Friday, December 02, 2005

Camera Obscura - I Am King Kong

With a new version of the classic "King Kong" on the way from Peter Jackson, a new documentary about the man who made the original Kong is a treasure trove of a seldom-celebrated innovator. Turner Classic Movies aired the documentary last week, "I Am King Kong: The Exploits Of Merian C. Cooper," and it is part of a new DVD set. (And not to forget, there's an East Tennessee connection to King Kong lore, but more on that later.)

Merian C. Cooper did far more than create a lasting iconic image of a Beast stuck atop a city skyscraper - he was an old-fashioned explorer and adventurer, a bomber pilot who even years after Kong became a Brigadier General, who helped turn Hollywood into a Technicolor marvel and that's barely the story. During World War 2, he and director John Ford met and returned to Hollywood to make movies that created another enduring American Icon - the cowboy. The two paired up for some of Ford's best work, from "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" and "Fort Apache" to "The Quiet Man" and one of the best Westerns ever made, "The Searchers."

Why does Kong endure? It is a brilliant bit of insight into the collision of the old and the new, and modeler Willis O'Brien also made an excellent and articulate creature - the nuances of character are vivid and funny and almost human. There are also insights into Obsessions and Mythmaking in an America on its way to becoming a World power. The movie leaps from Hollywood to the Prehistoric and then back to the modern city and never misses a beat. The Great Beast, as was said in the film, was killed by beauty -- but to me it was the Ape's encounter with Greed which led to his demise. (And yes, I know there was a re-make in the 70s but it has all the power of a broken light switch.)

Here are some excerpts from TCM's profile of Cooper:

Before he fell under the spell of the movies, Cooper served as a bomber pilot in WWI. While flying in a mission over German lines, his plane caught fire. Though he succeeded in landing it and saving the life of his wounded gunner, he was taken prisoner by the Germans. Thinking him dead, the military sent an official death notice to his family. After the war, Cooper joined a group of American volunteer fliers committed to defending Poland against Russian aggression. He once again became a war prisoner, this time of the Russians. After being sentenced to death, he managed to escape, walking 400 miles across hostile terrain. After refusing honors from a grateful Poland, Cooper embarked on a life as an adventurer. He joined forces with cameraman Ernest B. Schoedsack and went deep into Persia to record the migration across river and mountain of the Bakhtiari tribe. Never before witnessed by westerners, this event became the landmark 1925 documentary Grass and led to a contract with Paramount. For their next project, 1927's Chang, Cooper and Schoedsack lived for a year in the jungle of Siam, filming the story of a family's struggle to survive amongst the marauding animal life. The way they photographed animals in the wild broke new ground, especially when it came to the climax, an astonishing sequence in which a massive herd of elephants stampede through a native village. Their third film, 1929's The Four Feathers, interpolated their trademark location shooting, this time in Africa, with the telling of a classic adventure yarn.

With Europe at war once again, Cooper was convinced it was only a matter of time before the United States joined the conflict. In June 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor, he once again put his film career on hold and left his family to return to active duty. When war was declared with Japan, Cooper was posted to the legendary Flying Tigers in China, where he became chief of staff to General Claire Chennault. Despite his age, Cooper was determined to see action from a cockpit and not just a desk. This fighting spirit may have impressed those who served around him, but it caused problems with those above, who consistently blocked his promotion. It would not be until several years after the war's end that he would be promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, but by then he was back in Hollywood. Cooper had joined forces with John Ford before the war, and with the war now over, they could revive their production company, Argosy. Though Ford could be the most difficult of people, he had enormous respect for Cooper.

As a fitting cap to his career, Cooper produced and co-directed the film that would launch the widescreen revolution:
This Is Cinerama. It was Cooper, the daredevil adventurer, who startled audiences with the thrilling rollercoaster ride that opened the show, and it was Cooper, the patriotic aviator, who stirred their hearts at the climax, as the camera soared in a plane from coast to coast

Cooper also had to place himself in the Kong movie as he pilots the plane that fired the fatal shot and left the Beast to tumble to the ground.

Sequels followed, and as mentioned, a massive remake was released in the 70s, and here is where East TN joins in on the Ape Legend.

"King Kong Lives," the sequel to the 70s film, was shot in Fall Creek Falls State Park - 2009 Village Camp Road, Pikeville, Tennessee, and in Pigeon Forge. And it is really, really awful. I mean really. Although, I should also mention the very odd and funny "King Kong vs. Godzilla" (1962), which is like watching a bad wrestling match, the kind you might find in some odd and forgotten roadside attraction late one some summer's night, when the workers put on weird outfits and play games -- only Japan could have made this one.

Kong's story is also a part of "Gone With the Wind". When the city of Atlanta burns, filmmakers burned tons of old sets around the movie lot, including that massive wooden fence from Skull Island which was supposed to keep Kong at bay -- but as has often been noted, why did they build a huge wall and then put a door in it big enough for Kong to walk thru?


  1. Anonymous8:25 AM

    I can proudly say that I was an extra in King Kong Lives--a movie so bad I have yet to make through an entire screening.

  2. i read that one actor's royalty check for the movie was 2 cents, and he says he has never cashed it but has it framed.

  3. Anonymous9:20 AM

    I've heard that the character Jack Black plays (sorry, no time for IMDB) was originally based on Cooper.
    Thank you for not waxing negatively on Jackson's remake. Although the original was sublime, I think 70 yrs is quite enough time for the cultural consciousness to move on, & for changes in cultural protocol & movie technology to offer us somethimg as entertaining as the origional. And we'll just agree to ignore the 70's version, okay?
    As much as I like Jessica Lang, that just blew. And to my friends who were extras in the sequel - Way to get a paycheck! No hard feelings.

  4. Americans love big primates as a rule. Was'nt there one named Joe?

  5. Why yes, Jed - Mighty Joe Young.

    and for Really Big Monkey - I would never blast Jackson's filmmaking - in fact I started urging people to watch his movies back in the early 90s, long before Hollywood found him or he found LOTR.

    Jackson's grasp of "monster" movies and love of movies in general make him a great choice for remaking Kong. The post here does link to Jackson's Diary of how the movie was made and is very interesting - check it out.

    And yes, the character of Carl Denham in the original was based on Cooper, just as the lead actor opposite Fay Wray was based on Schoedsack, Cooper's longtime collaborator.