Going Ape: Revisiting King Kong (1976)

Kong enters the modern age in John Guillermin 70s blockbuster. Is it as bad as they say? Oscar treks to Skull Island once again to find out. 

Transitioning into the 70s, we leave behind the age of stop-motion apes and dinosaurs and enter the age of men in ape suits. Back before remakes of classic films became routine business, the prospect of topping King Kong must have been very tempting. For producer Dino De Laurentis and Paramount Pictures, it was all about topping Steven Spielberg’s smash hit Jaws with one of the greatest classic monsters of them all. The result is frankly one of the most poorly put together, disposable and hubristic blockbusters of the 20th century.

Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), an executive of the Petrox Oil Company, forms an expedition to a previously undiscovered Indian Ocean island hidden by a permanent cloud bank, hoping to uncover a huge deposit of oil. Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), a paleontologist who wants to see the island for himself, stows away on the expedition’s vessel. Prescott warns the crew that the cloud bank may be caused by an unknown beast. Wilson orders Prescott locked up, claiming that he is really a spy from a rival oil company. While escorted to lock-up, Prescott spots a life raft which carries the beautiful and unconscious Dwan (Jessica Lange), an aspiring actress who escaped her director’s yacht after it inexplicably exploded. After determining that Prescott was telling the truth, Wilson appoints Prescott the expedition’s official photographer.

Upon arriving at the island, the team discovers a primitive tribe of natives preparing to sacrifice a girl to Kong, a mysterious creature beyond a giant wooden wall. The Natives see them and demand Dwan be offered in sacrifice to Kong for disturbing their rituals. Later that night, the natives kidnap Dwan and offer her to Kong, revealed to be a giant gorilla, who then takes Dwan to his jungle lair. Prescott leads a band of volunteers to rescue Dwan, who is starting to fall for the giant ape’s charms. After learning that the oil on the island is unusable, Wilson has other plans for Kong as a mascot for his oil empire.

The acting mostly ranges from wooden as a plank to grossly hammy. Bridges is the one actor who comes out of the film with his dignity intact; he has little to work with but he manages to give a standard early Bridges performance. Grodin is over-the-top and smarmy as oil tycoon Wilson, and because he lacks Denham’s sense of humour or adventurous spirit, he comes across as too unpleasant to keep onscreen for long. Lange debuted in this film as Dwan, and frankly, it’s a very weak performance. She’s less a character and more a blonde stereotype with a childish streak. Considering the quiet courage and resilience of Ann Darrow, I found her naive and giggly personality exasperating. The chemistry between Bridges and Lange is flat; they are trying but the bad dialogue does them no favours. Most of the supporting cast, barring a few officers, are mostly forgettable and one-dimensional.

Despite being the most prominently featured characters, Dwan, Prescott and Wilson are so under-written that it feels like nothing is accomplished with them. The pacing lacks momentum and energy; conversations between characters are awkward and stilted, dragging each scene out. Despite the film beginning with the ship leaving dock, and all of the characters being introduced there, it moves along at a snail’s pace considering how little story is told and characterisation is given. Yes, even compared to the Peter Jackson film!

To give John Guillermin some credit, the direction has more of a technical polish than most monster movies of the era, but his workmanlike style lacks atmosphere on Skull Island, while the New York scenes fare a bit better. The build-up to Skull Island is relatively believable for a film set in the 70s, since lost worlds are hard to come by in modern times. The cinematography boasts some strong visual appeal and a varied colour palette. In contrast to the Jackson movie, there are a lot of real life location shots set in Hawaii, as well as sets recreating the streets of 70s New York. The matte paintings for the ancient wall and a few of the Skull Island scenes are designed to a high standard, though many are underwhelming. The Natives’ Wall, while highly impractical as an ancient structure or as a defence against giant apes, is very stylish and cool-looking.

The score by John Barry is the single strongest redeeming feature; though sparsely used, it builds up mystery and tension, setting its own identity apart from Max Steiner’s epic score. The opening theme with its ominous trumpets and tense strings is fitting for the character, though the inclusion of a pipe organ is… bizarre. The love theme is also a nice, soothing piece, despite its application in the many questionable Kong/Dwan scenes.

Potentially suspenseful set-pieces lack the atmosphere and tension they should be conveying. Intentional scares become unintentionally hilarious, such as the kidnapping of Dwan by the natives, or the reveal of Kong himself. Even when she’s their hostage, she just lounges around looking sexy and doesn’t try to escape or look in the least bit worried. Normally, I approve of a slow build-up towards the reveal of the monster of the movie, but it’s so clumsily handled that there really is no sense of excitement or fear. It doesn’t matter if the film’s monster is seen within an hour or within twenty minutes if you can’t make me care for anyone in your movie. There is no sense of adventure or wonder; the scenes of the crew exploring the island are dry for tension or any adventure thrills, and lack even basic jungle atmosphere. Frankly, a King Kong movie without any bizarre prehistoric creatures to fight (a giant snake does not count) is like a Godzilla movie after the 1954 original without kaiju to fight, and instead, having to face up against the US Military only to constantly run away and… oh wait, never mind.

Let’s talk about the special effects. Yes, I acknowledge that Kong in this film does look a lot better than the versions created for the Japanese Godzilla series, and future make-up maestro Rick Baker (as the man in the ape suit) was only just starting to refine his craft as a master of simian special effects. Those considerations are duly noted. But honestly, it doesn’t matter; the suit for Kong is a mess. The animatronic Kong face, created by Carlo Rambaldi, lacks the animated expressions of past and future Kongs. It can even get uncomfortably leery at times. Sometimes, there’s a neat effect like the detail they put into Kong’s mechanical hand. And admittedly, the best effects scene is when Kong smashes down the wooden gate and the sense of scale and power is well-realised. But on the whole, there is very little sense of scale or presence whenever this version of Kong is onscreen. When he walks around on two legs, he never feels like an ape or a unique creature, but rather a man in a suit. But the worst is the horrendously fake-looking life-sized Kong robot that was only used for a few short edits when Kong breaks out of his cage. The marketing implied that a life-sized Kong robot would portray Kong as opposed to an animated figure. They were lying, since Baker in a rudimentary ape costume is the real feature.

Then there’s the relationship between Dwan and Kong: I don’t buy it. Because it goes through the motions of a typical Beauty and the Beast romance without really giving a damn about its story, it comes off as creepy. When Kong smiles at Dwan it’s just weird, especially considering how dissimilar Kong is from real apes. And please, don’t get me started on the scene when he blows air in Dwan’s face. Even after being captured and ogled by Kong for god knows how long, Dwan decides she loves Kong at the very end and pleads the helicopters not to shoot him. Forget Belle or Ann Darrow, Dwan is the one with Stockholm Syndrome! The amount of sexual overtones regarding their relationship is done in very poor taste, especially when Wilson and Jack describe Kong as “horny” or that he wants to “rape” Dwan. It doesn’t help that Kong acts like a giant pervert in this film either; him smelling Dwan’s scarf after the wind blows it out of her grasp? Not cool.

The film’s homages to the 1933 classic mostly fall flat; the sacrifice of Dwan to Kong is both similar and different to work in of itself, even if the reason for the natives taking Dwan makes even less sense. The log attack scene pales in comparison, and Kong fights a giant snake instead of a T. Rex. The fight itself is very badly shot and edited, with the snake appearing and spontaneously wrapping Kong in its coils. Because we don’t get any other encounters with large reptiles or dinosaurs, this fight comes off as contrived as hell. This remake is also famous for depicting Kong climbing the World Trade Centre instead of the Empire State Building, but instead of being awe-inspiring, it’s really quite uncomfortable to contemporary audiences. But that’s more a matter of hindsight than bad filmmaking.

As far as characters go, everything about Dwan’s character and presence in the film rubs me the wrong way. Her introduction is laughable and contrived, thanks to the set-up towards a spontaneously exploded ship. It’s implied her real name is “Dawn” and she switched the “a” and the “w” around to create “Dwan.” Also, her name forms the first and last initials of Ann Darrow. I cannot fathom how the writers thought this was being clever! She is characterised in broad strokes: the ditzy, shallow blonde trading on her socially-constructed attractiveness in search of fame and wealth, but without an arc or character nuance to balance that out. Even when Kong is about to be revealed to a gawking crowd, she’s too starstruck to motivate herself to either help Kong or get away, and Jack is the one to motivate her. Classy.

The 1976 film is largely influenced by its time; gas prices climbed, environmentalists cropped up everywhere, and blonde actresses were floating adrift at sea. Instead of setting Kong up as an icon of the uncharted wilderness, here he’s turned into a corporate mascot in a supposed critique of these issues. However, these updates and changes are contrived and don’t gel with the story. Without any of the build-up to Kong’s revelation and the change of the setting and motivations to be more selfish, the characters come off as shallow and unlikable, the story even more nonsensical, and the Beauty and the Beast angle despicable. We should feel sorry for Kong, but we shouldn’t want him to mate with the girl!

While his version was overlong, Peter Jackson is a huge fan of the original classic and it showed in his direction and reverence for the material. The ’76 remake simply doesn’t have the same level of heart and passion. If they really wanted to make a film that honoured the spirit of the original, then their hearts really weren’t in  it. Now that we have another Kong movie set in the 70s, and a whole new context, this is about to get interesting.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Universal had originally planned to make a more faithful remake of King Kong (1933) to be entitled “The Legend of King Kong”, which was going to be a period piece set in the 1930s. However, they backed out when this modern remake was announced. It would also have been released in Sensurround.
  • In a 2008 interview with David Letterman, Meryl Streep revealed that she auditioned for the role of Dwan but was turned down by Dino De Laurentiis as being “ugly.” He said this in Italian, not knowing that Streep understood the language.
  • Hammer had also intended to remake the movie a few years earlier, but it was scrapped after a few test reels were shot. However, some of the Hammer footage was used in a Volkswagen commercial.
  • Kong’s vocal sounds were recorded by an uncredited Peter Cullen, straining his throat so badly that he coughed up blood in the recording studio.
  • Employees of the Empire State Building expressed their displeasure at the producers’ decision to stage the remake’s climax at the World Trade Center by picketing the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building dressed in monkey suits.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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