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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Horror Histories Vol. 11 - The Expedition That Inspired King Kong!

For years now, a small subgroup of movie fans have argued about which monster would win in a fight;  King Kong or Godzilla.  Many people who like one of those also like the other but you’ll find some rabid fans in both camps who fixate on their favorite.  Personally, my favorite will always be King Kong (1933) but that’s tinged with nostalgia.  Growing up, one of our local stations (WTOG Channel 44 out of Tampa, FL) used to show it once a year, uninterrupted by commercials and let me tell you, it was an EVENT!  At least to middle-school-aged Cary it was an event.

That said though, I’m still a sucker for a Godzilla movie and what you may not know is that without a real life giant lizard, the story of King Kong may never have been written.  It’s a fact and it all begins with an adventurer who was born into the Vanderbilt fortune. 

His name was William Douglas Burden.  He was Harvard educated and in 1928, absolutely dying to find an adventure he could hang his hat on.  Burden wasn’t the kind of guy who enjoyed the plush, lavish lifestyle his parents and relatives enjoyed. Instead, he was more comfortable with a machete in-hand, hacking through a jungle and soon he figured out how to make his dreams of adventure happen.  There was an animal discussed among scientists that begged for further research.  The problem was, no one had been able to capture one.

The Komodo Dragon is a meat eating beast that lives in what is now Indonesia.  At the time, the island fell under Dutch rule, so Burden wrote for and was granted permission to lead an expedition to Komodo and bring back at least one of the giant lizards. 

Long story made short, he did just that.  In fact, he brought back three and two were put on display at the Bronx Zoo briefly.  They died in captivity.  However, they made quite a sensation.  Estimates put crowds at close to 30,000 people a day, visiting just to get a glimpse of the dragons.  Also on display in the Komodo dragon exhibit was a stuffed gorilla.  Believe it or not, that garnered crowds as big as the ones waiting to see the dragons themselves.  

Which is where Kong comes in.  See, one of Burden’s close friends was Merian C. Cooper.  Cooper had turned his attentions to Hollywood after leading a life of adventure himself.  He’d spent time as a bomber pilot and was a prisoner of war in a Soviet camp for nine months.  He escaped from the camp and made it to the Latvian border and freedom.  By the time he and Burden were palling around in New York, he was already enamored with film and while his Wikipedia page will tell you that Cooper thought of the idea for King Kong in a dream, it’s hard to ignore some signs that point directly to Burden’s Komodo Dragon.

For instance, Burden and his expedition brought cameras and filmed their exploits.  The films were used to drum up the excitement around the exhibit.  Cooper borrowed that angle for Kong.  Burden’s wife accompanied him on the expedition.  She ran the cameras and at one point came face to face with a Komodo dragon while the hunter assigned to accompany her was away.  He came back and shot the beast before it could get to her.  The idea of a beautiful socialite along on the expedition was another thing that Cooper borrowed for the film.

Finally, Burden had come up with a special name for his find.  He called them “King Komodo”.  Yep.  Cooper borrowed that also.  He kept the setting in New York and added something that he and Burden had talked about.  That was the idea that maybe the dragons died at the zoo because they were homesick for their native land. 

Now, this takes nothing away from King Kong.  The film is groundbreaking and the script is fantastic.  I say this a lot here but, this movie is a classic for a reason.  King Kong is one of those movies that everyone should see at least once.  That said, without Burden’s expedition to capture a living dinosaur, Cooper’s giant gorilla movie would have been a completely different film altogether.

And go watch King Kong!

1 comment:

Tom said...

There's just something about that original Kong design that will never be matched. The Kong from Skull Island comes closest but not quite. Didn't they also use a Komodo Dragon for action shots in the movie as well?