Merian C. Cooper had an adventurous life before producing and directing “King Kong.” After serving as a pilot in World War I and spending time as a Soviet prisoner of war while helping the Polish military fight Russia (via the Polish-American Cooperation Society), he met his fellow explorer, filmmaker and producer Ernest B. Shoedsack. They embarked on a series of daring projects together, traveling to Iran to make a documentary about the nomadic Bakhtiari people in “Grass”, and traveling to Thailand to film daily life in the jungle in “Chang”. When it came to adapting “The Four Feathers” for the screen, the intrepid filmmakers shot part of it in Sudan to get real footage of the local tribes and wildlife (via Britannica).
One of the most common myths about the creation of “King Kong” is that the idea of a giant gorilla attacking New York came to Cooper in a dream, but it’s more likely that the inspiration came from the exploits. of his fellow adventurer, William Douglas Burden.
Burden had traveled to Indonesia with the goal of capturing a Komodo dragon. They were about 10 feet long and capable of eating an entire buffalo for lunch. Burden’s nickname for them was “King Komodo”. He described Komodo as a remote and mysterious place filled with exotic animals, which may have helped design Skull Island.
Burden returned to New York with three Komodo dragons, where they became a star attraction at the zoo. Yet its creepy lizards were overshadowed by a stuffed gorilla. Visitors flocked to see this curiosity because, until then, gorillas had not been seen in North America. The two creatures came together in Cooper’s mind, as he later wrote to Burden (via TCM):
“After one of my conversations with you, I thought to myself, why not film my Gorilla… I also had it very firmly in mind to giantize both the Gorilla and your Dragons to make them really huge. However, I have always believed in personalization and focusing attention on a main character and from the beginning I intended to make him the Gigantic Gorilla, no matter what else I surrounded him… I had already established it in my mind on a prehistoric island with monsters prehistoric, and I now thought I had destroyed by the most sophisticated thing I could think of in civilization…”
Cooper had a great idea for a movie himself, but turning it green wasn’t easy. No producer would support a gorilla shot taken on location, but then Cooper saw O’Brien’s stop-motion work on “Creation,” an overbudget production about to be shortlisted. That might convince them…