Wartime Heroics, A Misspelled Hollywood Star, and King Kong
Merian C. Cooper '1911 lived an extraordinary life.
Merian C. Cooper '1911 lived an extraordinary life. After turning down his appointment to lieutenant in the Georgia National Guard, he fought as a pilot in World War I and later in the Polish-Soviet War where he was awarded the Virtuti Militar, the highest Polish military decoration. His wartime experiences alone are beyond intriguing. He once cheated death after he was shot down in battle. As his plane burst into flames, Cooper was presumed dead. After spinning his plane to put out the flames, he landed and was taken to a prisoner reserve hospital, where he became a Soviet prisoner of war. After the war, he worked as a journalist and produced several films as he travelled the world. In one voyage, he met the Prince Regent of the Ethiopian Empire before barely dodging a pirate attack. As if these adventures were not enough, he also received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Ironically, he is one of three people that has a misspelled, uncorrected name on a Hollywood Star. Cooper lived an astounding life, but plenty of war heroes' stories fade through the decades. It was his contribution to film that set him apart. Although Cooper passed away decades ago, many of us are still well acquainted with what is arguably his greatest legacy.
Inspired by his travels, Cooper conceived a film in which a gorilla fought a komodo dragon. He pitched his idea to Paramount Studios in the beginning of the Great Depression, but the studio shied away from the cost. Thus, Cooper cancelled filming on his original assignment-Paramount's Creation, because he deemed it boring and lacking in action. Using the crew, set, and stop motion techniques originally prepared for Creation, Cooper reimagined a new movie. This new movie eventually became the distinguished King Kong, which Cooper both produced and directed. King Kong's story is well known-after a ship's crew finds a Pacific island of prehistoric animals ruled by a giant gorilla named Kong, island natives kidnap an American girl to offer as tribute to Kong. Kong protects the girl but is shackled and taken to America for display. After mistaking photo flashes for an attack, Kong breaks free and searches for the girl. He finds her and brings her to the top of the Empire State building, where he is shot at by planes and falls to his death.
Released in 1933, King Kong predated the widespread adoption of sound in films, so the cheesy effects we see today as amusingly unrealistic were actually cutting edge and terrifying to audiences. The movie blended stop-motion, models, and seemingly every form of visual trickery to create stunning realism never seen before. Kong, the 50-foot tall "Eighth Wonder of the World" is portrayed by an 18 inch model in real life. The movie's use of special effects and constant suspense gave rise to other science-fiction classics like Independence Day, Aliens, or Jurassic Park. King Kong pioneered the modern trend of science-fiction movies through a concept of human interaction with a fantastical, supernatural being. With a magnificently devastating plot and dazzling effects, King Kong played a significant role in the history and progression of film that birthed science-fiction as we know it today.
The American Film Institute named King Kong one of the 50 best American Films in 1975 and Rotten Tomatoes ranks it as the 33rd greatest movie of all time. King Kong has been remade or spun off into eight movies; outside of film, it has been prominently featured in pop culture. It paved the way for modern science fiction through its visual effects, but it became iconic not just because it became a pioneer of a new film genre.
The "gray alien" is another pop culture icon. You have almost certainly seen some version of the gray alien-they are small and hairless humanoids with disproportionately large heads and eyes. These aliens are often more powerful and intelligent. As a self-centered species, it's no coincidence we imagine intelligent extraterrestrials as humanoids with enlarged heads and brains, and it's no coincidence that they also lack parts we believe to be primal, like hair and physical strength.
We are captivated by these augmented versions of ourselves. Cooper's Kong is a different augmentation of a human. He is primal (and primatal); while the intelligent aliens we imagine are small and hairless, Kong is literally a gigantic ape. But barbaric as he is, we see our humanity reflected in his actions-his fierce protection of a human girl, his non-violence until provoked. When Kong fell from the Empire State Building, the audiences' hearts arguably fell with him as Kong represents the misunderstood human- persecuted for his actions due to pre-existing perceptions. We remember King Kong for its illusions and effects, but also for Kong himself. King Kong predates the kickstart of American individualism by around 20 years. The movie, with its portrayal of raw human emotions through another being, gives us a look at a version of ourselves through a third-person perspective. The film directs attention towards self-reflection and the treatment of society towards the individual self. King Kong, reveals a post-war side of Cooper. Through maximizing righteous human features of Kong and Kong's death due to outside perceptions and animosity, Cooper uses the movie to portray the destructive effects that war has on people and virtuous morale.
Kong is set to appear once again in a new movie this year: Godzilla vs. Kong. Its spectacular effects in the trailer stun us, as does Kong, who seems to be a few hundred feet taller. Cooper wasn't just a director profiting off a successful idea, he was a pioneer of a new genre of film that addresses issues in society through abstract personification of humanity. Cooper's legacy, through the character of Kong, technical innovation, and combining his wartime experiences with the art of film, lives on, stronger than ever.