Long-Held Theories About Skull Islanders In King Kong Movies Are Actually Wrong (Part I)
Nerdy considerations on the very real science beneath Skull Island’s science fiction
If you’re one of those people who’ve never been certain about whether or not it existed, there is no such place as “Skull Island.”
Just kidding, True Believer!
Believe it or not, there actually is such a place, but that very real Skull Island is just a teeny, tiny islet located in the South Pacific Ocean’s Solomon Islands chain. The fantastical, mist-hidden isle that serves as the home of a menacing, ape-like demigod (and his nervous worshippers) in the 1933 film King Kong, however, isn’t real. But there is a surprisingly real basis for it.
“Well, every legend has a basis of truth.” – Carl Denham, King Kong (1933)
In the science-fantasy masterpiece in which Skull Island first appeared, the location of the uncharted locale is described as being reached by sailing 2 degrees south by 90 degrees east of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. From there, the daring mariner is instructed to continue on in a southwesterly direction until the mysterious boundaries of a perpetual fog bank is reached. On the other side of the mist, a treacherous coral reef quietly awaits the hulls of all carelessly captained vessels, so here extra caution is advised. And just beyond the limits of the coral reef lie Skull Island’s deceptively placid shores.
According to an estimation made by fellow Kong theorist and writer Rick Johnson in the speculative essay “Doorways to Pellucidar: Island of the Skull,” the coordinates given in the original King Kong would appear to put the uncharted island about 600 or so nautical miles west of Nias, one of a chain of islands dotting the northwest coast of Indonesian Sumatra.
It should be considered, though, that such a location for Skull Island, an as yet unmapped isle in Kong mythos, running parallel to the northern Sumatra would have placed it fairly close to Sri Lanka. As such, I think that such a placement — even working within the forgiving framework of suspended disbelief––would have made it much more likely that some early cartographer would have mapped it.
In the interest of keeping the location of this land mass more plausibly remote, and using the original 1933 framework, I choose instead to think of Skull Island being a bit deeper or further out into the Indian Ocean, somewhat parallel to the southern tip of Java. (See map)
Part of Johnson’s rationale for a placement parallel to Nias is based on information gleaned from the 1933 film that still inspires our latent considerations. There, motion picture director Carl Denham details how he came to possess a map with the island’s approximate location from Nils Helstrom, the captain of a Norwegian ship, sometime in 1931.
It was some six years before that when Helstrom and his crew spied a drifting canoe occupied by several dead and one nearly dead islander. That lingering survivor lived just long enough to describe––in a language later mentioned as being something like that spoken by the people of Nias — the uncharted isle from whence the strange men and their storm tossed canoe originated.
Based on that account, a crude map is roughed out. Featured in the sketch is a long and sandy peninsula with a high wall that is ever guardedly maintained by the tribal folk who live in a village that the ancient structure protects. On the other side of the wall is dense jungle and a lone mountain whose peak looks like the shape of a skull.
It is from the latter that the unofficial but commonly used name Skull Island is derived.
Two years after Denham acquired the map in Singapore, he hires Captain Englehorn and the crew of his ship to set a course for the uncharted isle. Denham’s unspoken desire for this expedition is to capture on film a legendary creature that is rumored to live on the island. Following the map’s coordinates, and perhaps also with a bit of luck, the ship drops anchor sometime later off the southernmost shore of Skull Island.
The rest, as goes the saying, is history.
In conjunction with the release of director Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong remake, Weta Workshop, the special effects and creative development studio co-founded by Jackson, published the book, World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island.
The lushly illustrated guide, inspired by both King Kong and Son of Kong (its largely forgotten 1933 sequel), provides a detailed survey of Skull Island as it appears in Jackson’s remake.
Writer and adept Kong theorist Den Valdron paid tribute to Weta Workshop’s exhaustively explored effort in his speculative essay, “Lost Civilization of Skull Island,” and puts his talents to the task of giving a still somewhat lacking explanation for the island’s very curious human element:
“Skull Island is home to a vanished civilization now known only by a series of megalithic ruins. Who were these people? Where did they come from? How did they live?”
Like the essay by the previously discussed Rick Johnson, Valdron makes an admirable effort to formulate a theory that might satisfy those questions.
One of the biggest intellectual challenges of King Kong––aside from a 15-ft ape with an unnatural attraction to blondes and prehistoric dinosaurs walking about in the 20th century — has always been the puzzling presence of black people living amidst fantastic beasts on a mist-hidden isle somewhere in the Indian Ocean.
It’s an 85-year old mystery that has somehow prevailed to the present day.
But the mystery actually lies in our general lack of scientific understanding about how the first people to populate Asia (and its southern islands) looked. This is evident on page 40 of World of Kong, where Weta authors write of Skull Island’s dark-skinned inhabitants:
“The exact origin of the natives was unknown. Their physiology did not closely match that of any of the region’s inhabitants.”
Their physiology not matching that of any of the region’s inhabitants may have been true of Peter Jackson’s questionable approach to the people of Skull Island, but it was not at all true of those in Merian C. Cooper’s original film.
In fact, modern science showed us long ago that the physiology of the Skull Islanders in the original King Kong film was similar to the first people to populate both mainland Asia and the southern islands of the Indian Ocean, and thus also to the earliest Homo sapiens that wandered out of Africa.
The best resources on the surprisingly scientific approach taken with the Skull Islanders are earlier creations in which Merian Cooper, the creator of King Kong, was involved. The first of these is The Sea Gypsy, a book published in 1924 co-written with Edward A. Salisbury. The other is the 1929 exploitation film Gow, directed by Salisbury but shot to film by Cooper and his friend and future business partner Ernest B. Schoedsack.
Cooper and Schoedsack, who later co-directed King Kong, first met in 1919 while they were both in Europe. Cooper had served as a fighter pilot in France during World War I and joined a Relief Organization when the war ended. It was while passing through Vienna, in route to Warsaw, that Cooper met and became friends with Ernest Schoedsack, an American newsreel cameraman who was also participating in the post-war humanitarian efforts in Europe.
In 1922, after a return home to the states, the infamously restless Cooper joined a sea-going expedition led by the millionaire adventurer Edward A. Salisbury. Sailing on the latter’s 88-ton yacht Wisdom, Cooper and a rotating crew of nearly 20 men traveled across the globe to explore and to document on film and in text numerous far-flung regions. These locales include Somalia, Ethiopia, the islands of the Indian Ocean, and the scattered tropical isles of the South Pacific.
During the early part of their expeditions, one of Salibury’s cinematographers quit the team and Ernest Schoedsack was recommended by Cooper to serve as a replacement. His friend was soon hired and was flown to East Africa to meet up with the team. From there Schoedsack, who also wrote for The New York Times, filmed their expeditions as they resumed in Ethiopia, and he penned news articles that detailed their distant journeys as well.
Salisbury, too, penned articles of their travels were featured in papers like The Atlanta Constitution. But most of his writing was done to comprise the chapters of the aforementioned book The Sea Gypsy.
And while the travelogue may have originally been planned as a solo effort, Salisbury would fall deathly ill while the team was in Somalia prepping for the trip to Ethiopia, so that chapter was written entirely by Cooper, resulting in the book’s shared authorship.
When their travelogue-related expeditions with Salisbury came to an end around 1924, Cooper and Schoedsack decided to continue making motion pictures themselves and formed a production team to create movies that, like Gow, were filmed in exotic, faraway locales.
Describing their productions as “natural dramas,” the short series of films produced by the duo were Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925), Chang (1927) and The Four Feathers (1929).
Like Gow before it, The Four Feathers contained scenes featuring the so-called “Fuzzy Wuzzy” fighters of East Africa. (The term was inspired by the long, curly hairstyle they wore.) The film also boasted captivating views of Africa’s indigenous flora and fauna, including a playful family of baboons. But it also featured a female character played by actress Fay Wray, and the combined elements seemed to foreshadow what was to come from Cooper a few years later.
It was with lived experiences as a fighter pilot during World War I, and as a filmmaker shooting in some of the world’s most remote locales in mind that Cooper began to focus his fertile imagination into an audacious screenplay. The project was one that would allow him to combine all of his varied interests in exploration, apes, airplanes, motion picture making, and even his life as a citizen of New York, into a remarkable, history-making whole.
Much of what appears in the frames of Gow, and the re-cut version Gow the Killer, first entered the public sphere in the pages of The Sea Gypsy. The film itself was sensationally promoted as a “superb motion picture of life among the cannibals and headhunters of the South Seas!”
To sensationalize things even more, the film was reissued in 1956 with the title “Cannibal Island.”
The co-authored book, on the other hand, while somewhat less sensational, still makes ample use on its dust jacket of a provocative illustration of three half-naked black men moving astride the tides of the South Pacific in a sea-going canoe. It’s a thematic element that would later find a place in the harrowing abduction of Faye Wray’s character Ann Darrow by stealthy Skull Islanders in King Kong.
For the rarified Kong historian with an interest in the anthropological aspects of Skull Island, the book and film that Cooper helped to create in the years leading up to Kong wield a treasure trove of useful information.
In fact, as companions to one another, they hold everything one should need to understand fully that which has been — for the better part of 85 years— the most misunderstood aspect of Cooper’s 1933 epic: the peopling of Skull Island.
Paco Taylor is a writer from Chicago. He loves old history books, Japanese giant monster movies, hip-hop, anime, comics, Kit Kats, and kung fu flicks.