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GODZILLA X KONG: The Real-Life Events That Inspired King Kong (Which Begat Godzilla)

With the highly anticipated release of Godzilla x Kong (see our special review by award-winning Spectacular Spider-Man, Rampaging Hulk and Star Trek: Untold Voyages writer Glenn Greenberg), we take a quick look back at the origins of King Kong–and discover that one of the best-known Hollywood movies of all time was based somewhat in reality despite being such a tall tale.




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King Kong is one of the most influential films (and characters) in movie history. Although the original movie has been remade and adapted a number of times over the years—with Kong’s current cinematic team-up with Godzilla being their third  big screen encounter since 1962–the original 1933 film remains the standard bearer for all Kong’s subsequent appearances. The story of an enormous ape taking over a city and falling for a beautiful woman is a fantastical and memorable story. Surprisingly, it’s not entirely a work of fiction, as what may seem at first blush like a very tall tale was actually inspired by real events that had occurred just a few years earlier.

Audiences have long flocked to theaters seeking an escape from reality and craving the thrill of stories that can transport them to new realities, even if only for a short period of time. Few films epitomize this better than King Kong, with its gripping tale of a mammoth ape fighting dinosaurs, falling in love and climbing up the side of tall buildings.



Dan Slate of Slate uncovered how the genesis of King Kong came from a daring 1926 expedition to the East Indies that was funded by the American Museum of Natural History, and spearheaded by museum trustee William Douglas Burden. The mission’s primary objective was capturing footage of Indonesian islands’ Komodo dragons, which were viewed as legendary and mysterious creatures, and attempting to bring back live specimens to the United States for the first time. It had been tried previously, but proved too challenging to be successful.



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Burden’s expedition was fraught with adventure and danger, just like the earlier attempts. The adventurer and his small team, which included his wife, a hunter, a cameraman and a scientist, hunted and filmed Komodo dragons during their trip. They were even able to successfully capture two live dragons that eventually found their way to the Bronx Zoo.

Numerous spectators passed by the Zoo’s dragon exhibit, fascinated by these large bizarre creatures that were so foreign to most at the time. Additionally, the Burden expedition produced a film of their adventures, bringing back the best documentation to date of these living dinosaurs. This film was screened at parties and sporting clubs. For many, the dragons served as the closest experience people had to witnessing a real-life monster (although dragons are no monsters) with their own eyes.




One of Burden’s friends was screenwriter Merian C. Cooper. Inspired by Burden’s thrilling accounts of his adventures, Cooper in turn wove some of the elements into an upcoming movie he was set to direct — King Kong. There are a number of parallels between the real-life expedition and the movie’s plot: a group of explorers captures a mysterious monster from a remote island and brings it back to New York City where it’s transformed into a popular attraction.

It’s also speculated that Burden recounted a story about witnessing a Komodo dragon fight a gorilla while he was studying them in the jungle, which became the inspiration for Cooper and his big fight scene in the movie … and presaged Kong’s later encounters with Toho Studios’ Godzilla, which was itself inspired by the original tale of the giant ape and its massive success at the Japanese box office.

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Cooper is said to have drawn his own inspiration from the real-life people involved in the expedition, including Burden’s wife being the counterpart to the actress, Fay Wray. Furthermore, the subtle nod to the Komodo dragons can also be seen in the choice of the repetition of the letter ‘K’ in King Kong.




Despite the fantastic nature of the King Kong story, it was far from a sudden burst of imagination. Although there has never been a huge ape falling in love with a stunning blonde and terrorizing a big city, the story is rooted in reality. It can trace its origin back to a small group of scientists, who succeeded in bringing back specimens and information about a curious animal, all while simultaneously and unwittingly serving as the building blocks for a cinematic classic.

And here we are ninety-one years later with the mighty Kong back yet again, sharing the screen with a scaled behemoth.


Buy Tickets for Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire Here




Born on the East Coast but currently residing on the West Coast, Andrew Martin has contributed to a variety of newspapers, magazines, blogs and other mediums  but most fondly remembers his Master’s thesis exploring the impact of the Boston Red Sox on social identity in New England. He enjoys writing about history, sports, culture and investing and recently published his first book–Baseball’s Greatest Players: 10 Baseball Biographies for New Readers, a children’s book about baseball history.

The Essential Andrew


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