Universal would have you think they created King Kong. They heavily merchandise the character, and he’s been a mainstay at their amusement parks for decades; they even sued the likes of Nintendo over the likeness. And yet, they never actually made a Kong movie until 2005….but not for a lack trying.
Somehow, both Dino De Laurentiis and Universal wound up working on King Kong remakes in the mid 70s (this sort of thing happens with alarming frequency in Hollywood; see Antz and A Bug’s Life or Deep Impact and Armageddon). History shows that the former wound up winning the legal ensuing battle royale (with the Cooper estate hopping in for good measure), though the Paramount project wound up giving a cut of its earnings to Universal in exchange for Universal holding off on production.
Universal’s unmade movie, The Legend of King Kong, only had a handful of vague advertisements, but script and storyboards are floating around out there. We can see for ourselves how the existing Kong picture turned out (poorly), but its vanquished rival project then becomes the great “what might have been”… and it turns out it was much, much more faithful to the original. Universal had argued hard that they could make whatever based on the original public domain King Kong novel, and that’s what they’d stuck to: it’s set in the 1930s, and did contain dinosaurs, unlike the 70s movie that was made. Because of this, some elements were fudged, such as Denham’s first name (not in the book), and Kong’s exact rival beasts (e.g. he fights a Triceratops instead of a T-Rex), and some changes were purely original (there’s a giant scorpion, Kong has a Carnosaur-ish battle against construction equiptments, Denham dies at the end). The picture was to be directed by The Taking of Pelham One Two Three‘s Joseph Sargent, and written by Bo Goldman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).
That all sounds really good, but accounts from Bob Burns, who almost wore the Kong suit for the film, reveal that Universal wanted to cheap out on the special effects just as much as De Laurentiis did, possibly more so, meaning that the the final cut might have been a disaster if it had come to pass.
I wonder if the fact that we had two major studios battling over the big ape is part of why there were so many knock-offs produced around the world at the time; even Jaws didn’t inspire so many imitators…. and much like Legend of King Kong, many of them didn’t get made, either! Excluding the previously-mentioned Star Godzilla, we have:
- Roger Corman, consummate exploitationist that he is, was paying attention to the legal battle, and contemplated rushing out his own King Kong after he found out the public domain sourcing, but ultimately abandoned the plan (you can bet if The Asylum existed in those days, they wouldn’t be so classy).
- Giallo maestro Mario Bava got to work on a movie titled Baby Kong, storyboards of which are included in the very OOP Mario Bava: All the Colors of Dark.
- A Mighty Gorga sequel was contemplated (why?)
- Batman creator Bob Kane apparently wrote a parody along the lines of Queen Kong, according to this forum thread
- Of course, being a tokusatsu-obsessive ‘blog, we’d be remiss to mention Kongorilla, the collaboration between Amicus in the UK and Toei. Think about it, it could’ve gone head-to-head with Nessie!
A funny thing, the 1976 Legend of King Kong isn’t even the only unmade Kong picture by that title; it was also the name of the doomed 1999 TV movie starring Sam Neil and Larry Fishburne. Not an auspicious nomenclature, I guess.