Tuesday 28 May 2024

King Kong (1976 remake)

The 1976 Dino De Laurentiis-produced remake of King Kong has a very poor reputation. Does it deserve the derision it has attracted over the years? We shall see.

Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 King Kong is one of the most important genre movies ever made. It set new standards in visual splendour and extravagance and it’s a fun monster movie that has real heart and a certain degree of moral complexity. It is rightly regarded as a masterpiece.

The 1976 version retains the essential story elements, with some unfortunate changes. An ambitious obsessive sets out to find a previously unknown island. In the 1933 version he is a documentary film-maker named Carl Denham. In the 1976 version he’s a ruthless oil company executive. The island turns out to be home to a previously unknown tribe, and to a 5-0-foot tall gorilla who is worshipped as a god. In the ’33 version Denham takes along with him a girl named Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) who will provide the love interest in his movie. In the ’76 version the girl is Dwan (Jessica Lange), an actress rescued from a yacht that has sunk. The girl finds herself being offered to the giant ape, although whether she is a sacrifice or is intended to be his bride remains uncertain.

Eventually the ape is captured and taken to New York as the world’s greatest spectacle, he runs amok and lots more mayhem ensues. The 1933 version boasts one of cinema’s most iconic endings.

Despite staying fairly close to the original story the 1976 film manages to do a lot of things wrong.

Firstly, the island looks too real. This is a story of the fantastic, a mix of fantasy, science fiction and horror. In the ’33 movie the island looks like it belongs to the world of dream, of the imagination, of the subconscious. In the ’76 version it looks too much like it belongs in the real world. On the other hand the locations were well chosen and they do look great.

Secondly, the film is too long. The original ran for 100 minutes and included a leisurely (but effective) buildup. The ’76 version runs for 134 minutes and it’s just too much. Despite its much longer running time the ’76 version has a lot less action and excitement. It really drags at times.

Thirdly, the story just doesn’t work in a 70s setting. In 1933 the idea of a previously unknown island full of unexplained wonders seemed plausible. In 1976 it just seems silly.

Fourthly, the iconic ending is replaced by a crude clumsy ending with no style at all.

Fifthly, the ’76 remake is heavy-handed and grindingly predictable.

Sixthly, in the original Kong is an actual monster but that gives the tragic element a certain bite. The ’76 version is all syrupy sentimentality. Kong is a peaceful herbivore who just wants to eat bananas and make friends with the pretty blonde lady. It all gets much too Gorillas in the Mist for my taste. Kong really isn’t scary enough in this ’76 version.

The biggest problem of all is that the characters are so much less interesting than those in the 1933 movie.

The character of film-maker Carl Denham in the original is replaced by oilman Fred Wilson. Carl Denham was a complex man. He was ruthless and reckless but he was fundamentally honest. He made questionable decisions but he was no villain. He was an interesting character. Fred Wilson is a cardboard cut-out movie villain and he’s not the least bit interesting.

In the remake the love interest for the girl is zoologist Jack Prescott (played by Jeff Bridges who is more hairy than Kong himself). Jack is an idealistic scientist hero who cares nothing for money but is dedicated to science and justice. He’s perfect in every way. He’s a bit of a smarmy self-righteous bore although Jeff Bridges tries hard to make him likeable.

The one exception is the girl. Jessica Lange has copped a lot of flak for her performance. I think that’s unfair. OK, Fay Wray was a better actress and the character she played was more interesting but Lange is obviously playing the part of Dwan the way it was written. She’s supposed to be a ditzy blonde actress. That’s how Lange plays her. She’s cute and sexy and fairly likeable. She’s the only cast member who gives a halfway decent performance.

John Guillermin directed. My favourite of his movies is the very unfairly maligned Sheena (1984) which has some slight affinities to King Kong.

The 1976 version is not a total loss. It has its strengths. Dino De Laurentiis wanted to put the relationship between Dwan and Kong at the centre of the movie. It becomes a kind of very kinky love story. In fact it becomes a perverse romantic triangle with Kong and Jack competing for Dwan’s love (she really likes her men hairy). That’s an interesting angle. It’s also made clear that there is an erotic dimension to Kong’s attraction to Dwan. You have to remember that audiences in the 70s were much more sophisticated than modern audiences and much more comfortable with grown-up concepts.

There are some great visual moments and of course this was pre-CGI so the visuals really do look terrific. The scenes in which Dwan is presented to Kong as his bride are superbly conceived and shot and they’re loaded with perverse eroticism. 

There were plans to build a full-scale Kong but it proved impracticable so most of the shots of King are guy-in-a-gorilla-suit shots, but they're still extremely impressive.

Overall the 1976 King Kong has to be regarded as a failure. An interesting failure perhaps, but one that is hard to recommend.


tom j jones said...

Yeah, it just takes such a long time to get to where it's going - in that respect, it's the perfect 70s movie lol

dfordoom said...

tom j jones said...
Yeah, it just takes such a long time to get to where it's going

Exactly. It's more than half an hour longer than the 1933 version, and it really doesn't need to be.