Almost three decades before Peter Jackson re-imagined 1933’s King Kong for a new generation of filmgoers, Italian B-movie producer Dino De Laurentiis had the same idea. Naturally, though, due to the filmmaking technology of the period, 1976’s King Kong looks subpar compared to Peter Jackson’s technological marvel, and it’s also unable to achieve the level of adventure and spectacle which characterised the classic that started it all. In addition, several drastic changes were made for this King Kong which may irk fans – characters names are absent, the ship voyage happens without any build-up, the eventual New York sequences are tragically short, and the finale does not occur atop the Empire State Building. Nonetheless, while the movie is easy to mock and laugh at, it’s difficult to genuinely dislike. If viewed from a critical perspective, this is a bad movie. However, the campy, tongue-in-cheek approach is constantly fore-grounded, and King Kong is a lot of fun as a result.
In this version, Kong (“played” by Rick Baker) resides on a mysterious island shrouded in fog. The Denham character here is Fred Wilson (Grodin); a pompous oil executive who travels to Kong’s island in search of petroleum deposits to tap (bear in mind that the movie was produced during the mid-’70s oil crisis). Jack Driscoll was replaced here with a long-haired anthropologist named Jack Prescott (Bridges), who stows away on Wilson’s ship. Completing the Kong trinity is Dwan (Lange), who fell off a destroyed yacht and subsequently floated around the ocean in a rubber dingy until the ship happened upon her. The crew eventually arrive at Kong’s island, where the natives kidnap Dwan and offer her as a sacrifice to the giant ape. Kong instantly takes a liking for Dwan and begins travelling home with his bride while Jack ventures across the island to save her.
Nothing can prepare you for the unmitigated disappointed of Kong’s island (which is never even referred to as Skull Island). Apart from Kong, the only other monster to see here is a giant snake which was pulled off with abysmal special effects. Kong wrestles said snake, but the sequence is absurdly unconvincing. The set-pieces in the 1933 King Kong were more exciting. Furthermore, nothing really happens on the island – Dwan just seems to spend a lot of time in Kong’s hand while Jack does a lot of trekking. Disappointment is also imminent when the film shifts to New York. Just as the pacing begins to pick up, Dwan stupidly and incomprehensibly decides to persuade Jack to stop so they can drink some alcohol. Increasing the implausibility of this situation, Kong manages to find her in this random bar despite it being one of the thousands of places in New York City. This leads to the eventual finale that’s set atop the World Trade Center. This climax has neither the majesty nor the emotional kick of the other incarnations of King Kong.
With The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure topping the box office, the ’70s was the decade for disaster movies, and King Kong was produced with this mindset. The film merely boils down to a big guy in a gorilla suit destroying miniature sets. Surprisingly, the first hour or so of the movie is genuinely good, with director Guillermin having generated an atmosphere of mystique and with composer John Barry having provided one of his most effective scores. Yet, this effectiveness dissipates once Kong is introduced. After Kong enters the picture, an awkward love story begins developing which feels forced and unearned. Furthermore, this version lacks the original film’s magic. The same level of craftsmanship is not apparent here, too – rather than stop-motion animation, Kong is just a man in a monkey suit, and it’s blatantly obvious. Interestingly, the special effects are wildly uneven; ranging from decent to downright awful. Most appalling is the life-size mechanical representation of Kong which is on-screen for all of 10 seconds and looks as stiff and ridiculous as any failed special effect can. The FX may have won an Academy Award, but they are not impressive. Academy members even resigned in protest of the decision.
To the credit of screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., the script contains a number of witty, hilarious lines – more than one would expect from this type of movie. (As a good example of this, Grodin at one stage exclaims that Kong was going to rape Dwan…) The performers, meanwhile, happily hammed it up and clearly had great fun with their respective roles. As the hippie anthropologist hero, Jeff Bridges is incredibly goofy, and he managed to maintain a sense of humour from beginning to end. Also in tune with this adamantly campy approach is Charles Grodin as the requisite bastard and villain, so to speak. Grodin chewed the scenery with glee, and it’s a fun performance to watch. Jessica Lange (a little-known actress when she appeared here) is effectively flighty and ditzy as Dwan, though the material is heavily flawed (she gets over the deaths of many individualsreally fast, for instance). Kudos to Lange for executing this badly-written character while maintaining a straight face.
Perhaps the most fatal flaw of King Kong is that – despite containing dumb fun elements to keep us laughing from time to time – the film far outstays its welcome with a 130-minute runtime. It may be filled with a lot of screaming, yelling and crashing, yet the pacing is at times interminably slow, and the film is occasionally boring. Still, at least King Kong is not offensive in the way that most remakes are, even if it isn’t close to matching the brilliance of the other versions of the story. Yet it’s perhaps a tad unfair to compare the three King Kong movies since they were all made in different periods with different filmmaking technology and with different aims in mind. Still, the 1933 and the 2005 versions are masterpieces, and this 1976 version is simply lacking in terms of majesty, spectacle and emotion. It’s almost as if the trio represent a sandwich, with the bread (i.e. the 1933 and 2005 versions) being more appetising than the filling in the middle (i.e. the 1976 version). You can only watch this King Kong for what it is: a campy 1970s disaster movie.