Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Back to 1976: KING KONG

by Heath Holland
Flawed but ambitious, there’s a lot to admire about the 1976 version of King Kong.

It’s hard to make a King Kong movie. Though the story has been told and retold again and again on movie screens, I don’t think any of the versions of King Kong have necessarily been a home run. Yes, the original is so classic that it has entered into the realm of “holy film” and seems beyond reproach. We admire that movie for giving life to the creature in the first place. We place the antique stop motion effects in their proper context and move on, ignoring that pretty much every human in the movie is so awful that the ape is the only character we can relate to in good conscience. The 2005 Peter Jackson movie gives us unparalleled emotion in the expressions of Kong and some wild monster fights, but is perhaps overwrought and excessive with all the business surrounding it. Even Kong: Skull Island raises the bar in technical achievement while jettisoning much of the tragedy surrounding the core of this story. When it comes to the Big Guy, we usually take what we like and ignore what we don’t.

That doesn’t really seem to be the case with the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis production, though. As long as I can remember, this has been the red-headed step-ape of the King Kong canon, either being dismissed as too dated or written off as just awful cinema. Between this and the other three movies about Kong I mentioned in the paragraph above, this one has the lowest audience score. Revisiting the movie for the purpose of writing about it here makes me wonder why this movie has been so lambasted. It seems surprisingly relevant, and the effects aren’t nearly as dated as some naysayers would like to believe.
Liberties have been taken with the core story, but not enough to change the iconic elements. Instead of a film crew headed to Skull Island, we have an oil industrialist, played by Charles Grodin, headed out on a ship in search of an island that he believes sits atop an endless supply of oil. His greedy intentions are worn on his sleeve, and I’d say he was a cartoon of a character if he didn’t feel spookily similar to people in the headlines today. Jeff Bridges plays Jack Prescott, an environmentalist type of guy who has stowed away on board the boat and acts as the conscience of the film, while Jessica Lange, in her film debut, is an aspiring model/actress named Dwan (not Dawn) who is found floating in a life raft near the expedition’s ship.

Those changes aside, the rest of the story is pretty much as expected. Dwan is kidnapped and offered to Kong as a bride. Kong likes Dwan. Dwan is disgusted at first, but then finds herself drawn to Kong in a way that she can’t explain. Greedy profiteer Grodin traps Kong, takes him back to New York, where he tries to exploit the creature. Kong goes wild, wrecks New York, finds Dwan, climbs the World Trade Center (not the Empire State Building this time around), and pays the ultimate price. No one says “It was beauty killed the beast.” Instead of pseudo-philosophical comments, everyone we’ve come to care about in the movie looks on in abject horror and profound sadness at the tragedy that has unfolded before their eyes. The takeaway is clear: this is why we can’t have nice things.

Every version of King Kong has its own unique strengths and weaknesses; I believe this movie’s biggest strength is its humanity. The 1933 classic relied on stop-motion animation. Peter Jackson’s version leans heavily on CGI. This 1976 version is a mix of animatronics and a guy (legendary makeup and effects man Rick Baker) in a really fancy gorilla suit. What has occasionally been viewed as a limitation is now what I’ve come to see as a big plus for this movie. Every single performance is driven by a human being in a real place. The most technical effects of this entire movie are the blue screen work that we see. Otherwise, effects are accomplished by miniatures and robotics. Outside of that, it’s all human, baby. This movie feels very approachable; even though this was a 24 million dollar studio picture, it feels miles away from the sheen and polish of more modern blockbusters because it was created in the seventies. It’s as close as we’re going to get to King Kong by way of art house.
This is also a very sexy movie. Some people paint this as a bad thing, but I don’t think so. It’s true that Jessica Lange seems to have been cast mostly because she is very beautiful, but I think that there is a lot going on in her performance. She enters the movie as a seventies rendition of Marilyn Monroe, all blonde and breathy and buxom, practically bursting out of her clothes, which are perpetually wet. Yet, there’s a lot of nuance in the role, and it’s undeniable that she is a very different character at the end of the movie than the one we meet at the beginning. Lange is a fantastic actress and we don’t really get to see what she’s capable of in this movie, but it’s not a one-note performance, either. She accurately portrays all the conflict, the confusion, and the tragedy of her character with grace and at least a small bit of nuance. I think it’s a more progressive performance than some give it credit for being.

Likewise, Jeff Bridges, who is ALWAYS fantastic, gives a great turn as a nice guy who is also very much cast to be a sensitive hunk, the fulfillment of the male fantasy in the same way that Chris Pratt serves the same function in Jurassic World. Long haired and bearded, Bridges might as well be wearing a medallion of the “male” symbol around his neck like Austin Powers. No one can be surprised when he’s stripped to the waist half-way through the film, carrying Jessica Lange out of the jungle like he’s on a fifties pulp magazine cover. These characters are archetypes in a movie that seems to be about human sexuality as much as it is about industrial greed and corporate immorality. Sure, it’s about how mankind destroys what it doesn’t understand, but it’s mostly about sex.

Don’t get me wrong: I think King Kong has always been about sex, at least partially, but this movie really doubles down on the idea. Essentially, Jessica Lange’s Dwan is at first horrified by her predicament, but soon comes to view Kong--the embodiment of male sexuality and aggression--as a caring protector. When Charles Grodin says that Kong basically tried to rape her, she denies this and explains that he wasn’t trying to hurt her. The movie rejects the notion of painting the character of Dwan as a victim; it’s more complicated than that, and there’s more there to be unpacked. Keep in mind, I’m not trying to justify any of this; I’m just the messenger. But the love triangle absolutely exists. Jeff Bridges is the nice guy with values who cares about the world around us. King Kong himself is the bad boy who takes what he wants and calls his woman “mama.” King Kong rides a motorcycle and carries a switchblade. He sets things on fire throws bricks through shop windows so that he can take what he wants. You don’t take King Kong home to meet the family, but you also can’t quit him because being with him is like being caught in a wildfire. Dwan wants to be with the good guy, but she’s too attracted to the bad boy to focus on anything else.
Of course, this isn’t QUITE as heavy-handed as I’ve laid it out, but it’s not far from it. While I’m not saying this movie is all about bestiality or anything, the love that dare not speak its name is symbolic for the human condition, and the human condition is running all throughout this film. Sometimes it’s in full view, and sometimes it’s represented through the actions of our characters and their motivations. As Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy would say, “METAPHOR.” Somehow this movie manages to tackle these issues without being super-creepy, or at least as not super-creepy as a movie about a love triangle involving a man, a woman, and big ape can occasionally be. Some say this movie is sexist and misogynist, but I don’t really think that’s true. Both Lange and Bridges are fantasy fulfillment characters, with Lange representing everything soft and feminine and Bridges beefcaked (it’s a verb) all the way up to level 10. These are exaggerated paradigms that the movie presents us with so that we can explore our own animal sexuality. That’s why I think this movie is the ultimate humanist take on the King Kong story. We’re not just putting Kong under the microscope, or our capitalistic tendencies. We’re putting our gender identities there, too.

There are a lot of other things to discuss about this movie, but they’re not as interesting to me as the things I’ve already mentioned. Technically, the movie does a great job of combining Rick Baker in his rubber costume (it’s a fantastic suit), animatronic heads, arms, and legs, and even a 40-foot Styrofoam version of Kong for the end of the film. While I’m aware that I’m usually watching a guy in a costume, I’m also aware that I’m watching a puppet in the ’33 version and a computer program (by way of Andy Serkis) in the 2005 version. There isn’t a King Kong movie in existence that has been able to completely transcend the limitations of technology in what is ultimately a high-concept sci-fi/fantasy story. I would argue, though, that this movie is able to make me suspend disbelief more than others because so much is done practically and everything that we see on screen is either tangible or was created by human hands. I should mention that those hands belonged to effects creator Carlo Rambaldi, who would contribute to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, and E.T.. Rambaldi’s work on this film is underappreciated. I will also point out that this movie has an incredible score by John Barry, the composer of iconic music in the James Bond franchise as well as cinematic darlings like Dances with Wolves and Out of Africa.
I mentioned that this movie hasn’t been very well regarded in the past by the film community at large, but I sense that a turnabout is coming. This King Kong has never been released on Blu-ray in the U.S. and a lot of the DVDs seem to be out of print. That means it’s ripe to be licensed by one of the boutique labels. If Scream Factory were to pick this up and give it a shiny collector’s edition, it would be considered a cult classic and everyone would suddenly be writing articles with titles like “King Kong 1976: Better Than You Remember” and “Top Ten Reasons 1976’s King Kong Gives Good Relationship Advice.” I predict a swing in the internet film community within four years, but I expect it to happen earlier. The conversation already seems to be changing: the 40th Anniversary for this film came and went without a fancy re-release, but it did find the actors talking about the film again and seems to have put the movie back on the radar for a lot of people who are eager to revisit it.

I think time has been kind to 1976’s King Kong, and it becomes easier to watch as we get farther from it. So many of the trends, ideas, and styles of the seventies make their way back around to our current culture. Is it a coincidence that the recent Kong: Skull Island takes place in 1973? We’ve had the big special effects blockbusters and the franchise monster movies that entertain but ultimately fail to speak to any sort of internal exploration, and it’s that element makes this version of the story unique and valuable. The backdrop of Big Oil, an energy crisis, and even the roles of gender seem to be as relevant today as they were over four decades ago. This King Kong occasionally stumbles, but still works in most the way it should. As every version of this story makes clear, there’s something about the King that resonates with us, and hopefully always will.

Check out more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!


  1. hold the phone, you're saying there's a version of King Kong with Jeff Bridges as the lead? i need this now!!!

  2. It's amazing, I'm glad I read it.

  3. I watch this at least once a year. I think the landing on the island scene is really well done and that monkey mask on the shaman is awesome (I know "#problematic"...)

    I also like to pretend I'm watching a Saturday Night Movie special in 1979 while watching it.

  4. Great Review for a film i hold true to my heart. I love this film