I’ve seen all but one King Kong remake, not counting the recent Kong: Skull Island which isn’t a remake of the original movie. The only one I’m missing now is The Mighty Kong, an animated musical with Dudley Moore and Jodi Benson. No, seriously, it exists. I hope to see that because it can’t be as bad as the 1976 movie, which I just finally watched today.
Like Seduction Of The Innocent this is something I’ve seen brought up a lot and something I’ve referenced solely on what others have said. And I’ve seen most of the King Kong movies, although I haven’t seen some of them in years and may have only seen once as a kid. They don’t fall under Finally Watched, but the 1976 King Kong is one I’ve always wanted to see because I wondered if it was as bad as I’ve heard. Is it bad? Yes, it may be the worst of the two remakes I’ve seen, and not just because I really like the original. Even my dad said it was bad. Was it as bad as I thought it would be? Thankfully no, but man does this movie need work.
RELEASE DATE: 1976
RELEASED BY: Paramount Pictures
(also according to IMDB Kong’s vocal performer was Peter “Optimus Prime” Cullen)
SCREENPLAY: Lorenzo Simple, Jr.
DIRECTOR: John Guillermin
GROSS REVENUE: $52,614,445 in the US
IMDB SCORE: 5.8 out of 10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 49%
The 1930s original will always be the definitive King Kong for me, but I wanted to give this one an honest chance just like I did the Peter Jackson remake. Set in modern day 1976, Carl Denham has been replaced by Fred Wilson, an oil executive who is convinced that a mysterious island eternally covered with fog may have a huge oil deposit. Sneaking on board is primate expert Jack Prescott, changing the character’s last name (Driscoll) and job because Jack can’t seem to keep the same job in the retellings. In the original he is the first mate, and in Jackson’s movie he is a playright. Somebody tell me why Jack can’t seem to keep the same job? He couldn’t even keep the same last name here! I know, this is the synopsis section and not the review section but this is something that bothers me. The only other time I’ve seen Jack be Jack is the Fantagraphics comic adaptation based on the novelization from 1933. I don’t understand it.
Back to the plot. The ship comes across the only survivor of a ship sinking, a woman named Dwan. It’s her stage name, mixing up the word Dawn to stand out. She’s an actress, or wants to be. Now she’s stuck on this ship and ends up spending a lot of time with Jack, with no concerns from the crew of having her aboard and only one lech moment. I’ll give the film credit for that. Arriving at the island they learn it’s populated by natives, who decide Dwan would make a great sacrifice for their god and really do you have to have seen any version of this movie by now to know what happens next?
Let me say some good things just to get them out of the way so we can focus on why this is a bad movie. The make up and other effects for Kong are rather good for 1970s levels. (The snake however is laughably bad by comparison.) There are a few times the suit actor forgets to not walk like a man, but for the most part he does a good job. From what I’ve heard of Lang’s desire to not have her character scream a lot like Ann Darrow, the character Dwan replaces, but I was expecting a lot of snarky one-liners and “girl power” stuff, and was pleasantly surprised to see she does act like she’s been captured by a giant gorilla. Most of the acting and miniatures are pretty good.
And that’s where the good parts end. Let’s start with Ms. Lang. This is her first role, and frankly I’ve seen worse acting for a first time role. The problem is with Dwan herself. She doesn’t really grow. She just stops talking about horoscopes and rambling and pretty much being an airhead. She comes along on the trip to the island because she wants to play on the beach. And that’s kind of the problem. Dwan feels like she was added in after the fact, there just because we need an Ann Darrow. That made sense when we had filmmaker Carl Denham in need of an actress, but Dwan feels unnecessary until it’s ape time. Why not make her part of the survey team or some kind of representative, or even Fred’s assistant? Then it would make sense that she’s here. It would have worked better than keeping her an actress and creating a series of conveniences to get her to the ship. I was almost with this movie until the scene where she wakes up and starts talking. She got flung off of her yacht because the alleged filmmaker that was hiring her wanted to watch porn. Then it exploded and the captain magically guesses from her “swim toward a star” comment that a flare lit up a fallen life raft.
My second problem with the movie is the sledgehammer foreshadowing. Dwan’s horoscope mentions meeting someone big after a sea voyage. When Jack sees the World Trade Center it takes him a while to realize that it matched Kong’s plateau from the angle he saw both. (They use the World Trade Center instead of the Empire State Building, and when the helicopter crashes into the building you get a bit uncomfortable.) I think there’s one subtle bit of foreshadowing but I don’t remember what it was.
Then you have the ending. Actually, before you get to the ending you have the big reveal of Kong to the world, starting with a re-enactment of Dwan’s being tied up, which Jackson also used but it felt less tacky there. Wilson is really no Denham. In the other movies this is on a stage, tied to a wall. Here they went to the trouble of a large gas pump-shaped tarp and a large crown on Kong’s head! It just looks stupid, to think that Petrox (the fictional oil company) would spend that much on a giant crown. Wilson thinks the cage is escape proof when he’s already seen the monster smash down the gate to the wall and nearly sink the ship. You can’t be that stupid. And who let the press run up the stairs to rush Dwan with questions DURING the presentation? This sets Kong off because he thinks she’s being attacked (and let’s be honest, he isn’t far off) and set up the chase through the city. Outside of why they were allowed up there I will admit that it works better than the flashing lights if that’s what they’re going for.
And now “beauty killed the beast line” here because Wilson gets stepped on by Kong; karma I supposed but it feels weak compared to Denham realizing he was wrong, and his actions to redeem himself in Son Of Kong. Meanwhile, this movie decides to split Jack and Dwan up, not giving them a happy ending. Jack isn’t sure he’s right for her, and then in the crowd around Kong’s body he’s blocked from reaching her and eventually stops trying, leaving her alone to be surrounded by reporters. I really hated that. I like happy endings and I don’t care what some of you out there think about it. If you like the less happy or sad endings, that’s fine. It’s not what I go to fiction for.
Also this movie, like the Jackson movie later, really wants me to feel sorry for Kong. I’m sorry, but I can’t. I feel sorry for the citizens of New York and Kong shouldn’t have been in that situation but he’s not the hero here. Wilson does have a point that Kong was trying to at least strip Dwan at one point and took her without her consent. Jack even wants me to feel sorry for the natives, talking about how they lost their god, but now they don’t have to sacrifice their women to him every whatever and can live in peace, probably still repairing the wall because there’s still other giant animals running loose, even if we only know of Kong and the snake. No dinosaurs, no other giant monsters…that’s a ripoff right there. Also, the natives kidnapped Dwan and started all this. It might have been wrong for Wilson to go there, and it was only comments by the captain and surveyor that got him thinking about taking Kong, but he was a threat even before they moved him to Manhattan. I’m sorry he had to die, but I’m not sorry he’s dead.
Overall, while I think the badness of this movie has been exaggerated over the years it is still a really bad movie. Stick with the original or if you don’t like black and white or stop-motion go with the Peter Jackson version. So now there’s only The Mighty Kong and Kong: Skull Island left on my list of Kong movies to finally watch, although I wouldn’t mind seeing Son Of Kong and King Kong Escapes again as I’ve only seen both once when I was a kid. King Kong Lives I remember being bored by, the first Kong cartoon was a product of it’s time while the one that aired on Fox in the 2000s was kind of bad as a King Kong series and mediocre on it’s own. Sometimes the original is still the best. Hail to the king, baby!