Keywords: king nias
Description: I have yet to find three hours to devote to Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong. but I did catch the original 100-minute version on Turner Classic Movies over the holidays. I hadn't seen it in its
I have yet to find three hours to devote to Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong. but I did catch the original 100-minute version on Turner Classic Movies over the holidays. I hadn't seen it in its entirety since I was a kid, but now I can see why Jackson has said it was the movie that inspired him to become a filmmaker. It's an extremely appealing adventure tale, despite the now-quaint special effects, occasionally clunky storytelling, and typical Hollywood exoticization of "primitive" lands.
Since one of my areas of research is Indonesia, my ears perked up when Carl Denham, the leader of the expedition, shows Captain Englehorn their destination on a chart, saying it is "way west of Sumatra." Englehorn then tells Denham, "I know the East Indies like my own hand, but I was never here." My interest was further piqued by the captain's early suspicion that "Kong" was "some Malay superstition, a god or a spirit or something." When they finally arrive at Skull Island, Englehorn says the speech of the natives "sounds something like the language the Nias Islanders speak."
Nias is an island off the west coast of northern Sumatra, most recently in the news for the heartbreaking devastation wrought by the one-two punch of the Dec. 2004 tsunami and the less-reported earthquake of Mar. 2005. The first language of most of the island's estimated 600,000 inhabitants is also called Nias (known locally as "Li Niha") and is related to the Batak languages of northern Sumatra and more distantly to Malay and other languages on the Sundic branch of the Austronesian family tree.
The film's depiction of the Skull Islanders is notoriously racist. with mostly African-American actors enlisted to prance around like generic savages, but I thought the specific references to Sumatra and Nias could mean that their linguistic interaction with Captain Englehorn might carry a shred of verisimilitude. From what I could catch, there was only the tiniest shred. When the chief makes an offer to trade six of his women for Ann Darrow (as a "gift for Kong"), Englehorn declines by saying "Tida, tida!" That seems to be modeled on Malay-Indonesian tidak /tidaʔ/, meaning 'no, not.' Also, when Englehorn buys time by telling the chief that they'll come back tomorrow, he says "dulu," which in Malay can mean 'for the time being' (as in tunggu dulu /tuŋgu dulu/ 'wait for now'). Other than that, nothing in the exchange between the chief and Englehorn sounds much like Malay or related languages.
But should we expect the dialogue to be anything but gibberish? A recent article by Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times looking back on the original Kong suggests otherwise:
To understand the 1933 version's success, you have to start with how close two of its key characters, director Denham (the irresistibly intense Robert Armstrong) and cameraman Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), were to producer-directors [Merrian C.] Cooper and [Ernest B.] Schoedsack. In fact, as related in Orville Goldner and George E. Turner's "The Making of King Kong," when Cooper hired his wife, tyro writer Ruth Rose, to do the final polish on the "Kong" script, he told her flatly, "Put us in it. Give it the spirit of a real Cooper-Schoedsack expedition."
For with Cooper as the driving visionary and Schoedsack as the unflappable director-cameraman, these two were adventurers before they were filmmakers. As related in a new Cooper biography, "Living Dangerously" by Mark Cotta Vaz, the two had made a pair of successful ethnographic documentaries in faraway places — "Grass" in what was then Persia, "Chang" in Siam — that fully lived up to Cooper's celebrated determination to keep his films "distant, difficult and dangerous."
In fact, when Denham complains that critics are always bemoaning the lack of a love interest in his films, he's echoing what was actually said about the Cooper-Schoedsack films. And the language Rose created for the natives of Skull Island was based on the idiom of the Nias Islanders, near Sumatra, whom she and Cooper had visited. Fearful that disguised indecent language might sneak on-screen, the Production Code Administration reportedly insisted on a translation of all Skull Island dialogue before giving the film its approval.
I thought I'd look for this supposedly Nias-based dialogue online, and I found what purports to be a draft of the screenplay on Val Lewton's Whiskey Loose Tongue website. Sure enough, the Skullese dialogue is provided with "translations," presumably for the skittish Production Code Administration. A sampling: