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Matt Thrift

Kong to Kong: The complete screen history of cinema’s greatest monster

We take an exhaustive look back at the ups and downs of this iconic movie simian.

Back in 1933, 20-odd years before Godzilla laid claim to the kaiju crown, there was Kong. The brainchild of producer-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 in cinemas, we took a good long look through the great ape’s sizeable back catalogue – from the numerous official sequels to the most brazen knock-offs. With the exception of his animated adventures for television (give us a break), here 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…

Son of Kong (1933)

With the iconic cinematic simian having decorated the pavements of 5th Avenue, creators Shoedsack and Cooper turned to his heir apparent for a largely forgotten quickie cash-in. Carl Denham is in a fix following the Manhattan carnage. Broke and with half the city out to sue him, he escapes back to Skull Island. “Believe it or not, there’s a little Kong! Just a little one, about 12 feet high. I know it sounds funny but instead of shooting him I helped him out of a jam. I felt I owed his family something.”

Turnaround on this official sequel was so quick it was in picture houses the very same year as its predecessor, knocked out for a meagre $250,000. Tonally, it’s all over the shop; positioning Little Kong as a figure of comic relief (replete with cross-eyed musical cues whenever he gets brained) proving nothing short of misguided. Yet there are some good sequences here, the best sans-monkey, as an early escape from a fire is captured in a nifty tracking shot. Willis O’Brien’s creature work continues to impress, as Kong 1.5 dukes it out with a bear, some dinos and um, the weather.

Wasei Kingu Kongu (1933) / King Kong Appears in Edo (1938)

While King Kong officially took to Japanese screens in the 1960s, he made his first appearance (of sorts) in a three-reel silent short for Shochiku, hitching a ride on the success of RKO’s original. Both this and the later, two-part take on America’s most famous kaiju, King Kong Appears in Edo, are now considered lost films.

King Klunk (1933)

The first cartoon to be landed with an H certificate in the UK, Woody Woodpecker creator Walter Lantz’s one-reel parody proves quite the charmer, despite being riddled with an approach towards ethnic characterisation that would plague nearly every iteration of Kong. Condensing the film’s narrative down to nine lark-filled minutes, it peaks with Klunk’s New York rampage, as Pooch the Pup takes to the air for a skyscraper-straddling dogfight. The film served as ground zero for a fierce battle over property rights between RKO and Universal that would last for decades.

The Pet Store (1933)

Kong gets the Disney treatment in a seven-minute parody starring Mickey Mouse. Minnie (seemingly on day release from the madhouse and off her meds) gets kidnapped by a Stan Laurel-impersonating gorilla at Mickey’s new job, causing him to enlist a menagerie of animal pals to rescue her from the ape’s grip atop a tower of bird-seed. Cute enough, and something of a proto-Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Terror on the Midway (1942)

Given how poor recent incarnations of Superman have been, it’s a pleasure to revisit one of the best of the Fleischer Studios’ iconic cartoons, however tenuous the link to Kong. Lois and Clark are sent to cover a circus act, when a giant ape escapes its enclosure. The gorilla’s reveal is terrific, all shadows and escalating reaction shots before hell breaks loose. Supes turns up to discipline a panther and bodyslam an elephant, before taking out the monkey – all in glorious Technicolor.

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

The only film about a giant, rampaging ape to be produced by John Ford, Mighty Joe Young gets a lot of stick for its reputation as a poor man’s Kong; a concerted effort on the part of the original filmmakers to recapture the magic of their 1933 hit. It may lack the eye for the iconic possessed by its progenitor, but the creature effects by Willis O’Brien – aided by Ray Harryhausen, in one of his first gigs – remain unsurpassed by anything on this list (which admittedly isn’t saying much).

If the targeting of a family audience lends proceedings a sentimental streak, the set-pieces speak for themselves, not least in the stage show tear-up. It’s the tinted finale that sees the creative team at their finest, as Joe and co rescue a bunch of kids from a burning orphanage. The combination of opticals, miniatures, stop-motion effects and live action are seamlessly integrated; the expressiveness of the star attraction finding no rival in his mo-capped peers 50 years hence.

Konga (1961)

“Fantastic! There’s a huge monster-gorilla that’s constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose in the streets. He’s moving towards the Embankment area.” The first of two British-made knock-offs on our list, Konga sees erstwhile Bat-butler and seeming love-child of Lee Marvin and Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Gough, as famous botanist and all-round creep, Dr Decker. Having survived a plane-crash in the Ugandan jungle, discovered the secrets of giganticism and returned home with the chimp who saved his life, Decker doses his pet monkey – inexplicably transforming him into a boss-eyed gorilla – and sends him out to ’ave a word with all who’ve dissed him.

If Konga himself appears more put-out than ferocious (the climax sees him not destroying Big Ben, more loitering confusedly in the vicinity), it’s Gough who’s left to chew his way through the scenery. Whether hitting on his students (“Come Sandra, I want to show you my greenhouse…”), shooting cats or insinuating a closer relationship with his specimen than appropriate, Gough shows no intention of being upstaged by his 50 foot co-star.

King Kong vs Godzilla (1962)

Kong’s first official on-screen reappearance  since Son of Kong – and his first in colour and widescreen – Ishirō Honda’s film was the third in Toho’s Godzilla franchise and marked a change in direction for the studio’s kaiju pictures. Aiming for a family audience, the horror elements of the first Godzilla films were tempered, much to Honda’s dismay. It wasn’t the first of Toho’s kaiju vs kaiju smackdowns – that honour having gone to the Godzilla vs Anguirus fight in 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again – but it proved to be one of the most iconic.

Adapted from a treatment by Willis O’Brien, Kong’s popularity ensured top billing, just as Godzilla’s villainy at this point in the franchise meant the victor could only be… [no spoilers here]. It seems Legendary Pictures have the key players in place for a rematch in the not-too-distant future. And yeah, that’s a real octopus Kong is fighting.

King Kong Escapes (1967)

This is the one where King Kong fights a massive robot version of himself, MechaKong, on top of the Tokyo Tower. It’s like a Roger Moore Bond film – with Kong as 007 – complete with mad villain, Dr Who. The evil scientist has built MechaKong from a picture someone drew of the giant ape, designed to mine something called Element X. When the robot breaks down, he goes after the real Kong to take his place. It’s amazing just how much anthropomorphic emotional resonance suit-mation maestro Eiji Tsuburaya manages to transmit through the suits. Or maybe not. Whatever, Kong fights a massive robot.

King of Kong Island (1968)

More public service announcement than movie, this one. Given the title, and the picture of a massive ape on the poster, you’d be forgiven for thinking this has something to do with King Kong. Or might even have a giant ape in it. Or might be set on an island. Nope. If we’re being generous, it almost works as a take on The Island of Dr Moreau. With tits. Some monkey-men do turn up – in the mangiest suits committed to film – theirs minds controlled by a mad scientist living in the jungle. With everything so half-arsed and plodding, it’s hard to enjoy even the basest Z-grade lols. One for the most committed of Italian exploitation aficionados only.

The Mighty Gorga (1969)

Another film bravely vying for bottom spot on our list, but one which at least sports a giant gorilla. Barrel-scraping in its that’ll-do suit manufacture, the last 15 minutes or so aren’t without their Ed Wood-inspired charms – not least when the eponymous Gorga takes on what appears to be a T-Rex sock puppet. But it’s one hell of a drudge to get there, and best we don’t even get started on the white actors playing natives. Oh boy.

King Kong (1976)

You’ve got to hand it to Dino De Laurentiis for his commitment to getting the first remake proper up on the screen, despite the final results. Costing an astronomical $24m – which is really a lot to pay for a clunky monkey and a big fake hand – the production difficulties were legion. While one can lay part of blame at the hairy feet of the impractically optimistic effects work (despite some effective miniature carnage late in the game), the real trouble lies in Guillermin’s bland direction and a listless screenplay. Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin and – in her first role – Jessica Lange all seem to be acting in different films; bored, smug and overboard respectively. There’s a plus three-hour TV edit out there too, for the masochistically inclined.

A*P*E (1976)

“This movie hates you,” begins one of the user reviews on IMDb. There’s really nothing more to add.

Queen Kong (1976)

There comes a point when you’ve been binge-watching one too many Kong knock-offs that you step back and wonder if you might have hallucinated one of them. Queen Kong is that film. The second UK feature on our list, as its title suggests, is a gender-flipped take on the usual monkey business. Rula Lenska is Luce Habit (yep), who kidnaps Robin “Confessions of a Window Cleaner” Askwith’s Ray in a bid to make him the star of the film she’s directing in Lazangawheretheydothekonga. What begins with a trip aboard her boat, The Liberated Lady – complete with a musical number that namechecks Germaine Greer and ‘The Female Eunuch’ – soon sees our female Kong being encouraged to kick a T-Rex in the nads.

A pseudo-feminist bent only gets you so far (about 15 minutes) before the offensive racial stereotypes kick in, making early ’70s British television appear a font of progressive enlightenment by comparison. The commitment to the material and its endless stream of appalling gags by the cast might only be explained by the presence of their respective families, off-camera with guns to their heads.

The Mighty Peking Man (1977)

Now we’re talking. You know you’re living in a golden age of home video when a film as out-there as The Mighty Peking Man gets a spanking new Blu-ray release. (Take a bow, 88 Films.) Maybe we’ve got Quentin Tarantino to thank too, who re-released it theatrically on his Rolling Thunder imprint back in the late ’90s. An atypical excursion away from martial arts for the prolific Shaw Brothers, Kong goes Hong Kong for this exploitation doozy.

Chen Zhengfeng is sad because he caught his brother shagging his missus, so he joins an expedition in search of Ah Wang, the eponymous giant ape-man with a scream that’s the stuff of nightmares. He meets up with a Swiss model in the jungle, who’s been living with Ah Wang since the plane crash that killed her parents.

It all goes tits-up when a producer with dollar signs in his eyes brings the monster back to Hong Kong, leading to an impressive demolition derby of model-work. Before we get there though, we get to see a man fight a tiger before it bites his leg off, a leopard do battle with a snake, and one of the great frolicking-and-falling-in-love montages (unimpressed leopard included) ever committed to film.

King Kong Lives (1986)

“It was beauty killed the beast,” goes the 1933 film’s famous last line. If you’ve seen King Kong Lives, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was actually done in by John Guillermin. The official sequel to Dino De Laurentiis’ 1976 remake sees Kong find a partner in a female gorilla brought in to save his life, a decade after his tumble from the Empire State Building. Positioned as a Christmas blockbuster, wholly incompetent in both direction and design, it’s astonishing to think this film cost upwards of $10m. You have to wonder what Carlo Rambaldi was smoking when he came up his creature, or what Linda Hamilton was thinking in the wake of her post-Terminator success. It did spawn a video game called King Kong Lives: Megaton Punch of Rage, so at least there’s that.

King Homer (1992)

Six gorgeous minutes from The Simpsons’ third ‘Treehouse of Horrors’ episode see Homer cast as the great ape. As Kong parodies go, it’s top of the heap; not just in the gags that land but its affection for the character. The one-liners zing (Smithers, on hearing Marge is joining the expedition: “I think women and seamen don’t mix”), but it’s Homer’s attempt to summit the Empire State Building that lands the final blow, as he falls from the second floor, exhausted. “He’s not dead!” cries Marge. “No, but his career is,” replies Mr Burns, “I remember when Al Jolson ran amok at the Winter Garden and climbed the Chrysler Building. After that, he couldn’t get arrested in this town.”

Mighty Joe Young (1998)

Disney’s take on the 1949 film, Mighty Joe Young captures none of the magic of Shoedsack and Cooper’s original. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine the intended kiddie audience taking more from this noisy and sentimental refit than they would from the visual wizardry of O’Brien’s earlier work. Which isn’t to the say that the effects here are without merit; Rick Baker’s creation of Joe arguably surpasses the dated digital effects employed by Peter Jackson seven years later. The finale atop Grauman’s Chinese Theatre pales in comparison to the orphanage climax of the first film, although kudos for the nod to Cooper and John Ford with the Wagon Master poster on display in the foyer.

The Mighty Kong (1998)

Quite how Warner Bros got away with retelling the story of King Kong so explicitly, with just a mere title change, is anyone’s guess. A DTV joint for the kids, The Mighty Kong bills itself as ‘an animated musical’, although ‘shit cartoon with songs’ would be more accurate. Not that it doesn’t have some pedigree; its musical numbers were penned by same the Sherman brothers, who wrote for Disney’s Mary Poppins, and the voice cast includes Dudley Moore, wildly overacting in his final role. The only way to enjoy such soulless dreck is to imagine a commentary from Moore’s erstwhile partner in crime Peter Cook, in character as Clive, letting him have it every time he opens his mouth. “What a c—”

King Kong (2005)

With 70 years of Kong remakes and knock-offs to draw on, you’d think Peter Jackson might have come up with a more dignified approach to the human inhabitants of Skull Island. Elsewhere, his heart is largely in the right place, even as his film suffers from a Kong-scaled case of giganticism. While the effects work hasn’t aged brilliantly, and Jackson can’t escape the sentimental inclinations that serve to undermine his star attraction, his visual sensibilities pay off in the film’s major set-pieces – not least when we (finally) get back to New York. There’s a better, shorter movie in here somewhere (preferably one without Jack Black). As it stands, Jackson’s romantic reverence gets the better of him.

Published 10 Mar 2017

Tags: King Kong

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