the extraordinary life and career of KING KONG filmmaker MERIAN COOPER, a man who lived a hundred lives.
Critical readings of movies can always run the gamut, but when a film is a cinematic earthquake hitting at a historical hinge point, and when the filmmaker’s political views and the film’s fantastical elements combine, theories can also run amok and far from reality. King Kong has been read as a conservative attack on Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal big government programs, but the concept was thought up as early as 1899 and pitched long before FDR was in office. Kong’s been read as man’s id, savagery and greed, the whites as overreaching imperialists, and the gorilla as payback against colonialism, while some see sexism and racism, and even try to ascribe those directly to the director.
Whether you see it as a Beauty and the Beast story or a depression-era critique of capitalism, here are some undeniable truths: it’s a magical and timeless adventure and one of the best and most important movies ever made. A much lesser-known truth is that King Kong director/producer Merian C. Cooper was an extraordinarily fascinating, daring and accomplished figure in Hollywood history. He was an adventure junkie, film visionary, technical innovator, businessman, author, reporter, ace pilot, twice a POW, master military tactician, decorated war hero, and a strong outspoken conservative and anti-Communist crusader (who literally fought Communists).
Born in 1893, Cooper grew up dreaming of adventure and defending liberty, inspired by his great-great-grandfather Colonel John Cooper, who fought in the American Revolution with close friend, Polish soldier, and “father of the American cavalry” Casimir Pulaski. Because of this personal connection, Cooper vowed to visit Poland and someday return the debt. In his World War I role as bomber pilot, Cooper was shot down during a dogfight. Back then pilots rarely had parachutes, so as his plane was spiraling down, Cooper, his face and hands on fire, planned to jump but noticed his co-pilot was still alive. Cooper got back in the cockpit, put the plane into a dive so the wind would put out the flames, and crash landed. He lay recuperating in a German POW hospital as the war ended. Still craving action, he went to Poland on an aid mission, where he witnessed a successful but hard-won resistance battle against the Communist Russians in the Polish/Soviet war. To help Poland, Cooper formed a squad of American volunteer pilots which he named Kosciuszko squadron, after another prominent Polish freedom fighter in the American Revolution. The squad flew almost nonstop and won a decisive battle to prevent the Soviet Red Army from entering Western Europe. Cooper had a huge bounty on his head and was eventually caught then tortured with several mock executions and hard labor during 10 months in Soviet gulags before he made a daring escape and a 400-mile hike to freedom. Cooper was such a hero to Poland that a monument was dedicated in his honor and a movie made about his exploits, but the Soviet Communists destroyed both the monument and all copies of the film after World War II.
When Cooper came back to the U.S. he was briefly a reporter for the New York Times (and through his life wrote several books) but was bored and started making dangerous expeditions and groundbreaking documentaries with producing partner and lifelong friend Ernest Schoedsack. The films got him work in Hollywood, but he went back to aviation, campaigning for superior air power, which he believed would be vital for American security, heading various companies and establishing for Pan Am the first transatlantic passenger flights. When asked to join RKO studios, Cooper pitched a giant gorilla story he read about as a child. King Kong was a monster hit that innovated in almost every area—editing, music, props, effects, sound—and Cooper soon headed RKO where he matched up Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and developed the Technicolor process. By the way, you can see Cooper and Schoedsack in King Kong as the pilot and gunner who shoot Kong off the Empire State Building. Kong also brought Cooper a wife, Dorothy Jordan, who auditioned to play Ann Darrow. Jordan was in The Searchers, one of many films Cooper and John Ford made with their production company Argosy. Ever on the cutting edge of technology, he also headed Cinerama, where he helped launch the widescreen aspect ratio.
Even before World War II began, Cooper rejoined the Army Air Force. He was Chief of Staff of the Far East Forces, with Chennault’s Flying Tigers helped plan raids against Japanese, and was present onboard the Missouri when the Japanese surrendered. He was eventually recommended for Brigadier General but sent home for “medical reasons” after complaining to the Roosevelt administration about supply shortages and delays. As the cold war ramped up, he became even more politically involved and supported the efforts of Joseph McCarthy to expose subversive Communist activity, but he disapproved of Hollywood’s reaction, i.e. what he considered the “un-American” imposition of blacklists and loyalty pledges. In work and in life Cooper always strove to promote the greatness of America, capitalism, liberty, freedom and personal responsibility. He often criticized Hollywood for not doing more to further such messages, or to accurately portray the pitiful living conditions and true evils of statism and communism. A father of three, including a Colonel, Cooper died in 1973, and for all his achievements Hollywood rewarded him with an honorary Oscar and spelled his name wrong on his Walk of Fame star.
Both a documentary on Cooper, “I’m King Kong!” and King Kong (1933) air on TCM Sunday July 3rd starting at 7pm. Both are also available on special editions with loads of other extras on DVD and Blu-ray, and there’s also a biography of Cooper.
This article originally appeared as KD’s classic 1, Merian Cooper the visionary patriot behind King Kong, at landmark report