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The Movie-Star Komodo Dragons That Inspired “King Kong”

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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.