Let’s Hear It For King Kong ’76

The Seventies remake of King Kong has been much maligned over the years. We make the case for the defence.

Whenever a remake gets slammed, often before it has even been released, I always think back to the treatment of the 1976 King Kong and think: you guys don’t know that you’re born. No matter what level of criticism a new film might face, it’s nothing compared to the relentless hatred and cynical dismissal that the Dino De Laurentiis film endured – and endures, in certain circles, even now. The critical abuse that was hurled towards the film even before it went into production was staggering and outrageous, awash with unabashed racism against De Laurentiis – who had the audacity to be an Italian producer who didn’t know his place, taking on one of the sacred cows of American fantasy cinema. Respected and serious magazines like Cinefantastique did themselves no favours with articles that dripped with superior contempt against this foreign upstart who spoke with a heavy accent and who had eschewed the untouchably beloved stop-motion special effects technique in favour of a giant robot and, worse still, a man in a monkey suit – the stuff of every cheap Kong knock-off since the 1930s. What a philistine.

The original Kong was arguably the classic of the 1930s horror cycle, even more so than Dracula, Frankenstein and the rest of the Universal monster movies. It was a film that, in 1976, still turned up on TV all the time and was genuinely loved by all (myself included – it was the first film I ever saw and I can’t describe the excitement of seeing it pop up in the TV schedules). More to the point, Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion effects were still held in awe – he was the man who inspired Ray Harryhausen, giving birth to an art form that most film producers ignored because of the time and cost involved – stop-motion films were, regardless of every other aspect of their production, a step above your average monster movie. Godzilla films, with their man-in-a-suit monster, were always dismissed by American critics as trashy kiddie nonsense – the fact that they were foreign movies probably didn’t help their case with the parochial and nationalistic American (and British) critics of the day, who only ever saw crudely dubbed versions and somehow seemed to think that the films were made that way in the first place. The mighty Kong had already suffered indignities at the hands of shifty foreigners with films like King Kong vs Godzilla and King Kong Escapes, both Toho productions that replaced O’Brien’s monster with ape costumes that were crude even for the time. Now another interloper – a foreigner with pretensions to being a Hollywood player, no less – was again interfering with their beloved ape.

King Kong Escapes

Things were made worse by the fact that there was a battle for the soul of Kong between De Laurentiis and Universal, both of whom announced their King Kong remakes around the same time, both of whom felt that they owned the rights to a property that was in a state of flux at the time. Universal’s film, The Legend of King Kong, was a period piece based around the novelisation of the original film and would feature stop-motion effects; De Laurentiis’ film was a modern updating with an ape costume. Well, who do you expect the genre press would throw their support behind? When the legal battles ended and Universal withdrew – for now – it was already a strike against the De Laurentiis film before a frame had been shot.*

Universal finally made their Kong film in 2005 – Peter Jackson made a literal remake of the original film that still somehow managed to be twice as long as the 1933 movie and replaced stop-motion with CGI, characters with caricatures, soul with emptiness – and the critics that had slammed De Laurentiis’s production adored it. I suppose that while Jackson was still a foreigner, he at least spoke English properly. The sheer emptiness of his film – all bluster and no heart – at least made some people look back at the 1976 film and reassess it. For some of us, that wasn’t necessary – we already knew that the ’76 version was magnificent.

OK, let’s pause for a moment. Just as the genre critics of 1976 were stupidly dismissive of the remake, so we can be overly praiseworthy. There are, unquestionably, problems with Kong ’76. A lot of problems. Do they stop the film from being great? Not at all. In some cases, oddly, they help the film. Let’s get into it.

The 1976 King Kong loosely follows the original film, while smartly updating it. The rough plot is the same but the minutiae have changed. A few character names remain the same, but not many, and those characters are all different – Carl Denham is now Fred Wilson, an oil company executive played with verve by Charles Grodin. Jack Prescott is now a long-haired palaeontologist and proto-environmentalist played by Jeff Bridges and Ann Darrow has become Dwan (Jessica Lange), a wannabe celebrity rescued as the only survivor of a crashed luxury yacht. All three are – through contrivances that arguably work better than the original – en route to a mysterious, never-moving cloud that Wilson thinks covers an island that holds huge deposits of oil. Yes, it’s a very 1970s film but that works for it. As a celebrity-in-waiting, Dwan seems a more natural character to be drawn into the fame of being Kong’s bride than Fay Wray’s character in the original film – you can see her desperation for fame, her conflicted thoughts about the exploitation of Kong, her love for Jack – who certainly isn’t going to be part of that circus – and the opportunities it offers. She’s a character who probably resonates even more today in our world of reality stars, influencers and instant VIPs.

From the arrival on the island, things follow the first film pretty closely – they meet a native tribe, the tribal leader decides that blonde Dwan will be the ideal Bride of Kong (I suspect that this wouldn’t fly today; even the Jackson film, made in 2005, would be seen as racist and reactionary now), she’s kidnapped, Kong takes her away and everyone from the ship follows to rescue her. The big difference is the lack of prehistoric monsters and this is probably where the absence of stop-motion is notable. Kong fights a big snake but that’s it and I’m still not sure how I feel about that particular variation after all these years. At heart, it’s a very different film and so perhaps the dinosaurs would’ve been a distraction. In any case, there is an argument for saying that the presence of other giant beasts beyond the wall of the native village rather lessens the importance of Kong as a mythical figure and a God to the Islanders – he becomes less unique because of them. On the other hand, those scenes are some of the most iconic moments of the original film. The 1933 film would be a lesser film without the dinosaurs; the 1976 film might be a lesser film with them.

Dwan, who is ditzy enough to enrage modern feminists, nevertheless holds her own against Kong. This is good and bad. The screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr – best known for his work on the Batman TV series – dithers between straight-faced action, tragedy and high camp and it doesn’t always get the balance right. While the film pokes fun at the criticisms everyone involved knew were coming by having Prescott point at giant footprints and ask “who made those? A man in a monkey suit?”, some of Dwan’s blathering to Kong – including calling him a “Male Chauvinist Ape” at one point – is pretty cringe-worthy.

Given that they were, and are still, a big deal for critics, let’s discuss the special effects. Rick Baker’s ape suit is great, far removed from the crude costumes that people wanted to compare it to. The original Kong didn’t really look too much like a real gorilla – he was an ape, but a previously unknown species. Baker looks more the part but is still removed enough to seem like a creature unto itself – he’s still removed from anything that we immediately recognise as an existing creature. If we compare this to the 2005 film, where Kong looks exactly like a giant gorilla and subsequently has no personality, we can see the importance of this. The ape suit is fantastic, as is the giant hand that Jessica Lange has to sit in. The problem is the green-screen shots, where everything looks very artificial – the matting of the ape and the backgrounds is unexpectedly shoddy.  I’ll admit that I was most curious about – and dreading – these few scenes when I watched the UHD of the recent 4K upgrade of the film and in truth, they look the same, neither better nor worse – the film has been upgraded visually but no one has gone in to tart up the visuals with recreated effects footage, and thank goodness for that – I’m all for new remasters that bring the film closer to the original cinematic experience but we really should leave the actual content of old films as they were made, warts ‘n’ all. These scenes are odd moments of poor quality in an otherwise impressive film. However, it’s hardly something that is exclusive to this film. If you look at Ray Harryhausen’s films, you see the same problem – a lot of time and effort has gone into the main effects and seemingly bugger all spent in making the green (or blue) screen processes match. Maybe it was just too difficult at the time.

The other unfortunate stand-out of the film, of course, is Carlo Rambaldi’s dreadful full-size mechanical Kong – hailed during shooting as a new breakthrough in effects technology, but even then looking like something from a fairground display. It simply doesn’t work. Why the film still includes these shots of a stiff Robo-Kong that doesn’t even look like the ape seen in the rest of the film is beyond me. Presumably, the shots would be too difficult to redo – but they cheapen the whole film in the few seconds that they appear. Half a million dollars was spent on this travesty. Compare this to the genuinely impressive and vast wall that is seen on Skull Island (assuming that it’s still called Skull Island here), so spectacular that Mrs R was convinced that it couldn’t be real. Now that is a grand-scale physical special effect – just not the sort that will get newspaper headlines, and De Laurentiis was always keen to get free publicity for his film. Sadly, it tended to go wrong, as with the scenes of Kong’s body at the World Trade Center Plaza, which attracted so many people as free extras that the shooting had to be abandoned. Of course, the Kong haters lapped up these stories as an example of hubris and ego run rampant.

The decision to shift the film’s finale from the Empire State Building to the World Trade Center also upset purists – and of course it now has a significance that the filmmakers could hardly have imagined. Shots of fighter jets crashing into the towers feel uncomfortable viewing when seen today and the events of 9/11 are probably why you’ll rarely see the iconic original movie artwork – a wild advertising exaggeration of events in any case, as Kong was not actually big enough to stand astride both towers – being used today. I’ll always defend the finale of this film. The Twin Towers feel iconic and new – as indeed they were, much like the Empire State Building was in 1933 – and the final scenes are brutal and monstrous. Here’s an uncomfortable truth about the original film – for all the retconned discussion of the movie, it shows damn little sympathy for Kong or criticism of those who have exploited him. Carl Denham gets away with his monstrous behaviour, pitched as a hero even as he utters his “’twas beauty killed the beast” line – and the beauty in question sees Kong as nothing more than a rampaging, soulless beast throughout the film. Son of Kong, which was a quickly tossed-off sequel, goes some way to fixing this but the original King Kong does not show Kong in a positive light. 1976 was a different time. The ending of this King Kong is savagely heartbreaking and has Dwan desperately, tearfully clinging to the giant ape in a pathetic, hopeless attempt to prevent the helicopters from shooting at him, with Jack Prescott absolutely gleeful when Kong smashes one of the ‘copters and horrified when it ultimately means nothing. In keeping with the cynical times, Prescott has approached the authorities with a plan to capture Kong unharmed and – like the naive hippy he is – believed their assurances that yes, we’ll definitely do that, just tell us where he’s heading (the film also does a good job of explaining how a 40ft gorilla can hide from pursuers). The ending of this film is absolutely bleak and brilliant, and no one gets a smart-ass line to tidy everything up.

The cynicism of this film is what really carries and makes it feel very relevant even now. The greed and corruption of Wilson, the exploitation of nature in search of corporate profit (the live show unveiling Kong to the public is a crass circus, with Wilson bellowing “hail to the power of Kong! And Petrox!”), the ecological destruction and exploitation of tribal communities by big business and the brutal nature of celebrity – the whole thing feels as though it could’ve been made today. I’m baffled by people who complain about it being updated. What did they want? Pure nostalgia? Well, the Peter Jackson film tells us yes, that’s exactly what they wanted.

Jessica Lange took a lot of stick for this film, her first movie. That stick came, relentlessly and with brutal sexism, from the people who were determined to hate this film no matter what. She was the easy target – an inexperienced actress, a model no less, stuck with some dialogue that was a bit hard to swallow. But in truth, she’s fine – her inexperience plays well for her character and she seems real and honest. The whole cast is good, to be honest – Charles Grodin is having fun, Jeff Bridges is a very 1970s hero – not too macho, sarcastic and decent – and the supporting players are all great, making small roles stand out and feel authentic. Director John Guillerman – who gets little credit for this, always overshadowed by the hated producer – does a good job of making this long film – considerably shorter than Jackson’s version, mind – move at quite a pace, mixing the quiet moments and the action impressively. He had made The Towering Inferno, after all, and he knew how to do this sort of epic disaster thing – disaster movies were the big thing of the era and you can see elements of the genre in Kong’s New York rampage. The film never looks less than spectacular. And John Barry’s score is magnificent, lush and romantic, epic and tragic – one of his best, I would argue.

You know, this is the thing about Kong ’76 – unless you are absolutely determined to hate it – and a lot of people are – it’s a tough film not to admire. Even the bad parts don’t feel any worse than the bad parts of other films of the era, films that had universal praise from the very same people that were relentlessly trashing King Kong for the crime of having been made at all. I’m glad that the film has at least been reassessed to the point where someone approved of a 4K restoration. I doubt that it will ever be widely hailed as a masterpiece – even now, there is too much baggage, too many angry reviews from the past hanging over the film and the curse of being the middle child in the King Kong chronology. But in truth, poor old Kong has been subjected to a lot of awful, humiliating crap over the years – and yes, that includes De Laurentiis’ belated sequel to this, the jaw-droppingly shoddy King Kong Lives from 1986 – and the distance of time makes this look a lot better as the fury and the furious die off. For those of us that loved the film as kids and still love it (flaws and all) today, it’s long overdue recognition and validation, as brief as it might be. I’ll never say that the 1976 King Kong is better than the 1933 version because I love that film – but it’s an equally valid retelling of a classic story, one that has been terribly treated over the years and deserves better. Hail the power of Kong indeed…


* De Laurentiis would continue to fend off alternative Kongs through the courts over 1976 and 1977 – Queen Kong, A*P*E* and The Mighty Peking Man were all delayed or buried by legal action while Baby Kong – planned by Mario Bava, a former associate of De Laurentiis – failed to get into production.


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