1926 Film of Komodo Dragons Inspired "King Kong"

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Nov. 30 2012 7:30 AM

The Movie-Star Komodo Dragons That Inspired "King Kong"

The Vault is Slate's brand-new history blog. Like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @slatevault. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

In 1926, the American Museum of Natural History trustee William Douglas Burden set sail with a team of adventurers that included a hunter, a herpetologist, a cameraman, and Burden’s wife. They were off to capture dragons.

Other intrepid explorers had already confirmed the existence in the East Indies of giant lizards (dubbed Komodo dragons). Yet none of the animals had been brought to the west alive.


Besides footage, the explorers also brought back actual dragons—many dead ones for the museum (where a few remain on display today) and two alive to debut at the Bronx Zoo. In the clip below, Burden and his wife look on from a blind as lizards pick at some bait. Then, the adventurers fire a shot; in the early twentieth century, wildlife aficionados often hunted with guns as well as cameras.

In New York, the lizards met a captivated audience. The film was a hit at private parties and sportsmen’s clubs and tens of thousands flocked to the zoo to see the animals live. Burden’s friend, the filmmaker Merian Cooper, injected elements of the trip into his then-upcoming movie, King Kong (1933). In his biography of Cooper, Mark Cotta Vaz writes that much in the film, including the female on the expedition and Kong’s forced trip back to New York, was likely influenced by Burden’s tale. The story may have even played a part in the name King Kong. Cooper apparently liked the strength of the hard "K" in "Komodo."

The American Museum of Natural History’s past is littered with other exotic investigations captured on film. Many will be discussed at tonight’s Re-Seeing the Century: The Expedition on Film, part of the museum’s Margaret Mead Film Festival.

This video contains footage of the shooting of a Komodo dragon. Sensitive viewers might want to avoid. The clip has been slightly edited from the original.

Thanks to Dr. Monique Scott, Michael Walker and the staff of the American Museum of Natural History Research Library.




More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.


Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Sept. 17 2014 8:15 AM Ted Cruz Will Not Join a Protest of "The Death of Klinghoffer" After All
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 9:03 AM My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. And Then I Found Myself With Someone Like Dad.
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 8:27 AM Only Science Fiction Can Save Us! What sci-fi gets wrong about income inequality.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 7:30 AM Ring Around the Rainbow
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.