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The size of King Kong's bone


Via Arts & Letters Daily, a breakthrough study of the anatomy of overgrown movie monsters and shrinking monster-movie heroes, done by an expert in invertebrate zoology (the real queen of the sciences). Even if you understand the general idea of the physical paradoxes involved in massively scaling up apes and spiders and ants and such, there are some great bits in this article, among them:

The hemonauts in Fantastic Voyage wouldn't have been able to see because their eyeballs would be smaller than the wavelength of visible light.

The Incredible Shrinking Man would have kicked the spider's ass, only to be drowned when he tried to drink a handful of water (which would have formed a sticky globe around his head and hands).

Ray Harryhausen's magnificent octopus in It Came From Beneath the Sea actually died of the bends.

Mothra couldn't fly, and the giant ants in Them! couldn't walk, unless their joints were made of pure diamond.

And plenty of other insights on the way massive scaling up would break most of the bones of mammals. (I always wonder what the implications are here for roided-up NFL behemoths supporting 350-pound physiques on frames made for 200-pounders.) Even a chipmunk bulked up to 40 pounds would be as brittle as china. And forget about the 50-foot woman:

Based on some measurements from stills from the original movie, at the beginning of the movie Kong is about 22 feet tall, but by the time he climbs the Empire State Building, he appears to be 50 percent bigger, presumably because he was allowed bananas ad libitum. At 22 feet tall, Kong is about four to five times the size of your garden-variety lowland gorilla. A fivefold increase in height implies a 25-fold increase in bone cross-sectional area and a 125-fold increase in body mass; the stress on the bones thus should be about five times greater than the stress on a normal gorilla's bones. But, remember, according to Andy Biewener's data, a safety factor of five is extreme for mammals; Kong's excessive body size should have exhausted the safety factor. True, Kong stands a bit straighter than the average gorilla so he may gain a bit of the safety factor back, but it's clear that he's pushing the envelope. Is that why he has such a short fuse and is always roaring and bashing things? Not only does he continually run the risk of breaking his legs, but undoubtedly his feet hurt.

Kong may be pushing the limits of his bone strength, but other movies have clearly crossed the line. In The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), a 100-foot (but normally proportioned) man menaces Las Vegas. Although, based on his size, we would assume his first step should be his last, somehow he manages to survive a fall off Boulder Dam and return for the sequel, War of the Colossal Beast (1958). The protagonist in Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman (1958) is only half the size of the Amazing Colossal Man, but she also pushes the skeletal safety factor beyond reasonable limits.

In his tribute to the late Fay Wray, Jesse Walker dug up some gems of King Kong appreciation, including this one: "King Kong perpetually changes size; one minute his hand is big enough to seize an underground train, the next it only goes round the torso of a woman we see waving her arms and legs about."

Theme song and stills from Tom of T.H.U.M.B.