King Kong (1976)
Directed by John Guillermin, starring: Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, Charles Grodin, Rick Baker, Ed Lauter
Nostalgia has certainly become less cool than it used to be, if it was really ever cool at all. For me, my enthusiasm for stuff from kid-dom reached a point where I ended up feeling exhausted and ultimately unfulfilled. It's why I sold off quite a large chunk of my action figures, which were doing nothing but gathering dust in the closet. A major result of letting go of nostalgia is looking at things you had a fondness for when you were young, and then realizing that they don't have the same effect on you when you're older and wiser.
Produced by Dino de Laurentiis and released by Paramount Pictures, the 1976 remake of the classic film, King Kong, offers us a modernized (for that time) take on what is essentially the same story. Instead of a film crew, it's now an oil company called Petrox, and it's greedy exec (Charles Grodin), journeying by ship to a mysterious island looking to score "the big one". The Jack in this version is Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), a primate paleontologist who stows away to warn the ship with the legend of a large beast said to roam the island. And then there's Jessica Lange, in her debut, as Dwan. No, that wasn't a typo. Dwan is a wannabe actress who survived a yacht sinking and winds up being rescued by Jack and the Petrox crew. She becomes the object of affection for Kong, a forty-foot gorilla who is worshiped as a god by the island's natives. Kong ends up being captured by the Petrox gang and taken to New York City to be shown off as a mascot for the oil giant. Kong breaks free and wrecks havoc, which climaxes with the beast battling, not airplanes on top the Empire State Building, but with helicopters on the roof of the World Trade Center.
This was my introduction to King Kong, and the film blew me away when I first watched it as a two-night broadcast on NBC. It set off my life-long love affair with all things monsters, especially The Eighth Wonder of the World. Even though I spent more of my life loving and obsessing over the 1933 original, and then having Peter Jackson's 2005 remake as a companion piece, I still retained that nostalgic fondness for the first Kong I was exposed to.
But then I saw the movie again for the first time in decades. Revisiting this version turned out to be, much to my surprise, a huge letdown. I am shocked by how different King Kong '76 looks to me now, compared to how I remember it. As much as people bemoan Jackson's vision as over-indulgent, at least he had the decency to make a classy production that honors the original. Despite its own ambition at being a spectacle, this first remake comes across as boring, cheap, and a bit slimy. I despise Honest Trailers, but they have my full permission to take this one to task. That's how deep my disappointment runs.
The center of this miscalculation was hiring Lorenzo Semple, Jr. to write the script. Now, I love Semple's work on TV's Batman, as well as the glorious rock fantasy of both 1968's Barbarella and especially 1980's Flash Gordon. But the camp sensibility found in his other works is so out of place with the almost mythological level of Kong. In addition, the screenplay adds no new ideas to enhance the story. It just merely updates it to the 1970's, sometimes giving you the same eye-rolling that you would do watching lot of our modern remakes. That's because there are elements and dialogue that practically freezes the movie in its era. Kong's final stand on top of the World Trade Center is a major example, as well as Dwan's constant yammering about horoscopes and signs. And, of course, there's her famous exclamation, "You goddam chauvinist pig ape!"
The time period also brings up another big issue I have with this movie. I know that this was still the point in the 70s before Lucas and Spielberg cleaned the cultural landscape enough for Reagan to finish the job. However, I still think the highly-sexual overtones seem more appropriate for B-movie knock-offs of Kong than a major studio redux of a landmark film. The bestiality theme is not subtle at all in this picture. First off, there's a native high priest in a barely-there ape costume gyrating and thrusting in front of Dwan as she's being prepared to meet her mate. And I don't know about you, but that oil-black bolt on the giant gate is about as phallic a symbol as they come. The movie surely doesn't hold back when depicting that Kong is, to quote Jeff Bridges in the movie, "turned-on" by Dwan. While there was a scene in the original where Kong practically strips Ann Darrow of some of her clothing, in this movie, Kong gleefully pulls Dwan's top down, but she's hardly phased by that!
I'll admit that, as someone who's grown disillusioned by the sole reliance on CGI these days, seeing the practical effects on display in this King Kong was a welcome break. Carlo Rambaldi and Rick Baker are the men responsible for bring the big guy to life, mostly by way of an actor (in this case, Baker himself) in an ape costume and several masks performing on miniature sets. It's not unlike the techniques used in a Toho Godzilla movie. Problem is, Toho had been doing that for nearly twenty years by this point. While sometimes very successful in King Kong, it was hardly innovative. If you're going to attempt to out-do such a groundbreaking movie like the 1933 version, you have to do better than standard practice. Well, apparently that was the plan early on. Rambaldi constructed a life-size robot of Kong that was supposed to be utilized for this production. But the plan backfired, and the robot Kong ended up being used in about three quick shots in just one scene in the movie.
I actually would not have minded the cheesy, taudry script and man-in-suit effects so much if this version of King Kong was, in fact, more of a jaunty rip at the legend. But director John Guillermin tries to blow it up to mythological proportions. Sadly, though, the way he does it is by moving the picture along at such a languid pace. This version is nearly an hour shorter than Peter Jackson's, but it feels so much longer. The ponderous movement ends up having the adverse effect of magnifying the campy value of the other elements. The one scene that does benefit from being drawn out is the reveal of Kong himself. It's a suspenseful build-up where we first see trees swaying and hear trunks breaking. Then, it cuts to tracking close-ups of eyes as they move through the jungle. Next is an over-the-shoulder view of something pushing the trees aside as if they were nothing. Soon, the camera is from the point of view of the thing as it enters the clearing and looks down towards his new bride. Legendary composer John Barry provides a monstrous score that stomps alongside the beast. Then, everything stops. Dwan looks up, and the next shot is Kong, in all his glory. It is the one scene in the whole picture that actually lives up to the legend of the Eighth Wonder of the World. This was the moment where my fascination with movie monsters began, and it still gives me goosebumps to this day.
Yeah, I got nostalgic there for a moment. Sue me. It still doesn't change the fact that after so many years of kind looking-back, I was really insulted watching this version of King Kong. One part of me wishes I had left this film a distant fond memory, but, as a Kong enthusiast, I guess I needed to gain a sharper perspective on this part of the- still on-going, apparently- legacy of Kong. If you are going into this movie expecting it to be on the level of the original or Peter Jackson's, don't get your hopes up. If you're wanting a silly monkey-suit romp in the vein of King Kong vs. Godzilla, or even this film's sequel, King Kong Lives, then by all means, go ape.
King Kong is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Paramount Pictures, and is currently available to stream on Netflix.