In an interview I conducted in connection with Doubt a few years back, John Patrick Shanley described how he—a Pulitzer- and Oscar-winning playwright, screenwriter, and director—came to write Congo, an action-adventure movie about super-intelligent apes and laser guns. He offered the following explanation:
[Producer] Kathy Kennedy and [director] Frank Marshall came to me with [the novel] Congo and asked me to read it. They’re good friends of mine. They’re terrific people. They gave me the book, and I read it. I called them and said, “I read it.” They said, “Well, what’d ya think?” And I said, “I like the title.” This is dead accurate. This is exactly what I said, “I like the title.” Then I paused and I said, “I like that it starts in San Francisco and they go to the Congo. I like that.” And they said, “Great! We’ll make the deal.”
Judging by that anecdote, it seems possible, even likely, that Shanley has forgotten Congo at this point, or at the very least, now regards it primarily as an amusing cocktail-party anecdote—and he was the film’s writer. Shanley is famous for protecting his writing, but he clearly worked on Congo as a gun-for-hire.
Shanley anticipated doom: “I realized Frank had used guys in hairy suits and hairy masks for the gorillas, and not some, you know, process like Jurassic Park, to make the gorillas move differently than people. I knew we were dead.” But the commercial marriage of Michael Crichton and those associated with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment was so strong in the mid-1990s, following the runaway success of E.R. and Jurassic Park, that the filmmakers could literally stick dudes in ape costumes, cast Dylan Walsh in the lead role, release the movie to a universal cackle of mocking laughter, and still emerge with a blockbuster.
Congo isn’t an Amblin production, but it sure feels like one: It was directed by Spielberg’s longtime producer and Amblin co-founder Frank Marshall, and produced by fellow Amblin co-founder Kathleen Kennedy; it’s adapted from a novel by the creator of E.R. and Jurassic Park, both Amblin productions; it’s written by Shanley, who wrote Joe Versus The Volcano and We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story for Amblin; and it’s pitched wholeheartedly in the throwback Indiana Jones vein. Reduced to its broad outlines, Congo feels like a surefire blockbuster, a proposition so deliciously commercial that, to paraphrase my favorite line of dialogue in the movie—and that’s saying something—it must have made the money hairs on the back of studio executives’ necks go “Woo woo woo!”
Imagine the pitch: A gentle hippie primatologist (think Indiana Jones, only he shops at Whole Foods and listens to NPR), a strong-willed executive go-getter, their super-advanced animal companion, and a mysterious Eastern European man travel deep into the heart of the Congo in search of adventure. In the wilds of Africa, these adventurers—led by a dashing and droll guide who sells his allegiances to the highest bidder—encounter deadly civil unrest, terrorism, mysterious ghost tribes, a legendary lost city, and a species of vaguely albino super-gorilla-men trained for centuries to guard ruins containing priceless diamond mines.
It’s Indiana Jones meets Jurassic Park: a tale of international derring-do, a lost city, and a lost tribe of terrifying super-primates. Even more promisingly, it’s adapted from a novel by Crichton, the money-making author of Jurassic Park, and directed by Marshall. Throw in Shanley, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Moonstruck, Allen Daviau, the cinematographer of E.T., Anne V. Coates, the Oscar-winning editor of Lawrence Of Arabia, and monkey business courtesy of the great Stan Winston (who trumps everyone in the crew with his four Academy Awards), and you have a $50 million film that was released to nearly universal derision. Yet Congo triumphed at the box office, earning more than $80 million domestically, and more than $150 million internationally.
How did a film overflowing with so much tony, Oscar-festooned talent become such a ridiculous exercise? I will concede upfront that I enjoyed the hell out of Congo, which gave me so much pleasure that I was ready to travel to Crichton’s grave and forgive him for Disclosure and Rising Sun. In doing so, I imagine I would finally give him closure and allow his troubled, conflicted spirit to ascend to Japanese lady heaven.
Crichton published Congo in 1980, a year before the release of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but they each drew on the same tradition of adventure serials and pulpy adventure yarns, particularly H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 bestseller King Solomon’s Mines, which is referenced throughout the film. The novel reflected Crichton’s enduring fascination with the intersection of futuristic high technology—in this case, diamond-powered telecommunications—and lost worlds. Drawing from some of the same sources, Raiders Of The Lost Ark elevated the wonderfully pulpy nonsense of yesteryear to the level of, if not quite art, then at least top-tier entertainment. Spielberg and his talented collaborators made the serial of their dreams, a B-movie worthy of being nominated for a Best Picture Oscar opposite the slightly more serious-minded Chariots Of Fire, Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, and Reds. Marshall undoubtedly hoped to repeat that trick with Congo, but this time, the film traveled in the opposite direction: It’s a $50 million blockbuster with the wonderfully cheesy soul and spirit of a $500,000 B-movie, a genre yarn so utterly ridiculous that, made today, it would render an Asylum knock-off redundant.
Congo would love to be Raiders, but it’s built on a preposterous foundation. All the A-list talent in the world can’t disguise that, and the film’s cast, particularly its supporting cast, betrays its B-movie spirit. Bruce Campbell, Ernie Hudson, Joe Pantoliano, Tim Curry, and Joe Don Baker are all wonderful, incredibly entertaining actors, but they’re all also frequently used as figures of high camp. It’s telling that Congo’s conception of a powerful communications mogul is Joe Don Baker, a dude famous for starring in a film about a big-ass hillbilly dude who goes around whacking motherfuckers with his big-ass hillbilly whacking stick.
To make all these great character actors pop even more brightly, the filmmakers cast Dylan Walsh in the lead, though I suspect that’s only because they were not able to secure their preferred choice for the role: anybody other than Dylan Walsh. The bland Walsh stars as Dr. Peter Elliot, a primatologist who serves as life partner and interspecies soulmate to Amy The Gorilla, who “talks” through a specially designed program that digitally translates her sign language into spoken words. This development single-handedly destroys the film’s aspirations to respectability, because anything involving a talking gorilla is inherently funny, even when it isn’t meant to be. Accordingly, the following talking gorilla-centered lines are all as hilarious devoid of context as they are in the film:
“Peter, You did a great job. You taught a gorilla how to talk, to paint for gosh sakes!”
“Are you serving that ape a martini?”
“Whoa! A talking gorilla! I feel the money hairs on the back of my neck going woo woo woo!”
But this is no mere talking gorilla. This is also a gorilla that finger-paints, has nightmares about her time in the jungle, gets fucked up on a drug-laced banana, drinks martinis, belches, and parachutes out of a plane. Amy is, in other words, a gorilla with attitude, a gorilla that gets biz-zay. Not coincidentally, Amy is the most irritating simian in the history of cinema, and that includes this guy:
Amy is the Jar-Jar Binks of Congo: a would-be fan favorite pitched unmistakably to the preschool demographic, a creature designed to appeal to tots because she acts just like them, and a persistent source of irritation. Amy behaves like a braying, demanding, noxiously sentimental child. If Walsh is hopelessly forgettable here, that’s no doubt in part because he spends the entire film playing second fiddle to a stunt woman in a gorilla suit voiced by a child actress.
Dr. Elliot theorizes that Amy’s persistent nightmares signal her desire to return to her African homeland, and seeks financing to bring her home, but he’s only able to attract funding for the mission from the supremely disreputable likes of Eastern European ne’er-do-well Herkermer Homolka (Curry). Herkermer has sinister motivations of his own: He suspects that the talking gorilla knows the secret location of the fabled lost city of Zinj and wants to plunder its fabled legendary diamond mines himself. Remarkably, it only gets sillier from there.
Dr. Elliot, his wacky sidekick Richard (Grant Heslov, who subsequently rose to fame as George Clooney’s Oscar-winning writing and producing partner), and Herkermer join forces with Karen Ross (future three-time Oscar nominee Laura Linney), who is dispatched by the ominous multi-national corporation head R.B. (Baker), to find both his missing son Charles (Bruce Campbell) and track down a diamond that can be used to finance a powerful, lucrative laser. As R.B. explains to Karen (who also happens to be Charles’ ex-fiancée) in a line that captures the screamingly hyperbolic tone of Shanley’s screenplay, “With the right laser and diamonds like that, we can dominate the communications industry overnight!”
The motley gang of adventurers heads to Africa, where they join forces with a guide, Captain Munro Kelly (Ernie Hudson). Where Amy is the grating Jar-Jar Binks of the Congo universe, Kelly is its Han Solo: a dashing, morally flexible rogue played with a wonderfully light touch. Hudson is tremendously entertaining, and the casting of an African-American actor in the role makes the character’s breezy talk of Africa being a god-forsaken hellhole where the populace divides its time between armed insurrections and indiscriminate genocide less offensive than it would be coming out of, say, Michael Crichton’s mouth. Hudson and Curry aren’t the only ones who are clearly in on the joke, and half of my enjoyment of the film came from imagining Shanley at his typewriter, giggling uproariously at the realization of just how much money he would get for writing a film that features a woman killing super-intelligent gorilla-men with a diamond-powered laser gun.
In Africa, the group is abducted by the forces of Captain Wanta, a dangerous militia leader whom Delroy Lindo (another great character actor clearly enjoying himself) plays as a man with a unique approach to hospitality. Wanta offers his guests coffee and cake with the gentle air of a good host, but when they hesitate for even a moment, he screams at them to partake, with hilariously incongruous rage. In the most-quoted line in the film, Captain Wanta asks Herkermer to stop eating the sesame cake he earlier angrily commanded him to eat, but when a mortified Herkermer is unable to stop instantly, Wanta yells furiously, “STOP. EATING. MY SESAME. CAKE.”
Having escaped Wanta’s clutches via a sizable bribe, the adventurers head into the jungle, where they encounter the lost city of Zinj, a ruin being protected by a race of light-gray, super-intelligent, super-violent super-gorillas trained to protect the hidden diamonds.
The rights to Congo were purchased even before the book’s release, but attempts at an adaptation stalled because filmmakers felt that the technology didn’t exist to create the race of realistic, frightening mega-super-gorillas integral to the story’s narrative. Jurassic Park changed that. Or at least it should have. Advances in CGI should have made Congo a logical next step from Jurassic Park, except for one nagging problem: At the time Congo went into production, CGI could not realistically depict hair. And the thing about super-mega-gorillas is, they have a whole lot of hair. So CGI was out, and puppets and dudes in gorilla costumes were in. Ever the good protege, Marshall tries the Jaws approach and doles out glimpses of them sparingly, but the big reveal of the race of ostensibly terrifying gray gorillas is laughable, not horrifying.
That’s true of the film as a whole. By that point, I frankly didn’t want realistic gorillas: I loved how cheap and unconvincing and over-the-top everything felt, and that extends to a climax where Karen uses a diamond-powered laser gun on super-intelligent mega-gorillas while a nearby volcano erupts, filling the screen with hilariously unconvincing lava. (Incidentally, I hope that when Linney dies, the Oscar memorial reel shows a single image of her zapping super-gorillas with a laser gun from Congo.) Congo then ends with Karen turning on her evil boss by using a laser to shoot his precious satellite out of the sky, and Dr. Elliot returning Amy to the wild to live among her fellow gorillas, while the heroes depart on a hot-air balloon conveniently stashed nearby. I suspect that Amy’s fellow gorillas murdered her mere minutes later for being so annoying, but the film is too gentle to say so.
I love Shanley for creating Joe Versus The Volcano, and there are times when Congo feels like a weird, winking riff on Shanley’s directorial debut: Both films tell the story of an American everyman who visits an exotic new world beyond his imagination, one populated by colorful characters who act as guides and mentors. Both films climax with a volcano erupting. Perhaps Shanley saw the excessive grosses of Congo (and why shouldn’t the box office be as excessive as everything else here?) as karmic retribution for Joe Versus The Volcano underperforming commercially. As Shanley can attest, the universe has a perverse sense of humor.
As with Space Jam, I’ve learned that Congo is not a true Forgotbuster, in the sense that it has been aggressively remembered, even savored, by at least a small cult. It’s easy to see why Congo caught on with bad-movie lovers after being a sizable mainstream hit. Marshall may have set out to cross-breed Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones, but instead made a film of delirious, glorious excess, the craziest, kookiest B-movie ever to get an A-list budget and crew. Instead of making a good movie, he made a great bad movie.
Up next: Hannibal