The mystery of the lost spider pit sequence

Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 monster masterpiece King Kong came under the knife of censors when it was re-released in 1938, but all of the scenes that were removed at that time have been since restored and reinserted. Even so, Kong is still missing one very infamous scene–not by act of censorship, but by design.

Anytime one comes across information regarding a lost film, lost scene, or lost episode, there are several questions a person must answer:

  • What did the lost media contain?
  • When and how was it lost?
  • What is the likelihood it will ever be rediscovered?

Often, two or more of these questions have clear answers, informing an educated guess as to the final question of whether or not the lost media is likely to be discovered. But with the lost spider pit sequence, all we know for certain is what it contained–and even that is thrown into question by those who suspect that the scene may not have been filmed at all.

So that we may better examine all the aspects of this mystery, let’s approach these questions one at a time.

What did the lost media contain?

In the last article, I summarized the sequence briefly, but will go into a bit more detail here:

The scene starts as the sailors (led by Jack Driscoll) are chased onto a log bridge above a chasm by a rampaging triceratops. The territorial dinosaur refused to follow them onto the narrow log, and so the sailors think they are safe–until they see Kong standing at the other end of the log. Kong, enraged that he’s been followed, lifts one edge of the log and shakes it with the intent to shake the sailors into the pit below.

Driscoll, who is at the front of the line, is able to grab onto the rock wall of the cliff and climb into a crevice in the side of it and thus evade Kong’s notice–but the other sailors are not so lucky. One by one, they succumb to Kong’s strength as he shakes them into the waiting maw of the chasm beneath them. When no sailors are left, Kong drops the log bridge into the chasm as well, a grim exclamation point on the event.

In the currently available cuts of the movie, this scene transitions to Driscoll noticing a two-legged lizard crawling up the side of the rock wall to attack him. He cuts the vine the lizard was using to climb, Kong notices, and starts to feel around the side of the rock wall in an attempt to grab Driscoll. These scenes are cut together flawlessly, and one would never know that anything was missing between them. That empty space, though, is where the spider pit sequence happens.

Impossible as it may seem, the sailors who fell into the chasm from the log bridge were not meant to die from the fall. Instead, it was to be the insectoid and arachnoid monsters in the caves below that end their lives. These creatures are described as a great black spider, a tentacled bug, a trapdoor spider, and a crab-like creature. The two-legged lizard is seen here first, too, though it chooses to begin its climb up the rock wall before the feast begins. We can presume, then, that Driscoll in the next scene is not looking down because of the two-legged lizard (not at first), but is instead reacting to the scene of his crewmates being eaten alive.

Was the sequence ever filmed?

Before addressing any of the other questions, this one needs to be answered. We know from the script and from the novelization that the scene was written, and we know from concept art that the scene was planned. We even know from a production still discovered by Famous Monsters of Filmland mogul Forrest J. Ackerman that the scene was staged, at least for promotional purposes.

It’s this article’s banner, too!

But if the scene was written, planned, and staged, but never filmed, then all searches for this scene have been colossal wastes of time. Thankfully, there’s a good deal of evidence for the existence of this scene in addition to that which I’ve already stated. First, both Merian C. Cooper and Willis O’Brien acknowledge that the sequence was filmed (more on this later). This alone should put the question to rest, but if that weren’t enough for you, several shots believed to be uncovered from O’Brien’s personal archives exist, including those that show puppets for the sailors and other monsters. This information (which, to be fair, has only come out within the last ten years) has made it abundantly clear to many that this scene was, indeed, filmed. And I’m among them.

When and how was it lost?

It’s difficult to say exactly when the sequence became lost. According to Willis O’Brien, shortly after filming the sequence–which he himself thought was his best work–Merian C. Cooper watched the scene (probably as part of one of the dailies), decided that slowed the pacing of the film, and destroyed it pretty much right then and there.

The second story of how and when the scene became lost comes from Merian C. Cooper. Apparently, audiences who saw the scene during a preview showing of Kong were so shocked by the violence that some left the theater and others wouldn’t stop talking about it during the rest of the film. Cooper decided at that point that the scene negatively impacted the pace of the film, and took it upon himself to remove it from the print.

Depending upon who you believe, then, the scene was either removed before anyone outside of the production staff had a chance to see it–and thus it is a deleted scene, not a “lost” or “missing” one…or it was removed after a preview audience had a chance to see it (whether this audience was comprised of the family of crewmen/producers or a sampling of the general public)–and thus is indeed lost or missing.

What is the likelihood it will ever be rediscovered?

Anyone who is a fan of Metropolis (1927) will tell you that nothing is impossible, but frankly, it doesn’t look good.

If the sequence was removed before an audience saw it, that means that it did not make it into any print of the film–and if it didn’t make it into any print of the film, that means that there is virtually no chance that any copies of the scene were made. In this scenario, we might as well consider that the chance of finding the scene is so near 0% that it might as well be impossible.

If the sequence was indeed seen by an audience, preview or otherwise, that means that the sequence was part of a print that was struck. This implies the possibility (not reality, possibility) that a copy might have maybe been made–and where there’s a copy, there’s an increased chance, however infinitesimal, that the sequence might have escaped somehow.

It pains me to say this, but the most likely scenario is that the sequence was destroyed, regardless of when it was removed from the film. Merian C. Cooper might have burned it. It’s also possible that the nitrate film on which the scene was printed was recycled to retrieve its silver content. Rarely were cut scenes saved and placed into a tin for archival purposes, though this did happen (not that this practice has helped many missing scenes–just ask Orson Welles, whose missing scenes from Columbia ). But most likely it was outright destroyed.

Even if it escaped destruction by means of being copied and was somehow smuggled out of RKO, either in fragments or in a full print, a few things would have to happen for it to be discovered. The right fan (one who knows that the scene is missing in the first place) would have to be in the right place (a vault, archive, or among a private collection), pick up the right cannister (containing either the fragment of the scene or a copy of the original preview showing print) with the right label (either one indicating it has content from Kong or one that catches the person’s eye) and actually look at the film or watch it, and pay attention to what they’re seeing. Frankly, we’re lucky we’ve found any media that’s ever been lost when considering how all of the right pieces have to fall into place. It’s not impossible, but again, it’s highly unlikely.

But my hope is that I am wrong, and any day now, we will all be watching a new cut of King Kong with the lost spider pit sequence restored. And people like me write articles like this one in the hope that the right person at the right place at the right time will know exactly what they have in their hands.

NEXT: Wasei Kingu Kongu (1933)

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