King Kong On Film: The Original To Skull Island


by Ed Gross |
Published on

It's hard to keep a good ape down, proof of that coming from the current release of Kong: Skull Island, which returns King Kong to the big screen for the first time since 2005. That being said, the giant gorilla, who made his debut in 1933, has been represented on film and television nearly a dozen times over the decades in adventures big and small, clever and inane.

King Kong (1933)

Any kid who avoids this film because it's black and white or they believe "the effects suck," 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 (thank you, Willis O'Brien).

Created by Merian C. Cooper, who also directs and produces, it 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 big ass monkey. 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 (!).

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 go south real quick, 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 twas beauty killed the beast, but we're pretty sure it was the planes. Of course, the fall to the pavement didn't do Kong any favors.

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. How the hell 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 as the female along for the journey this time out) 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, substituing humor where possible for horror. And baby Kong is oh-so-cute.

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

King Kong Vs Godzilla (1962)

Here's an idiot ahead of his time: the head of Pacific Pharmacueticals 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. Inadverently freeing Godzilla from an iceberg, they also encounter a giant octopus by Faro Island, but are saved by King Kong (Shoichi Hirose in a horrid 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's winning, but Kong gets recharged by grabbing power lines (don't ask), and ends up victorious, swimming back to Faro Island. Don't worry, there's going to be a rematch... in 2020.

The King Kong Show (1966)

A Saturday morning cartoon that almost defies explanation (though 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 double of Kong.

The show does have the distinction 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 this live-action Japanese adaptation of it. As things unfold, Dr. Who (no, not that one) creates a mechanical version of Kong and, lack-of-story short, it 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's Haruo Nakajima in the Kong costume, bringing a more nuanced performance than his predecess...we're just screwing with you.

King Kong (1976)

This production by Dino De Laurentiis garnered a lot of publicity at the time, but it's really a campy affair (not a surprise considering the screenplay was by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., one of the primary writers from the Adam West Batman TV series). Modernized, 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'll face at their destination (not that this stops anyone). En route they come across an actress who has survived a shipwreck, Dawn (Jessica Lange in her film debut).

Things kind of unfold traditionally — arrival on the island, introduction of Kong (Rick Baker in an effective suit), rescuing of Dawn — 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-firing helicopters.

Low point (yet somehow summing up the film), 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's in need of a blood tranfusion. Coming to the rescue is adventurer Hank "Mitch" Mitchell (Brian Kerwin), who goes to 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've 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 utilizes a cyber-link to essentially merge with Kong (think DC's Legends Of Tomorrow's Firestorm) so that they can fight the forces of evil. The show spawned a pair of animated DVD films, 2005's Kong: King Of Atlantis and 2007's Kong: Return To The Jungle.

King Kong (2005)

Of all of the follow-ups to the original, this Peter Jackson film is the most worthy, and in some ways extremely underrated. The major plot points remain the same, but the visual effects (watch Kong battle three T-Rexes at the same time!) are first-rate, with 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 as Kong, who creates 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 is rising and 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)

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)

The latest Kong adventure, it takes place in 1973 with a group of people brought to Skull Island ostensibly to map out the mysterious realm, but unbeknownst to most actually there to discover what creatures exist. What no one expects to encounter is an ape standing over 100 feet tall — obviously he's been juicing in preparation for his encounter with the new Godzilla coming in 2020.

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, the cast includes Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Toby Kebbell and Terry Notary as Kong.

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