HCF GUILTY PLEASURES: KING KONG [US 1976]
AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU-RAY
RUNNING TIME: 127 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Fred Wilson, an executive of the Petrox Oil Company, forms an expedition based on infrared imagery which reveals a previously undiscovered island in the Indian Ocean hidden by a permanent cloud bank. Wilson believes the island has a huge deposit of oil. Jack Prescott, a palaeontologist who wants to see the island for himself, stows away onto the expedition’s vessel and reveals himself when he warns the crew the cloud bank may be caused by an unknown beast. They see a life raft carrying an unconscious woman who turns out to be an actress, Dwan, who was aboard a director’s yacht which suddenly exploded. Upon arriving at the island, the team encounter the natives, who live within the confines of a gigantic wall, built to protect them from a mysterious god known as Kong. That night, the natives kidnap Dwan, drug her, and offer her as a sacrifice to Kong….
Ignoring for the time being the two Japanese outings, which, though they rehashed elements of the original story, really exist outside the others, there are three versions of the tale of King Kong. There’s the 1933 classic, which still remains in my view the best giant monster movie ever made [yes, though I’m a huge Godzilla fan as you can no doubt tell through my on-going reviews of that franchise, I don’t even the original 1954 Japanese film reaches the brilliance of the original King Kong]. Then there’s the 2005 remake, which may be bloated and self-indulgent in the manner that Peter Jackson is being even more so at the moment with his Hobbit epics, but is still immense fun and about as good as a remake of a masterpiece can be. Then there’s…..the 1976 version, which has been overshadowed hugely by the other two, and which Jackson pretty much ignored [except for one major thing, which I will get to] when making his giant ape picture. Its reputation isn’t very high, being generally considered as camp silliness, and it certainly isn’t anywhere near as good as the other films, but it has much to recommend it too. At the very least, it tries to put a new spin on the story, something which Jackson didn’t really attempt.
Both Universal and Paramount were planning King Kong films. Universal’s, which was eventually aborted, was to be a faithful remake set in the 1970’s, while Paramount intended a more up to date, relevant version. Producer Dino De Laurentiis asked Roman Polanski, Michael Winner, Sam Peckinpah and even Steven Spielberg until John Guillerman, not a director much talked about these days but a solid one good at large-scale films [The Blue Max, The Towering Inferno], got the gig. Barbara Streisand, Bo Derek and Britt Ekland turned down the role of Dwan, while Meryl Streep audtioned for it but was told by De Laurentiis that she was “too ugly” in Italian [how wrong he was], not knowing she knew Italian. Newcomer Jessica Lange got the part. For the title role, special effects man Carlo Rambaldi designed a life-sized mechanical gorilla for filming. While the massive and expensive model was being constructed, makeup artist Rick Baker built four much cheaper gorilla costumes to wear in some scenes. The robot kept malfunctioning and only ended up appearing in a few shots, where its difference in appearance to the suits is painfully obvious, though seven mechanical masks and two life-sized hand models that Rambaldi made were used throughout. Guillerman was almost fired by De Laurentiis unless he treated his crew better. Amidst huge publicity, this King Kong was released to very good, if not quite great, box office and a mixed critical response. Its reputation seemed to get worse over the years, though that didn’t stop De Laurentiis and Guillerman from making a sequel in 1986, King Kong Lives. Now that is a bad movie, though kind of fun.
It seems to be with this movie that those who adore the 1933 film are less inclined to like this one, while those who are not enamoured of it [and there are a few] may prefer the 1976 film. I guess I’m sort of in the middle. The 1933 film is untouchable, matchless, but, to be honest, changing many aspects of it give this version a greater right to exist, even if not all the alterations work. It’s the uncertainty of tone which lets it down. For the most part, and certainly for the first third, the aim seems to be to give the story a realistic feel, along with an environmentalist aspect. The Carl Denham character, who was a filmmaker, becomes exploitative oil baron Fred Wilson who goes to Kong’s island because of the oil it may have and ends up kidnapping Kong as advertising [shades of King Kong Vs Godzilla!] , while sailor Jack Driscoll is now long-haired palaeontologist Jack Prescott. Ann, now Dwan, remains an actress, though she’s sadly more of an airhead, while the way she subtly comes on to Fred and more blatantly comes on to Jack always makes me yearn for the awkward romance in the earlier film. The island looks far less exotic and there are no dinosaurs, though there remains one unconvincing giant snake which seems out of place and is easily disposed of by Kong in a rather lame battle.
Where the film really falls down though is when Kong kidnaps Dwan. It almost becomes a spoof, what with Dwan’s awful lines to Kong like: “You know we’re going to be great friends. I’m a Libra. What sign are you? I bet you’re an Aries. Aren’t you? Of course you are. I knew it. That’s just wonderful”, and a stupid bit where Kong, having washed Dwan in a waterfall, blows her dry and she gets turned on. Guillerman’s staging of moments from the 1933 film like people being shaken off a tree trunk by Kong seem dull and static by comparison, and Kong is given less action to take part in. Rather than destroying the native village [and where do the natives disappear to anyway?], Kong just steps into a gas pit. Lorenzo Semple Jr’s script has its really dumb moments, like Jack’s theory that the fog surrounding the island was produced not by a huge supply of crude oil near the surface, but by ‘animal respiration’, as if King Kong’s breathing caused the fog bank! However, and this is something that the 2005 film also did, it is firmly on Kong’s side, meaning that we are not scared of him, but do end up feeling rather moved, especially towards the end, though for once I could have done without the huge amount of blood spattering from Kong as he is being shot by helicopters atop the World Trade Centre. It’s actually almost too painful to watch and unnecessarily sadistic.
The man-in-suit [well, except for those brief shots of the robot which total almost one minute’s worth of screen time] Kong looks rather good, though he rarely moves like a real gorilla. His first appearance is probably the film’s best staged scene. We begin to hear a deep, ominous, slow music theme beneath the percussive native music as we just about make out something knocking through some trees, then Kong’s point of view as we approach Dwan, sacrificed by the natives to him, atop the wall, and then an extreme close-up of Kong’s face, emphasising the eyes. The mechanical face really does look about as realistic as a mechanical face representing an animal can be. I love the 2005 version, but something always seems a little ‘off’ with Kong in it, he just doesn’t look quite right to me. Maybe it’s because I grew up with more old-fashioned special effects that CGI, especially when depicting things that are alive, rarely hits the mark for me. Suitmation is often sneered at, but it brings with it something that computers and even stop-motion lack, the sense of an actual living thing moving about because there actually is a living thing moving about inside the suit, and movement is just more natural because something is actually moving. I guess it’s just me.
Lange is by far the sexiest of Kong’s brides, though she certainly isn’t the strong actress she would later become. Jeff Bridges seems a little awkward in his role, and actually Charles Grodin’s unscrupulous, but believable, villain, is the best thing in the human cast. John Barry’s score is tremendous, sometimes working overtime to add the necessary mystery, excitement and pathos, and yet as different from Max Steiner’s score as can be. His main Dwan theme isn’t really one of his best, but his lower-register scoring of Kong, who interestingly seems to have several different themes, superbly accentuates the power of the huge beast and gives him some menace which he otherwise wouldn’t possess much of. The 1976 King Kong remains diminished by the other two versions, but still has a lot to recommend it, and is certainly the most doom-laden and downbeat telling, something which gives it a certain edge which the 2005 film certainly doesn’t have and actually makes it seem better with repeated viewings. All the major characters, even those with ideals, sell out in some way, except for Kong, who is a victim of circumstance. The film ends with Dwan being swarmed with photographers who want to take her picture, and even though she screams for Jack, the couple, who throughout the film are constantly stopped from having sex by outside events, are separated by a sea of people. There is no happy ending for anyone here.