Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: 'War Eagles: An Alternate History for Classic Film Monsters'

King Kong was the Star Wars of its day, a nutso detonation of imagination and futuristic special effects that could have been a massive folly but ended up a massive blockbuster and pop-cultural milestone. The obvious follow-up to such a success is a sequel, and RKO Pictures certainly cooked one up with the well-meaning but slight Son of Kong. No matter, though. Kong producer and co-director Merian C. Cooper had heftier game in mind. He intended his film’s true successor to be a picture that combined the King Kong structure with a bit of chest-pounding patriotism.

Like Kong, War Eagles was to be divided into three major acts moving from the planning of a harrowing trek in the U.S. to a prehistoric jungle island, then climaxing in New York City for an explosive showdown set near an iconic landmark. Only this time the trek was to be an globe-circling air flight to promote a brand of antacid, the jungle was to be populated by giant eagles rather than a giant ape, and the final battle was to be fought between eagle-riding Vikings and an unidentified foreign air force near the Statue of Liberty, rather than U.S. fighters and Kong exchanging blows atop the Empire State Building.

Merian C. Cooper ponders Kong.

By 1940, War Eagles was basically ready to go. A ream of production art had been drafted, Ray Harryhausen was on board to handle the stop-motion eagles, and Cyril Hume (who later penned Forbidden Planet) had completed the script. But as World War II reached a boil, RKO got cold feet regarding the film’s themes of invasion by zeppelin, and Cooper decided he’d be of more use as fighter than filmmaker and reenlisted in the air force. War Eagles was shelved and died the death of the neglected.

Very little information about this film has been available since its inception aside from a brief piece in a 1977 issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland that sparked the enduring fascination of 13-year old David Conover. Decades later, Conover has unearthed a staggering wealth of pre-production War Eagles material, including Cooper’s original treatment, a great deal of art, photos of the stop-motion eagle skeletons, a wacky article from Flying Aces magazine that inspired the film’s climax, a slew of production notes, and most significantly, the final draft of Hume’s script. All of this is gathered in the latest installment of Philip J. Riley’s Alternate History for Classic Film Monsters series (Riley essentially takes a back seat as editor for this volume, while Conover supplies the text).


No previous book in this fantastic series has offered so many juicy rarities or provided so much illumination on such a little-known project. Along with all of the vintage archival material, Conover offers a very detailed narration linking the various artifacts (which is something previous volumes lacked) and a fine interview with Harryhausen. The one unfortunate aspect of the book is that all of its rare artwork is presented in low-quality, black and white reproductions. It would have been nice to see this stuff in its sharp, full-color glory (unlike Kong, War Eagles was supposed to get the Technicolor treatment), but such is the nature of publishing with a small press. This quibble aside, classic monster movie fans will be most grateful to Conover, Riley, and Bear Mountain Media for finally making all of this fascinating and highly valuable material available.

Get War Eagles: An Alternate History for Classic Film Monsters at Amazon.com here.
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