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King Kong (1976) – film review

November 28, 2013

KING KONG (1976)

“Listen to me! There’s a girl out there, running for her life from some gigantic turned-on ape!”

king kong 1976

Directed by John Guillermin. Produced by Dino DeLaurentiis. Screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr. based on the screenplay by James Creelman and Ruth Rose from an idea by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace. Starring: Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin and introducing Jessica Lange. Year of release: 1976. Running time: 134 mins.

A gigantic 40 foot gorilla unwillingly becomes the mascot for a greedy American oil company after he is discovered on an uncharted south east asian island. Falling in love with a not-very-bright young Hollywood starlet, he is brought to the US, where he escapes his captors and rampages through New York City – only to fall to his death from atop the World Trade Center.

King Kong was the first of Dino De Laurentiis’ mega-budget Hollywood spectacles after arriving in the US from his native Italy just three years prior; and producing the relatively smaller scale thrillers Serpico, Three Days Of The Condor and Death Wish. His fondness for large-scale – and some would say: extravagant filmmaking – continued with 1980’s Flash Gordon and Dune in 1984 and would culminate with the aborted Australian-lensed, Patrick Swayze-starring production of Total Recall in 1987 – as his over-extended empire collapsed into spiralling debt and bankruptcy.

Whilst I do have a certain respect for the 1933 original King Kong; I don’t necessarily hold it in the same nostalgic esteem as some other fans – most notably Peter Jackson; whose turgid self-important 2005 remake was such an overblown and pointless chore to watch. It comes as no surprise Jackson absolutely loathes this ‘76 version and refuses to acknowledge any positive aspects it might actually possess.

British action helmer John Guillermin was hired to direct Kong based on his handling of the hugely epic and complex mega-hit The Towering Inferno – one of the cycle of star-studded disaster movie epics which would dominate the box office until the release of Star Wars in 1977. Guillermin’s direction of Kong is competent, but unremarkable. The initial budget for Kong was originally set at $15 million, but due to cost overruns and unforseen circumstances (in true De Laurentiis fashion) – it blew out to a whopping (for 1976) $24 million. Some weeks into shooting, as the budget began to soar; Paramount’s Executive In Charge Of Production Jack Grossberg was amusingly heard to say, “The production is so strapped for money now, we can’t even put a penis on Kong.”

The film’s apparent lightness of tone was one of the aspects it was criticised for back in the day, with screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr (Papillon, Three Days Of The Condor, Flash Gordon, Never Say Never Again) being held responsible for this perception; having previously worked on episodes of the 1960’s Batman TV series. Sure, it’s not nearly as earnest as the 1933 original and the performance by Charles Grodin certainly borders on the comedic, but the scenes involving Kong himself are treated seriously (in much the same way Superman The Movie – released two years later; had a playfullness to it while maintaining respect for its titular character). And speaking of Charles Grodin; he steals virtually every scene he’s in as oil company man and self-styled expedition leader Fred Wilson – a clueless self-centric pen-pusher masquerading as fearless explorer; mugging shamelessly for the cameras whenever photo ops arise. He is simply hilarious and provides much of the fun gained from watching this movie.

king kong 1976 cast

One of the points of difference which makes this version stand out from the others (aside from being set in contempory times) – is the introduction of environmental issues. The mistreatment of Kong is indeed meant as a metaphor for man’s exploitation of the natural world; as evidenced in the stance taken by Jeff Bridges’ character (long-haired hippie zoologist stowaway Jack Prescott; a character who is essentially the movie’s moral center and voice of reason) – as he protests against Petrox Oil removing Kong from the island (although his agreeing to flooding the empty tank which holds Kong captive aboard the supertanker as the ape tries to bust his way out – is completely at odds with this stance, but anyway).

The environmental themes inherent in Semple’s screenplay were a major drawcard which initially attracted Charles Grodin to the role, “It is a wonderful, theatrical presentation about the rape of the environment. Kong is really the pure, natural animal when he is in his jungle habitat. His fate is to be exploited by men who put him in bondage and carry him off to a hostile environment. If you had gone out to make a film about how man has exploited and polluted his streams and atmosphere, and you did it in a documentary style, no-one would come out to see the film. But in doing King Kong, I realized, I had a chance to work in a film with the potential of being seen by more people than any other film in the history of the business, and it could say something.”

Barbra Streisand was originally sought to play the female lead (an awfully wrong choice of casting if ever there was). But thankfully, the role of ditzy airhead Dwan (“It’s like Dawn, except I switched two letters to make it more memorable.”) went to 26 year-old New York model Jessica Lange – who’s debut appearance in a movie     this was. So convincing is Lange’s performance as a ditzy starlet – she found it an enormous effort to be taken seriously as an actress for some years after (it wasn’t until a supporting role in Tootsie in 1982, that she was first recognized with an Oscar and again in 1994 with a best actress award for Blue Sky).

king-kong-1976-crown

Baker in his suit.

There was much ballyhoo around the time of the film’s release regarding the creation of Kong himself. De Laurentiis deliberately mislead the public into believing the giant ape would be played throughout by a 40 foot-tall animatronic puppet created by Carlo Rambaldi – the Italian mechanical effects designer who would go on to devise the smiling grey alien in Close Encounters and the jaw and tongue mechanism for Giger’s Alien, as well as winning acclaim for his work on Spielberg’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial. However, despite all the time, effort and money spent on bulding the full-size mechanical Kong – the resulting creature was far from animated – only appearing in a handful of long shots during his unveiling to the public. As luck would have it though, 25 year-old makeup effects artist Rick Baker (Schlock) was looking to break into Hollywood proper at the time and saw Kong as his big ticket into the industry. With his lifelong fascination with Gorillas and a convincing suit of his own already built, he persuaded the producers to take him on. In collaboration with Rambaldi (who would also contribute animatronics to articulate the mask’s facial expressions), Baker fashioned a whole new suit and played the part of Kong himself (he would later go on to win an Oscar for An American Werewolf In London and would create an even more convincing Gorilla suit, uncredited, for the John Landis comedy Trading Places in 1983).

king kong - jessica lange

More effective than the full-scale Kong were the giant pair of mechanical hands used to interact with Jessica Lange. So powerful were the mechanisms of these hands that Lange came close to being seriously injured during filming; when one of the remotely-operated hands squeezed her just a little too tightly.

Effects-wise, the flow of action between shots of Kong’s full-scale mechanical hands and Rick Baker in the suit match remarkably well – thanks in part to Guillermin’s storyboarding and the editing of Ralph E. Winters. The only flaw in the illusion being some mediocre blue-screen composites. But it is Baker’s performance in the suit     in conjunction with Rambaldi’s animatronic facial expressions and Jessica Lange’s credible interactions which ultimately sells the idea of Kong being a real character. Particularly impressive is the scene where he blows on Dwan to dry her – his cheeks puffing out convincingly. The highly-detailed miniatures used in scenes with Baker’s suit are also impressive – particularly the graffiti-covered commuter train which Kong derails during his rampage through New York.

king kong 1976 with train

The wide-screen cinematography by Richard H. Kline (The Andromeda Strain, Soylent Green, Howard The Duck) is uninspired at best, while the film editing by Ralph E. Winters (Ben-Hur, The Great Race) is fluid and classically-paced. The music score     by celebrated James Bond composer John Barry (The Black Hole, Raise The Titanic) is his usual lush romantic standard.

Contrary to popular belief, Kong ‘76 was indeed a major hit worldwide – although       in critical terms; it failed to live up to the enormous hype which preceded it. A notoriously silly sequel, King Kong Lives, appeared in 1986; again directed by Guillermin and starring Linda Hamilton – along with a revived Kong sporting a mechanical heart – but the less said about this the better.

Whilst not being held in the same regard as the 1933 original, this 1976 version is     a beautifully-paced modern Hollywood epic and certainly more entertaining than Peter Jackson’s cheerlessly bloated rehash. And it also has two things its counterparts are sorely missing – it has something to say and it has a heart. And it succeeds where the original did not – in eliciting enormous compassion for Kong and creating a palpable sense of chemistry between the gentle giant and the girl with whom he becomes perilously entranced.

3.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4  – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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8 Comments
  1. Dianna Taylor permalink

    Hi Greg. Really enjoyed your King Kong review and all the background information – especially information on Rick Baker’s King Kong suit. Liked the tenderness of Baker’s Kong blowing on Dwan to dry her. Was always a favourite film of mine.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks Di – glad you liked it! The last time I saw KK was eight years ago, so it was great revisiting it on Blu-ray. Yeah, Rick Baker definitely deserves more credit than he received upon its initial release ‘special contributions by …’. De Laurentiis wanted to keep the fact it was Baker in a suit hidden from the public. But Baker sure went on to bigger and greater things (including at least seven Oscars!). This version of KK will always be the default version for me, though. 🙂

  2. Nice review (again). Not seen this since I was a kid. I’d love to watch it again. Sure I won’t like it as much now. 😉

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks! I was actually quite surprised how much I enjoyed seeing it again – and it being released on Blu-ray gave me the perfect reason to give it a re-watch. 🙂

  3. Toknow permalink

    Nice review. I enjoy the film. It came out in my early childhood so I was fascinated with Kong. Though I think one reviewer said it best… never underestimate the likes of a twelve year old boy.

    Also I think you are being a little harsh on Jackson’s remake. The only major problem I have with that movie is the miscasting of Jack Black.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks! Yeah, it was an interesting exercise going back and looking at this film (having not seen it since I was a kid) – and reevaluating it with grown-up eyes. My issue with Jackson’s film is its needless length and all the superfluous dinosaur action which derails the movie halfway through. It’s almost as if Jackson lost sight of the story he was telling and went off on some wild tangent trying to outdo Spielberg in the dino stampeding stakes. The movie could easily have done with at least half an hour of this stuff taken out. Straying off-topic in this manner (at the expense of the audience) is essentially treating the audience with contempt – which is unforgiveable. Although I did think Naomi Watts was very good. 🙂

  4. James permalink

    I always liked this version just because I thought is was fun and a little campy. But the reason
    why the 1933 one is the best is because Fay Wray will at any moment, from the
    moment she is picked up by Kong to the last round that kills Kong, is trying to
    escape from this beast. She, the character, is bewildered, scared and will do anything not to be killed. The other two versions (1976 & 2005) they fall in love with a hairy, smelly beast that borders on the line of bestiality about to happen, if it could happen. Their only thought should be to get out of there and never see the animal again. Also, the 1976 version is a product of its time and that’s why it won’t hold up as well as the others. The whole point was the beauty and the beast angle and this movie went off on a lesson, thanks Dad. I don’t need Hollywood people to tell me about life, just make fun, exciting, suspenseful movies and let the adults in the real world handle the oil companies.
    Lastly, did you notice when Kong fell into the ditch with chloroform and the very last thing he did was raised his arm slowly. That arm was faced the wrong way and twice the size of Kongs arm, terrible continuity and just plain wrong to do that at the end of the scene.
    Well, thanks for reading and God Bless.
    James
    P.S. The Empire State Building is a much better building for Kong to stand on than the twin towers. Just from a cinematic point of view, Kong standing on the top pounding his chest, well that’s the difference between a “good” scene (if that, I thought if failed) and a great scene.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Wow James. You’re right – now that I think about it – there was no ‘beauty and the beast’ angle in the original. Isn’t it interesting that Peter Jackson incorporated the ‘quote unquote’ romance aspect of the 76 version into his remake and yet he’s been so vocal in how much he despises the 76 version. Very interesting. 🙂

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