Kong is more than just a monster and a star of blockbuster movies. He’s a pop cultural icon who has had a lasting impact on the entertainment industry in some ways that may be surprising. So it’s worth exploring his rise to fame.
His first screen appearance was in the movie King Kong (1933) starring Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack and released by RKO Radio Pictures. The plot of the film involved a wildlife filmmaker who charters a ship to a place called Skull Island where the legendary Kong is rumored to dwell. After some encounters with the island natives and some dinosaurs, the crew finds and captures the giant gorilla and brings him to New York City where he is advertised as the Eighth Wonder of the World, but he soon breaks free and runs loose in the Big Apple causing mayhem.
The directors Cooper and Schoedsack first met each other in 1918 and worked together at the New York Times, but they decided to collaborate on the much more creative endeavor of filmmaking instead, first working together during the mid-1920s, one of their earliest hits being the 64-minute silent film Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927) which was shot in the actual wilderness and even got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. The duo later collaborated on war film The Four Feathers (1929), the semi-documentary Rango (1931) and the horror film The Most Dangerous Game (1932) about a twisted big game hunter who strands a bunch of yacht passengers on an island and hunts them for sport. However it was the success of Chang and Rango, two wildlife-focused features that prominently featured simians, which led to Kong, a character who was first imagined by Merian C. Cooper, a man whose fascination with gorillas goes back to his childhood when he would read books about the creatures which featured such descriptions as “extraordinary” and “invincible.” What better subject for an exciting Hollywood movie? He conceived the idea while filming The Four Feathers in Africa.
Cooper first intended to make a terror film about a gorilla but the idea to make it a giant gorilla who ends up climbing the Empire State Building was always in his mind before he even wrote the story. Going back and forth with stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien on whether he should be an ape or a half-man/half-monster or some kind of missing link, Cooper named the beast Kong and proposed that name be the film title as well, but RKO production head David O. Selznick added “King” to the title to differentiate the action adventure film from docudramas like Chang.
The special effects were some of the most groundbreaking aspects of the film, implementing stop motion, miniatures and matte paintings as well as models. Getting a stop-motion-animated giant gorilla to interact with human actors in the pre-digital age was not easy but it was achieved impressively for its time and the sense of scale, danger and brutality all the monsters in that movie convey is believable enough when you’re aided by Max Steiner’s melodramatic score and Fay Wray’s screaming. That Steiner score, by the way, was very different from typical film scores. The score for King Kong was not only the first feature-length score for an American talkie but it was also the first film score to be thematic rather than passive background music.
On a budget of less than $700,000, King Kong was a box office hit that earned over a million dollars upon its initial release and eventually $5 million total. Plus it was acclaimed by film critics, with publications such as the Chicago Tribune declaring it a thrilling and original novelty while the New York Times hailed it as a fascinating adventure.
The film was such a huge hit that a sequel had been released months later that same year titled The Son of Kong, although it was clearly a blatant cash grab that got mixed reviews. Schoedsack and Cooper would have a better artistic success with Mighty Joe Young (1949) which also featured a loveable gorilla, this time animated by Ray Harryhausen. Kong himself would not appear on screen again until 1962 when Toho borrowed the character for the Japanese kaiju film King Kong vs. Godzilla directed by Ishirō Honda of Godzilla fame. That crossover film was such a hit that it encouraged Toho to continue making Godzilla films consistently, and like Kong, the Godzilla film series has not slowed down to this day.
After that, another Japanese studio, Toei Animation, teamed up with American animation producers Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass to produce The King Kong Show (1966-69). That show aired on Saturday mornings on ABC and was the first anime series produced in Japan for an American company. Rankin/Bass would also team up with Toho on Ishirō Honda’s follow-up film King Kong Escapes (1967) which was loosely based on Rankin and Bass’s Saturday morning cartoon version of Kong and featured a battle between Kong and a robotic Mechani-Kong.
After that came an American remake of the original film in 1976 directed by John Guillermin and starring Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin and Jessica Lange. It featured modernized mechanical effects by Carlo Rambaldi (who later became famous for his Oscar-winning visual effects on Alien and E.T. ) and makeup effects by Rick Baker. It was a box office hit and Guillermin would again direct its sequel released a decade later called King Kong Lives (1986) starring Linda Hamilton and Brian Kerwin, although that one got critically panned and flopped at the box office.
Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson would have better luck with his version in 2005 featuring Andy Serkis as the motion capture performer behind Kong and starring Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Colin Hanks and Jamie Bell. This one had the biggest scale and the best special effects, and it is still one of the most expensive films ever produced to this day, but thankfully most audiences and critics liked it.
Universal planned to make a sequel to that film with Legendary Pictures called Skull Island, but Legendary moved the project to Warner Bros. in 2014 the same year Legendary teamed up with WB to make Godzilla, so that they could make an eventual Godzilla/Kong crossover. In 2017, WB released Legendary’s Kong: Skull Island, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts and featuring an all-star cast that included Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman and Brie Larson. This was Legendary’s second film in their cinematic MonsterVerse after Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, and it continued with Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) and Godzilla vs. Kong (2021). The MonsterVerse has gotten mixed reactions, but Kong shines in both of his films. Plus Godzilla vs. Kong director Adam Wingard is currently at work on that film’s sequel.
Kong had ups and downs in his film career but his track record on the small screen was worse. I already mentioned the anime King Kong series from the sixties which was far from great, but Warner Bros. once produced an animated musical film called The Mighty Kong (1998) which featured the voices of Jodi Benson and Dudley Moore and songs by The Sherman Brothers. It was released straight to video and became instantly forgettable (for those who know it exists). After that came a second TV show called Kong: The Animated Series, which was produced by German company BKN, animated by the French studio Ellipsanime and aired briefly in 2001 on Fox Kids. Then came the negatively received computer-animated Netflix series Kong: King of the Apes (2016-18) produced by Marvel Studios co-founder Avi Arad and Allen Bohbot of 41 Entertainment. These were all underwhelming but there’s still hope on the horizon because Netflix and Legendary have planned to team up for an anime-style series called Skull Island which will be made by Powerhouse Animation, the studio behind Castlevania, Blood of Zeus and Masters of the Universe: Revelations. Plus a live-action series is in the works for Disney+ as well. With the current climate of TV production, both of those projects could easily be cancelled at any time, but I doubt we’ve seen the last of Kong on the small screen.
In addition to film and television, the character has had a long life in literature, theater, theme parks and games, and Kong has served as an inspiration for other popular fictional characters like Godzilla, the barrel-throwing Donkey Kong and pretty much every fictional giant monster rampaging through a city you ever see. Kong started all that. He’s to giant monsters what Superman is to superheroes. He truly deserves the title of “King. “