With director John Guillermin’s austere camerawork and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s tongue-in-cheek wordplay leavening the histrionics producer Dino De Laurentiis obviously had in mind, this notorious picture tries to rethink a Hollywood classic as a blend of social commentary and epic tragedy. (Chances are you don’t need to be reminded that the 1933 original is a creature feature depicting the discovery and capture of a giant ape living on a remote island.) The most effective bit of updating is providing a credible reason for American explorers to visit mythical, mist-enshrouded Skull Island: the promise of untapped oil reserves. The picture was made just after the 1973-1974 gas crisis, so the lust for crude was prominent in the American consciousness.
The least effective bit of updating is the application of Ms. Magazine feminism onto Jessica Lange’s character Dwan, an admirable but failed attempt to make the female lead more assertive than Fay Wray was in the 1933 original. Playing a shipwreck victim who joins the oil expedition and captures the big primate’s heart once she goes ashore with the crew, Lange is so pretty and curvaceous it’s not hard to understand why the ape goes ape. Unfortunately, her performance is as cringe-worthy as Dwan’s dialogue, so King Kong nearly ended the actress’ career before it began.
However, the portrayal of Kong is heartfelt in a clunky sort of way, especially with John Barry’s alternately menacing and sweeping score jacking up the emotional stakes, and some the movie’s jolts work just like they should. The hit-and-miss special effects feature silly gimmicks like monkey specialist Rick Baker cavorting in an ape suit, plus impressive animatronic monsters created by Carlo Rimbaldi; one memorable scene features a bloody fight between Kong and a ginormous snake with Dwan caught in the middle of the carnage. All of this made a big impression on me as a ’70s kid, which might explain why I still enjoy the movie—but as it happens, I’ve gotten into an embarrassing situation or two by admitting my admiration, like the time I shared my secret Kong shame with classic-cinema champion Leonard Maltin. He was a good sport as I explained that I first saw the movie when I was 7, but he wasn’t buying what I was selling.
Nonetheless, in defense of this much-maligned movie, I can attest that the 1976 Kong looks gorgeous because Guillermin knows how to fill a widescreen frame like nobody’s business, and Jeff Bridges, all hippy-dippy shaggy as a bleeding-heart naturalist who stows away on the ship headed for Skull Island, contributes an energized performance. Charles Grodin is terrifically hammy as the villain who unwisely tries to exploit Kong, and familiar ’70s players Rene Auberjonois and John Randolph lend flavor as members of his crew. Furthermore, the ending of the 1976 version amplifies the intensity of the original film’s conclusion, replacing a daytime dogfight atop the Empire State Building with an eerie nighttime shootout atop the then-new World Trade Center.
So, while not a great movie by any stretch, the 1976 Kong has more going for it than you might remember—but keep the fast-forward button handy for the awkward romantic scenes between Kong and Dwan. You’ve been warned.
King Kong: FUNKY