How the Quest for the Komodo Dragon Turned Into ‘King Kong’

One fine evening in the mid-1920s, W. Douglas Burden, a New York City gentleman “with sporting tastes and a real interest in natural history,” came home to ask his wife “how she would like to go dragon hunting.”

Burden was a great-great grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, with a bank account to match, and a track record as an adventurer in his own right. So this was the sort of whim he could readily indulge. In 1926, with the blessings of the American Museum of Natural History, Burden and his expedition set out in the S.S. Dog for an obscure island in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, where the existence of a huge reptile had been reported.  

Burden was seeking what he called “a primeval monster in a primeval setting.” Rumors of dragons had been repeated by Dutch sailors in the East Indies as far back as the 1600s. Finally, in 1910, a Dutch colonial administrator with a double-barreled name, Lieutenant van Steyn van Hensbroek, visited the Lesser Sundas, and came back with the skin of a six-foot-long Varanus lizard. Van Hensbroek published the first scientific description and named the species Varanus komodoensis, after the island of Komodo, where it was found.

That account inspired Burden to undertake this expedition in pursuit of bigger specimens. But even very big Varanus lizards did not match his sense of adventure, so he dubbed them “Komodo dragons” instead. The destination also needed to be suitably mythic. When his expedition first laid eyes on the island, Burden later wrote, in the overwrought adventure prose of the day, it loomed up before them as “a vast mass of torn and splintered mountains.” It was “a fitting abode for the great saurians we had come so far to seek.” The ship negotiated a perilous approach and found safe harbor in the ominously named Python Bay.

The Komodo dragon is one of the most ancient species still in existence. (Photo: Reuters)

Burden didn’t want big dragons in just any condition; he wanted to bring some back alive, a tricky proposition, since Komodo dragons were reputed to kill and eat water buffalo, goats, deer, pigs, and sometimes humans. With the help of a hunter, a herpetologist, and a small army of cooks and porters, the expedition built traps and eventually succeeded in collecting two live Komodo dragons, and 10 dead specimens. 

These victories were accompanied by the requisite close-calls, with Burden’s wife, Katherine White Burden, dutifully playing the part of damsel in distress. Off exploring on her own, “Mrs. B” found herself cornered by a particularly fearsome dragon: “Nearer he came and nearer, this shaggy creature, with grim head swinging heavily from side to side. I remembered all the fantastic stories we had heard of these monsters attacking men and horses. Now listening to the short hissing that came like a gust of evil wind, and observing the action of that darting, snake-like tongue, that seemed to sense the very fear that held me, I was affected in a manner not easy to relate. The creature was less than five yards away and the subtle reptilian smell was in my nostrils. Too late now to leap from hiding, I closed my eyes and waited.” Then, at the last possible melodramatic moment, the expedition’s Great White Hunter arrives on the scene and quickly brought the dragon crashing down dead.

Back in New York, Burden’s live dragons created a brief sensation at the Bronx Zoo, before they also died. Some of the dead specimens went into a diorama at the American Museum of Natural History, where they remain on display today. 

Burden went on to publish a colorful account of the expedition, the 1928 book The Dragon Lizards of Komodo. One magazine, The Nation, summed it up in 19 words: “Ten-foot pig-eating lizards, Bali dancing girls, and the author’s wife, served with a delicate sauce of science.” Burden also hoped to get a theatrical release for the film he cobbled together from the expedition’s considerable footage of Komodo dragons in the wild. But the movie industry deemed it not quite melodramatic enough.

A friend of Burden’s named Merian C. Cooper soon corrected this, with his own fictionalized version of the Komodo expedition. Cooper changed the giant lizard to a giant ape, substituted a beautiful actress for Burden’s somewhat more prosaic “Mrs. B,” and kept the forceful “K” sound of Komodo for the title of his 1933 film “King Kong.” In a final act of artistic appropriation, Cooper, who had been a decorated World War I fighter pilot, substituted himself for the Great White Hunter, and at the end of the movie actually flew the plane that sent King Kong crashing down from the top of the Empire State Building.