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03 July, 2010

Lost but Found: Peter Jackson’s Recreation of the “Spider-Pit”

Between its initial release and the mid-1950’s, KING KONG underwent several cuts designed either to make the film conform to changing moral standards or to fit artificial time constraints. Most of the cuts came from the 1938 re-release of the film, and were mandated by the Hayes Office. Many of these cuts were restored when an intact print was found in Great Britain in the early ‘70’s.

However, there was one sequence that was cut prior to the film’s general release, and this sequence does appear to be gone forever. This is the famous “Spider Pit” scene, which showed what happened to several of the crew of the Venture after Kong tossed the log into the chasm. There seems to be no doubt that this scene was shot; notes from director Merian C. Cooper state that he removed it himself following poor audience reaction in test screenings. Fans and historians have searched for decades for this missing footage, to no avail. If, as it would seem, the sequence were cut from the negative prior to most of the prints being manufactured, then there simply may not be any footage to find.

However, thanks to the efforts of KING KONG remake director Peter Jackson, we have the next best thing. He and his special effects crew at the WETA Workshop set out to reconstruct this lost scene, and they did it the old-fashioned way, with 1932 cameras identical to the ones Willis “Obie” O’Brien used to shoot the original sequence, and with painstakingly recreated animation models. They not only filmed it, they filmed how they did it, and included it on the original KING KONG Collector’s Edition DVD.

As I stated in my review of the KK33 Collector’s Edition, this was a labor of love on the part of Jackson, a life-long Kongophile. It had to have been; I’m sure that more money was spent on reproducing the few minutes of missing footage than was spent filming the original movie. Certainly, the time spent resurrecting long-forgotten techniques and obsolete equipment represented a significant allocation of resources, even for someone of Jackson’s means. Was it worth it?

As those involved in the project stated, their intention was never to “complete” the original KING KONG. They simply wanted to know what the missing sequence would have looked like, based on what information still survives about the scene. They began with a still that does survive, showing at least two crewmen standing alive in the pit, as a monstrous spider approaches. Using that as a jumping-off point, they used Obie’s sketches for the film, many from Jackson’s own collection, to recreate the various pit monsters.

As this was going on, Jackson and a small group of directors and screenwriters, including Frank Darabont, examined the original movie frame-by-frame, matching the filmed sequences to the shooting script for the film. In doing this, they made a significant discovery.

Many fans have wondered why, when the crew of the Venture began crossing the log-bridge, only to find Kong blocking the route, they didn’t just back up to the other side. Jackson and team found that, along with the pit sequence, footage was removed showing the crew being chased by a Styracosaurus onto the log, to be trapped there and flung to their deaths in the pit below. They decided to recreate this as well, and Jackson had an item in his collection that was particularly helpful in that: The original animation model of the Styracosaurus.

Originally built for use in O’Brien’s planned-but-never-filmed CREATION, it was resurrected for KING KONG, but its scenes were left on the cutting room floor. It did finally get its shot at stardom, however, when it was used in 1933’s SON OF KONG. With its foam rubber body rotting away, it was of course impossible to use for filming the recreation, but the animators were very curious to see how it had been constructed. Unable to see the armature (the model’s poseable skeleton…) underneath the layers of rotting rubber, they did the next best thing: They took it to a local hospital for a full series of X-rays. (In an interesting side note, those of you who have the recent DVD tribute to Forry Ackerman, THE SCI-FI BOYS, look closely at one of the scenes of Forry giving a tour of the Ackermansion in the ‘70’s… there, in the background, sitting quietly on the shelf, is our friend the Styracosaurus, rotted rubber and all!)

This level of commitment and dedication was shown throughout the filming of the recreation, from using period photographic equipment to sampling Fay Wray’s unforgettable scream to use for constructing the various creature howls and roars. I may be in danger of redundancy, but you can feel the emotional attachment this group of filmmakers has for this classic movie.

So, after all this effort, was the finished product worth it? Yes, I think so. Is it what Cooper and Obie originally shot? No, but it’s probably close, damn close. And for me, as far as this is concerned, close is close enough.

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