Following a stint as a counter-revo- lutionary "soldier of fortune" that, by 1920, earned him a stretch in a Soviet prisoner of war camp, Merian Caldwell Cooper, went to work producing far-fetched and, for the most part, staged "documentary" films for Paramount. "Chang" (1927) is worth putting onto your Netflix queue for a taste of Cooper's peculiar approach to the documentary form.
By 1933 Cooper had forsworn the life of a sensationalist documentary filmmaker and soon became a big time director and producer of fiction films. The movie that established his celebrity told the story of Carl Denham, a sensationalist documentary filmmaker—based loosely on himself. The film, of course, was "King Kong." It made Cooper rich and famous and he went on to become a Hollywood power-broker at RKO. The world view presented in "King Kong," however, was already taking shape in young Merian's fantasy life during his childhood.
As a boy, Merian Cooper was deeply influenced by Paul B. du Chaillu’s 1861 book, Explorations & Adventures in Equatorial Africa, which left a profound mark on his imagination. Informed by centuries of colonialist travelogues and bolstered by the "findings" of racial science, Du Chaillu’s was the quintessential tale of the “Great White Hunter,” told by himself, in which his domination of human and animal wilds were recounted with great drama. In the engraving from the book, above, Du Chaillu assumes a relaxed pose as he casually he observes an exorcism.
Du Chaillu's adventures inspired Cooper’s personal journey as a self-styled adventurer and as a filmmaker. Du Chaillu’s book was filled with fabulous and vivid misinformation, including ostensible sightings of Troglodytes and other European “observations” seen in descriptions of Africa going back for centuries.
Of particular interest to Du Chaillu was the Gorilla, whom he anointed the true king of the jungle. Some natives, he related, believed that certain gorillas contained “spirits of departed negroes.” One local account told of a gorilla abducting “two Mbondemo women.” While one of the two escaped, the gorilla was said to have taken liberties with the other, before she was able to flee.
There were also tales of gorillas routing and killing natives warriors, imprisoning others. When the gorillas finally released their prisoners, “the nails of their fingers and toes…[were] torn off by their captors.”
Tales like these entered American folklore, largely as a result of being translated and transformed for the screen in Cooper and his partner, Earnest Schoedsack’s 1933 blockbuster, "King Kong."