King Kong
directed by John Guillerman
(Paramount, 1976)

This is one of the first movies I ever remember seeing in a theatre -- the only thing I remember about the experience, though, is the fact that the film broke; I'm not sure we ever even got to see the end of the thing. Had I been a little older, I no doubt would have remembered much more about Dino De Laurentiis's infamous remake of the 1933 classic: the oftentimes horrible special effects, the weirdness of several aspects of the story and the effectively sad ending (had I been a good bit older, I'm sure I also would have remembered how hot that new girl on the block, Jessica Lange, was).

This film has some of the worst projection screen shots I've ever seen; every single shot of Jessica in the hopelessly artificial gorilla's hand, to take just one example, is ridiculously fake. The special effects of this film are among the cheesiest I've ever seen (which is in contrast to those of the 1933 original King Kong, which still amaze me). Then there's the script itself, which does find its way into some pretty weird areas. And Jeff Bridges may be even hairier than the ape. Fortunately, though, the film does succeed (thanks largely to the close-up shots of Kong's dramatic performance) in generating loads of sympathy for the ape and thus pulling off the ending as the great tragedy that it was and is. King Kong, in both its 1933 and 1976 incarnations, is a very sad film.

Forget about making a movie on Skull Island. In this version of the film, it is the prospect of huge oil reserves that first draws outsiders to the island -- a team of Petrox oil company people led by Fred Wilson (Charles Groden). Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), a scientist, stows away onboard because he wants to study the animal life on the island. As for the blonde bombshell that will be the Beauty for Kong's Beast, Dwan (Jessica Lange) is found floating aboard an empty raft in the middle of the ocean. Everyone is surprised to find a group of natives living on the island, but Jack must have some kind of extrasensory perception because he figures out much too easily that the natives worship a gigantic living ape god and sacrifice maidens to it for their own protection. The natives kidnap Dwan from the ship, hand her over to Kong, and you pretty much know what happens from there. It is unfortunate, of course, that the climax of the film takes place at the World Trade Center rather than the Empire State Building, but the Twin Towers were new at the time and offered a stunning backdrop for the final confrontation between Kong and man.

I suppose we're all clear on the fact that Kong is not the monster in the story; he's a victim -- a victim of extreme exploitation in this 1976 version. Wilson only wants to use Kong to make himself rich, and he actually reveals him to the world from behind a gigantic gas pump (one of several incredibly strange images in this film). Thankfully, Kong makes the guy pay this time around.

It's painful to see the big guy brought so low in the end, though. Kong is easy to sympathize with -- he's just another poor sap destroyed by love. He's a lonely guy doing his own thing back home, and then this gorgeous blonde shows up right in front of his eyes. It's love at first sight, and he does everything he can think of to impress the girl, yet she just keeps running away. He keeps chasing her until he winds up humiliated and helpless, with thousands of eyes staring at him in his moment of defeat. Still, after moping around and feeling sorry for himself for awhile, he rises again and makes another bold attempt to win the girl back, but that only ends in total disaster. And, of course, the girl then figures out that she sort of loves the guy after all, but it's too late to do him a lick of good. I don't know about you, but that sounds kind of familiar to me.

This film is not in the same league as the 1933 original (it's not even close), but it is worth seeing. Kong is a unique monster character whose story always manages to touch the heart, even in an overblown, frankly weird adaptation such as this one. Plus, it's unintentionally amusing -- especially in terms of the not so special effects.

by Daniel Jolley
28 January 2006

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