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The military influences of the original King Kong

Joel Searls Avatar
military influences of king kong
A scene from King Kong (1933), directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack.

King Kong is a franchise that had its start in 1933 during the early days of talkie pictures. The film is known for its historical significance and cutting-edge special effects provided by Willis H. O’Brien. The film is ranked on Rotten Tomatoes as the greatest horror film of all time. It was a box office hit for its time with a $5.3M take at the box office, equivalent to about $121M today on a budget of 672K in 1933 money, and is about $15M in budgetary costs in 2022. The film stars Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot and was conceived by Merian C. Cooper and British writer Edgar Wallace.

These are the military influences of the original King Kong

Merian C. Cooper

Merian C. Cooper is most known for his success King Kong, however, he had success in many more places in life. He worked at studios such as RKO Pictures, Pioneer Pictures, Selznick International Pictures, MGM, Argosy Pictures and Cinerama. He served in uniform for different countries and service branches such as Georgia National Guard, the US Army Air Service in WWI, the Polish Air Force and then the US Army Air Corps from 1941 to 1973, which includes WWII.

merian cooper military influences of the original King Kong
Merian C. Cooper in Polish Air Force Uniform.

On top of all that time in the military, he earned an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1952. He also has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He directed and/or produced the following films; The Most Dangerous Game, Mighty Joe Young, Little Women, The Son of Kong, The Fugitive (1940), Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man and The Searchers. Many of the later films he produced were directed by John Ford and starred John Wayne. He also produced many documentaries throughout his career.

Ernest Schoedsack

Ernest Schoedsack started his film career in 1914 working for the great director of silent films and comedies, Mack Sennett (of note Mack Sennett studios still exists in Los Angeles). He served in WWI with the Signal Corps for the US Army in France in 1918. His trade was as a cameraman and he flew on combat bombing missions as well. He stayed in Europe post his service as a cameraman. One side effect of his service was that his eyesight was damaged during WWI. Out of sheer passion and determination, he continued to work in film. During the Polish-Soviet War in 1920, he helped refugees escape from Poland and he worked with the American Red Cross. He again supported refugees in 1921 and 1922 during the Greco-Turkish War.

schoedsack during production of the most dangerous game
Schoedsack during the production of The Most Dangerous Game in 1932.

Schoedsack trained at the Columbia University School of Military Cinematography upon his return to the US. He co-directed films with Merian C. Cooper who he first met in 1918 in Vienna. Two of their early collaborations are Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness and The Four Feathers, both being silent motion pictures. Their biggest collaboration came with King Kong and their partnership continued until the late 1930s. He directed Dr. Cyclops which was Hollywood’s first science fiction film in technicolor. Schoedsack’s last film to direct would be Mighty Joe Young which brought back some of the King Kong team with Cooper and Cooper’s wife Ruth Rose, who co-wrote King Kong. He retired from film in 1952 due to eye injuries received in WWII while testing photograph equipment.

Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen worked in Hollywood from the 1930s through 2010. He got his start working for Willis H. O’Brien in King Kong and continued his work with him through the 1940s on Might Joe Young. He and O’Brien won an Oscar for their work on the film. His solo work includes The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans. He has influenced and inspired such filmmakers as Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Tim Burton, James Cameron, Guillermo del Toro, George Lucas, J.J. Abrams and Wes Anderson. Even after having found success in Hollywood, he served during WWII in the US Army Special Services Division under another famous Hollywood director Frank Capra.

ray harryhausen star of king kong
Ray Harryhausen with the star of King Kong.

Harryhausen’s service included being a loader, clapper boy, gofer and camera assistant as he worked on animating short films about the use and development of military equipment. During his tour of duty, he worked alongside Dimitri Tiomkin, a composer for Capra and Ted Geisel, who is also known as Dr. Seuss. George Lucas has said, “Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars.” James Cameron stated, “I think all of us who are practitioners in the arts of science fiction and fantasy movies now all feel that we’re standing on the shoulder of a giant. If not for Ray’s contribution to the collective dreamscape, we wouldn’t be who we are.” It’s great to have a military veteran that has so positively influenced cinema and top-level current filmmakers.