer he approached couldn't get financing and took the project to Japan, where Godzilla got involved. Thus, there is even a direct family linkage between the US films and the Japanese films. Also, while the films were not as good as the US ones, they weren't chopped liver either; King Kong vs. Godzilla is one of the better Honda films, King Kong Escapes featured US actor Rhodes Reason, and both films received theatrical release in the USA."

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.