That Time They Built a King Kong Robot
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This is the cinematic history they don’t want you to know about.
By Jim Knipfel
Willis O’Brien, the stop-motion pioneer who originally brought King Kong to life in 1933, hit the skids pretty hard by the late ’40s. He spent the last decade of his life pitching assorted Kong scripts around Hollywood with little success. Finally, in the early ’60s, the script for a movie he was calling King Kong vs. Frankenstein (which seems an awfully unfair fight, if you ask me) ended up on the desk of Toho Studios producer Tomoyuki Tanaka. Tanaka had always wanted to make a Kong film, but he had no use for O’Brien’s slow and pricey stop-motion animation when rubber suits and miniature sets worked just fine. Still, he bought the script, made one small correction and was good to go.
Directed by Ishirô Honda, 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla would go on to become the most successful Godzilla picture Toho ever made, even if its giant gorilla looked more like an orangutan with mange. The film was such a huge financial hit in both Japan and the States that a follow-up was inevitable. O’Brien had since died, but with Kong now an indelible American icon (even after being Japanified into a mangy orangutan named Kingu Kongu), it only made sense for Toho to make the film as a U.S.-Japanese co-production.
Unfortunately, the Americans they teamed up with turned out to be Rankin/Bass, the insidious duo who’d inflicted Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and other holiday-themed nightmares on an unsuspecting public. At the time, Rankin/Bass had a popular Kong cartoon series on the air, and it jumped at the chance to expand the series into a live-action feature. Although most of Toho’s giant monster pictures to that point worked as sociopolitical allegories, 1967’s King Kong Escapes was strictly a Saturday-morning affair.
So there’s this Madame Piranha, see? She’s a tall, evil government agent, anxious to get her hands on a massive stockpile of the extremely rare and highly radioactive Element X, which would allow her country to rule the world. To this end, she has contracted the services of the cadaverous and equally tall mad scientist Doctor Who (no relation) — who has uncovered an enormous deposit of Element X at the North Pole.
Now, despite all the heavy-duty mining equipment at his disposal, Who, being a mad scientist, concludes that the only creature with the strength and manual dexterity to remove the radioactive ore is, of course, King Kong. But since he has no simple way of moving Kong from Mondo Island to the North Pole, his only alternative, see, is to build a life-size robot Kong that he calls, well, MechaKong. Are you following me? It’s a pretty big leap, even in mad-scientist terms, but we’ll let it slide. As Who is tinkering away on his insane and ludicrous MechaKong, Madame Piranha is becoming increasingly suspicious (and who can blame her?) that this mad doctor she has hired might be padding his expense accounts.
OK, let’s stop right here. You can just go watch the damn movie yourself. I’m more interested in this MechaKong.
See, as cool as he looks — a combination of Robby the Robot and Rudolph’s Bumble, with a little gizmo on the top of his head that shoots laser beams or receives radio signals or something — the sad fact is he simply doesn’t work very well. Not nearly as well as the real Kong anyway, which even Dr. Who has to admit.
Every time I see this movie, I always think Dino De Laurentiis should’ve taken a long, hard look at it before undertaking his own ballyhooed Kong remake in 1976 — and especially before spending half the film’s budget to have special effects whiz Carlo Rambaldi build a life-size mechanical Kong. And he should’ve taken still another look before deciding to focus the film’s publicity campaign on the giant robot Kong when he knew goddamn well it didn’t work and would appear in only two laughable second-long scenes. Like Dr. Who, De Laurentiis was forced for the rest of the film to resort to, yes, a man in a gorilla suit. But had he simply come out and admitted his failure as Who did, he could’ve save himself a lot of grief down the line.
Anyway, as for King Kong Escapes, let me just say this: As far as I’m aware, it remains the only G-rated film released in the States that ends with the villain vomiting blood after being pinioned against a wall by a sliding table.
- Jim Knipfel Contact Jim Knipfel