1976 was a great year to be a 9-year-old American boy (All right — to be entirely accurate, it was a great time to be a white suburban middle-class American boy. But part of the joy of having been a white suburban middle-class male child in 1976 was having the luxury of not knowing how privileged I was to be a white suburban middle-class male child in 1976).
For the entire first half of the year, the whole country was wrapped up in the celebration of the U.S. Bicentennial. It was one of the last times when Americans of all ages, backgrounds and political beliefs could put aside their differences, however briefly, and come together in a joyous, unabashed and un-ironic display of patriotism. Heaven knows the country needed an excuse to feel good about itself: the Vietnam War was finally over; the raw wound of Watergate was no longer throbbing quite as painfully; the first great Energy Crisis had passed; and American moviegoers had gone from an Exorcist-inspired dread of demons in their bedroom closet, to the far more rational terror of sharks in the municipal swimming pool. The first half of 1976 marked a moment when the country rallied from a decade of uncertainty, and did what it has always done following a crisis: it went shopping. As a nation, we spent colossal amounts of money on embarrassingly tacky souvenirs, all of which began to lose their charm at 12:01 AM on July 5.
That was the first part of 1976. The second part, as just about anyone who was a 9-year-old boy in 1976 could tell you, was taken over by King Kong.
Monster movies were a huge part of my life back then. I could count on Saturday afternoons being full of Creature Features on the TV, and every few months WABC's famous "4:30 Movie" would run Monster Week, with at least one Gamera movie and an off-brand kaiju flick like Monster from a Prehistoric Planet or Yongary: Monster from the Deep. Ray Harryhausen movies were also big with us kids: we'd all gone to see The Golden Voyage of Sinbad when it came out in 1973, and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad had been revived in theaters in 1975; while Jason and the Argonauts showed up on the boob tube with heartening regularity.
The ad campaign for the 1976 King Kong was appropriately gargantuan, and we monster-loving kids were especially targeted as a core audience for the film. The magazines we used to get through the Scholastic book services were full of gushing previews, and we read them all with astonishment. We heard about how a life-sized robotic Kong had been built, and how it would be much more convincing than the stop-motion puppet of the 1933 original, or the embarrassing man-in-a-monkey-suit techniques of the Japanese monster movies. We thrilled to the poster of Kong (somehow) straddling the Twin Towers of the newly-built World Trade Center, crushing jets with one hand while carrying a curiously out-of-scale blonde in the other. We heard about how this was going to be the greatest motion-picture event in the history of movies. And we believed it.
I was particularly anxious to see the movie, because by autumn of 1976 I hadn't yet seen the original King Kong. Naturally, I'd seen King Kong vs. Godzilla, and (my favorite) King Kong Escapes — a movie featuring a Robot Kong, a blonde heroine who was almost less convincing when she wasn't being represented by a plastic doll, and a villain called "Doctor Who" who looked like an ill-conceived mashup of Jon Pertwee and The Grinch (wrong "Who"-s in both cases). So you can see: as excited as I was, my "Kong" bar was set pretty low. Fortunately, a few months before the release of the remake, PBS got their hands on a clean copy of the 1933 film. Though it was not quite as complete as the version that came out in the early 1990's, it did restore some of the more violent footage that had been trimmed from previous releases. Taking advantage of the country's Kong-mania, public television showed King Kong without commercials, just around the time of my tenth birthday. What better birthday present could I have asked for?
Thus, as the December premiere of the new King Kong drew closer, I felt I was thoroughly prepared. I had seen the original, and fallen hopelessly in love with it, to the point that for years afterwards, any time I was flipping the channels and ran across that "RKO / Radio Pictures" logo screen, my heart would leap into my throat... and I'd cancel all my plans to sit down and watch it all over again. I had read all the studio propaganda about the remake I could get my hands on. I'd even managed to talk my Mom into taking me to see it, even though it was just about the last thing in the world she wanted to do1
1. My Dad was even less enthusiastic. He always deplored my interest in monster movies. He himself had seen the Karloff Frankenstein when it was first released in 1931, and I think it embarrassed him a little that it had given him some sleepless nights. He had also seen King Kong in 1933, and had thought it was hooey — however, he'd had a sort-of a Thing for Fay Wray, and this may have colored his recollections.. This was the first Motion Picture Event I could remember whose publicity seemed to pander specifically to me — and I loved it.
Now: at ten, I had no idea what a "director" was, or what he did, and still less idea of what the term "producer" meant... but I knew that this version of King Kong belonged to DINO DE LAURENTIIS. That was one of the only two names I associated with the new movie (the other being Jessica Lange — about that, more later): people like Carlo Rambaldi, or Rick Baker, or Jeff Bridges, or John Guillermin might be mentioned in the publicity for King Kong, but none of those names stuck in my mind like Dino's did. And it's no wonder: Dino De Laurentiis made absolutely sure that everybody knew this Kong was his. He expected Kong would be so successful it would make everybody forget about 1974's Jaws2
2. He was famously quoted as saying, "Nobody cry when Jaws die!" I suppose he can be forgiven for not having heard of Lyz Kingsley in 1976.; and when that happened, he wanted the credit.
Later on, I came to realize this was De Laurentiis's style: spend a lot of money on a major motion picture, release it with great fanfare, and hope that the hoopla and the price tag were enough to distract everybody from the picture's mediocrity. This was, after all, the guy who rented billboards for 1966's The Bible, and proclaimed: DINO DE LAURENTIIS HAS RESERVED THIS SPACE TO ANNOUNCE THE MOST IMPORTANT MOTION PICTURE OF ALL TIME. With similar hyperbole, the posters for King Kong read: THE MOST EXCITING ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE EVENT OF ALL TIME ("Original"?). Both tag lines depended on people's understanding of the importance of the source material on which De Laurentiis's production was based, but had little to do with the actual movie. It's carnival barker strategy, but it works.
Yet as far as I was concerned, De Laurentiis's very public identification with King Kong backfired. It made me wary of anything else he did. The following year, the movie Orca came out, and in spite of my burning desire to see either Jaws (which, at 8, I had been too young to see when it first came out) or any of its rip-offs (oh, how I begged to be taken to see Grizzly, to no avail), once I found out Dino was involved, my interest in the movie disappeared.
I'd like to say that it was my admiration and respect for Willis O'Brien's animated Kong that disappointed me so much in the remake. I'd like to claim that the thin script, or the blatant misuse of Jessica Lange, were the real reasons I turned against the movie. Unfortunately, this was not the case: the thing that really upset 10-year-old me about the 1976 King Kong was... the dinosaurs.
"But there are no dinosaurs in the 1976 King Kong", you say.
You see, in all that hype about the gigantic mechanical Kong they'd built, there'd been no mention of any other monsters on Skull Island. But (being 10) I figured: if they've spent nearly two million dollars on a life-size Kong robot, then just imagine how amazing the dinosaurs are going to be!
Because, really: how could you have Skull Island without the dinosaurs? Next to Kong himself, and Fay Wray's scream, the dinosaurs where the most memorable thing about the original movie. Even King Kong Escapes had tried to reproduce the famous Tyrannosaurus fight scene, and had succeeded well enough that the defeated dinosaur — now known as Gorosaurus — went on to costar with Godzilla in Destroy All Monsters!. Where there was Kong, there just had to be dinosaurs.
This wasn't an unreasonable thing for me to think. After all, the very idea of spending two million dollars to build a full-size mechanical Kong is just the sort of idea that would appeal to a 10-year-old... and no one else. It's a stupid, stupid idea: there's no way you could get something that size, larger than any mechanical model ever built, to move in a convincing, life-like manner. The safety concerns alone would be terrifying. Yet Carlo Rambaldi went ahead and built the damned thing anyway, and (surprise!) it broke almost instantly. You can see the full-size Kong for a few seconds toward the end of the film, during Kong's big break-out scene before the rampage in New York... and it looks terrible. It's awkward, and stiff, and it stands like the badly-posed model it is, because it's incapable of balancing itself like a living creature. It's hard to see how anybody ever thought it was a good idea — and yet they spent a ridiculous amount of time and money trying to build it.3
3. To be fair to Dino De Laurentiis, this story shows that for all his faults, he was actually one of the most praiseworthy of Italian producers. According to Tim Lucas's epic biography of Mario Bava, De Laurentiis had originally approached Bava about working on Kong. Bava turned him down, but recommended Carlo Rambaldi in his place. Rambaldi had made his reputation doing precisely this sort of thing: designing large, near-life-size, extremely complicated monster models for the movies. Rambaldi's models were usually so intricate and complex that only he knew how to operate them correctly. This meant that in addition to his very high fees as a creature creator, he could also hold out for high fees as a creature operator.
Unfortunately for Rambaldi, the typical Italian exploitation film producer had no intention of shelling out additional money — so not only did Rambaldi miss out on the operator's fees, he also had to watch as inexperienced crew members mishandled and mis-represented his beautiful creatures on-screen.
The fact that De Laurentiis was willing to spend such an enormous sum on Rambaldi's creation — let alone depleting the world's supply of horse-hair for an entire year in order to build it — shows a touching if misguided faith in the effects wizard's capabilities.
"One of these things is not like the other..."
So if the effects team was thinking like a 10-year-old boy, you can see why an actual 10-year-old boy assumed there would have to be dinosaurs.
An hour and ten minutes into the movie, I realized there weren't going to be any dinosaurs. That was a crushing disappointment — but it got worse. An hour and twenty minutes into the movie, they gave us a Big Rubber Snake. Even at ten, I knew that a Big Rubber Snake was just about the laziest kind of monster you could have... even worse than the technique of tying fake horns to a live lizard and calling it a "dinosaur" (though that was bad enough). I could deal with the fact that the life-size mechanical Kong I'd been promised had been replaced by a man in a suit. Given some more time, I suppose I could even have come to terms with a dinosaur-free version of the Kong story. But then, Dino and friends gave me this... this Big Rubber Snake. If ever there was a way to take a young King Kong fan's heart out of his body and then stamp up and down on it, this was certainly it.
(And if anybody wants to point out to me that Kong had a run-in with a snake at the same point in the original, I need to remind them that a.) that wasn't a snake — it was an oddly slithery, land-based pleisiosaur; and b.) it was stop-motion, not a Big Rubber Snake being thrashed about by a man in a gorilla suit.)
But goddamn it, I had looked forward to this movie for a very long time. I'd begged and pleaded to be taken to see it, to the point where my Mom had become the Designated Adult for a whole gaggle of neighborhood kids. Under the circumstances, there was no way I was going to admit my disappointment to anybody. Mom was a good sport about the whole ordeal, but there did come a point at which she, too, completely gave up on the movie; but when she told me about it, I insisted on coming to the movie's defense. It wasn't that bad, I insisted... more out of wounded pride than honest conviction4
4. In case you're wondering, the last straw for Mom came when Jack and Dwan are fleeing Kong through Manhattan. Dwan suddenly drags Jack to a halt and say, "Buy me a drink!" From that time on, Mom would mutter "Buy me a drink!" in response to any particularly badly-written movie..
But in spite of my half-hearted defense, I had learned an important lesson: Dino De Laurentiis was not to be trusted. And so I actively avoided Orca. I refused to go see Flash Gordon in 1980. And in spite of the subsequent TV showings, and in spite of the coming of the Video Age, I did not watch the De Laurentiis King Kong again for nearly thirty years.
In the meantime I learned more about what producers did, and what enormous jerks they tended to be, and I realized my prejudice had been a little unfair. Good movies generally get made in spite of their producers. And in the meantime, naturally, I've caught up with Orca, and Flash Gordon, and even King Kong Lives, and while I appreciate these movies in a way I never could have done when I was a child, they all still leave me with a bad taste. Though if there's any better summary of Dino's mature career than "bad taste"...
The setup for the new Kong is radically different from that of the 1933 original. This confused me as a boy: I thought, in my naïveté, that a "remake" meant "making the same movie again", so at first I was bewildered by the fact that it was an oil expedition, not a movie project, that set out for Skull Island.
Today, looking back as an adult, I can see why they made this change. When I was 10, the Energy Crisis was something I'd heard about, but since I wasn't driving or paying the bills, it wasn't something I truly understood or connected with in a visceral way. The grown-ups in the audience would have felt much differently. Also, since the new film was set in the present day, it made no sense to bring back Carl Denham: who in their right minds would believe that, as late as the mid-1970's, an egomaniac film-maker would drag some blonde all the way from New York out to an inhospitable island in the Pacific, just to shoot a poorly-planned adventure film... and then come back with a monster?
(Oh — wait. Never mind. Sorry, Dino.)
Yeah, so anyway: the new film begins with the research ship Petrox Explorer, based in Surabaya, Indonesia. The Explorer is about to set off on a secret mission, in search of a curiously shallow source of oil. A mid-level Petrox executive named Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) is betting his entire career on a wild guess: that an undiscovered island in the South Pacific, recently revealed by satellite photography, has been hidden all this time by a fog bank created by CO2 from massive near-surface petroleum deposits.
Fred is our Carl Denham substitute. When I was a kid, I saw Fred Wilson as an enjoyably hissable villain. Now that I'm grown, I appreciate Charles Grodin's performance as much more than that: his Wilson is a man of limited intelligence, a corporate nobody risking everything for his One Big Break. He fails, but he's unable to accept his failure; and in compensating, he ends up wrecking everything. Grodin, like Robert Armstrong before him, succeeds in making a total jerk of a character seem human and at times almost likeable. This is quite an achievement, considering that the script goes out of its way to make Fred Wilson the butt of its jokes. Ironically, as he loses his sense of proportion and becomes less and less sympathetic, Wilson's part of the story turns out to be the closest thing to tragedy that the remake is capable of offering.
Wilson has gone to great lengths to keep the nature of his expedition under wraps. The satellite photographs that revealed the island's location had never been made public: Fred had obtained them through his political connections5
5. Which, not coincidentally, is how De Laurentiis got his hands on the US naval vessel that serves as the "Petrox Explorer".. What Wilson doesn't realize is that his secret mission isn't so secret after all. There's a primatologist from Princeton by name of Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges, sporting a haircut and beard that make him look like Kong's understudy) who's got wind of the expedition. Prescott has been interested in that seemingly-empty area of the Pacific, too, though for a much different reason. When the Explorer's captain (John Randolph) bought charts for that rarely-visited part of the ocean, Prescott had been alerted. Here, by the way, is an illustration of the exact chart that awakened Prescott's suspicions:
I suppose if I heard somebody'd gone out of his way to buy a chart of absolutely nothing, I might be a tad suspicious myself.
Prescott manages to sneak aboard the Explorer just before it sets out. He does this by dressing in a Petrox Explorer tee shirt (we will later find out that the Explorer does, in fact, use tee shirt-based security) and dropping a large wad of US dollars at the feet of the Indonesian gate guard6
6. In the three-hour television version of the movie, we find out more about how Prescott got that crucial tee shirt. It involves him drugging a Petrox crew member in a bar.. On the one hand, it's clear Prescott has learned a valuable lesson about bribery: if you're going to do it, don't footle around with small amounts. On the other hand, Prescott's taking a ridiculous chance. The gate guard could simply pocket that wad of cash, and still refuse Prescott entry. What's Prescott going to say? "Give me back my bribe!" simply isn't going to work. Nevertheless, the bribe does get him in.
Prescott's status as the movie's hero and moral center is undermined badly enough by the script of the theatrical version: scenes like this only make the situation worse. Of course, you could say something similar about most of the extra 45 minutes' worth of footage added to the TV version, none of which add anything of importance to an already-overlong movie.
(Get used to the idea of Jack Prescott being right about stuff he probably shouldn't be right about. We'll see it happen a lot as the picture goes on.)
When Wilson briefs the crew on their mission, Prescott interrupts. Anything might account for the buildup of carbon dioxide; for example... animal breathing. Really. As though "Monkey Breath Island" was an acceptable substitute for the "Skull Island" of 1933... but I digress. He tells the crewmen about the various references in history to "the white veil" and "the beach of the skull"7
7. Where the "Skull Island" reference comes from in this version is unclear, except as a callback to the 1933 film. True, the infrared satellite image does look like the skull of an ape in three-quarter profile. But satellite images from 1605 were notoriously low-resolution., which seem to point to Fred's mysterious island. Prescott also tells them this:
"In 1749, a waterlogged lifeboat was found in the same area... it was empty; but drawn in blood on the thwart was the likeness of some huge, slouchy, humanoid thing... and this strange warning: 'From thy wedding with the creature who touches Heaven, Lady, God preserve thee.'"
I'd just like to point out that cryptic final messages tend to be brief — certainly briefer than this. Think "CROATOAN". If you're reduced to communicating your cryptic final message in blood, chances are the blood you're using is your own... and you're going to want the message to be concise ("Arrr, shiver me timbers: I mis-spelled 'preserve'. Damme! Where's me white-out?"). Personally, I would have thought that
BIG FUCKING APE
... would have been a more natural reaction. And besides: it's only a third as long.
Still, as final messages go, it's nothing if not atmospheric, and Jack's retelling of it leaves the men spellbound. Well, all except for Fred Wilson, of course, who breaks the spell and demands the stowaway be locked in the brig as a spy. Primatologist, hell: he's got to be an infiltrator from a different oil company, come to bust up the expedition.
Fred will eventually realize that Prescott is exactly who he says he is. Hell, he even has a copy of one of his own books in his rucksack8
8. "Apes in Myth and History" — this seems to be a recurring idea in De Laurentiis's movies, as Orca's Dr. Rachel Bedford went around with copies of her book, "Whales and Dolphins in Science and Mythology"., with his picture on the back cover — if that isn't conclusive proof... But while Fred is cabling to the mainland for evidence, he insists Jack be taken into confinement. While Jack is being escorted to the brig, he just happens to catch sight of something: a tiny life raft, bobbing on the empty ocean some distance away. He breaks free of his captors and convinces a crewman to get a better look with binoculars. Sure enough, Jack Prescott is right about something else that's wildly improbable. And thinking of improbable: the life raft, once it's rescued, turns out to contain a beautiful, unconscious young woman in sexy evening dress.
It turns out Jack had some years in medical school before turning to primatology and paleontology, so — in the absence of any other trained medical personnel on a trip to an uncharted island in the South Pacific — he's called on to attend to the rescued girl. Thus we're introduced to Dwan (Jessica Lange), the new Fay Wray — and this is the point at which the script takes a voluntary dive off the metaphorical Empire State Building. 'Twas Beauty killed the screenplay: Dwan is one of the biggest things wrong with the 1976 King Kong, and in fact the role very nearly finished Jessica Lange's career before it had even got started.
Nowadays we can look back on Dwan and realize that Lange's portrayal of her as a vapid bimbo, who's barely aware of the low cunning she uses to get what she wants, is actually a demonstration of real acting chops. This was not the real Jessica Lange. But here's poor Jessica giving us exactly what the script calls for, and doing it so accurately that viewers and critics put the blame squarely on her. Lange didn't get another movie part for three years after her disastrous debut, but once she did, she completely erased the nasty first impression her performance in King Kong had made.
But we're stuck with Lange as Dwan here. Dwan — that's "like Dawn", she says, "except that I switched two letters to make it more memorable." She's the sole survivor of a shipwreck in a ferocious tropical storm. Not only did the ship sink, it also exploded — there's no such thing as overkill when stuff happens off-screen, right? Dwan had been on her way to Hong Kong on the private yacht of a film producer, who'd promised her he was going to make her a star. The rest of the crew had gone with the producer belowdecks (during a typhoon) to watch a special screening of Deep Throat, and Dwan had declined to join them (leading us to wonder exactly what kind of movie star this producer had intended to make of her). Dwan had been walking out on the deck (during a typhoon) when the ship suddenly exploded (during a typhoon), fortuitously tossing both Dwan and a life raft into the water.
After she regains consciousness, and is told what must have happened to her, Dwan wastes little time grieving over the late producer or his friends on the yacht. She does, however, immediately turn on the charm for Jack Prescott. As the movie progresses, we're supposed to understand that Dwan is in conflict with herself: part of her longs for success and fame at any cost, and part of her wants to end up doing the conventional "two-and-a-half kids and a dog" thing with a certain primatologist from Princeton. That's a very "Seventies Male Panic" sort of conflict for a movie to present, and this version of King Kong tries to lean in Jack's favor, since Jack is obviously the movie's chosen Moral Center (such as he is). But we never see enough of the domesticated Dwan for the conflict to be in any way convincing. The only times we think we get a glimpse of a genuine Dwan coming out, the results can be pretty embarrassing: think of the movie's most famous line — "Why, you goddamn chauvinist pig-ape!" (Of course, that's followed by Dwan back-pedaling furiously, even using on the fifty-foot gorilla the same line she used earlier on Jack: "I bet you're an Aries, aren't you? Of course you are!")
If the script lets Lange down badly, it certainly does Jeff Bridges no favors by making him the hero. It goes to such lengths to establish Jack as the movie's conscience that it doesn't stop to examine exactly what it's being conscientious about. Sure, he's the hippie naturalist who stands in contrast to the exploitative corporate man, Fred Wilson... and the movie seems to think that's enough. The movie goes out of its way to feed Wilson lines that serve no purpose except to be immediately contradicted by Jack, to the point at which even something like this wouldn't be unexpected:
WILSON: "It's like Eleanor Roosevelt said to Genghis Khan in 1776: 'Beauty soothes the savage beast'!"
Yet let's not forget that our "hero" ends up going along with Fred Wilson's hare-brained scheme to bring Kong back to New York, up until the very night of the debut of the Kong Show. It's only after he's taken a sizeable advance on his participation that he suddenly changes his mind, and then, rather than pay the money back, he gives it all to a charity hoping to send Kong home (which could be seen as an ethical stand, but which requires more examination than we're given here). It's at that point that he decides to insist that Dwan break her contract as well, and is deeply disappointed when she hesitates to follow him on his newly-discovered High Road.
In short, if the script wasn't telling us at every stage that we should admire Jack Prescott, there wouldn't be much reason for us to admire Jack Prescott.
Oh, and in case it needs to be underscored: Jack's a primatologist... which suggests he had a pretty good idea what's waiting for them on the island. Yet when he's confronted with the actual Kong, he seems distressingly short on useful answers. Except, of course, for the pat one-liners he gets off at Fred Wilson's expense, such as: "There's an 'uninhabited' German beer-hall with a mechanical band;" or, "Who the hell do you think went through there, some guy in an ape suit?" (Actually, that last one isn't as snarky as it first seems in context, since Wilson did suggest earlier that the native god was just the local High Priest in a gorilla costume...)
I realize I'm doing a lousy job with my synopsis, mixing up the beginning with the end and lots in between. But unless you've been living on a mist-shrouded island in the middle of the ocean since time immemorial, you know how this movie plays out. The expedition lands on the island just in time for yet another Kong sacrifice, as witnessed back in 1749 — I guess this is something they do every time the tourists land — and Dwan finds herself co-starring with a really, really big leading man. So let me get to the point of what the De Laurentiis Kong gets wrong, and what it gets right.
The original King Kong is remembered as one of the greatest movies ever made, but that's certainly not because of its story, or its script, or its characterizations, or because of the fantastic acting of its ensemble. It's remembered with such reverence almost entirely because of Kong. If you want proof of exactly how weak the film is without the performance of its star monster, as animated by Willis O'Brien, try reading either of the two novelizations of the story — one by Edgar Wallace's friend Draycott Dell, and the other by Delos W. Lovelace. Great literature they are not.
It's true, the idea of the anthropoid monster carrying off the Caucasian woman had been a common motif in Western visual art for a very long time — particularly in political art, where it could represent the necessity of colonialism, or the Germans invading Belgium during World War I, or the "Colored Menace" in America, or ravening Capitalists in the popular art of the young Soviet Union. The makers of King Kong certainly made the most of an enduring popular image, even if it opened them up to charges of racism in later times. But Kong in his original movie is remarkable for not really being an obvious symbol of anything. Cooper, Schoedsack and Rose had intended their monster to be based very closely on a real gorilla (which is hardly surprising, considering their background in making nature documentaries), and Willis O'Brien did his best to live up to their vision. The result is a movie monster who really behaves like an animal. A particularly violent animal, too: the uncut 1933 King Kong is shockingly brutal for its time, with the Big Ape chewing up or stomping people in full view of the camera. We're not expected to identify with him... which makes it all the more of a shock when we find, in the end, that we do.
It's never explained to us why Kong becomes so attached to Ann Darrow. We're free to imagine that it's some form of interspecies lust, but that's not really evident from the film itself. True, Kong does peel some layers of clothing off Fay Wray... but you get the feeling that scene is more for the benefit of the men in the audience than for Kong's own arousal. If anything, Kong's attachment to Ann seems like an eerily prescient anticipation of the much-later relationship between Koko the gorilla and her kitten, which she named (in sign language) "All Ball". Koko became very attached to her kitten, which she chose very specifically from a litter because of its appearance; and when All Ball was killed by a car, Koko made signs to her researchers that suggested her deep distress.
Peter Jackson, when he remade King Kong in 2005, also tried to make sure he represented Kong as an animal; and to do that, he decided to make clear that Kong's attachment to Ann was something more along the lines of the gorilla-kitten relationship. So there's really no necessity to see the 1933 Kong's attachment to Ann as some sort of sexual fascination... unless, of course, that's what raises your Empire State Building.
I wish I could say the same thing about the 1976 version. Unfortunately, the De Laurentiis Kong turns the story into a classic love triangle between a girl, a boy, and one very anthropomorphic ape. This is probably the one aspect of the remake I find the most irritating, even more than the thin characterizations.
One big part of the problem is the Rick Baker monkey-suit: effective as it is in many ways, it never really convinces us that Kong is anything other than Rick Baker in a suit. His gait is too human, for one thing; and even though the animation of the suit's face(s) is really very well done, there's no disguising the fact that the animation is often trying to suggest human emotions on the features of a non-human animal. If you've seen the movie, you know exactly what I'm talking about: "angry Kong" is often very good and very convincing, as is "puzzled Kong". But the real embarrassment is... lovesick Kong.
This is the Kong we see, for example, in the infamous waterfall scene, where Kong first washes Dwan, and then — even after all these years, it pains me to mention it — blows her dry. Yes, it's nothing short of a miracle that Baker was able to design a system that would allow the Kong mask to behave this way. But oh, good grief... after all that work, and all that careful attention to detail... to end up with something so mawkish, so thoroughly laughable in an uncomfortable sort of way, is just heartbreaking.
Yet even when Kong's not pursing his lips and puffing his ape breath full-force into Dwan's face... even when Dwan isn't writhing in ecstasy in his palm, as though she were being blown in some entirely other sense... the embarrassment lingers, thanks to the goofy, thoroughly un-gorilla-like expression on Kong's face.
But goofy facial expressions and the waterfall scene notwithstanding, there are worse suggestions in store. One of the worst comes earlier on. It's just as dawn (D-A-W-N) is breaking, on the morning after Kong has taken the girl into the forest. Jack and the party from the ship are busy setting up camp, in order to rest a while before pursuing Kong into the island's interior. We get this exchange, between Jack and one of the ship's officers:
JACK: Apes are highly territorial. He's probably gonna take her to his turf.
So there we have it: the implication that Kong's interest in Dwan may be less than strictly Platonic. Yuck. But the very next thing we see is Kong, stretched out asleep on the ground. He yawns, and sits up... and as he does, we see Dwan revealed lying next to him. OK, I know, it could have been worse: Kong could've been smoking a cigarette; or Dwan could've asked him what he was thinking. But it's abundantly clear that this is the movie's idea of a joke, and it's horrible.
Still more horrible is a scene later on: the gigantic full-scale Kong hands are used in the modern version of the Fay Wray-undressing scene. The enormous right paw holds Jessica Lange, while the left paw runs its extended finger up and down her body. That paw is an enormous, very heavy, frankly dangerous piece of hydraulic equipment... and yet here it is, being used by the effects technicians to molest Ms. Lange. She looks distressed in the scene, and I have a feeling she's not just acting. Lange's neck was injured during the shooting of this scene, but believe me: it's not her neck that gets the most attention here. In fact, during the sequence her skimpy Bride of Kong costume gets pulled down, briefly revealing her breasts. I'm not surprised that somebody thought of shooting this scene, but I am a little surprised that it made it into the finished film, let alone into the post-release cuts. It's far from John Guillermin's finest screen achievement, and it looks like out-and-out abuse.
Dwan is enough of an embarrassingly-underwritten character to begin with. Having her be literally pawed-over by (in Jack's expression) "a turned-on ape" is simply too much. Frankly, a large part of the responsibility for this whole situation rests on De Laurentiis himself. He was heavily involved in the casting of the role of Dwan, and he seems to have based his preference in large part upon which actress he, personally, wanted to see have her scanty costume dislodged. A few years back, Meryl Streep revealed the story of her attempt to audition for the part. De Laurentiis made some unkind comments about her appearance, not realizing the Streep was fluent in Italian.
But I don't want to create the impression that De Laurentiis's Kong is a complete disaster. To quote Dino, "I no give them crap!" Certainly it's a very good looking film, especially the sequences shot on Kaua'i standing in for Skull Island. Many of the special effects sequences work very well, especially the matte shots integrating the Kong suit with the full-size mechanical arms9
9. ...though the scene introducing the mysterious fog bank is spoiled somewhat by holding a shot a little too long — allowing us to see, from the scale of the boats heading into it, that it's not a cloud on the distant horizon, but only a small patch of dry-ice mist. Yet if there's one aspect of the movie that ties together the impressive visuals and the less-than-impressive storytelling, and almost makes King Kong endurable, it's John Barry's musical score, which is absolutely the best part of the movie.
Barry's music seems to reflect a deep appreciation of Max Steiner's score for the 1933 film. Like Steiner, Barry uses a recurring leitmotif to suggest Kong. Steiner's "Kong" motive, you may recall, is a three-note gesture — a falling gesture, appropriately enough:
Barry's "Kong" music is based on the following unsettled and unsettling chord progression:
This eerie chorale is usually overlaid by other melodies, and if one of them bears an unfortunate resemblance to "Kum-ba-yah", that's just an unfortunate coincidence. Unlike Steiner's three-note motive, Barry's chord progression doesn't just characterize Kong: it's also used to suggest the sense of mystery and power that surrounds him. We hear it long before we catch sight of the beast, and it comes to a full-throated climax just as Kong emerges to claim his bride.
But also like Steiner, Barry changes the music when the crew goes in search of Kong and the girl. Steiner had suggested the wearying pace of the search with a simple and effective ostinato in the bass:
Barry's pursuit music is, again, more complex, but also relies on repetition of a gently rocking bass line. While slow and more than a little mysterious, it is more straightforward and less tonally-ambiguous than Barry's "Kong" music:
When I first re-watched the De Laurentiis King Kong after so many years, I was a little puzzled by Barry's inclusion of an organ in the Main Title music. It seemed oddly suggestive of Castle Dracula, rather than Skull Island. But the organ music comes back twice: first, with ironic majesty, as Kong is being revealed at the show in New York; then later, in the silly sequence when Kong scares the hell out of a priest in the city. That re-use, too, reminded me of Max Steiner: in addition to the well-known three-note "Kong" leitmotif, there's another, less obvious musical gesture Steiner uses for the monster. It's an ascending, chromatic motive that's used (with some variation) when Kong battles his opponents. Here, for example, is how it appears, harmonized by the low brass, when Kong enters his mountain lair just before fighting the odd land-pleisiosaur:
Note the "Kong" motive in the last measure, in the bass.
This idea, tidied up and re-harmonized, is used as the theme of the Overture to Carl Denham's stage show. Barry seems to have seized on Steiner's idea of bringing back musical gestures for ironic effect, particularly in reference to the Kong Show. Actually, Steiner references are part of the reason I don't particularly like the Peter Jackson remake: when Jackson answers the question of what Carl Denham's show would have looked like, in its original 1933 context, the terrible stage production is accompanied by a Vaudeville version of Steiner's music. I found that a little offensive, and came to appreciate Barry's approach all the more.
While we're on the subject of the Kong Show, I'd also like to point out that the screenplay, for all its problems, does address two issues that always puzzled me in the original. The first is how on earth Carl Denham got Kong back to New York in that tiny boat of his. The De Laurentiis Kong answers this by having Kong transported in the hold of an enormous oil tanker. Of course, this brings up as many questions as it answers, such as: how long did they need to keep Kong sedated on the island before the tanker arrived? How did they clean out the tank after, erm, nature called — or was that one stinky ape they tried to bring through customs? And if they could arrange the transport of equipment and tankers from Surabaya on such short notice, why didn't they get an emergency airlift to take Dwan back to civilization the same day they found her?
The second issue is: what kind of show did Denham plan to put on in New York? All we ever see of it is Denham himself, standing downstage in a tuxedo, talking to the audience... while behind him stands Kong, shackled on an otherwise-empty stage. What was next on the programme? Were the Rockettes going to come out and dance? Was Kong going to sing "Puttin' on the Ritz"? How did the rehearsals go for this production, and (once again) what did they do when the big guy needed to relieve himself? Seriously: was a Broadway stage really the best place to put Kong in New York?
Well, the De Laurentiis version answers this little problem as well as it ever could have been answered. With its flashing neon signs, its marching band, its lucky contest winners and the spectacle of Kong emerging from a giant gas pump, the Kong Show is Seventies entertainment distilled into its purest form. In fact, if you squint, you might just be able to see an inside joke that Lorenzo Semple, Jr.'s smugly tongue-in-cheek script didn't intend: imagine Charles Grodin for a moment not as Fred Wilson, but as Dino De Laurentiis, and the Kong Show makes a splendid metaphor for the movie itself.
There's one final strong point I'd like to bring up about the 1976 Kong: the one moment in which Dwan comes into her own as a character. It's once Kong has carried her up the World Trade Center towers, and she sees the helicopter gunships approaching. Dwan realizes what's going to happen, and tries to get Kong to pick her up again: only if he's carrying her will the gunships hold their fire. But Kong is intent on "saving" Dwan from the strange metal birds, and keeps gallantly pushing her out of the way.
This is in stark contrast to the behavior of our erstwhile hero, Navy veteran Jack Driscoll, who actually cheers and pumps his fists as Kong destroys one of the helicopters, and incinerates several servicemen by hurling a gas tank at them. Did I mention Jack is the designated moral center of our story?
Already I'm sliding away from the positives and back into the negatives, so I guess it's time to tackle the 50-foot gorilla in the room: the death of Kong. "Everybody cry when monkey die!" De Laurentiis is alleged to have said, and certainly the movie goes out of its way to try to make his claim come true.
Kong's final moments in the original made audiences suspend their disbelief to an incredible extent, and made them forget that Kong was an 18 inch-high model made of wires and rabbit fur. The audience also tended to put out of their minds the terrible violence they'd seen Kong inflict during the course of the movie. Suddenly it became clear that Kong was just a rare and magnificent animal, who'd survived in the primal wilderness, but who'd been destroyed by contact with humankind. Kong became the tragic hero of the story, and he did it without any attempt on the part of the film-makers to make him seem more human or sympathetic.
In the 1976 version, Kong has indeed been humanized. By the end, every attempt has been made to make him seem more sympathetic, with the odd result that the version from the golden age of the grindhouse turns out to be significantly less explicitly violent than the version from 1933. That is, until the grand finale, when it turns out it's the humans, not Kong, who inflict the graphic carnage. This is John Guillermin unleashing his inner Peckinpah. Sure we cry when monkey die, but that's only the natural reaction to seeing a living thing get shot to death in a spectacularly bloody way. Forty years later, as I watch this sequence, it doesn't move me. It makes me mad: mad because the film-makers assumed I would be so easily manipulated as to be choked up by Kong's terrible end; and madder still because forty years ago, they were right — goddamn it.
Even after Kong dies in a bloody heap at the base of the World Trade Center, the movie still has one more misfire waiting. Not surprisingly, it involves Dwan.
What was evidently supposed to happen was this: Dwan stands in shock by the body of Kong as the crowds press in; Jack presses his way through the onlookers, but stops as he realizes that Dwan's not really sobbing for him after all. She's playing to the cameras, using her grief to attract the attention of the media. Realizing he will only stand in the way of her quest for fame, he disappears into the crowd.
Or, wait — maybe she tries to fight her way toward him, only to see that he's stopped trying to reach her through the press cordon; realizing that he's had second thoughts about their relationship, she stands in the glare of the cameras and sobs for everything she's lost.
Or, wait — there's a guy in the crowd waving like a maniac at the camera. Maybe that's Jack, still trying to get Dwan's attention and bring about the Happy Ending as the camera pulls up and away (that's what I thought, as a kid in the theater). It's very difficult to tell what's really going on, and the reason is that the scene is very poorly directed — not just "directed" in the sense of John Guillermin doing his job, but also "directed" in the sense of "focused on the important elements of the story".
To film that final scene, the film-makers had put an ad in the paper requesting 5,000 extras. They got 30,000. "Bigger" usually meaning "better" in a De Laurentiis production, they decided to keep them all. Suddenly the focus of the final scene became less about Dwan and the dead Kong, and more about... "Hey! We got 30,000 extras!" Unfortunately, this means the attention of the camera wanders pretty quickly. We never get a sense of Jack's and Dwan's relative positions, so in spite of the fact that this last image is supposed to bring the whole story together, it's very hard to figure out what's really keeping them apart.
But then again, it's also very hard to care that much about either of them. That's it; I'm finished with Kong. Buy me a drink.
EPILOGUE TO THE EPILOGUE
Stop me if you've heard this one: a reckless entrepreneur goes to sea hoping for a find that will make him rich. Instead, his plans are interrupted by the sudden appearance of a scientist, who's supposedly the movie's voice of reason, but who really comes off as a Big Part of the Problem. The entrepreneur doesn't end up getting what he wanted... but he does end up bringing a monster back to civilization with him. Devastation ensues. Oh — and there's also a vapid blonde who gets some unwelcome attention from a very large mammal, and a scene of distressingly bloody violence that left many viewers deeply upset. Sound familiar? I'll give you a hint: it's a Dino De Laurentiis production!
De Laurentiis's King Kong performed — enh! — adequately at the box office, considering its expense... but it failed to eclipse Jaws in either the popular or critical imagination. You'd have thought Dino might've learned a thing or two from the whole experience, but you'd be wrong: that Great White Shark was Dino's Great White Whale. Having sublimated his White Whale into a gorilla, with only limited success, he apparently decided to go for the Whale whole hog.
Thus we have 1977's Orca. Orca has long been written off as yet another Jaws rip-off, but it's more than that: it's also a Kong rip-off. Orca manages to go back over every wearying mis-step that Dino's King Kong made... without the benefit of a classic original to borrow from. Would-be hero who doesn't actually "know" what the movie thinks (s)he does? Check. Cartoonish character-actor quasi-villain who ends up getting smooshed for his hubris? Check. Rampant anthropomorphism and misplaced pathos? Check, and double-check. Only this time, just to get Dino's point across, we have the title monster actually clobber a Great White Shark. If he couldn't do it at the box office, then he'd do it on the actual screen. Some day, Spielberg... some day!