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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 December 2005, 08:18 GMT
The men behind the monster ape
By Kevin Brownlow
Documentary maker and film historian

Still from King Kong (1933)
The stop-motion animation in King Kong thrilled audiences
King Kong's co-creators Merian C Cooper and Ernst B Schoedsack were larger-than-life characters - just like the ape they brought to cinema screens.

Renowned film-maker and Kong aficionado Kevin Brownlow tells their stories.

It's ridiculous. The very idea is absurd. But so convincingly did Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack stage King Kong that you believe every frame.

Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury considers it the greatest film ever made. His friend Ray Harryhausen was so stunned when he saw it in 1933 he's been animating dinosaurs ever since.

And Peter Jackson, who saw it at the age of nine and tried to remake it at 12, has finally achieved his ambition.

Cooper was a former pilot who had been shot down in flames in World War I, and went back in the air to fight the Bolsheviks who had invaded Poland in 1920.

He was shot down again, sentenced to death, but escaped from the gulag and walked 400 miles to the border.

Gorilla vs dragons

He joined Schoedsack, a World War I combat cameraman, and they began a series of remarkable documentaries - Grass, made in 1925, about the migration of a Persian tribe and Chang (1927) about man's struggle against the jungle.

I knew both men, and was amused at how Cooper, who had lived the lives of a hundred men, would still boast, like a small boy.

It was very endearing - as he was. He had tremendous self-confidence and immense enthusiasm. Schoedsack was the strong, silent type, tall and handsome, rather like Gary Cooper, and he was always ribbing Merian Cooper.

Merian C Cooper
Merian C Cooper had a colourful life before and after Kong

Cooper was fascinated by primates - he once wrote a treatise on baboons - and he had had the idea for Kong since childhood. He thought one way of making the film would be to import a gorilla to the island of Komodo and have it fight giant dragon lizards.

But when he joined RKO studios, and watched what Willis O'Brien was doing with miniature animals in a film called Creation, he saw that this was the way to bring Kong to life.

Cooper hired British crime writer Edgar Wallace to write the story, but Wallace died before he'd produced what Cooper wanted.

Schoedsack's wife, Ruth Rose, wrote the script - and RKO head of production David O Selznick gave it the go-ahead. He had no idea what it was all about, but he trusted Cooper's instinct.

Cooper and Schoedsack's background was put to good use and King Kong depicts a motion picture expedition. The tough film-maker, Carl Denham, is based on Cooper and the ship's mate, Driscoll, is based on Schoedsack.

Genuine emotion

Fay Wray, an old friend of Cooper's, was offered the part of Ann Darrow. Cooper told her she would have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood, and she was delighted, assuming he meant Cary Grant. "However, that," she said, drily, "was not what Cooper had in mind."

The film took a year to make. It was incredibly violent for its time. Perhaps this was why Adolf Hitler liked it so much. When it was reissued in 1938, the most extreme scenes were cut. They have since been restored.

King Kong is perhaps the only film which makes the inanimate into something of flesh and blood. You overlook the defects, the riffling fur, and feel genuine emotion for Kong.

The picture was full of groundbreaking optical effects and it was a magnificent piece of story-telling - it hits the ground running and never lets up.

The sets of King Kong were destroyed by Selznick in 1939 for the Burning of Atlanta in Gone With the Wind. Cooper went on to work with John Ford - he produced the Cavalry Trilogy and The Searchers - and to serve in World War II as chief of staff for General Chennault in China.

When Cooper died, he had just begun an autobiography to be titled I'm King Kong.

That's the title we have used for our documentary about this extraordinary man, which you can see at the National Film Theatre in London on Wednesday at 1800 GMT.

Watch scenes from the King Kong premiere in New York

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