Sunday, 12 March 2017

Kong to Kong: The screen history of cinema's greatest monster

Back in 1933, 20 years before Godzilla laid claim to the kaiju crown, there was Kong. The brainchild of producer and director team Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Shoedsack, brought to life for RKO Studios by legendary special effects wizard Willis O'Brien, King Kong's ill-fated rampage through the streets of New York City was an landmark moment in Hollywood cinema that went on to spawn countless imitators.





With Kong: Skull Island arriving in cinemas, we take a look through the sizable simian's back catalogue – from the numerous official sequels to the most brazen knock-offs. Here, then, is a comprehensive rundown of the good, the bad, but mostly the ugly cinematic indignities that men in monkey suits have ever suffered in the name of Kong...


King Kong (1933)





Anyone who avoids this film because it is in black and white or because the effects have become somewhat dated, should be forced to sit down and watch it from beginning to end. And then they should be forced to watch the making of documentary released on DVD a couple of years ago so they can see how this film was accomplished without the use of computers courtesy of effects wizard Willis O'Brien.

Created by Merian C. Cooper, who also directs and produces, King Kong tells the story of film director and overall showman Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) who gets a ship to bring him and his film crew to Skull Island to shoot exotic animals, unaware that those animals are made up of prehistoric creatures and a giant ape. Thrown into the mix is a penniless woman, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), who Denham believes can be a star. What develops unexpectedly is a romantic triangle between Darrow, shipmate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) and Kong.

There is some great stuff on the island – particularly Kong's battle with a T-Rex – but things really kick into high gear when Denham has Kong transported back to New York to be revealed as the Eighth Wonder Of The World. Things quickly escalate, culminating with Kong, Darrow in hand, scaling New York's Empire State Building and battling bi-planes with machine guns. In the end, Denham claims it was beauty killed the beast, but we are pretty sure it was the planes. Not to mention falling 102 stories to the sidewalks of 5th Avenue.


Son Of Kong (1933)





Most impressive about this sequel is not the film itself (unfortunately), but the fact that it reached theatres a mere nine months after the release of the original. Quite how they pulled that off is anyone's guess.

Carl Denham (the returning Robert Armstrong) is being sued by pretty much everyone in New York in the aftermath of the Kong fiasco. His solution? To drag the original's ship captain back to Skull Island in pursuit of a treasure that is supposedly there. What they and Hilda Peterson (Helen Mack) find are more dinosaurs and Kong's offspring, a big white gorilla. Considering how frightening the first film was to 1933 audiences, the decision was made to go lighter in tone, substituting humour where possible for horror.

Spoiler alert: The end of the film sees Kong Jr. sacrifice himself to save the humans. Bet that ending would have been different if he knew that Denham was responsible for his father's death.


King Kong Vs Godzilla (1962)





Here is an idiot ahead of his time – the head of Pacific Pharmaceuticals wants to advertise his products on better TV shows, so he comes up with the brilliant idea of having a couple of hapless fools retrieve a giant monster in the hope of creating more entertaining programs. Inadvertently freeing Godzilla from an iceberg, they also encounter a giant octopus by Faro Island, but are saved by King Kong (Shoichi Hirose in a terrible costume), who then decides to drink red berry juice and conveniently falls asleep. They start transporting him to Japan via huge raft, unaware that Godzilla is attacking the country (again). Kong awakens, gets off the raft and goes to battle Godzilla.

They fight, Godzilla looks like he is winning, but Kong gets recharged by grabbing power lines (don't ask), and ends up victorious, swimming back to Faro Island.

Plans are currently underway at Warner Bros for a remake in 2020.


The King Kong Show (1966)

A Saturday morning cartoon that almost defies explanation (but we'll give it a shot). On Mondo Island, young Bobby Bond is rescued by Kong from a T-Rex attack. From that point onward (for twenty-four episodes), Bobby, his family and Kong get involved in a variety of adventures going up against mad scientists, dinosaurs and even a robot Kong doppelgänger.

The show does have the distinction, however, of being the first anime series an American company commissioned from Japan.


King Kong Escapes (1967)





Incredible as it may seem, the animated The King Kong Show was successful enough that it inspired a live-action Japanese adaptation. As things unfold, Dr. Who (not that one) creates a mechanical version of Kong and ends up going into battle against the real Kong, the climax taking place on Tokyo Tower rather than the Empire State Building. This time out it is Haruo Nakajima in yet another appalling Kong costume.


King Kong (1976)





This production by Dino De Laurentiis garnered a lot of publicity at the time, but it ultimately something of a campy affair – not that surprising when you consider the screenplay was by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., one of the primary writers from the Adam West Batman TV series. Modernised, this time the ship that goes to Skull Island is the property of an oil magnate (Charles Grodin) seeking out new petroleum deposits. Counter culture paleontologist Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), who has stowed away on the ship, warns them of the creatures they will face at their destination. En route they come across an actress who has survived a shipwreck, Dawn (Jessica Lange in her film debut).

Things kind of unfold in traditional fashion – arrival on the island, introduction of Kong (Rick Baker in an effective suit), rescuing of Dawn – with events climaxing in New York, only instead of the Empire State Building, Kong climbs the Twin Towers (retrospectively poignant), and is shot down by machine gun fire from helicopters.

A particular low point (yet somehow summing up the film) sees Dawn calls Kong a male chauvinist ape.


King Kong Lives (1986)





Somehow Kong survived the fall from the Twin Towers, and even more improbably the decision is made to try and save him. Nearly a decade passes with him in a coma induced by Dr. Amy Franklin (Linda Hamilton) due to heart issues. Eventually he is given an artificial heart, but he is in need of a blood transfusion. Coming to the rescue is adventurer Hank 'Mitch' Mitchell (Brian Kerwin), who ventures into Borneo and captures a female giant ape given the name Lady Kong. The blood transfusion works, and the two apes make a break for freedom. Enter army colonel Archie Nevitt (John Ashton), who leads the hunt to destroy them (which begs the question of why Kong was saved in the first place). Things don't improve from there.


Kong: The Animated Series (2000)

You have got to give these people credit for coming up with unique twists on King Kong (unique doesn't necessarily translate to effective). This forty-episode animated show has a scientist create a clone of Kong, the ape's DNA supplemented by that of her grandson, Jason. He utilises a cyber-link to essentially mind merge with Kong so that they can fight the forces of evil. The show spawned a pair of animated DVD films, Kong: King Of Atlantis (2005) and Kong: Return To The Jungle (2007).


King Kong (2005)





Of all of the follow-ups to the original, Peter Jackson's film is arguably the most worthy, and in many ways extremely underrated. The major plot points remain the same, but with Weta Digital providing the astonishing visual effects, strong performances by Jack Black as Carl Denham, Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow, Adrien Brody as Jack Driscoll – this time the screenwriter of Denham's film who falls in love with Darrow – and Andy Serkis providing the performance capture as Kong, creating a genuinely fierce yet vulnerable take on the character.

In fact, beyond the spectacle and effectively capturing the feel of 1930s' New York towards the end, what soars about this film is the connection created between Darrow and Kong, particularly the way they communicate through sign language. There is even a moment when the two of them are on the Empire State Building, the sun rising as Kong signs the word 'beautiful', to which a tearful Darrow agrees. It makes the assault on him mere moments later that much more heartbreaking.


Kong: King Of The Apes (2016)

Yet more animation, this time on Netflix, kicking off with a two-hour movie and twelve half-hour episodes. The premise, set in 2050, has Kong accused of attacking a preserve on Alcatraz Island, but it turns out that he was framed. The culprit is an evil scientist who has created an army of robot dinosaurs, and humanity's only hope is, of course, King Kong, who teams up with three kids to fight the scientist and his minions. Produced by former Marvel honcho Avi Arad.


Kong: Skull Island (2017)





Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (Kings Of Summer), the latest Kong adventure takes place in 1973 and finds a group of explorers – including Tom Hiddleston (Thor: The Dark World), Brie Larson (The Spectacular Now), Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), Samuel L. Jackson (Django Unchained), John Goodman (Argo) and John C. Reilly (Savages) – heading to the mysterious, misty island and encountering the titular giant ape.

With a script that has seen work by Max Borenstein (Godzilla), John Gatins (Real Steel), Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) and Derek Connolly (Jurassic World), the film itself is set for a 10 March release in the UK and US. Originally set up by Legendary Pictures at current partner Universal Pictures, the movie recently shifted back to the production company's old home Warner Bros, with Legendary hoping to spark a franchise that will eventually see Kong square off against Godzilla.

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