- Directed by John Guillermin
- December 17, 1976
Amid the energy crisis of the 70s an expedition strikes out towards a previously uncharted island only to find something completely unexpected awaiting them.
It has been decades since I last saw this version of King Kong. I may have been in kindergarten or even second grade at the latest since I last watched this on television, but it stuck with me. I have vague and fond memories of the experience from then. The original King Kong is a personal favorite of mine. It was even back then so the little kid in me (then and now) was very excited to see this. Back then I did not like it as much as the original, but I still liked it nonetheless.
Re-watching it now I find myself liking King Kong 1976 a little bit more than the original. Maybe it is because I never really did like the whole jungle picture idea as the driving force of the plot for the original Kong. Until recently I never knew that such a thing like a jungle picture was an actual genre but that is a discussion for another time.
Remakes or reboots should fix elements from the original film as well as being easily recognizable as the property which inspired it and this movie does both. It should not be something that takes a few names and broad concepts and slaps them into an unrecognizable story.
As I said earlier the jungle picture plot element was always an issue for me and here it is eliminated. They update the story for (then) modern times and place it in the context of the energy crisis of the 70s. The driving force here is corporate executive Fred S. Wilson (Charles Grodin) who is seeking to not only make a name for himself but to put his company Petrox above all the others. Some info he has stumbled across leads him to believe there is a big discovery awaiting on a mysterious island.
Added to the mix is Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), a crusading primate paleontologist, who starts the film just as a curious stowaway wondering what is going on. Both characters are very much products of the era. Wilson is the greedy corporate executive profiting off the increase in oil prices and Prescott is (clearly) the former hippie now in the real world.
Guillermin and company managed to keep in the beast falling in love with the beauty element of the story. In this case she is Dwan (Jessica Lange) who is the survivor of a boat wrecked during a storm earlier in the film. On top of that, much like in the original, she is a struggling actress about to get her big break. Recognizable yet different.
From the get-go the film kept and modernized many of the story elements that if used as they were originally done would have been dated. They took them and used them in a more modern way that a fan of the original could see how it was connected to the first film.
And the movie does not stop there. From the natives to the wall to how Kong takes a sacrificial bride in order to get the rest of the population left alone to even his exploitation and eventual breaking free it all has echoes of the original but is original in its own right.
One little detail that an individual might miss that I almost miss myself but was gloriously able to rewatch via modern conveniences was when the natives of the island were prepping Dwan for Kong they put a headdress on her that had attached something reminiscent of golden hair. Why is it significant? Because it nicely explains why they were interested in her. That then brings up the question of what drew them to golden here? No answer there.
You generally cannot go wrong with casting Jeff Bridges in anything. He is just one of those great actors that brings the goods no matter the film. Whether he is portraying a sinister corporate executive or a stoner bum or a somewhat hippie scientist you just believe whatever he is selling. He I think is what mostly holds this movie together. I can’t think of any other actor from the era who could’ve given this character believability. Without his believability the movie would not work.
Why would it not of worked? Because Charles Grodin is a bit hammy in his part. I have never been a big fan of Grodin so you can take that into account when reading my comments on him but his characters greed and lack of caring is borderline cartoonish. I never found him that good and his performance is the weakest one here.
I just need to give a shout out to René Auberjonois as scientist Roy Bagley. He is not a main character in this but he was just such a good actor. His talent always held your attention and it was probably because of this film that whenever I knew he was in something I would watch it. I instantly recalled his role in this when I saw Deep Space Nine, his role in the series Benson only coming to mind when Voyager was a series and his Benson costar Ethan Phillips was cast on that show.
My main gripe with his film is Kong. I know there are only so many ways at this point they could have done Kong with the guy in the gorilla suit being probably the best option. Stop motion is good but I’m not sure if it would have worked given the significant presence of Kong on screen and given that this was a color film. He moved too quickly. I am not saying the character should have been lumbering but rather perhaps they should have been a little slower. He looked to be moving too quickly for a creature of that size.
They do have her do a good job even by then modern standards of marrying all the special effects up together. The blending of footage as well as the occasional mat painting feels mostly seamless.
The script is pretty good. There are elements of environmentalism as well as corporate greed and some commentary on the culture of the day. Nothing too heavy though. This is a creature feature and the director understood that.
They managed to make Kong’s death perhaps more tragic here than in the original. Kong climbs to the top of the World Trade Center with Dwan in hand. Understanding that death from the approaching helicopters was at hand he places Dwan down and stoically waits for the inevitable. It was a bit moving and rather sad.
Praise has to be given to John Barry and his score for this film. The more older films I find that I watch that he scored, the more of a fan I become of him. The man was more than James Bond soundtracks. He was one of the true greats. He could make a scene more beautiful or more frightening or more exciting with his work and that is one of the things a good film composer should do. His work is yet another example of the quality you can get when you use an orchestra rather than some guy on a keyboard.
King Kong 1976 is a remake that works. It updates a story to the present day as well as fixing issues with the story. With a great script and a beautiful film score this is definitely a must see.
4 thoughts on “King Kong (1976)”
Great review. Peter Jackson’s film mostly sucked – this 1976 film I need to see.
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As remakes go it is really good. I would put it on par with Carpenter’s The Thing in terms of how good of a remake it is. Both are very high quality and very good on their own.
I think the original Kong is the best, I think its a beautiful work of art, but I cite this sequel in particular for starting my interest in what happens behind the scenes of films. I bought a making-of paperback about this film when it came out, when I was ten years old. I was so fascinated learning about the politics and difficulties of making a film that it never left me and while I’m no huge fan of the film (albeit John Barry’s score is fabulous) I’ll always have a soft spot for it because of that book.
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John Barry was a master.