Saturday, July 11, 2015

There's A Monkey Wrench In This: King Kong (1976) Review

KING KONG (1976)

I don't care what anyone says, I think Jessica Lange doesn't have to be embarrassed by the remake of King Kong.  It isn't her fault that Dino De Laurentiis opted to remake a genuine classic.  It isn't her fault that we got a whole new story that isn't particularly good.  For what the remake of King Kong is, for all its sins (and Lange isn't among them), the film itself is more entertaining than I remember it, though nowhere in the same league as the original.

Oil conglomerate Petrox is in search of a major reserve.  They think there might be one on an island that has permanent fog cover.  Oil executive Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) pushes to explore the island, convinced that he will strike it rich on this unexplored island.  Stowaway Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), paleontologist, wants to go explore the island as well, convinced that legends about a massive primate might be true.  Reluctantly, Fred takes him on as the official photographer.  As they get close to the island, they receive a distress call.  The next day, they find a lifeboat floating with a beautiful woman barely alive.  We discover that Dwan (Lange) managed to survive a yacht sinking.  An aspiring actress, she soon charms both men: the married but greedy Fred, and the single and brilliant Jack.

She pushes to go the island, and there they encounter a native tribe that performs rites for Kong.  Wilson wants the oil, which means they should push the natives out.  The natives abduct Dwan for their rites, and she encounters Kong (the gigantic ape).  The rescue party goes to save her, but Wilson, who has learned that the oil on the island won't be ready for 10,000 years, cooks up a new scheme: to take Kong and make him the symbol for Petrox (a Beauty and the Beast-type thing).  Over Jack's loud objections, Kong is taken after Jack rescues Dwan.


Kong is brought to New York for a live broadcast, the first of many on a nationwide tour.  Dubbed "King Kong", Wilson attempts to recreate the scenario they encountered on the island.  Jack and Dwan, who have fallen in love during all this, find themselves on opposite ends.  She wants to be a star, and he says he'll have nothing to do with this.

As expected, the debut is a disaster: the rush of photographers at Dwan enrages Kong, who thinks she's being attacked.  Forcing his way out of the cage, he goes after Dwan and we get a rampage through New York City.  Dwan and Jack manage to give Kong the slip, but Kong does find her and takes her to the highest point in the city: the World Trade Center.

It's now where the ultimate confrontation between man and beast will take place.

My memories of King Kong were vague, having first seen it as a child.  Looking at it now, despite myself and its obvious flaws, I enjoyed the film much more than perhaps I should have.  First, let me address that pesky issue about Jessica Lange, which the film is proud to "Introduce".  As this is her debut I think people should cut her some slack.  She is doing her best with little to no training and with a script that doesn't ask much from her except express positive feelings toward a gigantic ape.

Ask Meryl Streep to try and make THAT believable.

Lorenzo Semple, Jr.'s dialogue for Lange is one of the most unintentionally hilarious moments of King Kong.  One wonders whether he meant to sound a bit risqué or just wasn't aware of his words' double meaning.  When Kong has Dwan in her clutches, she screams at him, "Go ahead and eat me!"  Maybe it's the teenager in me, but I can't help wondering whether the audience burst out laughing at this. 

As a side note, the massive door bolt closing in the native village comes as close to being a phallic symbol as one can get without being completely obvious.  Either that, or the filmmakers were completely unaware of how things looked.

I think Lange was put in a pretty impossible situation here and then blamed for it all.  She's being asked to show that she has fallen, if not in love with a massive gorilla, at least to see its tender side, and asked to constantly bang on his hands to release her.  Add to that the fact that this was her first film and Lange was given a thankless job and did what she could with it.  The perceived disaster of King Kong for Lange (and I argue it was perceived, because even a trained actress would have difficulty with this, though it wouldn't be impossible) nearly derailed her career before it began, but Lange's fortunes turned to where she ended up winning two Oscars and three Emmys, becoming a respected actress.

On the whole though, I think Lange did as good a job as she could at the time: acceptable, by no means great, but reasonable given both her experience and the circumstances.



Coming off worse is Grodin, or at least he ran the risk of it.  I was never sure whether Grodin meant to come off as cartoonish and camp as the "EVIL oil executive".  He is so gleefully over-the-top one wonders whether this was the plan all along.  I find it hard to believe that at some point director John Guillermin didn't see that Grodin was growling and inches from twirling his mustache.  Even at the end, when Kong stomps him to death, Grodin couldn't control himself in making everything so wildly camp as to come off as hilarious.

Another side note: having Kong revealed by hiding him in a giant Petrox gas pump to have it lifted up may not be phallic, but it is at the very least, camp, bizarre, and hilarious.

Bridges had nothing really to do other than be his hippie-drippy self.

Semple's script I think tried to be too clever with the material.  At one point, Jack berates Wilson.  "Who the hell do you think went through there: some guy in an ape suit?" he snaps.  Thing is, it WAS 'some guy in an ape suit, and painfully obvious it was a guy in an ape suit (its Best Visual Effects Special Oscar notwithstanding).  It was so obviously a guy in an ape suit that it made the Japanese Godzilla films nuanced in turn.

Why Guillermin didn't direct the ape-man to walk like an ape (instead of being completely erect like you and me) is one of King Kong's stranger points.

Finally, the whole 'evil oil company' plotline, which takes up a great deal of the movie, is tired and cliché.  It looks pretty topical at the time of the oil crisis, but now it looks dated, almost kitsch.  Whatever clever or topical ideas it could have had (like how the oil company would destroy a civilization) pretty much went by the wayside.

Despite that, I found myself entertained by King Kong.  One of King Kong's greatest strengths is John Barry's score, which is simply brilliant in evoking adventure and romance.  It's a score that is so above the material and I think one of Barry's best.

Yes, in so many ways King Kong 1976 goes wrong.  However, there is a great pleasure in watching it, like a flawed experiment that produces its own offbeat beauty.  Nowhere near the original, I found King Kong had its own curious charm, and despite all my senses and the push to think it dreadful, I found myself entertained by the whole sorry spectacle. 

I cannot tell a lie: King Kong may not be great filmmaking, but it is a great deal of fun no matter how you perceive it.        

DECISION: B-

2 comments:

  1. AMEN! Love this film and I don't care who knows it. (It was NEVER a flop like everyone thinks either. I think it was the #2 highest grossing film that year!)

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    1. In some respects, it has not aged well (the special effects look weak by today's standards). While the original will always be the best, I much prefer the 76 version to that slow, long, boring slog that was the 2005 version. At least this version was fun & entertaining (even if sometimes for the wrong reasons).

      Having seen it twice, I still enjoy it and think it's unfairly bashed.

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