King Kong (1976, John Guillermin)

KK1976

A cash-in sequel called Son of Kong followed within a year of the 1933 version of King Kong. The title character then appeared in two Japanese movies – King Kong vs Godzilla (1962) and King Kong Escapes (1967). However, this is a section-by-section review of the big-budget remake produced in 1976. Warning: there are spoilers ahead!

Surabaya, Indonesia: An oil company is funding an expedition to an obscure island, but as the ship takes on supplies a palaeontologist called Jack Prescott smuggles himself aboard…
* It’s clear straight away that this remake has decided on some significant changes. For a kick off, it’s contemporary so we’re in the mid-70s rather than the early 30s. We also start in Indonesia, so there’s no New York prologue. And the character who drives the story has been switched from a movie director to a greedy oil executive: Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin). One of his hangers-on is played by René Auberjonois, later the baddie in Police Academy 5 amongst other things.
* The heroic Jack, who’s the lead character in this version of the story, is played by a wild-haired Jeff Bridges.

On board the Petrox Explorer: The team travel to the island, which Wilson explains is uncharted and has never been seen. But a static fog bank and some satellite imagery mean land must be there…
* Prescott sneaks into a briefing and reveals himself with a blaze of information-heavy dialogue. (It reminds you of Quint in the town-meeting scene of Jaws… only not as good.) He suggests the fog bank might be hiding something dangerous, but Wilson just wants him locked up for trespassing.
* On his way to the temporary cell, however, Prescott spots a raft floating in the water. Its only occupant turns out to be an unconscious, beautiful, blonde woman in a flimsy cocktail dress. (Of all the rafts I’ve ever found in the middle of the ocean, not one of them has ever contained this.) The woman turns out to be Dwan (sic – she changed the spelling to be kooky), played by Jessica Lange. Before she wakes up, there’s a bit of comedy business as a crewman considers molesting her. There was a similar gag in Superman: The Movie. The 70s, eh?
* Once awake, Dwan gets over the drowning of all her friends very quickly and is soon flirting with Jack and others. Dwan is the equivalent of Ann Darrow from 1933, of course: both characters are actresses. Meryl Streep was in the running to play Dwan, but the producer didn’t think she was attractive enough. Well, the role could have done with her acting skills. Lange looks lost in the part and – with her confidence knocked by poor reviews – didn’t do another movie for three years. She also gets some tame nudity.
* The antagonism between Prescott and Wilson is kinda dropped around now, because it’s been proved that Jack is who he says he is. He’s given the job of expedition photographer, which means he can be in all the important scenes and play a role in the story.
* The movie is pretty drab around this section. There’s little life to anything, and some rambling line-readings don’t help. Some shots feel like they’re filmed a rehearsal.

Skull Island: Once past the thick fog that surrounds the island, a small team goes ashore. They find a tribe of natives performing a ceremony, then Dwan is kidnapped and given as an offering to a massive ape called Kong…
* There’s such little tension to the story at this point – a real contrast from the 1933 film. The characters are flimsy and dull, and the film’s whole tone is drab. Having said that, John Barry’s incidental music is working overtime to create some mood. It’s big and brassy in Barry’s classic James Bond style.
* Another thing this segment has going for it is the location work. Rather than the LA backlot and beaches of 1933, this King Kong has gone to lush, epic Hawaii. It’s well shot too, making good use of pretty lighting conditions. But the tick in the visual box quickly fades when we get our first matte shot of the island’s huge wall. It’s like something you’d see in a 1960s Star Trek episode.
* A couple of changes from the 1933 film here: oil is found, giving Wilson reason to stay, while the natives make their intentions for Dwan clear as soon as they spot her.
* After Dwan is kidnapped, we get our first sighting of Kong. It’s an actor in a gorilla costume. Now, the Kong in 1933 was demonstrably a stop-motion puppet and no more ‘real’ than someone being filmed on a scale set. But this is close to comical, especially given how Kong walks upright like a man. There’s actually a misjudged joke in the script when someone says, “Who the hell do you think [flattened the jungle]? A guy in an ape suit?” If it’s meant as a wink to the audience it doesn’t work. As well as a guy in an ape suit, a number of other techniques are used to represent the giant beast: a life-size model hand, an animatronic face and some ropey composite shots. But it’s a man in a costume when Kong brawls with an unconvincing giant snake.
* It’s also really noticeable that once Kong appears the film becomes very indoorsy. These are scenes set outdoors but shot on a sound stage, presumably because of the difficulties in filming Kong. There are painted backdrops and echoey footsteps. You wouldn’t say this is the movie’s best sequence, even if it does give Dwan a chance to show more fight than 1933’s Ann Darrow ever did.
* Meanwhile, as Prescott and others risk their lives to try to save Dwan, oilman Wilson relaxes on the beach and gets a massage. Subtle character stuff, there. When he finds out the island’s oil is worthless, Wilson decides to set a trap for Kong as a way of making the trip profitable. It’s very noticeable that the natives have all vanished from the story now.

On board the Petrox Explorer (again): A captured Kong is transported back to America…
* A massive change to the 1933 story here: we actually see the characters’ voyage home. Because the expedition is funded by an oil company rather than a film director, the ship is big enough for Kong to be kept in the cargo hold. Christ, the film’s getting boring now. This section is superfluous.

New York City: Wilson forces Kong to take part in an event to publicise his oil company, but the beast breaks free and goes on the rampage…
* The same basic events from 1933 happen again, but instead of a theatre show we get an open-air exhibition. The train stunt from the original film is restaged with a nice twist: Dwan is on the train. This whole sequence is lengthier than in 1933, though, and less exciting. Prescott and Dwan even have time to hole up in a hotel and flirt some more.
* Of course, one massive change from the original is that Kong no longer climbs up the Empire State Building. Instead it’s the South Tower of the then-new World Trade Center. (Presumably as a deliberate nod to 1933, Dwan mentions the Empire State Building earlier in the movie. It’s also seen briefly.)

Review: Shallow characters, poor performances, naff effects. At times the script feels like it wants to zip along like a Tom Mankiewicz-scripted Bond film, but it just falls flat. The movie feels even longer than its 134 minutes, in fact.

Five coast-to-coast tours out of 10

Next: The 2005 remake…

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