Despised Inspiration: An Ode to King Kong (1976)

Though the race between Hammer, Universal, and Paramount went on into the 1970s, it was Paramount that won the rights to remake RKO’s 1933 epic King Kong. And in 1976, that remake was released to theaters.

The face of a beautiful, blonde, white woman comes into focus. She appears conscious, yet also absent, not a clue as to where she might be, but half a conch shell is brought to her lips anyway, & she is compelled to drink. When it is taken away, she now appears even more in a blissful haze, yet someone, numerous attendants it seems, lift her up, & take her outside on a sort of ceremonial lift. As she is brought out into the world, it seems the only way she remains sitting up is by swaying to the gradually increasing tribal beat. Various people, all much darker than she, & really only visible in the night thanks to the glowing firelight scattered throughout the torches of the village, all exuberantly parade around, as if it were the “night of election”, & the very meaning of their lives was hanging in the balance, the rhythmic chanting of the word “Kong” continuing to rise in pitch. The passionate rites of passage are performed by the ape-garbed priest, & the “Bride” is taken behind an enormous Wall of dead vegetation & dried mud, fragile yet strong, the lock bolt being a literal tree greased with what remains of ancient saurians & behemoths in a nearby ebony pool, all the elements compiling into some impossible miracle of mystic faith & primitive determination. The Bride is righted into a standing position as she & a couple of her bravest attendants ascend a rock-like altar, & her wrists are tied by vine bonds, they along with the chanting being the only thing to keep the beauty from falling over in a drunken stupor.

The Bride is escorted down the aisle & to the altar

But time is precious, & the chanting reaches its crescendo as a droning horn sounds into the dark beyond the altar, beckoning into the jungle abyss. The crashing of something impossibly huge begins to break its way through the undergrowth, clearing a path as the rhythmic thunder of divine footsteps begins to drown out the chanting from the thousands peering over the top of the Wall, their anticipation almost at its climax. Finally clear from the jungle, the footsteps continue to boom with purpose until their owner comes to loom over the Bride, the chanting falling dead silent. It is at this moment that the beauty begins to shake free of her liquid ecstasy, probably wondering where the chorus of “Kong” went. Her vision clears, & her eyes raise up to make contact with those of her “groom”, the creature that “touched heaven”. He greets her with the primal, hellish roar of the King of Skull Island, the beating of his chest accentuating the terrifying sound. He is Kong, & her response to his greeting is a bloodcurdling scream, her tranquilizer eliminated by the pure adrenaline of fear. From thy wedding with the creature that touches heaven, lady God preserve thee…

Groom meets Bride

And so goes the earliest & fondest memory of yours truly when it pertains to the second crack at the story of King Kong, my first proper exposure to the might of the cinematic icon. It is true that, such was the cultural impact of King Kong (1933), it was possible for someone, even little kids generations after its debut, to be aware of the titular giant simian without even actually having seen said classic film, the most lasting image ingrained into pop culture being Kong’s climb up the Empire State Building, with a gorgeous blonde female in his grip. However, it would be more accurate & honest to my personal experience with Kong to recount how he started off, to me at least, as that derpy looking adversary of Godzilla, who was clearly the initial draw when I first saw King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) on the Disney Channel in the late 90s, my young self having quickly gravitated to dinosaurs or things that resembled them. I don’t remember the exact year & date (in retrospect, & perhaps unfortunately, I hardly cared for such details as an 8 or 9 year old), but it had to have not been long after first seeing Godzilla’s clash with Kong that I was told, by my father, that he’d be recording a King Kong movie off of one of the Encore movie channels, which you’ll still find on cable & satellite TV today.

It may irritate the proponents of the pacing of the original film, but the fact is that the 1976 film takes a little bit more time before we are introduced to Kong, & somehow this didn’t deter a spastic youth with ADD, such as myself. Because I had some idea what Kong was, & an expectation of what he looked like, I was entranced by this darker, clearly more adult, movie experience I was watching unfold before me, waiting to see what kind of Kong would inhabit the world it was establishing. And it’s safe to say I wasn’t disappointed, not in the least. For a long time, this recording of Kong ’76 was a Holy Grail of mine, & kinda still is to this day. On a tape who’s label was stained with marker or pen from rambunctious siblings (the title for Kong appeared to have been written in chicken scratch; I can’t remember if it was my father’s or my own writing, could’ve been either really), Kong was the second feature behind a Pay-Per View recording of Balto (1995), a totally bizarre pairing if there ever was one, but you recorded things on whatever tapes you had available in those days. It’s quite telling that, despite a fondness for Balto, the tape was always rewound to the halfway point between both movies, & over the years, Kong became the more watched of the two.

Outside of how this tape formed my first experiences with the movie in question, it also became a nostalgic insight into how Encore looked back in the day, a time capsule of how it has changed throughout its existence. There was also a bit of a remnant from a past recording; when Balto’s credits would finish, the tape would immediately start where the next recording had begun or go to what was left of a prior one, emerging through an interlude of white “fuzz”. It happened to be a preview showing a scene from the end of Psycho (1960), when the mummified skeleton of Mrs. Bates is discovered in the basement, & Norman is revealed to be the real killer (spoiler alert!). It would of course be a few more years after this when I would realize what movie this scene belonged to, & what exactly the Hell was happening. Most amusing of all was the beginning of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), but I of course didn’t know this for a long time, & was perplexed as to the identity of the movie where Dan Aykroyd & Albert Brooks sang along to “Midnight Special” on cassette tape as they traveled through the desert in the middle of the night, until the cassette crapped out, much to the dismay of Brooks’ character. Thankfully for young Trevor, the movie cut off before Aykroyd could make his monstrous reveal from said flick, & then Kong began, the Paramount logo signaling its arrival. So outside of Kong itself, there was a lot about this tape that captured my imagination for years.

As I’ve often found upon looking on the Internet over the years, a lot of my favorites from childhood, or even current ones, tend to be quite derided, putting it lightly in some cases. In many ways, Kong ’76 is still rather dismissed, & “officially” the forgotten Kong remake, a fact not helped by its last DVD release being in 2005, in order to coincide with Peter Jackson’s version, released that December, much as ’76 was a Christmas release itself. It has popped up on streaming though, here & there, the last offering I saw being on PlutoTV earlier in the year. A lot of criticism since release has been drawn towards the changes the film made in updating the story for the 1970s, largely from first generation Kong fans, a particularly unfortunate dissenter being one of the main inspirations for my personal interests, Mr. Ray Harryhausen. However, without the original 1933 Kong, Ray would’ve never gone on to do his own, perhaps even more influential, work in stop-motion, so the dislike is understandable, even though a strong, though politely stated bias for one particular form of effects work also contributes to the opinion.

As too does a sense of loyalty to Willis O’Brien, who, as previously covered here on Ficto during Kongtober, was royally screwed out of his King Kong vs. Frankenstein project by the unscrupulous producer who dared to give him hope, only to turn around & pitch it to Toho Studios, who then made it a film featuring Godzilla, who was already a man in a rubber-suit, & thus disdained by Harryhausen (some lingering post-war sentiments towards the Japanese may have also been icing on the despised cake, though don’t quote me on that). The connection between the iconic monster rumble & this first direct remake is not just an experience unique to myself, but in the broad strokes is also true thanks to the means by which Kong was brought to life in both, as a man in a suit. In fact, I long thought of Kong as one of those “rubber suit monsters” thanks to first seeing him clash with Godzilla, & again here on his own, until I saw the original film later on. Most curious about my love for this film is that it is in spite of one of the most popular elements of the original being shafted: THE DINOSAURS! But here’s the thing: because my experience with Kong had been formed first by his encounter with Godzilla, & then this incarnation, I didn’t have that expectation. Kong to me wasn’t a movie about him bashing the heads of various dinosaurs in (as fun as that sounds), but it was instead about a massive ape falling in love with a golden-haired woman, & thus being doomed. Which, if you take away the leftovers of O’Brien’s abandoned Creation feature (aka, the dinos), has always, ALWAYS been the core of the Merian C. Cooper King Kong story. Besides, he got to tangle with a giant snake, & that was enough for me.

Dwan attempts to keep herself from being snake chow.
ABOVE: Jessica Lange in foreground while the highly publicized, yet troublesome & little used, full size animatronic looms in background. BELOW: Promo shots of Jessica Lange with producer Dino De Laurentiis, & on the cover of People Magazine 

It was the dismissal & loyalty of one of Harryhausen’s proteges, Jim Danforth, towards this Dino De Laurentiis produced remake that deprived us of those dinos everyone loves, ones that could’ve been spectacularly animated, based on Danforth’s work in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970). Well, that, & the tight shooting schedule that would’ve been counter-productive to the time needed on stop-motion. Point is, this baby wasn’t going to have dinosaurs, so focus had to be further emphasized on the Beauty & the Beast part of the story, & we’re lucky it did, because unlike the original film, we actually see a bond develop between this Beauty & Beast, quite charmingly so, & without becoming overly indulgent & melodramatic like in the next, & last, straight-up remake (more on that next week, from my compatriots). As iconic as Fay Wray’s wide-eyed beauty Ann Darrow is, it is newcomer Jessica Lange’s Dwan who proves a bit more interesting, namely for her decision to turn the rather plain moniker of “Dawn” into something more unique by switching some of the letters around, immediately telling us something about her. In turn, & through a slightly ditzy, hippie-dippie, yet oozingly sexy performance, Dwan becomes the Beauty a 70s era Kong needs, having just a touch of what, at the time, was considered modern feminism applied to her personality, but nothing that made her unbearable. At least to this viewer anyway, since opinions vary, as this either made or “almost ended before it began” Jessica’s career, depending on who you ask. Dwan’s kind heart is eclipsed by her desire to become a star & enjoy the intoxication of fame. Though fearful of Kong at first, Dwan eventually realizes there is more to this Beast than meets the eye. But, & despite a brief consideration of the consequences of Kong leaving his island, Dwan chooses thrill over love (for both Kong & Jack Prescott), & she is left to soak in the full repercussions of this decision as she stands, a disheveled, tearful mess, before the conquered Ape King, while he dies after a ruthless barrage of helicopter gunfire sends him to the bottom of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. Surrounded by admirers with not a care in the world for the life freshly lost, & all because of her complicity, the price of fame overwhelms Dwan in the final moments of the film, not just an “Aw, that’s too bad” kind of ending, but a profoundly sad & powerful one, whilst Jack disappears into the crowd, leaving her inconsolable.

I’d be remiss to not mention the other talents at work here outside of the Beauty & Beast (the latter played by legendary make-up guru Rick Baker), namely the other key characters of Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) & Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), they filling out the iconic trio supplanting Kong. As Jack, Bridges creates an intellectual hero who challenges the morality of the story’s key component once it plays out. While I may have wanted to see Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) rescue Ann in the original film, I didn’t see much else to relate to there otherwise. Here though, Prescott’s role as character foil to the slimy Wilson is more than a “this is crazy” scold routine, but a challenging indictment. Wilson too, as the role traditionally filled by the ambitious, but well intended Carl Denham, is a fitting update to the cynicism of the 70s, now with the goal not to entertain, but to address a national energy crisis, & in turn benefit his greed. It’s no longer enough to just escape the Great Depression with sights unseen, one must tackle a real world issue of oil scarcity, while branding it in the process, or so Wilson thinks, with more emphasis on the latter than the former. As a result, the hero of the story is finally made relatable, but still maintains a sense of cinematic wish fulfillment & escapism, while the one who gets us into this mess, with less than noble intentions, is punished as he deserves.

“What the Hell do you think went through there, some guy in an ape suit?”; Why yes, Jack, I think that’s exactly what happened. Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s script adds a sense of the self-aware, but is non-parody

Finally, while his script has often been criticized, writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. (of Adam West Batman fame) doesn’t ever descend into campy send-up, but provides a witty self-awareness of the material that engages, without ever undermining it. So too does composer John Barry (of Bond fame among other things, such as the score for Dances With Wolves (1990) ), truly elevating & accentuating the proceedings with simultaneously ominous & soaring music, becoming one of the things even haters of the film tend to praise. Though often heckled for its departure from the exact details of the 1933 original, King Kong (1976), at its core, is still about two worlds coming together, & the connection with that new world literally toppling down the old one, tragedy at its finest. It’s less about the grand spectacle of a lost world, something that was only there to sell the premise anyway, & more about updating the tale into a new, less innocent world. If you’re not going to differentiate yourself from a predecessor, particularly if you’re “remaking” something already told, it is pointless to try. So those saying it was pointless to begin with, fail to realize how it justified its existence, by taking the root, & presenting it another way, more fitting for its new era, & therefore expecting the same thing again is…illogical. Arguably, the only real “problem” with this remake of the legendary story is that its critics can’t see the forest for the trees. So, it remains despised, but is still inspired.

Art credit to Jaiga on DeviantArt

NEXT: King Kong Lives (1986)

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