By John H. Foote
The great classic film King Kong (1933) has been remade twice, once brilliantly in 2005 by Peter Jackson who gave audiences a three-hour adventure with magnificent visual effects and a poignant and heartbreaking Kong. Jackson wisely set his film in the thirties, and recreated the New York of that era spectacularly, with several stunning set pieces that left audience members in absolute awe. From the great ape’s entrance, the race through the jungle, the war with not one, not two but three T-Rex creatures who want to tear Anne and Kong apart, to the poetic play on the pond in New York through to the daylight battle atop the Empire State Building, Jackson created a modern masterpiece that both paid respectful homage to the original while surpassing the effects.
The first remake came in 1976 from producer Dino De Laurentis, who spared no expense in “creating a love story for the ages” or so he hoped. Journeyman director John Guillermin was given the task of directing the film, having proven himself with big effects projects on The Towering Inferno (1974) but I believe what they forgot was that the story needed a director who could explore the human element.
The film was among the most anticipated of the year, standing alongside A Star is Born (1976) as one of the major Christmas releases. The line around the block was indicative of the fact people were into the movie, people wanted to see the movie. As I settled into my seat with my brothers in the beautiful old Regent Theatre I was excited, but two hours later, I did not feel the same. AT ALL.
Set in modern day, meaning 1976 (colossal mistake), the film follows basically the same story line, well sort of. The movie company is now a petroleum company searching for new reserves of gas, but instead they find a lost island with prehistoric creatures and a God the natives worship, Kong. After finding a woman adrift at sea, Dwan (Jessica Lange), most of the men aboard the ship fall in love with her at once. The stowaway Jack (Jeff Bridges) befriends her and the two become close as they make their way to the island. Once there, they encounter the natives who are fascinated with the beautiful golden-haired woman, having never seen a fair-haired beauty before. They kidnap her and prepare to sacrifice her to their God, this Kong, they drug her and put her out in plain view for the, whatever it is to see.
The first glimpse of Kong are his eyes, as trees crash down at his approach, until finally he is in full view, a massive gorilla, King Kong. Walking up right, not at all like a gorilla.
He takes Dwan, but does not eat her or kill her, instead he too is smitten with the girl. This is where the film drifts into … oh, silliness? Into being a dumb-ass idea? After escaping the men in hot pursuit of Dwan (that name man) she and Kong are finally alone in the jungle. The big ape picks away at her clothing, making goo goo eyes at her, bringing out her wrath. There are lots of flashes of Jessica Lange in various stages of undress, but while the sequence played out, I kept thinking about when they shot it. There she was in a giant mechanical hand being slowly undressed…she must have felt like the beginning of her movie career was also the end.
“You goddam chauvinist pig ape. If you are gonna eat me … then EAT ME” she roars, slamming her fists against his massive snout, which drew more than a small giggle through the audience I first saw the film with. The line “eat me” drew howls of laughter. Realizing she has angered the ape, she immediately retreats, stroking his massive fingers and calling him a “nice monkey”. Seemingly soothed, he then takes her to a waterfall complete with pristine pool and drops her in to get the mud off her body. Fishing her out she sits in her hand as he blows her dry, I kid you not, but that is not even the funniest part. His cheeks filled with air, blowing on his new toy, Dwan sits in his hand as his breath exploding onto her, her eyes hooded, reacting as though she was in the throes of an orgasm. Or two, or several. By now she has figured out Kong will not kill her, instead he becomes her protector, wanting to keep her as a living toy. But Jack remains in constant chase, finally getting to her as Kong fights the most ridiculous looking special effect snake I have ever seen. They race through the jungle back to the massive gate where a trap has been laid for the ape and, sure enough, they knock him down and out, placing him in a holding tank on the ship, speeding back to the United States. Forlorn, sad, the great ape sits in a corner of the tank alone, coming to life only when he sees Dwan high above him, and catching her when she accidentally falls into the holding tanks. And amazingly he just sits there as she climbs the ladder to get out.
Back in the States the great Kong is put on display as a circus freak, chained, to be photographed and stared at. There is a shot here where the ape looks as phony as he ever has in the film, so obviously a creation of bad robotics, the arms moving stiff and straight as he gets the chains off. And it just gets worse once he is loose in New York City.
Finally, as the poster shows us, he climbs to the top of the World Trade Centre where the military choppers (though the poster shows jets) come to cut him down. Knowing their intention, Dwan demands he pick her up, but he keeps shoving her, gently away, knowing the pilots of the choppers will not hesitate to shoot her too. That is one wise ape.
Of course they get him, and of course he falls to the ground, his great heart still beating, audibly I might add as the photographers climb on his chest for a photo, then he dies.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
The film opened in the winter of 1976 to reasonably good reviews (which blew my mind) and strong box office, though it fell quickly. Jessica Lange, despite having made the best of the dialogue she was given, despite giving a game, sexy performance as Dwan (an impossible role), was said to be done with movies, though she came back stronger than ever in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) as death. Three years later she was a double nominee for an Academy Award, winning supporting actress for Tootsie (1982) while nominated for Best Actress in Frances (1982). She became a force of nature through the eighties, nominated for four more Academy Awards, all for Best Actress, winning the award finally in 1994 for Blue Sky. She is now recognized as one of the screen’s finest actresses after emerging from King Kong battered and near ruin, she worked her way back when others would have given up.
Jeff Bridges, one of the finest actors over the last 40 years, is solid as Jack, game and doing exactly what was asked of him. Charles Grodin was slimy and totally sleazy as the oil representative, hoping to strike rich pools of oil on the island, instead finding perhaps more important things, which he hopes to exploit for money, for gain. What he gets is flattened by Kong’s foot, drawing cheers from the audience.
Looking back on the film, especially after seeing the extraordinary remake by Peter Jackson in 2005, this 1976 film looks pretty damned awful. The effects are terrible, more often than not Kong is obviously a man in an ape suit among miniature sets, never moving like a gorilla, walking upright, and really, more human than some of the human characters in the film. The cinematography was lush and beautiful, and the score was quite lovely, but the effects, meant to be a centerpiece for the film ruin nearly every shot. And the attempt to make Kong coy, cute are terrible, laughable and indeed did bring about gales of laughter at the two screenings I saw of the film in 1976. Making a character driven entirely by special effects is a tricky business, and if the effects are subpar, even for a second, the film falls apart. Kong fell apart early and remained terrible.
The original is still a much-loved film despite some creaky effects and over the top acting circa 1933, and Jackson’s superior remake is a stunning work of art, I daresay, a modern masterpiece.
Not art that is for sure, and these days quite awful, save Lange who reaches down and with pure talent rises above the material and delivers a fine performance in spite of the material.
A laughable mess directed by John Guillermin who directed the popular disaster film The Towering Inferno. Like Kong toppling off the Trade Centre, so did his career after this.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.