Revisiting Childhood Movies Part XII:
- Director: John Guillermin
- Writer: Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (from the original screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, which was from an idea by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace)
- Producer: Dino De Laurentiis
- Stars: Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, Charles Grodin
- Studio: Paramount
- Award Nominations: Academy Awards: Cinematography, Sound, Visual Effects (special award); BAFTA: Production Design; Golden Globes: Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture – Female (seriously)
- Length: 134 min
- Genre: Horror (Monster)
- MPAA Rating: PG
- Release Date: 17 December 1976
- Box Office Gross: $52.61 mil (#5 – 1976)
- My Rating: **
- My Rank: #96 (1976)
- Nighthawk Nominations: Visual Effects, Sound Editing
- Nighthawk Notables: Best Guilty Pleasure, Highest Attractiveness / Acting Ability Ratio
- First Watched: In theater sometime before August 1981
- Number of Times Watched as a Kid: at least 3
As a Kid: I don’t knew when King Kong came back. There is zero chance that I saw this in the theater in late 1976 or early 1977 when I was two years old. I remember being more like six when I went down with my brother Kelly and his friend Nicky MacIlvaine and saw this at the Madison Theater, just three blocks from our house in Albany. I’m glad to see that the theater is still there. It was a big deal – I can’t imagine he voluntarily took me, especially when going with a friend. But this was an event – a giant ape on screen (this was before we moved to Orange and watching Japanese monster movies became my Thanksgiving tradition) who, at one point, steps on someone. I somehow didn’t get a nightmare from it (the nightmares I used to get as a kid, which were caused by random things from films (I remember getting one from the scene in Airplane where the woman keeps popping eggs out of her mouth) seem to also come after the move to Orange – one of the reasons I found Inside Out so poignant is because I know the trauma of a childhood move). It was just all a ridiculously good time. (If I wanted to be ridiculous about it, I could probably go to a library that carries microfilm of old Albany Times-Union issues and look through the movie listings). I definitely saw it again at least a couple of times on television (it used to be a big deal in the late 70’s / early 80’s of adding scenes in for big television events – I remember wondering if we would get home from Disneyland early enough when they put Superman on television with extra scenes – and for some reason many of those added in scenes have not made it to DVDs – but I distinctly remember seeing King Kong on television with the added scenes, so it must have been when it was re-aired in 1983). For a long time, this was just some good fun, because it wasn’t until years later that I saw the original King Kong and I was an adult (and actually already in Boston) before Peter Jackson would do his brilliant version. So, for my childhood, this was King Kong. Well, except for King Kong vs. Godzilla, but that’s a bit different.
This was a grand adventure and it’s perhaps because of seeing this that I would become such a fan of Godzilla films. It had a big scary ape. It had some cool things happening (like the bad guy being stepped on – even as a kid, I rather enjoyed that). It even has the occasional scene of humor that actually works (one scene I have always remembered is when Kong is throwing his fit on the ship and manages to knock some poor sailor out of his bed – it’s still one of my favorite scenes in the film). As a kid I must have also marveled over the amazing leap from one World Trade Center building to the other. I didn’t know what I was really missing by never having seen the original.
As an Adult: Dino De Laurentiis was mostly know for flashy big productions, films like this, Flash Gordon, Conan the Barbarian and Dune. But he also produced Fellini films, Serpico, Ragtime, Blue Velvet, Army of Darkness and Giada, so you can’t argue with that kind of artistic success. That kind of mixed bag of results carries over into this film as I watch it again as an adult (this is not the first time I have watched it as an adult – I remember seeing it in late 2003 or early 2004, not long after seeing Big Fish and marveling at how much Alison Lohman in that film, playing a young Jessica Lange, looked so much like Jessica Lange in this film). There are some things in this film that are well-done, some that at least have some inspiration behind them, some that are hampered by the period in which it was made and some which are awful and could not possibly be fixed no matter when this film was made.
Let’s start with the bad because then I can end with the good and not feel like I’m just trashing on this film simply because it’s the pathetic little brother to two much better films. Which it is, but I’m trying to be nice.
This film is badly written and even more badly acted. That the bad acting come from Jessica Lange, who clearly had talent but had perhaps not yet developed it, and Jeff Bridges, who was already a two-time Oscar nominee by this point, also would seem to indicate that this film is fairly badly directed. John Guillermin could take a big budget film and make some entertainment that would make some money but he could not direct actors or dialogue. Neither Bridges nor Lange ever seem particularly credible in this film and some of their line deliveries are downright awful, especially any time poor Lange is forced to actually talk to Kong. The bigger problem seems to be with the script, which doesn’t really seem to know what to do with these two. It develops Kong with some considerable sympathy, far more than the original film (because he had grown as an icon in the decades since the original), and because of that, it’s hard to care much about the humans. It would take the real human, wonderful performance from Naomi Watts to show how you could combine the two in a single film. But we just can’t really manage enough energy to care about these humans when the ape is so much more interesting. At the end, we can’t tell if Bridges is abandoning her to be a star or still trying to make it to her and that’s because of a deleted scene that implied their relationship couldn’t survive if Kong died, but since that scene was deleted, it just makes the ending scene look strange.
Now, for some good: Kong is interesting. Or, at least he’s interesting when he’s angry. When Kong is angry, the ape makeup looks really, really good. But when he’s not, it just looks odd, and unfortunately, many of the effects weren’t yet good enough to make this film and sometimes everything just looks really odd. The man in the ape suit looks like he should be able to grab Bridges when he’s hiding below the log, but the giant hand in the close-ups can’t do it. Kong looks great on the top of the towers, but the scene where he slips off the top looks terrible and his fall is almost unwatchable.
There are some bizarrely non-sensical things in this film. When Jack and Dwan escape to Manhattan they are warned that stragglers will be shot. Why the hell would they shoot people? They’re looking for a 50 foot ape, not a couple of looters. Jack sees the twin towers and they remind him of the landscape on Skull Island and he assumes Kong will head there. But why? Apes climb trees, not mountains, and Jack didn’t see Kong climb those buttes, he only saw that they existed (he is supposedly an expert on apes but we don’t actually see a whole lot of that). And why did he even notice them? Shouldn’t he have been concentrating on helping Dwan escape from the ape and the giant damn snake? We can brush aside his ability to get through to the mayor as typical movie plot progression, but it’s still a bit silly how quickly he gets through in the middle of an emergency. And how the hell did both he and Lange get down from the top of the towers so damn quickly?
But enough of picking on the film. It’s not a particularly good film, but there are some very good things about it. The first is that they at least tried to do something new. Though there’s no romance in climbing the towers, it does allow for the magnificent leap from one to the other. Rather than making a film, the ship ends up finding Kong while trying to find oil. And the love interest is a professor rather than a crew member.
Some of the effects, as I mentioned above, are quite good. Whenever Kong is angry, he looks really remarkable; that includes him breaking through the wall on the island or breaking free in Queens. The cinematography is really quite well done (it’s didn’t deserve its Oscar nomination but it is good) and the effects do deserve their Oscar, even if they pale compared to what Star Wars will do the next year. Even the cast isn’t completely terrible – Charles Grodin does a nice job of balancing some comic relief and villainy (originally he wasn’t killed, but that didn’t test well – I mean, you really want him to be stepped on, which is why we don’t see him flattened – because they changed it). Also, there is René Auberjonois, who is delightful as the scientist along for the ride (look at the glee on his face when he informs Grodin the oil isn’t viable); I don’t know if I already knew him as Clayton Endicott III in Benson when I originally saw the film, but I definitely did by the time I saw it again on tv in 1983 and he’s a delight to watch. But perhaps the biggest strength of the film is the score, which is some really strong work from John Barry and always manages to keep you into the mood of the film.
This is not a great film. The script and acting are bad enough that it really isn’t even a good film. But it can be a good time. I can’t really recommend it, given that two magnificent versions of this story exist, but if you find that it’s airing on television, then go ahead and give in for a couple of hours. There are much worse ways to spend the time. Like watching King Kong Lives, for instance, the hideous sequel to this film.
If you have an interest in this film, or any King Kong film read King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson. I got some of my information about the film from that book (the changes and that the longer cut of the film re-aired on television in 1983). Though be warned that the author, Ray Morton, ridiculously over-rates this film; also the Jackson film was in production while he was writing the book so he doesn’t have much on the finished film.