Earlier this autumn, it became clear that Peter Jackson's King Kong was soaring over budget. He had agreed to make the film for around $175m, but the bosses at Universal realised that the eventual bill would be $207m and that the running time was going to be more than three hours. In normal circumstances, such news would have provoked panic in Hollywood. With King Kong, however, it was different. Rather than firing or chastising Jackson, Universal congratulated him. "We expected to see a long movie, and we loved it. It's a brilliant movie, an epic feat," the Universal bigwig Stacey Snider told the trade paper Variety. After what were described as "amicable" discussions, the director agreed to stump up most of the extra $32m needed to complete the movie.
Even with Jackson opening his cheque book, King Kong remains a monumental risk. Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy cost around $270m for three films shot back-to-back. Its producers, New Line, were able to defray the costs by pre-selling the package to local distributors all over the world. No such ruses were available to Universal, who will be releasing King Kong on 14 December themselves. Once the marketing costs are thrown in, one guesses the film will have to gross well over $600m worldwide to be judged a success.
Snider and co are clearly relying on Jackson's Midas touch. They also no doubt remember the example of James Cameron's Titanic, another epic blighted with production problems, which went over budget and over schedule and had a running time of 195 minutes, but ended up grossing $1.8bn worldwide.
"There is still affection for Jackson's Lord of the Rings but I'm not sure that that equates to success for King Kong," suggests Robert Mitchell, a box-office analyst with Screen International. He points out that The Lord Of The Rings had a nostalgic appeal for older cinema-goers steeped in Tolkien. "But they're much less likely to be attracted to what appears to be a monster movie."
Nor can King Kong rely on star power. Titanic boasted Leonardo DiCaprio and War Of The Worlds was lifted by Tom Cruise, but Peter Jackson's leading male protagonist is a huge, hirsute ape.
That said, King Kong in 1933 was every bit as much a risk for RKO as Jackson's remake now is for Universal. At the time, the studio was close to bankruptcy. In order to finance the film, the studio boss David O Selznick had had to pare away at the budgets of other RKO films.
The key figure in bringing that first Kong to life was Merian C Cooper, a flying ace, explorer and one of Hollywood's true mavericks. Searching for inspiration, he devoured outlandish history and travel books like anthropologist Paul Du Chaillu's Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa and The Country of The Dwarfs, which featured pictures of ferocious-looking apes, and W Douglas Burden's Dragon Lizards of Komodo. Together with his cameraman Ernest B Schoedsack, Cooper (who knew Burden and had heard his tales about prehistoric creatures) made a series of documentaries set in far-flung places. Now, they wanted to make a live-action fictional film.
In the early 1930s, special effects were in their infancy. As the film historian Rudy Behlmer explained in a 1993 documentary about King Kong, Cooper's first instinct was to stage the jungle sequences as if for real. "He was thinking of getting live gorillas from the west coast of Africa."
Selznick had brought Cooper into RKO, where one of his jobs was supervising new productions. A project the studio had considered making before abandoning as too expensive was Creation, a Jurassic Park-style yarn set on a volcanic island in the Pacific where dinosaurs still roamed free. The special-effects wizard and pioneer of stop-motion animation Willis O'Brien was the man entrusted with recreating the prehistoric era. Cooper saw the results of some of his experiments and realised that O'Brien was the man to play Dr Frankenstein to his giant ape.
Although Cooper had the blessing of Selznick, other RKO execs remained intensely suspicious about King Kong. They didn't like the original title, Kong, which they thought sounded too Chinese. They forced Cooper to shoot a test reel. Only when they had seen O'Brien's gorilla beating his chest and showing his teeth did the studio relent and agree to greenlight the movie. The miniature monster was made out of clay, metal, cotton and shellac. To give the illusion that it was breathing, O'Brien and his team inserted an inflatable football bladder in his chest. On screen, thanks to the magic of distorting lenses, stop-motion and rear projection, the effect was startling, but the RKO bosses still reportedly felt the film was a loser until Max Steiner's music was added.
It's hard to sift the facts from the legends. Fay Wray was told she was going to be acting opposite "the tallest, darkest man in Hollywood". She thought the studio bosses meant Clark Gable. There is still intense debate as to what role the British mystery writer Edgar Wallace played in the writing. Cooper was dismissive of Wallace (who died of pneumonia a few days after submitting a first draft of what was then titled Kong). "Not a single scene, nor line of dialogue was contributed by Wallace," Cooper stated. However, in the early 1980s, when Wallace's original script turned up for auction at Sotheby's, it turned out that far more of his ideas found their way onto the screen than his collaborators were prepared to admit.
"There was a shift in Kong's character" Rudy Behlmer pointed out, of the way the film was edited between its initial release and its re-release in 1938. By then, Hollywood was far more puritanical. The censors insisted on certain scenes being cut, most notably a risqué sequence in which the ape disrobes Fay Wray. The net result was that the ape was even more of a gentleman than he had appeared before - one reason why audiences continue to identify with him.
In today's CGI-dominated world, O'Brien's feats can't help but seem a little crude. Nonetheless, after a while, you stop noticing the joints or questioning whether you're watching miniatures. The enduring appeal of the film lies in the way it persuades audiences to suspend their disbelief and even to accept King Kong as a twisted love story. "Gentlemen prefer blondes," some have joked about Kong's slavish devotion to Fay Wray.
Scan the sometimes grudging original reviews and it's evident that many critics felt it beneath their dignity to admit their excitement at the antics of King Kong. "A super-goofy yarn," suggested Variety, although the reviewer acknowledged that once "the audience become used to the machine-like movements and other mechanical flaws in the gigantic animals on view, and become accustomed to the phoney atmosphere, they may commence to feel the power."
There were complaints about how much shrieking Fay Wray was obliged to do ("It's a film-long screaming session for her, too much for any actress and any audience"). Other reviewers tried to warn readers that this was "not a film for the fastidious" or "for children or the sophisticated". Nonetheless, most acknowledged that King Kong was a true cinematic phenomenon.
One man who remembers seeing King Kong on its initial release is the veteran special-effects maestro Ray Harryhausen (of One Million Years BC and Clash Of The Titans fame). "Out in the foyer, they had a big bust of Kong, which they used in the picture itself," Harryhausen recalls of the LA premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. "It worked mechanically. The head was about eight or nine feet long. And it was operated by compressed air. Underneath, there were trees and jungle foliage. Even pink flamingos strutting round. And a great array of stills. Before the film, there was one of Sid Grauman's stage productions, with people in native costumes performing on trapeze. Then, when King Kong finally started, with Max Steiner's marvellous score, it just carried you on into never-never-land. It took you from the Depression days, the mundane world, and led you into the most outrageous fantasy that has ever been put on the screen."
King Kong was a huge moneyspinner for RKO. It has a fair claim to be the grandfather of all those effects-driven extravaganzas like Armageddon and Independence Day. It is has also inspired a host of B-movies. Nonetheless, Jackson's producers must be worried that few of the sequels or remakes have come close to matching King Kong's original glory.
Japanese producers, always fond of their monster movies, made a couple of enjoyably kitsch ape movies in the mid-1960s: King Kong Escapes and King Kong vs Godzilla. When Jaws devoured the box-office competition a few years later, Dino De Laurentiis decided that anything a great white shark could do, a giant ape could do better. His 1976 stab at King Kong had an excellent young cast, with Jessica Lange taking over screaming duties from Fay Wray, and Jeff Bridges as the good-looking young anthropologist. But it just didn't work. The director, John Guillermin, failed to preserve the essential strange innocence that had characterised the original, and the film was undermined by its irony and self-reflexivity.
There's no way that Jackson will make the same mistake. With more than $200m at his disposal, he is creating an all-encompassing fantasy world to rival that of The Lord of the Rings. Judging by the trailer, he has gone to great lengths to portray both Depression-era America and Skull Island in equally lavish detail. Just as in the 1933 film, each environment (the capitalist jungle of New York and the real one of Skull Island) is equally threatening in its own way. There is one poignant scene of a starving Naomi Watts stealing a piece of fruit from a sidewalk stall. As in the original, we see the ship approaching the uncharted island through thick clouds of mist.
With scenes of King Kong in Times Square, hurling cabs around as if they're toys, or of dinosaurs on the march, or of carnivorous insects trying to snack on humans, Jackson looks likely to keep horror fans happy enough. Meanwhile, he will be relying on the romance between Watts and Adrien Brody (and, of course, that between Watts and her simian suitor) to add a little emotional depth.
The early signs are that Jackson's King Kong is indeed an impressive piece of work, and perhaps the equal of The Lord of the Rings. Even so, to be judged as any kind of success, the film will have to be an absolutely monster hit. When you spend $207m, you really do have to make the equivalent of "the eighth wonder of the world" if you're going to have any chance at all of making your money back - and, from Universal's point of view, that is the problem.
'King Kong' opens on 15 DecemberReuse content