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Return of the king
Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson revisits 1933 horror classic



Darius Kadivar
January 11, 2006

King Kong © United International Pictures (UIP)

"And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hands from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead." - Old Arabian Proverb- Opening for King Kong

What makes a movie Great ? Nothing would be more biased than trying to answer this question. Film History is filled with great movies, but rarely does critical acclaim and box office success get along. There may be some justice in this assessment after all. It takes years to become a Cecile B. DeMille, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas or Alfred Hitchcock, all of whom gained fame and critical recognition in the long run. Peter Jackson has been quite lucky on this front. His visually stunning screen trilogy adaptation of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien's novel Lord of the Rings was saluted with a flood of Oscar awards and nominations. More disturbing for George Lucas' SFX company  Industrial Light and Magic is that Jackson's Big Primate Production is shifting Hollywood's focus on New Zealand as the leading Special Effects El Dorado. His latest film King Kong proves this point if needed. It is not only a remake of the 1933 classic film made by film pioneers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack but a tribute to one of the most lasting legends in film history. All the more remarkable is that it is the result of more than 30 years of stamina (and weight loss: 70 lbs. during the production ) by a director, who as a child, discovered his vocation watching the RKO classic on TV.

Several years ago I had the pleasure of introducing the film debut of King Kong's creator Merian C. Cooper whose very first film was shot in Iran in 1925 (See Zardeh Kuh to King Kong).

Left to right : Merian C. Cooper, Marguerite Harrison (who inspired Fay Wray's character in King Kong) and Ernest B. Schoedsack on location in Iran before shooting Grass. ©Angora

Merian C. Cooper and collaborators Ernest B. Schoedsack and  Marguerite Harrison made their Hollywood breakthrough with a documentary called Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life. Shot amongst the Bakhtiari tribes during their annual migration in the wintery mountains of Iran, the daunting experience was also to inspire the filmmaker for his future fantasy film:

Carl Denham, a filmmaker heads to the remote Skull Island to capture Kong, a huge creature who the locals hold at bay with a giant barrier that keep the beast locked in his primordial jungle. Ann Darrow, and John "Jack" Driscoll get caught up in the adventure, as Ann is captured by Kong and taken into the interior of his island home, and Jack leads the rescue mission to bring her back. On the way, the explorers are attacked by various types of dinosaurs. Eventually, they capture the gorilla and take him back to civilization, where Kong meets his end on the Empire State Building.

Peter Jackson's plot is basically the same as the one shot in 1933. Although set during the Great Depression, it nevertheless takes advantage of the digital technical wizardry of our times. The director manages to give a new dimension to the great monster. The confrontation between prehistoric animals as well as breathtaking scenes like when the film crew led by Denham (Jack Black) desperately tries to escape the deadly predicament of being crushed by an army of Brontosaurs or Ann Darrow's (Naomi Watts)dilemma of choosing between either being eaten by a Dinosaur or trusting Kong, will certainly stay as landmarks in the history of motion pictures.


Merian C. Cooper (Left) and Ernest B. Schoedsack (right) with Bakhtiari tribes in Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life a Milestone in Documentary Film History.

What will certainly amaze CGI artists  and movie buffs will certainly be the phenomenal progress made in various Special Effects techniques. You will see nothing like this in Jurassic Park. The interaction between Kong and the Dinosaurs is fantastically detailed. The Big Ape's fur and hair can be seen blowing in the wind. Using the known techniques of photo composition, motion capture (initiated by George Lucas' space opera Star Wars) the actors and animated monster's seem to interact as never before. Andy Serkis ( Gollum in Lord of the Rings) renders Kong's facial expression's that give the digital monster great humanity particularly in the scenes shared with  Naomi Watts who is now propelled to Stardom Status.

Living dangerously: (Top) Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) being sacrificed to King Kong on Skull Island and Below: her mortal dilemma © United International Pictures (UIP)


The other star of the movie is certainly Jack Black for his hilarious personification of Carl Denhama second rate Orson Welles ready to sacrifice everyone for a movie he will never make. Black (who looks like Peter Jackson without his beard) steals the show to co-star Adrien Brody. The latter's love story with Naomi Watts (looking like Aussie friend Nicole Kidman) is less convincing than that of Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lang on top of the pre-9/11 World Trade Centre in John Guillerman's awful 1976 remake.

One of the excellent Art work done during pre-production by the © Big Primate Production Artists

Naomi Watts however truly manages to replace Fay Wray as Ann Darrow. Interestingly Peter Jackson shares a private joke in his movie, when filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) desperately looks for an actress in the title role and suggests several names including Fay Wray. žToo expensiveÓ responds Preston his agent. Also divided between her love for Adrien Brody and an ever growing affection for Kong, Watts makes us share her fright and fascination for the 8th Wonder of the World.

Apart from Watt's, all other human characters lack Kong's humanity or so it seems for the audience only can identify to the way Kong set's himself free in Manhattan and destroys everything on his way looking for his female sweet heart.

Although the climatic final sequence is expected, Jackson manages to make the scene as exciting as in the original film. The double wing aircrafts offer spectacular scenes shooting at the Great Ape or being flipped aside like a flying saucer by King Kong.

Carl Denham (Jack Black) directs film crew on Skull Island while John "Jack" Driscoll (Adrien Brody in background) looks on. © United International Pictures (UIP)

The scene's of New York are truly touching in many ways. A nostalgic look at the city in the 1930's does not wipe the trauma created by 9/11 but the audience gets to rediscover the city before the erection of the World Trade Centre in the 70's as well as one of the Big Apple's great monument's The Empire State building which appears as majestic as ever. America's taste for grandeur seems to contradict, Hollywood's often cruel reality of destroying what it creates. King Kong is Carl Denham's (Jack Black) creation he thinks he can tame the beast, but fails to imprison the heart that is beating inside. In a recent biography on Merian C. Cooper Living Dangerously by Mark  Vaz (See Below), we get to rediscover one of Hollywood's greatest producers. A man whose taste for great entertainment only equalled his own bigger than life personality (See Bio). Carl Denham's fictional character is not that distant from that of  Cooper's but certainly a parody. One can only admire Cooper's imagination for creating one of motion picture's greatest monster's while weaving a moral tale on mankind's lack of humanity. The original King Kong was also truly a breakthrough in terms of Special Effects. It pioneered the work of Willis O'Brien so much admired by SFX specialists like Ray Harryhausen (Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts), or Phil Tippet ( The Empire Strikes Back, Jurassic Park). Go-Motion was a technique which consisted of filming frame by frame a model that could be articulated. The animation resulted when projected in 24 frames/sec.

Original King Kong in 1933 ©RKO

Cooper and Schoedsack Žs initial King Kong movie is all the more remarkable that it hit the screens in an age which saw the rise of totalitarism. It  was first released in 1933 on the wake of Adolf Hitler's election in Germany. It is considered by many film historians as a catharsis of the fears of the time very much as Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio broadcast several years later.

Time to say goodbye: King Kong and Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) on top of the Empire State building. © United International Pictures (UIP)

Could one see a similar message in Peter Jackson 2005 tribute to his lifelong movie favourite?

That is up to the viewers to decide ÷

One thing is certain though, and that is that the King of Cinema is not dead so Long Live the KONG !!

Peter Jackson and the original King Kong model that changed his life. ©

Author's notes:

King KongFilmis rated : PG/ 13 Parents Strongly Cautioned.

Fay Wray: Peter Jackson and Naomi Watts got to see Fay Wray on the eve of her 96th birthday. The former screen legend was thrilled and annoyed to be replaced as King Kong's sweet heart. She never got to see Jackson's Kong. (See BBC article )

Hollywood Inflation: The increase of production costs in recent years due to blockbusters like Titanic (1998), or Lord of the Rings ( distributed by Universal Studios) is set to worry Studio executives who fear the unexpected flop that would put an end to turnovers. Peter Jackson's King Kong cost 207 Million $. It is only ranked 6th  in film history, the first being Joseph L. Mankiewicz' epic extravaganza Cleopatra (1963)  starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton with 286,4 Million $. 

Recommended reading: A recent biography on Cooper by Mark Vaz and introduction by Peter Jackson

Living Dangerously : The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper, Creator of King Kong

Also see Merian C. Cooper's film career and incredible contribution to film technology.

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