Sunday, March 4, 2012

Island of Prehistoric Lizards

Kong-blogging, essay 3 of 15 blog entries on
Skull Island in King Kong (1933)

Part One, Island of Prehistoric Lizards

An unidentified two-legged
prehistoric reptile climbs up the
chasm wall in King Kong (1933).

The rocky coast of Komodo Island, circa 1926.

From Dragon Lizards of Komodo by W. Douglas Burden,
published in 1927.

From Dragon Lizards of Komodo by W. Douglas Burden,
published in 1927.  Photo by Mrs. Burden.

Note article: "Stalking the Dragon Lizard on the
Island of Komodo" by W. Douglas Burden,
The National Geographic Magazine, August 1927.

Part Two, Bringing 'em Back Alive

“The world is getting smaller every year.  I mean it’s becoming too civilized.  I can remember when the world was a grand old place—a place full of unexplored lands, choked with adventure.  In those days, Schoedsack and I used to run away to the ends of the world, confident of finding real motion picture material.  But now, what’s a fellow to do?  Where is he to go?”
                                                                              Merian C. Cooper
                                                                              NBC radio interview

As an independently wealthy explorer and a trustee at the American Museum of Natural History, W. Douglas Burden shared Cooper’s feelings.  He was always on the lookout for adventure.  In the mid-1920s, he heard that P.O. Ouwens, director of the Zoological Museum in Java, was able to confirm the long-standing rumors that there were giant lizards living on Komodo Island.  Hearing this news, Burden felt the call of the wild.

With the backing of the American Museum of Natural History, Burden organized an expedition in 1926, promising to return from Komodo with a living dragon.  Assisted by a herpetologist, a cameraman, his wife, and 15 Malay workers, Burden found the giant monitor lizards (measuring up to ten feet in length) and brought two back for exhibition at the Bronx Zoo.  Unable to adjust to their new environment and life in captivity, the Komodo dragons died behind bars.

In late 1929, Cooper spent time with Burden at the American Museum of Natural History, sharing tales of their incurable romantic love of wild places.  According to Cooper biographer Mark Cotta Vaz in his book Living Dangerously, Burden’s stories of Komodo may have inspired significant elements of the King Kong narrative that was slowly evolving in Cooper’s mind.  Vaz quotes from letters exchanged between Burden and Cooper in 1964 where Burden reminisced about their 1929 discussions:

“…I remember, for example, that you were quite intrigued by my descriptions of prehistoric Komodo Island and the dragon lizards that inhabited it…  You especially liked the strength of words beginning with ‘K,’ such as Kodak, Kokiak Island, and Komodo.  It was then, I believe, that you came up with the idea of Kong as a possible title for a gorilla picture.  I told you that I liked very much the ring of the word… and I believe that it was a combination of the King of Komodo phrase in my book and your invention of the name Kong that led to the title you used much later on, King Kong.”

Furthermore, Burden suggested that Cooper may have picked up on the young wife accompanying the explorer on the voyage and the death of the wild beasts in New York captivity when developing the Kong narrative.

Cooper’s response:

“Everything you say is right on the nose.  Boy, what a memory!”

Of course, the story that was forming in Cooper’s mind at the time wasn’t quite Kong as we now know it.  Cooper seems to have been thinking about shipping gorillas out to Komodo Island and then filming them battling the Komodo dragons.  In 1929, Cooper hadn’t yet realized that there might be ways to capture the wild places within the controlled settings of a modern Hollywood film studio.

Horizontal view of that chasm lizard from 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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