Saturday, March 3, 2012

From the Gobi Desert to Skull Island

Kong-blogging, essay 2 of 15 blog entries on
Skull Island in King Kong (1933)

Part One, The Ends of the World

Carl Denham's crew arrives on Skull Island, with cameras ready
to film, in King Kong (1933).

French explorer Paul du Chaillu aims his rifle at a gorilla in
central Africa.  Chaillu's book of his African adventures was an early
favorite of Merian C. Cooper's and may have sparked Cooper's lifelong
fascination with gorillas.

Canadian Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson.  The title of the
Merian C. Cooper biography Living Dangerously was taken
from a Stefansson quote that Cooper took to heart.

Roy Chapman Andrews of the American Museum of Natural History
leading one of the Central Asiatic Expeditions into the Gobi Desert
of Mongolia in the 1920s.

Roy Chapman Andrews explores the Gobi Desert, leading his caravan
through muddy gullies.  Andrews:  "Always there has been an
adventure just around the corner---and the world is full of corners!"

An intact Protoceratops skull, discovered by the Andrews team
in the Gobi Desert.

The first-ever-discovered fossilized dinosaur eggs, found by
Andrews' team during the Central Asiatic Expeditions organized
by the American Museum of Natural History.

Part Two, Protoceratops Eggs

The early 1930s were at the tail-end of a major period of adventure and exploration.  Thanks to the great success of their on-site wilderness films Grass and Chang, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack swiftly entered the ranks of the most elite explorer names.  Wild stories about them—many, in fact, true—abounded and helped add to their legend.

Cooper and Schoedsack were known at New York’s famed Explorers Club, the National Geographic Society, and the American Geographic Society—places that celebrated the individualist explorer.  And they were known among the museums and academies that sponsored many explorations, encouraging the image of the scientist-explorer, wearing a fedora and maybe even carrying a bullwhip.

If you could raise the money, you could strike out for the polar regions, the Amazon basin, the islands of the South Pacific, or the jungles of Africa.  The lecture circuit would await on your return.  In his youth, Cooper was inspired by men like Paul Belloni du Chaillu, who confirmed the existence of giant (but not Kong-sized) gorillas in central Africa, and death-defying Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefasnsson (“Men get killed easily when they don’t live dangerously...”).

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City was at the forefront of institutions that championed expeditions to the world’s remote areas.  All sorts of linkages exist between the American Museum of Natural History and the makers of King Kong.  Cooper would meet his friend W. Douglas Burden, a museum trustee and independently wealthy explorer, at the museum to discuss their past adventures and future ambitions.  Burden introduced Cooper to others at the museum.

While I’ve found no direct linkages between Cooper and the museum’s most famous explorer of the 1920s, there’s no doubt in my mind that Cooper was fully aware of the work of Roy Chapman Andrews.  W. Douglas Burden was well acquainted with Andrews and had even hoped to join up with Andrews for a firsthand look at his work in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia.  I’d like to think that Roy Chapman Andrews’ daredevil fossil-hunting expeditions in Mongolia, 1922-1930, served as one more ingredient spicing the Kong stew.

Andrews first explored Mongolia in 1922, leading a team of 40 men, eight Dodge cars, and 150 camels loaded with supplies through the Gobi Desert.  On this and subsequent expeditions, Andrews and his team discovered fossil wonders, most notably including the first-ever-discovered fossil dinosaur eggs (presumed to be Protoceratops eggs).

Pictures of the Central Asiatic Expeditions appear rugged and primitive now but in some ways they were on the technological cutting edge of their time.  They relied on cars for transportation and had movie cameras along to both film their work and to restage any important finds—in order to maximize the promotional value back home.

So in King Kong, when theatrical producer Carl Denham’s crew alights on Skull Island with their film cameras ready to roll, it wasn’t all that different from a Roy Chapman Andrews’ scene in the Gobi Desert.  Same idea—different remote setting.

Carl Denham's team advances into the tribe's village, with cameras
ready to roll, in King Kong (1933).

Reference Sources
The Making of King Kong by Orville Goldner and George E. Turner
Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper by Mark Cotta Vaz
Willis O'Brien: Special Effects Genius by Steve Archer
Dinosaurs Past and Present, Volume 1, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Dinosaurs Past and Present, Volume 2, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time by Richard Milner
All in the Bones: A Biography of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins by Valerie Bramwell and Robert M. Peck
Special features on the two-disc special edition, King Kong (1933) by Warner Home Video Inc.
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

Watch King Kong...
Purchase a King Kong DVD or Blu-Ray set at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent King Kong at Netflix or other rental service.

© 2012 Lee Price

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