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Give Dino De Laurentiis’ 1976 ‘King Kong’ Its (Limited) Due

It's corny and compromised by era's FX, but Jessica Lange sells it in her screen debut

When you hear the words King Kong, what do you think of?

Is it the glorious stop-motion animated creature, climbing alongside the Empire State Building in black and white?  Is it the spry, emotive wonder performed by Andy Serkis in 2005, under a pixelated mask?

Or Is it the most recent version, in which the massive creature gets his long overdue rematch with Godzilla?

Godzilla vs. Kong – Official Trailer

It seems that our idea of Kong depends on how we first saw him. For this reason, the mention of the colossally iconic character brings me back to the seventies.

My first Kong wasn’t created by stop-motion animation or CGI but a man in a suit, with the aid of (very) old school blue screen, forced perspective effects and the emotive heartbreak of Jessica Lange.

John Guillerman’s “King Kong” (1976) was my introduction to the character and a pre-“Star Wars” big budget event film that has fallen out of favor over time. As the second major film “Starring the 8th wonder of the world,” it’s very of its time (though isn’t that true of most movies?) and not without problems but more than worthy of a second look.

King Kong (1976) - Official Trailer

This Dino De Laurentiis production, which sported a then-monumental $24 million budget, opens in Indonesia. We meet the crew of a ship, headed off to explore the recent discovery of the mythical Skull Island.

We know the company, PETROX Corp, is bad news, as they are described as a major competitor to EXXON (the environmental warning bells go off, even though this is 13 years before the infamy of the EXXON Valdez). The recently passed Charles Grodin plays a desk man who promised his company a major oil strike.

We also meet Jeff Bridges as Jack, the heroic paleontologist. He’s so shaggy, he appears to be in mid-werewolf transformation. His character is identified by Grodin’s Fred, as a “lying hippie,” putting the evil bureaucrat versus the earthy counterculture theme right in place.

While traveling to the mysterious island, Dwan (played by Lange, who gives her all to her film debut) literally floats into the film, sleeping in a lifeboat. Her presence on the all-male ship energizes the crew, who take to her like a newfound puppy.

Once they all arrive at the fateful island, Dwan’s presence becomes especially of interest to the native people, as well as the giant ape they keep behind a towering wall.

King Kong (1/9) Movie CLIP - An Offering (1976) HD

The dopey screenplay is constantly making a joke of the premise: we hear someone proclaim, “here’s to the big one,” which cues the John Barry score and the title card. Later, Dwan states, right before arriving on Skull Island, that her horoscope told her she’s about to meet “the biggest person of my life.”

Also, Dwan admits that her life was saved by walking out of a screening of “Deep Throat” on the yacht that sunk, which is either the best or worst reference ever made to that landmark X-rated movie. Here’s another keeper from the glib script: someone says, “Most jungle apes only eat fruit,” to which someone replies, “Most apes don’t have a size 90 foot!”

There’s also a throwaway line where Dwan mentions once getting sick while in the Empire State Building. The blame for such on-the-nose and groan-inducing lines is screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr., whose formerly prestigious career turned to writing cheese like this, “Flash Gordon” (1980), “Never Say Never Again” and the Tanya Roberts cinema turkey hall of famer, “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle” (1984).

King Kong (2/9) Movie CLIP - Put Me Down! (1976) HD

Once Dwan is abducted, brought back to Skull Island, dressed up for a proper ritual sacrifice and tied to those poles for Kong to pluck her up, the movie truly jolts to life.

Unlike the original film, the 1976 version is conscious of colonialist and oppressive actions of the crew towards the natives of Skull Island and how Grodin and his crew are all too happy to abuse the land.

The bluescreen effects and forced perspective shots are hit and miss, but those celebrated giant Kong hands are great and so is Rick Baker’s performance in a persuasive ape costume. Making this a lavish Man in A Monster Suit movie actually works, as Baker’s movement and emotion create the character (sustained shots of him walking around, however, remind you of the man in the suit).

At one point, Dwan asks the Big Fella, “I’m a Libra, what sign are you?” There’s more of this than the film can handle. Were the Kong/Dwan scenes on Skull Island supposed to be this funny?

Of the supporting cast, monster movie veteran John Agar stands out (playing a city official) for being a genre veteran. Everyone in the cast is A-list.

RELATED: How ‘Kong: Skull Island’ Revives a Beloved Beast

Lange received much ridicule for her performance, but the problem isn’t with her acting but the character. Dwan is a bubbleheaded, ambition-over-talent actress and Lange does her best to give this gorgeous dingbat an inner life.

The one who should have been targeted for bad acting but walked away unscathed is Grodin, whose embarrassing performance grows increasingly cartoonish.

Another big mistake: Grodin incorrectly informs Lange, twice, that “Kong was trying to rape you.” It was already unwise of the filmmakers to suggest that Kong is, indeed, sexually excited by Dwan but his giant smile and teasing disrobing of her with his tree-sized fingers is as far as this goes.

If anything, the movie seems to be making a joke of how this skyscraper-sized monkey is love with the size equivalent of a matchstick. Having Grodin suggest otherwise is a bad call, since A. it’s a pretty distasteful thing to add into a King Kong movie and B. even if it is true, this movie is not going to deal with it.

By the time we get to the second act, the film has us rooting for the ape and the love of his life. The shot of Kong, sulking, furious and betrayed sitting alone at the bottom of the empty tank within the ship heading to the US, is deeply affecting. We see how mighty and remarkable he is, and his being treated as a badgered dog hurts. Kong is touching in captivity.

FAST FACT: The 1976 “King Kong” crew created a 40-foot ape for select sequences, a beast which set the studio back $1.7 million of its budget.

I grew to care about Kong greatly in the third act, even as he tosses Lange-lookalikes away and rips apart subway trains. We’re supposed to be on the side of Jack, who grows to despise PETROX as much as we do. When Kong creates an explosion that eviscerates a few gun toting PETROX stooges, Jack yells, “Yeeees!” and we’re meant to celebrate anti-corporate carnage along with him. Considering how irritating Grodin is in this, hating The Man and rooting for the monkey, the hippie and the girl aren’t all that difficult.

King Kong (7/9) Movie CLIP - The Ape Had the Right Idea (1976) HD

When Dwan and Kong are atop the World Trade Center (making this sequence extra-poignant), John Barry’s score finally pipes down and the viciousness of the helicopter attack on Kong is harrowing. Dwan pleads with Kong, “Don’t put me down! Hold onto me or they’ll kill you!” Even a cynic like myself wasn’t prepared for how powerful the climax is.

The ending is a heartbreaker that still moves me. Likewise, the shot of the aftermath, with the press and onlookers ascending on the fallen beast is a stunner. Tellingly (and appropriately), there’s no one around to state “Twas Beauty That Slain the Beast,” which wouldn’t have worked in this contemporary version.

The first names to receive notice in the end credits are Carlo Rambaldi, Glen Robinson and Rick Baker, whose remarkable work still impresses, even with the inevitably antiquated touches visible. Opening six months before “Star Wars” and displaying a similarly ambitious array of classical and new approaches to effects-driven storytelling, the Special Achievement Oscar for the Visual Effects this won was well earned.

DID YOU KNOW? The 1976 version of “King Kong” scored $52 million at the U.S. box office, roughly double its budget but short of expectations.

Prior to my recent revisit with “King Kong,” the last time I saw this was in the ’80s, when it played on HBO; I recall the experience vividly, as my friend and neighbor, Christine came over (we were both around 7-years old) and she bawled over the film’s closing minutes. I don’t mention this to gloat but to come clean – watching this in 2021, I myself cried Kong-sized tears over the ending.

The ridiculous movie poster tagline is too much. It states, “The Most Exciting, Original Motion Picture Event of All time.” Whatever you say, Mr. De Laurentiis.

Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 original “King Kong” remains the unquestionable classic, though it has some problems of its own. Aside from Fay Wray’s radiant turn as Ann Darrow (indeed, we get how she would be picked at random to be the star of a film), leading man Bruce Cabot’s performance and character thoroughly underwhelm.

Evolution of KING KONG 1933/1963/1976/1986/2005/2017/2021

The inhabitants of Skull Island are a collection of racist stereotypes, with an introductory scene almost as bad as anything in the second hour of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.” The 1976 version doesn’t give the tribe of Skull Island much depth or even stand out characters but at least directly addresses how the PETROX company is openly exploiting and abusing them as much as they do Kong.

Guillerman’s film is very conscious about the colonialist themes it brings up, wisely suggesting that nothing good will come of this operation, which is monetarily driven and has no regard for the indigenous people, nor the history of Skull island.

Once Kong shows up, the movie magic takes over and the film is at a full gallop until the end. Kong’s battle with a Tyrannosaurus Rex is still an extraordinary set piece. For that matter, every set piece on Skull Island is remarkable (note how Wray is positioned atop a tree in the foreground of one monster battle, a clever use of special effects).

The final battle atop the Empire State Building deserves its status as one of cinema’s most iconic.

It ends with “Twas Beauty that killed the Beast,” a dud line that the actor doesn’t sell, though it has, for some reason, become a classic capper. Nevertheless, by the film’s end, we grow to completely love Kong, a model made of wire and covered with rabbit fur.

King Kong (1933) - Beauty Killed the Beast Scene (10/10) | Movieclips

Another big problem that no one ever addresses with the original film: How do they get Kong to New York? No idea, as they never tell us (the remake poignantly shows us – in fact, Dwan’s soothing the creature during an anger fit in the massive hollow within the ship is among the film’s best).

What followed- the made-quickly “Son of Kong,” the fondly recalled (and unrelated) “Mighty Joe Young,” “King Kong Vs. Godzilla” (1963) and “King Kong Escapes” (1967). It wasn’t much better for the 1976 version, which was followed by the expensive camp classic “King Kong Lives” (1986), which sported a different cast (Brian Kerwin and Linda Hamilton were the leads and didn’t play the same roles as Bridges and Lange) but the same producer/director team.

It’s a seldom mentioned, camp classic riot (and hard to find, unfortunately).

The Scream Factory company has released a packed Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of the 1976 film, with numerous interviews and a good-looking transfer of both the original theatrical cut and the far longer, for-diehard-fans-only TV version, which runs a whopping 182-minutes.

Its not surprising that Bridges and Lange aren’t on hand to discuss this, but it’s a major bonus having the recent Egyptian Theater Q&A presented here: we see the cinematographer Richard H. Kline (whose work here was Oscar-nominated), Rick Baker, Jack O’ Halloran (who appeared in a supporting role, Martha De Laurentis and a collaborator of the late composer John Barry, all taking to the stage.

Initially, the conversation is stilted, until Baker dominates the proceedings with his vivid and often hilarious recollections and the whole event springs to life. It’s the best of the extra features, though there’s a lot here for longtime fans.

Now that Kong has found a resurgence in the form of Jackson’s affectionate, state of the art remake and the enjoyable new version in the Legendary Pictures franchise, it’s time to let the 1976 version stand on its own.

Aside from the recent “Kong: Skull Island” and “Godzilla Vs. Kong,” the character has rarely been presented in contemporary times, which is why Guillerman’s earnest film, with its jabs at corporate America and the exploitative harm of show business, isn’t just undervalued but offers more depth than expected.

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2 Comments

  1. Sorry, but this time I think you might just be wrong, Barry. I’m a fan of the big monkey, but there’s nothing good about the John Guillermin film you’re trying to defend. Kong: Skull Island? Let’s talk. Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong? Some good, some not so good. We can debate. But the 1976 King Kong with Lange? Naw, there’s really just nothing there.

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