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The Nostalgic Attic: King Kong (1976)

24 July 2014

King Kong (1976)

"There is a girl out there who might be running for her life from some gigantic turned-on ape."


Updating King Kong for a modern audience was never going to be an easy task, especially not in the 70's.  The original film was lodged in audiences memories for a multitude of reasons, but what endured was the heart and drama of the story, and the truly excellent special effects by stop motion pioneer, Willie O'Brien. Preserving, or indeed, improving upon the soul of the original wouldn't be the hardest task. No, the toughest part of this re-boot was going to fall on the special effects team; just how do you film a giant, "Neither beast nor man" creature in a way that would convince the more 'sophisticated' cinema fans of 1976. The challenge was going to lie in the fact that special effects hadn't really changed all that much in terms of technique since the original film in 1933; there were no computer assisted creations, and it was all going to have to be done 'in camera', meaning either stop motion or animatronics. Would the production team have the creativity and, let's be honest, madness to pull this off?


Believing that there is an island in the ocean hidden under a near permanent cloud bank, greedy executive of the Petrox Oil Company, Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin; Last Resort, Midnight Run, The Couch Trip) heads an expedition to it in the hopes that his infrared imagery is correct, and that it contains a massive, untapped oil field. Lurking on board the ship is the scruffy paleontologist stowaway, Jack Preston (Jeff Bridges; The Last Picture Show, Tron, Starman), hoping that the island contains some new, undiscovered wildlife for him to snap. When Jack is discovered, Fred orders him to be locked up, but en route they spot a lone raft floating in the sea. In it lies the unconscious but beautiful Dwan (Jessica Lange; All That Jazz, Tootsie). Pulling her from the water and letting her recover, Wilson soon realises that Jack is on the level about his claims to who he is, and allows him to stay on board, making him the official photographer of the expedition.

Soon Dwan is awake; it turns out she is an actress, and was on board a directors yacht when it exploded. It doesn't take long for her and Jack to start falling for each other, but soon they arrive at the island. The crew land and discover a primitive tribe of natives living behind a massive wall built near the edge of the island jungle. A wall built to keep them from their terrible god, known only as Kong. The natives don't take too kindly to the intruders; but they are very interested in Dwan. The crew find out the hard way that the oil is useless on the island, but that night, the tribe steal on board the ship and abduct Dwan, tying her up as a sacrifice for their god. Out of the jungle emerges something truly terrifying; a gigantic ape that swiftly grabs Dwan and heads back into the night. The rescue team aren't far behind, though, and make their way past the protective wall around the village. Despite his huge and terrifying appearance, Kong seems to have a heart - he is fascinated with Dwan, seemingly smitten with her. The rescue party soon arrive, most of whom end up dead at the bottom of a ravine after Kong smashes their walk way. 

Jack finally gets hold of Dwan, leading her back to the wall, Kong hot on their heels. Luckily, Fred has built a deep pit in which he plans on capturing Kong, and sure enough, the lumbering beast drops into the hole and is laid unconscious by chloroform. Wilson plans to recoup his expenses by displaying Kong around the world, and begins in New York some months later. You can never truly tame a wild beast, though, and soon Kong is loose in the Big Apple, trampling anyone who'll get in the way of his search for Dwan...


If you've seen the original 1933 film, you can probably tell that, despite a few changes to characters and reasons for getting to the island, it's pretty faithful to the source material. Kong still escapes from the exhibition in New York, and still climbs the skyscraper, fending off bullets with the leading lady in hand. There are enough changes and updates to keep you interested though. The characters are written and played quite likable; from the happy-go-lucky Jack to the ditsy Dwan - even the obvious villain in the guise of Oil tycoon Wilson is never as horrible as he could be, despite the best sneers that Charles Grodin brings to the role, and to be honest, I'm glad they went down this road. What we get instead of the obvious 'good versus evil' is something that feels a bit more like an old fashioned adventure. The running time breezes by and you are never left feeling forced along for the ride here; all the characters are big, colourful and entertaining - Kong included. And when watching an action/adventure/fantasy of this type, that's exactly what you want.

But there are some problems here and there. Firstly, the way Dwan is discovered on the raft just seems rather silly - and this is an issue that script writer Lorenzo Semple, Jr. addresses in his prefix to the original screenplay. He acknowledges that it doesn't seem likely, but argues that as the film is a fantasy, what does it matter? This problem then extends into the character of Dwan itself, originally written to be an intellectual camera operator, she was then changed to the new age, trippy dippy character we now have in the finished film, much against producer Dino De Laurentiis' wishes. There were quite a few back-and-forth's with the script during pre-production, and in this part, I think it shows. Many reviewers of the film tend to single Jessica Lange out, with accusations of a 'terrible performance' usually levelled against her. In fact, I think she did a fantastic job here, as we know Lange really isn't as unintelligent in real life as she portrayed Dwan. Blame the script, not the actress. Her character just seems so dumb though, and it's hard to figure Jack falling for her in anything but a purely sexual fashion (which is usually the giant ape's job). But hey, it's an adventure film, so we won't nail it to the cross for these issues.


The other bone of contention for many reviewers is the special effects. As mentioned earlier, technology had only advanced so far in the 40 years between the original and remake, and the decision was made to build a giant, 40 foot animatronic Kong, which would be used for the majority of the shoot. This was to be created by special effects legend, Carlo Rambaldi, who worked on films such as Alien and E.T. A Kong suit was also prepared by soon-to-be-huge effects man, Rick Baker; this suit was designed to fit Baker himself, and would only be used in specific shots. Sadly, things didn't pan out this way. The giant animatronic just wouldn't work; the scale would have been just too big for what they wanted in those days, and it became an endless money pit that ends up getting less than 60 seconds worth of screen time. Those few shots we see it in are stiff, lifeless. So in stepped Baker and the suit, which ended up being used in majority of shots in the film. In fairness, Rambaldi and Baker both worked on it, so they really do deserve the credit. By using an actor instead of either animatronics or stop motion, they managed to bring a certain life to Kong, both in expression and movement. Sure, it's a guy in a suit, but I think the facial expression more than makes up for it. The giant animatronic hands that are frequently used are surprisingly emotive, and these shots match up perfectly with Baker's performance. The miniature sets look excellent, too, especially in the latter scenes. And even though the use of scale models and blue screen was still in effect, the techniques had become much more sophisticated, allowing for great immersion for the audience.

While the effects are plentiful and usually spectacular, I can't help but feel we got a bit of a raw deal in terms of what could have been. Allegedly, due to the spiralling cost of the animatronic full Kong, they had to cut out the budget for other creatures that were going to inhabit the island, to echo the original film and the prehistoric beasts that battle it out there. It's a pity, as all we get is Kong wrestling with a giant snake, which is never as exciting as it could have been. Despite its 20 million dollar budget, it really was a troubled production. Nevertheless, director John Guillermin does a nice job with it, and the film feels 'BIG'. John Barry's excellent score helps greatly, bringing a touch of class to the whole picture. The performances are fine throughout, with Bridges charming his way through the film and seemingly enjoying every minute of it. Lange, as I said, is solid, even if the script lets her down. It's testament to how great and under-appreciated she is as an actress, but even when given little but a skimpy pair of cut-off shorts and no bra under her wet shirt, she still manages to shine. Grodin is great, as always. Fans of Rene Auberjonois will be happy to see his face popping up here, too!


The film met with seriously mixed reviews, and still holds a 50/50 split with fans of this sort of thing, but despite this, the movie made a ton of cash, both at the box office and in TV sales. Myself? I loved it as a kid, then when watching it again in my late teens found I the film held little for me. I hated Lange and the monster suit. But watching it now, I can understand it a bit more and appreciate it for the rough fun that it is. In the end, we still get a solid Kong film, here. It's entertaining, it has the emotions we want and expect from the climax, and I don't feel it tries too hard to achieve this. The ending is definitely brutal, with the helicopters really tearing poor old Kong to shreds, ensuring not a dry eye in the house by the time he plummets to the concrete below. But worry not kids! Because didn't you know?! King Kong Lives! Well, according to Dino De Laurentiis, anyway. Tune in next time to see just how they revived him nearly a decade later, in a much less loved film than this...


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7 Comments:

At 24 July 2014 at 20:16 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

Whoops! Cpmmenting the previous post I hit a lot of the same points you did here! It is a great cast - I'll shout out for Julius Harris and a cameo from John Agar - who ran with his few moments of screen time after the film came out by opening "John Agar's World of Kong" to cash in - I'll let those interested parties research that one for the sad story. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences somehow saw fit to award Carlo Rambaldi a special Oscar for his effects here - not mentioning one word about Rick Baker's sizeable contributions - which prompted stop motion animator Jim Danforth to resign from the Academy in protest.

I'm very happy to hear King Kong Lives - meet you there tomorrow!

 
At 25 July 2014 at 01:19 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

No probs at all, it's hard not to discuss all of those points you made on the previous post whenever this film comes up - but the fact that we care enough about it is important. I feel the cast did absolutely fine, here, and any blame lies with the writer, director and producer for any inconsistencies. The support cast is excellent - I wasn't aware of John agar's World of Kong, but you got me interested! - and I know I always seem to omit someone important, but I felt this piece was long enough without getting further into it. And hey, I love hearing your perspective on things like this, so why cover absolutely everything?

It's a strange one on Rambaldi getting a special oscar - but as I said, he was apparently responsible for the animatronics in the suit that Baker wore - so he did deserve something, but it definitely should have been a joint award at least. My issue actually goes back to the film, where a special title card is pretty much dedicated to Rambaldi (his name is mentioned 3 times on the one screen) while Baker gets a fleeting mention in the last line. I feel that this has always been an issue with special effects and recognition - so rare are 'one man' effects crews in the way Dick Smith worked on The Exorcist, or Savini and the slashers (he mainly did them on his own, but by the time he was doing Day of the Dead, he had some of the best talent in a rising industry under him), generally it's teams of amazingly creative people working hard to create this stuff. I'm not sure what happened with Rambaldi, but after E.T. he seemed to take a back seat as the likes of Baker, Winston and Bottin took over the industry.

The animatronic... oh boy. I took some screenshots of it, but to truly understand how bad it is, you need to see it in motion. Sadly, we get literally seconds of it, and it really does look awkward. apparently Baker was never happy with the suit, either, and attributes its success to the cinematographer for making it look so good.

 
At 25 July 2014 at 04:21 , Blogger Wes M said...

John, excellent post, I watched the movie last night and all your points are well taken ! For me the acid test for this film is whether it still excites the 10 year old in me and the answer is yes! I should be right up front and say I love Jessica Lange in the film, she’s so sweet and sexy (that cut-away t-shirt and jeans!), I fall in love with her every time I see the film – there’s only one moment that grates on me and that’s when she pleads with Jeff Bridges to buy her a drink while Kong is tearing up the city around her ! I feel like Semple Jr tips the bimbo angle just a shade too far for my liking just to provide a way for her to be reunited with Kong (I think this screenplay convenience is worse than Dwan’s discovery in the lifeboat). I don’t understand why Lange’s performance was greeted with distain by the critics - she’s clearly playing a certain type – I don’t remember Patricia Arquette getting the same rough treatment for her turn in True Romance

As for the big one, I’m quite pleased with Kong, I think once you get acclimatized to Rick Baker’s ape suit, the character comes to life and as you say the key to the illusion is Kong’s facial expressions which are great – the look of weariness on his face in the ship’s hold is a heart-breaking moment and I must admit when Kong finally runs out of road on top of the WTC I sat there with watery-eyes. Elsewhere that are a few clumsy looking opticals and process shots where the joins are plainly visible but such were the limitations of the time. More damaging are the shots of the colossal robot Kong which are dreadful, thankfully the worst offenders only get a fleeting amount of screentime…

Personally the star of the show for me is director John Guillermin, a fine Hollywood technician in anyone’s book, and although received wisdom points to Towering Inferno as his masterpiece, for me it’s this film - like you say Guillermin gives the film that feeling of bigness, with those great low-angle shots that lend the film an almost epic sensibility – I’m thinking of that incredible shot of the natives milling around that huge defence-wall. I think the film has, what we would now call, a Spielbergian touch - the Skull Island scenes frequently reminded me of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the Jurassic Park films in terms of composition and the use of space…

I like the cast as well, and the film is very comfortably fitted out with some fine character actors like John Randolph, Rene Auberjonois, Ed Lauter, and the great Julius Harris, who I watched just recently in Larry Cohen’s Hell Up in Harlem. Totally agree with you about Charles Grodin’s John D. Rockefeller turned P.T. Barnum – he could have been a moustache-twirling villain but instead is a businessman who seizes opportunities when they come along. And I wonder was Jeff Bridges character intended as a sort of handsome leading man re-write of Richard Dreyfuss’ shark expert from Jaws ? It’s funny, watching the film last night I noticed a nice bit of art-reflecting-life in relation to the two leads – Dwan’s whole star-is-born thing anticipates Jessica Lange’s blossoming career (and lest the critics forget, she has two Academy awards to her name), and there’s Jack Preston, elected as the official expedition photographer, reflecting Jeff Bridges' emerging career as a photographer of some renown. I thought that was kind of neat !

Last word: I made mention of it earlier, but in the wake of 9/11 the film became something of a persona non grata because of the extensive shots of the World Trade Center buildings in the third act, if I remember rightly a US TV station cancelled a screening scheduled in and around the time of the attacks and for a while there was a feeling that the film might be phased out much like Song of the South. But thankfully it never happened…

 
At 25 July 2014 at 04:51 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Absolutely Wes - as the film stands, it's an excellent adventure, and one that kids could possibly still enjoy. It's much brisker and less muddled than Peter Jackson's version, too, and despite the advancements in technology his edition does little to make you feel that Kong is any more real than a man in a suit. Agreed on some of the moments towards the climax regarding Dwan - as I said, I really don't get why they pushed her that far into the ditzy territory.. Saying that though, if I was going to be on a tropical island, I'd much rather be there with Dwan than the original idea for the leading lady... In my head she doesn't have the same appeal in the cut off jeans and wet t-shirt...

Those scenes with the Kong suit really are excellent, it's all done through the humanity conveyed through using a real actor's eyes under the mask... something that could never have been achieved with the way Rambaldi intended it to work. I could nearly do an entire post just on how dreadful the Robo-Kong looks, and no doubt there is plenty more info on it out there. I guess it was the age in which JAWS was scaring up mega bucks in theatres still, and the whole idea of selling the audience on the drama was more important in the first two acts so to help convince in the final monster-laden act. Unfortunately for King Kong, the monster is always front and centre in the picture, there are no waves to hid it under, no fleeting glimpes to terrify the crowds. This probably leads in to what you were saying on that 'Spielbergian' element to the film; it definitely preempts that Star Wars-style blockbuster approach, not only in looks but in the pacing, characterisation and 'huge' feel to it. It belongs much more in the same class as Jurrasic Park than it does say, in the class of 70's disaster films like Inferno. Dino De Laurentiis spotting the curve in advance? No surprises really...

Interesting points on the cast, there, I had no idea Bridges was making a name for himself as a photographer - I just hope he does it better than the sleazy, Penthouse-style moment on the beach with Dwan frollicking in the water! Regarding his character in the film, it seems it came out of the re-write from when initially he was supposed to be a bumbling Italian, and the leading love interest male was supposed to be a working class ship mechanic. I'd say it's quite possible that JAWS played a big part in shaping this film in the final run up to shooting, they'd have been crazy not to look at it and study it before shooting!

I had no idea that this film became a sensitive issue after 9/11. It would be a shame for people o forget the great art that celebrated that skyline. Horrible to think the mad men and their actions can win that way, really...

 
At 25 July 2014 at 05:31 , Blogger Wes M said...

Here's the thing John, I don't love the original all that much, the special effects creak a little too loudly for me. The film has been celebrated at some point by every film publication past and present, it was even chosen as the swansong of the legendary Scala Cinema in London when it was forced to close in the fallout from an ilicit screening of A Clockwork Orange in 1993... But I can safely say I've seen Dracula, Frankenstein, White Zombie more times than King Kong...

 
At 25 July 2014 at 11:17 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

No probs Wes, I can appreciate that point of view, but for me, the original is still one of the finest moments of that elusive 'cinema magic' - a term that gets thrown about for many films, but few really deserve the title. I think for me it really just captures the hopes and ambitions of what cinema could be - it came out in 1933, which is fairly short into the life of cinema itself - and it reaches far beyond its B movie staples and into movie history itself. Sure the effects were/are creaky, but it has inspired so much in terms of what followed, not just in the genre, but film makers who grew up watching it, glued to the screen at the sheer spectacle of it all. The fact that they dared to make a film like that in the early stages of cinema is just pure brilliance to me, and it's the kind of film I'd turn to when I feel truly burned out by modern films sometimes...I absolutely love all of those films you mentioned above, but for me, King Kong has just about everything you could ever want in a film.

 
At 1 September 2014 at 11:09 , Blogger George White said...

De laurentiis felt it disappointed, as he wanted to be bigger than Jaws, but at that time, Jaws was the highest grossing film ever made...

 

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