It seems like only the most cynical and/or elitist moviegoers are not geeked about Peter Jackson’s “King Kong.” While Merian C. Cooper’s original 1933 film is almost universally beloved — and even revered for its groundbreaking visual effects — there doesn’t seem to be an abundance of that purist moaning and griping that usually accompanies a remake. (Perhaps, at least in part, that’s because Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy showed skeptics that he’s worthy of the job).
Things were not quite the same in 1976, when producer Dino De Laurentiis and director John Guillermin (“The Towering Inferno”) gave the world an updated version of the girl-meets-gorilla tale. That version of “King Kong” is widely dismissed as a disaster of epic proportions, $25 million worth of overacting, bad effects and camp. But if you ask us, it’s actually not that bad — and more importantly, it’s a poignant time capsule of images and themes from America and New York City in the 1970s.
Eschewing the documentary-filmmaking angle of the 1933 original, Guillermin’s “Kong” springboards from what was then calmly called “the oil crisis.” Jeff Bridges stars as Jack Prescott, a shaggy Princeton paleontologist who stows away on an oil tanker bound for an uncharted South Pacific island. Charles Grodin plays Petrox Oil’s Fred Wilson, who believes that the massive amount of carbon dioxide emanating from the uninhabited island comes from huge oil deposits. Prescott, however, disagrees. Not only does his research indicate that there are natives on the island, but he believes that the CO2 is the result of the exhalations of its larger denizens.
Jessica Lange makes her film debut as Dwan (that’s not a typo), a zodiac-obsessed Hollywood ingénue who is picked up in a raft by the tanker crew after her hard-partying yacht blows up. (Dwan survived because she was on deck, offended by the movie being shown below: “Deep Throat.”)
Of course, Dwan has far more drama ahead of her. Lange spends a lot of the movie clinging to a huge mechanical hand (the same method used in the ’33 film). When Kong sniffs his new bride and gives her a giant leer, the feminist in Dwan surfaces and she pounds the giant ape’s snout, screaming, “You goddamn chauvinist pig ape! You wanna eat me? Then go ahead! Choke on me!” She does, however, seem to really enjoy being blow-dried by Kong’s no-doubt-disgusting monkey breath after a waterfall shower.
Bo Derek and Barbra Streisand were considered for the Beauty to Kong’s Beast, but the producers nixed Streisand and Derek turned it down. All for the best, it turns out — because despite being pilloried by the press, Lange is perfect as Dwan. She’s a quintessential ’70s female lead: an unconventional beauty, braless and ballsy, a little flighty at times but far more complex than the screaming Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) from Cooper’s original.
With his hopes for the island’s oil riches dashed, Wilson decides that rather than return to the Petrox board empty-handed, he’ll bring in his promised “big one” — meaning, naturally, Kong, to be used in a touring sideshow as an oil company mascot, a la the Exxon tiger. Dwan, meanwhile, signs on for the ride, thinking it’s going to be her big break.
Wilson represents the worst aspects of corporate America: extreme greed, hubris and arrogance combined with disregard for foreign cultures and, perhaps worst of all, short-sightedness to the point of blindness. Dwan, meanwhile, is simply emblematic of the American lust for fame at any cost.
The screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (one of the primary writers of the 1960s “Batman” TV show and film) does have some groan-worthy one-liners (“What do you think did that, a man in a monkey suit?”) and there’s some pretty amazing sexual imagery — a huge wooden bolt, for instance — and some very heavy petting. But the story does flow believably and the characters, while undeniably broad, ring true and empathetic. Even Grodin’s Wilson is more recognizably human than merely a two-dimensional Evil Corporate Guy.
The story of the film’s effects, of course, is legendary. Effects designer Carlo Rambaldi constructed a life-size mechanical Kong, but the results were so bad that the filmmakers ended up using makeup artist Rick Baker in a monkey suit. The only scenes to utilize the giant robot ape come near the climax, as Kong is unveiled — standing within a giant Petrox Gas Pump! — and at the end, as he lies dead at the feet of the World Trade Center. Suffice to say, he’s only convincing lying still.
Yes, the effects are spotty. Kong does battle with a giant snake that looks like it came from the toy aisle of the local dollar store, a green shimmer from primitive blue-screen technology permeates much of the film and Baker in a monkey suit usually looks like Baker in a monkey suit. (Why nobody pointed out to him that apes don’t walk fully upright is a mystery.)
Still, there is a tender, sympathetic side to ape-suit Kong. You do wince during the climax atop the World Trade Center as Kong is riddled with machine gun fire while Dwan begs for him to pick her up again so they’ll stop shooting and a helpless Jack screams “You a–holes!” as he helplessly watches from the neighboring tower.
In addition to the oil-crisis angle, the movie has “Seventies” written all over it, from the vintage, graffiti-strewn NYC subway cars to the Coolsville font used for the logo on the poster. Dwan even asks Kong, “I’m a Libra. What sign are you?”
But what makes this film a true time capsule is, of course, the choice of the World Trade Center towers as the location for the film’s finale. The towers were barely three years old when this movie hit the theaters, and using them in the film was the filmmakers’ biggest indication that this was not your grandpa’s Kong. Seeing a helicopter crash into the side of the building and explode into flame is unsettling in a whole different way now. The irony of the film’s subtext — the often brutal inhumanity of man — cuts so much deeper.
It’s sad in a number of ways that the packaging for the 1976 film’s DVD was recently changed from the original poster image to a shot of Dwan in Kong’s mighty paw. First, it’s depressing to think of the cynical marketing decision that hopes to fool less-savvy consumers who might somehow think that Jackson’s “Kong” has made it to their local Wal-Mart in time for Christmas. Second, deleting the image of Kong leaping — Or is he straddling? Yes, there is debate — the twin towers seems … well, wrong.
Will Jackson’s movie be better than Guillermin’s? Duh. But it’s worth remembering that it’s been three decades since the last Kong feature film; it’s a different time — and that’s the point. The 1976 “King Kong” is one of those movies that ironically gets better not only with time, but because of it. It’s a snapshot of an era — pre-CGI, pre-“Star Wars” — when, for better or worse, audience expectations were lower. We expected to see green outlines on superimposed images. We knew we’d be able to discern painted matte backgrounds. And we still asked, “How did they do that?” rather than cynically sneer, as we sometimes do today if a computer image doesn’t look better, sharper, more real than reality.
What was, at the time, an example of poor technology now seems almost as quaint as stop-motion wizard Willis O’Brien’s 1933 Kong. Today filmgoers experience advanced movie science, with its bigger and flashier visual payoff. The “King Kong” of 1976, warts and all, remains an example of what was once called “movie magic.”
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