King Kong is a fictional giant movie monster, resembling a colossal gorilla, that first appeared in the 1933 film of the same name. The character has since appeared in various media, having inspired countless sequels, remakes, spin-offs, imitators, parodies, cartoons, books, comics, video games, theme park rides, and even a stage play. In the publicity materials for his first appearance, Kong was described as, ‘a prehistoric type of ape’ and, while gorilla-like in appearance, he had a vaguely humanoid look and at times walked upright in an anthropomorphic manner. A much more recent screen incarnation of Kong – Peter Jackson’s 2005 film – while far less successful and iconic than the 1933 original, presented an altogether more interesting take on the character. Jackson opted to make Kong a gigantic silverback gorilla without any anthropomorphic features. Kong looked and behaved more like a real gorilla: he had a large herbivore’s belly, walked on his knuckles without any upright posture, and even beat his chest with his palms as opposed to clenched fists. In order to ground his Kong in realism, Jackson and the Weta Digital crew gave a name to his fictitious species, Megaprimatus kong, which was said to have evolved from the Gigantopithecus – a species of prehistoric giant ape, which actually once existed. Is there, however, any real-life precedent for Kong himself?
Gigantopithecus existed from perhaps nine million years to as recently as one hundred thousand years ago, in what is now China, India, and Vietnam. The fossil record suggests that individuals of the species Gigantopithecus blacki were the largest known apes that ever lived, standing up to 3 m (9.8 ft), and weighing up to 540 kg (1,190 lb). It possibly resembled modern gorillas, because of its supposedly similar lifestyle. Some scientists, however, think it probably looked more like its closest modern relative, the orangutan. This is what inspired the portrayal of King Louie n the 2016 CGI/live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book directed by Jon Favreau (as his original orangutan incarnations from previous Disney films never actually inhabited India). Gigantopithecus may have become extinct approximately 100,000 years ago, because the climate change during the Pleistocene era changed the plants from forest to savanna, and the food supply, fruits, decreased – or did it? Since the species was first discovered in 1935, there have been persistent rumours that a remnant of Gigantopithecus still exists today. Some Bigfoot hunters, for example, say that Gigantopithecus is alive and well, hiding out in the forests of the Pacific Northwest!
The director of the original King Kong film, Merian C Cooper, had a fascination with gorillas that began with his boyhood reading of Paul Du Chaillu’s Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa (1861) and was furthered in 1929 by studying a tribe of baboons in Africa while filming The Four Feathers. After reading W. Douglas Burden’s The Dragon Lizards of Komodo, he then fashioned a scenario depicting African gorillas battling Komodo dragons intercut with artificial stand-ins for joint shots. Burden traveled to Indonesia to film and capture the Komodo dragon, which he thought was the closest living relative of dinosaurs. When Burden brought back two live Komodo specimens and housed them in captivity in the Bronx Zoo, they died. Cooper wrote at the time, “I immediately thought of doing the same thing with a giant gorilla”. Correspondence indicated that Burden attributed the Komodo dragons’ death to modern civilization. This may be why Cooper chose the Empire State Building and modern airplanes to kill off Kong in the film’s memorable finale. They were fitting symbols of civilization and the machine age that many feared were destroying nature. Ultimately, this is probably a more plausible explanation for the film’s plot – although the concept of giant prehistoric apes still alive and well somewhere on this planet has an undeniable appeal.