In the midst of the unprecedented media frenzy leading up to the release of the 1976 remake of King Kong, producer Dino De Laurentiis (who was always more closely associated with the film than director John Guillermin) made several outrageous promises. He promised that unlike the original, Kong’s death in his version would make audiences cry. He promised he would be introducing a huge new star in the form of Jessica Lange. But most importantly—and garnering the most publicity—was his claim that instead of a stop-motion animated 18-inch doll (as was the case in 1933), Kong would be played by a 40-foot-tall robot gorilla designed by special effects whiz Carlo Rambaldi. Production stills of the robot were leaked to the press, and anticipation grew high.
Unfortunately, Rambaldi’s giant robot didn’t work very well. For close ups in which Kong had to pick up Jessica Lange, a separate enormous hydraulic arm was used, and for the rest of the film, the giant ape was portrayed by makeup artist Rick Baker in a gorilla suit (albeit a really good one) crunching through miniature sets and projected on a green screen. In the end the overhyped, and almost completely immobile, robot only appeared onscreen for a few seconds during the Shea Stadium sequence in which Kong escapes. Even those few brief moments left audiences laughing. It looked pretty bad. So much so that those scenes were cut from the home video release.
That wasn’t the only thing audiences laughed at, though. There was the overhyped Jessica Lange as well. Long before she would go on to gain our respect and win an Oscar, the model-turned-actress playing Dwan, the would-be model-turned-actress who enflames a giant gorilla’s oversized libido, was about as stiff and emotionless as that robot. The script, in which she was expected to shout lines like “Put me down you goddamn chauvinist pig ape!” didn’t help matters either.
Critics ripped into the film endlessly, in part for De Laurentiis’ failure to come close to living up to any of his own hype, and in part for his arrogance in thinking he could even begin to compete with an untouchable classic of American cinema. Very quickly, the film became a joke—a model for all flashy, bloated, big-budget Hollywood bombs to come.
That perception continues to this day, if people remember the film at all. History’s placed it in a tough spot, sandwiched between the mythical and still remarkable Merian C. Cooper/Willis O’Brien classic and an even bigger, sloppier train wreck from Peter Jackson. It’s easy to forget the version with the World Trade Center even existed, despite the fact that it dominated the media for nearly six months before it even opened.
Taking another look at this still-maligned film over three decades later, however, it seems that original vicious response on the part of audiences and critics alike was more in reaction to the publicity surrounding it and not the film itself. For all its flaws, it’s hardly the monster disaster it’s been made out to be. In fact, it’s pretty good.
Although screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr.’s script updates the plot to the mid-’70s, switches out the maverick film director for a sleazy oil company executive (deadpan comic actor Charles Grodin), makes the blonde, Dwan, a castaway in a life raft discovered by the crew of the oil company ship, adds a stowaway in the form of a young and handsome grad student with a camera (Jeff Bridges), moves the iconic Empire State Building confrontation to the WTC (which had been completed just three years earlier), and replaces the biplanes with attack helicopters, the scene-by-scene storyline remains remarkably close to the original, at least once the ship reaches Kong’s primitive island. A small exploratory team made up of all the principal characters discovers a village of natives who worship a mysterious and surprisingly large god they call “Kong.” The natives want to sacrifice Dwan, what with her being blonde and all, and when the oil company team refuses, she’s kidnapped from the ship and tied to an altar outside the village walls. Nearly an hour into the film, Kong finally crashes through the trees and makes his entrance.
Well, you know the story. All the trademark scenes are here (sometimes as shot-for-shot recreations of the original): the search party finding Kong, but sadly finding him while they’re crossing a deep chasm on a fallen tree; Kong defending his new blonde from assorted large creatures; Kong’s escape right in the middle of his premiere exhibition in NYC; Kong smashing an elevated subway train. The only thing missing from the original, it seems, is the final line, replaced here with the sound of Kong’s slowing heartbeat as he lay bloodied at the base of the twin towers with Dwan weeping quietly beside him. (Yes, it’s a bit much).
If the pacing is a little slow at times and some of the special effects are questionable—the giant snake Kong battles looks like a refugee from Kukla, Fran, and Ollie—other things more than balance it out. Guillermin (The Towering Inferno, The Blue Max) always told a good if occasionally long-winded story. The film has both (intentional) laughs and solid scares. Both Grodin and Bridges are quite good here, in spite of their embarrassment. Richard Klein’s cinematography is surprisingly beautiful for a big monster picture, and John Barry’s score is appropriately romantic and ominous.
Most important of all, although he’s just a guy in a gorilla suit, a Hollywood standard since the ‘30s, Rick Baker understands what Kong is all about. In the original, Willis O’Brien made that 18-inch doll seem more human than the real actors, and it’s hard to imagine a giant robot accomplishing the same level of subtlety here. Baker does though, giving his Kong an expressiveness that made him not only sympathetic, but certainly more human than Jessica Lange. Kong was, after all, supposed to be a mythical figure, which someone forgot while making the Peter Jackson version in which the big gorilla is merely a, well, a big gorilla.
There’s no touching the original masterpiece, of course. While that was a profound fairy tale, this first remake was merely an adventure yarn about a giant ape, but a good one, complete with cameos (look carefully) by Joe Piscopo, Billy Zoom, and Forry Ackermann. In spite of the flaws, the plot holes, some god-awful dialogue (“It’s a sign of insecurity, like when you knock down trees.”), those first audiences still cheered when Kong destroys a helicopter during the final confrontation, and were quiet as he slowly died on the shattered pavement below. So I guess in the end De Laurentiis ultimately fulfilled two of his three promises. That giant robot business was just a bad idea anyway, and one that killed the picture long before it came out.
Score: 3 out 5