King Kong and Friends: A History of Giant Apes in Film

It was in 1925 when the first giant monster rampaged across the silver screen, stunning audiences at the time with amazing prehistoric creations, that film was Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World, and it heralded a new age in cinema.  Close on its heels was the 1933 classic King Kong, a film that still stands today as one of the best of the genre, and from King Kong to Godzilla giant monsters have captured the imagination of filmgoers for almost a century.

The original 1933 King Kong was one of the earliest films I saw as a child and it is that film which is mostly responsible for my love of movies.  What five year old boy wouldn’t have been enraptured with the sight of a giant ape wrestling with a Tyrannosaurus Rex? King Kong was truly the Eighth Wonder of the World. Sure Clint Eastwood had to blow up a giant tarantula in the Arizona desert, Lee Van Cleef took out the rollercoaster wrecking Rhedosauras, and Raymond Burr waxed poetic of the destruction of Tokyo by the infamous Godzilla, but it was Kong who had first won my heart, and I’ve been loyal to the big ape ever since.

vlcsnap-2016-04-05-14h26m19s291Kong is the King.

Of course when something is a success everyone is going to rush out to cash in on it; RKO themselves hastily put out a sequel that very same year, and then they re-released the original again in 1938, 1942, 1946, 1952, and 1956 to squeeze every penny they could out of their hairy creation, but other studios were not sitting idly by when there was Giant Ape money to be had.  So with all the sequels, remakes and rip-offs through the years the “Giant Ape Movie” had almost become a genre all it’s own, and today we will look at some of the great, and some of the not-so-great, movies featuring tall dark and hairy leads.

Click on the pictures or links below to take you to full reviews of each of these titles, and remember, “It wasn’t beauty that killed the beast, it was low budget rip-offs.”

king kong 1933King Kong (1933)

It was the original King Kong that really showcased the possibilities of stop motion animation, which allowed special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien to have his tiny creation loom over the heroic Bruce Cabot and the beautiful damsel in distress Fay Wray, in a land teeming with prehistoric beasts. The titanic struggles between Kong and his enemies still thrills audiences to this day.

son-of-kong-e1466821050935Song of Kong (1933)

Attempting to strike while the iron was hot RKO Studios rushed Son of Kong into theaters, but with half the original’s budget and a meagre 70 running time. Worse is that it took the movie most of that running time just to get back to the damn island where finally the “on the run and strapped for cash” Carl Denham meets up with a twelve foot version of Kong.  A giant ape without the penchant for stomping on natives or tossing sailors to their deaths.

Mighty Joe YoungMighty Joe Young (1949)

Effects genius Willis O’Brien returns again to the giant ape genre, but doing much of the work for Mighty Joe Young is Ray Harryhausen, a man who will become a legend in the field of stop motion animation. In this movie we get a kinder gentler giant ape, basically a shorter version of Son of Kong, though when drunk he can certainly ruin a nightclub. Notice that actor Robert Armstrong is back playing about the same character he did in the previous films, only under a different character name.

kongaKonga (1961)

This British/American International co-production did not have the time or money to use the painstakingly difficult stop motion techniques that the previous giant ape movies used, so instead Konga goes the guy in an ape suit route. Also no longer is it a beast yanked from his lost primordial home but now its “mad science” that is responsible for the monster’s size.  The result was very much a Murders in the Rue Morgue story, but with surprisingly less rampaging.

king kong vs godzillaKing Kong vs Godzilla (1962)

When Godzilla first lay waste to Japan back in 1954 he was a mere 164ft tall, but everyone’s very giant ape was at most 50ft tall.  So putting these two titans against one another didn’t seem like a fair match, especially when one of them has atomic fire and the other is covered in fur, but Toho wasn’t going to let that stop them. In King Kong vs Godzilla the mighty Kong has been transformed to stand on equal footing (or at least equal height) with Godzilla, and is able to charge himself with lightning. Yeah, that doesn’t make sense to me either.

king-kong-escapes-poster1King Kong Escapes (1967)

Animation studio Rankin/Bass set aside their ink and paint department to team up with Toho Productions in pitting Kong against a possibly greater foe than Godzilla, a robot Kong built by the nefarious Dr. Who. Could a mad scientist bent on world domination, aided by the villainous femme fatale Lady Piranha, be a match for the great Kong. Well no, but  King Kong Escapes does make for a fun and goofy romp.

king kong 1976King Kong (1976)

In 1976 Paramount Studios launched a juggernaut of a campaign to promote their big budget remake of King Kong, with producer Dino De Laurentiis stating, “No one cry when Jaws die but when the monkey die, people gonna cry. Intellectuals gonna love Kong. Even film buffs who love the first Kong gonna love ours. Why? Because I no give them crap.” What we did get was another guy in an ape suit, albeit a much better ape suit, but I don’t think any intellectuals or film buffs fell in love with this remake.

A-P-E-_movie_poster_-_American_releaseA*P*E (1976)

Cashing in on all that generated publicity for the Dino De Laurentiis remake of King Kong a South Korean/American co-production rushed a giant A*P*E movie of their own, and in glorious 3D. From the terrible ape suit to the over-the-top bad acting this film is a marvel to behold. If you want to see a man in an ape suit wrestle with a dead shark this could be the film for you.  Awfulness has rarely reached the screens in such levels in any dimension let alone three.

Mighty-Peking-Man-movie-posterThe Mighty Peking Man (1977)

Also trying to ride the Kong remake gravy train were the Shaw Brothers with their film The Might Peking Man, but unlike A*P*E this movie had a plot, a slightly better ape suit, and some decent models for the giant ape to smash. Now I’m not saying this is a good movie, heavens to Betsy I’d never say that, but the goofy charm of combining a King Kong knock-off with a Sheena Queen of the Jungle rip-off did keep me entertained.

king kong livesKing Kong Lives (1986)

Back in 1933 RKO knew that any sequel to their hit King Kong would have to shift focus to one of Kong’s relations, as Kong himself had done a swan dive off the Empire State Building, but when the producers of the 1976 King Kong decided to make a sequel to their version they went with the idiotic idea that King Kong Lives. The whole premise reads like a Saturday Night Live comedy sketch, and not a particularly good one.  Somehow the makers of this film expected us to believe that all Kong would need after falling off the Twin Towers was a heart transplant. Well that and a love interest provided by Lady Kong.

king kong 2005King Kong (2005)

How excited were we when we head that the man behind the Lord of the Rings movies was going to tackle a big budget remake of King Kong? I for one was damn excited, and we did get a King Kong movie on an epic scale, but did the story of Kong warrant such a grand scale? Gone are the terrible ape suits, which are now replaced by state of the art computer graphics, and once again we get a Skull Island just teeming with prehistoric beasties, but Peter Jackson also makes us wait 45 minutes to get there. This version of King Kong is an incredible achievement; it just didn’t need to be a three hour achievement.

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

In this Legendary Pictures attempt at creating a MonsterVerse we get a new origin story for Kong that puts him in the role of protector against enormous creatures that dwell beneath the Earth’s surface and Skull Island just so happens to be one of the exit points.  This is an action packed adventure film that races along at break neck speeds while also show casing how beautiful Kong’s island home is.  This Kong is a bruiser and will not be messed with.  All hail the king.

With decades of giant ape movies out there we sadly haven’t seen all that many actually good ones, but at least the bad ones are so terrible as to be entertainingly bad.  So here’s to looking forward to another hundred years of giant ape movies.

Mike Brooks

Mike Brooks

Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.