By John H. Foote
My father introduced me to the original King Kong (1933) when I was a child, and I have been hooked ever since. That classic film has garnered admiration and praise since its release, stirring audiences with its fantastical story of a giant ape smitten by a woman whom he protects from the prehistoric creatures on the island.
When it was announced there was going to be a remake, the industry was shocked. Why remake something unless it can be improved? Turns out, any improvement on the original would have to wait for Peter Jackson’s majestic, magnificent remake in 2005, an extraordinary film that should have been in the Oscar race for Best Picture and Director, Actress, Score, Cinematography, Film Editing, Production Design, Costume Design and the Effects Oscar it won. But in the meantime, we had to endure Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis’ 1976 version.
De Laurentiis announced his plans to remake King Kong with a massive ad campaign, including a call to find his leading lady. The role went to Jessica Lange, a former model who would go on to become one of the greatest actresses of her generation, winning two Academy Awards and earning several more nominations. Unlike Jackson, De Laurentiis didn’t have the advantage of computer-generated effects and motion capture. So, he built a huge mechanical ape hand, a mechanical ape (that moved like one) and put a guy in a monkey suit.
Where to start?
The first issue for me was the modern-day update. There was an innocence to setting the film in the 30s, which they did for both the 1933 version (obviously) and the 2005. It didn’t take a huge leap of faith to believe a giant ape could be found on an isolated island, but in modern times? Forget it.
The plot begins with an oil company sending a crew to find oil on an unexplored island. Instead, they find a girl adrift at sea, Dwan – no explanation for the name. On the island they encounter natives who are terrified of them but show an unusual interest in the blonde beauty. The natives kidnap her through the night, planning to sacrifice her to their God, Kong. He suddenly appears in a flurry of forest destruction. We hear a terrifying roar and see the eyes of Kong, dark, black and watchful. And then he appears in all his fake glory, standing on two feet (apes move on all fours) in front of a terrified and drugged Dwan. Taking her, he wanders back into the jungle, but instead of killing her, as he has the others, he protects her, plays with her like a toy, bathing her, making goo-goo eyes at her as her clothes slip away (no kidding) and then blows her off to dry her. It puts an entire new spin on the term blow job. Dwan responds with indignation, screaming “You goddam male chauvinist pig ape. If you’re going to eat me … EAT ME!” That line led to more than a few catcalls at the screening I attended. Gales of laughter swept through the packed cinema when Kong took the muddied Dwan to a waterfall pool and dropped her in, later picking her up and blowing her off. The comments were X-rated, sorry, but you can imagine. Fiddling with her flimsy clothing, the ape manages get it almost off, and the audience gets to share his view, resulting in more than a few googly-eyed stares to match his own. It was all very ridiculous.
The story is pretty much the same after that. The oil men track them down, Jack (Jeff Bridges) to save her, the others looking to bring Kong home for marketing purposes. The island seems to be stuck in time and the creatures are much larger than anywhere else. And ridiculous. The snake in the cave looks like something you might find in a bargain bin in a toy store. Thankfully, there are no scenes with dinosaurs as there were in both the 1933 and 2005 films. That was a small mercy. Can you imagine the dinosaurs they would have created for this film? Probably one of those T-Rex Halloween costumes that fit over the upper body, leaving the legs free. No care was put into the film, there was no love for the original, this was all about making big money.
They take the ape back to the States, and put him on display, but as expected he escapes and finds Dwan. Chased, he climbs to the top of the World Trade Center (No Empire State Building for this ape!) and goes to war with machine-gun carrying choppers. With Dwan screaming for him to pick her up, knowing they will not shoot if he is holding her, she watches the bullets tear him apart. Eventually the great ape can take no more and falls to his death, lazily falling to the ground, broken and dead.
Poor Jeff Bridges, such a great actor trapped in this mess. What was he thinking? And Charles Grodin was so slimy we expect him to twirl his moustache and laugh like a cartoonish Snidely Whiplash. It is not a good performance, more of a laughable one. I had fun watching to see how far Grodin would push it, how bad he would be. Incredibly, given her role, Lange comes off best, perhaps because she knew to wink at the audience while playing the part. She was gorgeous, no question, with a real fearlessness on the screen. Her beauty was never in question, her long tanned legs spectacular, and those eyes would melt the heart of any 25-foot ape. She made the silly dialogue written for her work, giving it a bouncy sense of fun. I was not at all shocked when she became one of the greatest actresses of the 80s and 90s.
The effects are dreadful, terrible, and people, THIS IS A SPECIAL EFFECTS MOVIE! They must have known at the outset that the film lives or dies by the quality of the visual effects! Kong is clearly a man in an ape suit, smashing miniature sets and trains. And that mechanical monkey they paid so much to make? It looks and moves like a mechanical toy robot, stiff, rigid, awful. De Laurentiis’ mechanical ape appears onscreen for a mere eight seconds. He did make good use of the mechanical hand, and Lange makes those scenes sing. The film has a lovely, romantic sweeping score, and excellent cinematography, both nominated for Academy Awards, and inexplicably won the Oscar for Visual Effects, which back in 1976 was a special award not given annually.
I watched the film again recently, and after the original and the Peter Jackson remake (magnificent), found this 1976 version unwatchable. Only Jessica Lange makes it tolerable, yet by the end, I was so done with the big ape.
Fun fact: Meryl Streep was sent to De Laurentiis’ office in New York to audition for him. He took one look at her and screamed at his assistant for sending an actress so ugly, speaking in Italian so Streep would not understand. What the mogul did not know was that Meryl spoke perfect Italian and stunned him with her answer. I would say she had the last laugh.
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.