Do you ever get that dream where you go to a faraway island in search of oil only to eventually discover that the oil is not ready yet; and while that is going on, your potential girlfriend gets kidnapped by a very large hairy bloke, so you go into the jungle to rescue her, and then decide to take the hairy bloke to New York who then decides that New York isn’t really his thing and so runs amok, climbs one of the two tallest buildings in the world before being brought down by a squadron of Helicopter gunships? Well you can stop dreaming, because it really did happen.
Released in 1976 by Paramount Pictures, Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and Directed by John Guillermin; King Kong is a remake to the legendary monster movie of the same name originally released in 1933 by RKO Pictures. This film, like the original features a Giant Ape known as Kong who lives on an island, has women sacrificed to him, gets captured and put on display in New York City before running amok. While based on the original screenplay of King Kong by James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose, Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace; this version of King Kong does things differently, by placing the world and setting of the film in the modern era of the 1970’s (as compared to its original modern setting of the 1930’s) and instead of a film maker looking for an island and animal of legend for his next movie features an oil company exploring new ground to find something completely different.
In Surabaya, the ship Petrox Explorer captained by Captain Ross (John Randolph) sets sail en-route to an undisclosed location. Executive to the Petrox Oil Company; Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), basing his idea on an infra-red image of an undiscovered island hidden behind a fog bank in the Indian Ocean, believes he has hit the jackpot with possibly the largest untouched reservoir of oil on the planet. During his briefing though, he is interrupted by Primate Paleontologist Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) who stowed away on the ship. Jack states that the island may have been visited in the past and that the fog bank may be caused by an undocumented giant beast. Believing him to be a spy, Wilson has him locked up. While being escorted away, he spots a life raft. On the raft is Dwan (Jessica Lange), a young aspiring actress who was on a boat belonging to a director which sank. Wilson does some digging into Prescott, discovers he is telling the truth as to who he is and appoints him the expedition’s official photographer. Eventually, the ship reaches the fabled island surrounded by a fog bank. Wilson along with Dwan, Prescott, oil expert Roy Bagley (Rene Auberjonois), First mate Carnahan (Ed Lauter), sailors Joe (Jack O’Halloran), Garcia (Jorge Moreno) and Boan (Julius Harris), land on the island to have a quick explore, and discover a giant wall made of tree logs. Wilson still believes the island to be deserted, but then the group hears music.
Venturing inside, they find a ceremony taking place with a man dressed as an ape (Keny Long). The island villagers though spot the group and demand they hand over Dwan. The group beats a quick retreat, but that night a group of villagers steals Dwan from off the boat. Finding evidence of the villager’s presence, Prescott runs to get help, and soon the sailors arrive on the island. Too late however, Dwan, under some kind of drug is put into the same ceremony the group saw earlier, with the villagers chanting the name KONG. Eventually the big doors are opened and she is tied to an altar beyond the wall. With the villagers still chanting, something big approaches the village, smashing and pulling down trees in its wake. Eventually, it appears in full view to be a giant Gorilla. It snatches Dwan and takes her into the jungle. Prescott and the others arrive too late to save her, but after Wilson falls into the creature’s footprint, Prescott, Carnahan and some of the sailors head into the jungle to rescue her.
The following morning, Dwan tries several attempts to get away from Kong, but besotted with his new bride, Kong won’t let her go. He begins to soften to her constant ramblings and when she falls into some mud, he takes her to a waterfall to get clean and uses his great lungs to blow her dry. Prescott, Carnahan and the others continue to look for Dwan with no luck. Wilson meanwhile finds out from Bagley that the oil in the pool at the village needs roughly another 10,000 years before it is anywhere near ready to be put into people’s cars. Wilson annoyed with this takes inspiration from an Esso slogan and decides to try and capture Kong to be the company’s new mascot. While still out searching for Kong, Prescott and the others encounter Kong who dispatches most of the team dropping them into a large ravine. Prescott survives and continues looking for Dwan, while Boan reports back to Wilson. Back at the village, Wilson puts the men to work building a ‘monkey trap’. At his mountain lair, Kong tries to undress Dwan, but is then attacked by a giant rattlesnake. While Kong battles the Snake, Dwan is rescued by Prescott who both then flee to the village. Upon defeating the creature, Kong follows them back to the village where he falls into the pit and is knocked out by chloroform.
Kong is locked away in a large tank on a Petrox Oil Tanker and causes trouble for everyone on board. Dwan though manages to calm him down. In New York, Kong is put on display and Dwan is cast as his bride to be. Prescott however has had enough and leaves, but stays round long enough to watch the show. The show opens with a giant petrol pump containing Kong held in a cage and with a crown on his head. Upon seeing Dwan harassed by reporters, King Kong breaks free of his supposed ‘escape proof cage’ and runs amok. Everyone attending the show runs for their life, several of them, including Wilson getting crushed under his huge feet. Prescott and Dwan manage to evade Kong, although the Ape’s attempts to find Dwan nearly get them caught. The military begins closing off the bridges to Manhattan and Prescott and Dwan manage to cross over the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan before going into an abandoned bar. Prescott, realising that the Twin Towers look a lot like the mountainous terrain of Kong’s Lair calls the mayor’s office and tells them where Kong is heading so he can be safely captured. Kong however finds Dwan and takes her out of the bar and heads for the Twin Towers. Upon reaching the World Trade Centre buildings, Kong climbs to the top with Dwan. Prescott chases after them taking the lifts, but is however unable to get onto the roof. The military pursue Kong up the building and attack him with flamethrowers. Kong jumps across to the roof of the other building and dispatches the guards. He is however then attacked by a squadron of attack helicopters. He puts up a fight, but in the end its pointless and he collapses before falling to the ground. Dwan goes down to comfort him, but he dies from his wounds. The crowds surround the carcass of Kong while Dwan is harassed by reporters and though he attempts to help, Prescott is unable to reach her.
It may not come as much of a surprise to either the people I know or the readers of this blog, that I am a fan of Monster Movies. It is a pretty solid fact with plenty of evidence. King Kong as a Movie Monster is not one I think regularly about in comparison to say Godzilla; however, this film in particular is real close to my heart. Ok, yes, it was the first time I had ever seen a King Kong film back when I watched it in 1998. Since seeing this film several times I have come to love it with a passion and consider it one of the very best Monster Movies of the lot. I have of course seen the other 2 versions of King Kong, but the thing is the one I talk about the most, and have enjoyed the most remains to be this one. Could it be that it was the first one I saw; perhaps, but the thing is, I truly love this film every time I see it.
King Kong 1976 is a very different film compared to its original predecessor; however there are snippets to the original one plus things that have not changed at all. Starting with the obvious, it’s set in modern times. Now while it may have been set in the New York of 40 years ago, the look of New York City hasn’t really changed all that much since. It’s still as modern then as it is now. The setting is modern, the vehicles are modern. What it’s basically doing is grabbing a classic story form the 1930’s, and doing it all over again but setting it in the here and now. It’s not like Peter Jackson who just remade the original film (although how he was able to make a 3+ hour-long movie out of what was originally an hour and forty minutes remains a complete mystery) in the same period. This film, remakes, but puts it in a time that is easier for the audience to connect with and believe, and feel like it could happen to or around them. It makes 2005 look just like a film, whereas this feels like an experience. Out goes the story of the film maker, in comes the greedy oil tycoons. Yet another piece of modern belief; out goes exploration, in comes discovery but only when it sort of latches onto a more profound statement of the world today. The need and desire of energy in a world that is losing it, Man’s Greeds and Needs in a dying world only to find something completely primitive but still incredibly dangerous. The story of greedy oil tycoon’s works in quite well and is constantly mentioned; even to point out the marketing campaigns of other companies and how this inspires the film’s dodgy oil executive. Other major changes of course lead us to the use of not the Empire State Building, but the now non-existent World Trade Centre buildings. Why these buildings instead of the Empire? I think it’s because that at the time those buildings were brand new but also far taller than the Empire, and so to continue to amaze the audience, who are already amazed by the figure of a Giant Ape, amaze them more with having said ape climb to the top of the Tallest buildings in the city instead. The incorporation of these building’s is of course handled in the story early on, but does not lead anywhere until the film’s final act. These changes are of course worked into what is basically the same story as the film that precedes it but are once again adapted into the story, so that in its bones it is the same film; but on the surface, it is technically very different in the raw core if not necessarily in the already visible flesh.
The setting of this film is not held down to just New York of course. King Kong as an idea is not one to come knocking on your roof. Kong is always a creature that needs to be discovered, his original appearance came about in a film that was before the time that Monsters started coming to cities instead of brought. One, Kong is less a force of nature but still not technically just an animal, and why on earth would he want to go to the city if he is happy where he is, on an island worshipped as a God? To this end, we go to an island, an island in the middle of a giant fog bank that keeps the island a secret until someone finds it. On which we find a tribe, a lost tribe, one who has no knowledge nor care for the outside world. The tribe has its own culture, beliefs, and ethos. Once though that this is threatened, they demand some form of penance, and go out of their way to get it. They then use this to their advantage to pull off a major marriage ceremony by putting this form of penance against an outside tribe in a relationship with their God. This God is part of their world, one they fear, but one that they believe carries a level of Magic and belief and brings them down to a real humble level, when he gets captured. From there the island does not look like much, until along comes 1: A Giant Ape, and 2: A Giant Snake. Apart from that, the island looks like some kind of haven like it would be a nice holiday resort (and one I have seen in at least one film since, it’s so obvious it’s that location). This island though has character to it. It’s a lost part of a planet that we have already covered and know so much about. It has a very primitive but still well thought out tribe with a deep culture, and on this hidden island, are hidden secrets. From the lost tribe to the island’s great King, it has a lot. But maybe it was hidden and lost for a reason, because the island contains special elements, special things that we have come to squander and take for granted, in as such this film is not just showing us the raw power of nature, but also shows us what we have lost, and that maybe we don’t deserve any of what we have, and that for the sake of history, one small bit should remain preserved for all time.
Now that’s the profound stuff out the way, let’s get to the characters. This film does hold something of a barrage of acting talent of people who were either already stand outs at the time of production to those who have become stand outs since. Now there is quite a lot of small tertiary and secondary characters who deserve some talking time, so that’s where we’ll start. Most of these (well, in fact I think all of these) were with the crew on the Petrox Explorer, but later on the film you do get one or two people. From an army commander watching Kong head to the final show ground (the bit where the lights come back on behind him, in some kind of old roman looking archway), to the rather entertaining helicopter pilot (George Whiteman) leading the attack on Kong, to the political governor character (John Agar) who shows no real sympathy, at least from me. But in turn you do get really good stand outs from the ship’s crew. Leading the pack is Carnahan who throughout his time alive in this film portrays this nice secondary and respectful character who is a real on-screen joy to watch. Along with him you also get sailors Joe, Garcia and Boan, with Boan being the only one to survive, however, all of these guys get a good time in and produce some really cool mini scenes even if most of these have nothing to do with the plot. Similarly, the ship’s radio operator has a nice early on scene but is not really seen since. In a similar fashion this leads us up to the ship captain. He is strangely very entertaining as well as a strong figure-head that consists to produce a level headed approach and provide some of the only real sanity this film has. Much the same could be said for Bagley who; one the one hand is the film’s scientific advisor but not in the sense of apes, more on the subject of oil. Both characters carry some level of wit but are not comedy installations, more the voices of reason to bring the film down from the high edges of ridiculous to the point of sanity once more. Although these two are sort of on other sides of the coin, the captain is more respectful, while Bagley is a little wild, but both carry a real enjoyment factor that they are two characters you do not want to ignore.
Then on to that we have our 3 main leads. Charles Grodin’s character of Fred Wilson is quite a fun character. He is not really defined as hero or villain. What he is really is something of a diva. Someone who desires and demands the spotlight and is to go far out to show how he needs wants and deserves more. He sort of gets more atrocious as the film goes on, but he carries this amazing presence throughout, so that even if he becomes a villain, he is too likeable and you just let it go. He’s like a nice chap, someone you could be really good friends with. He’s sort of like Dr. Cox in his funny wild moments, and sort of keeps that energy going despite the scene intentions. I don’t know if that was the intention, but it works and I like it. Which is more than can be said for Dwan! Dwan is something like a bottle of champagne. She is someone who has a cork that is itching to blow, but when it does, she can’t stop fizzing. I find it very hard to understand anything she says or does, and is in one sense like Tanya Roberts in A View to a Kill, in that she is more a screech, not scream, Queen and doesn’t know when to stop. He place in the story though presents itself differently. Unlike her acting, she creates something of a double tragedy. A forbidden love between her and Kong creates an ending where his love for her brings him and her to a fall, and the real love of her life, is one that finds it hard to control or persist for. In turn, this creates a double tragedy; tragedy for her and Kong…..while Jack looks on. Jeff Bridges meanwhile is the film’s real anchor and lead. He is someone who’s just generally a nicely going guy who has an interest and knowledge of the island and persists to go. He makes friends quickly, even though he and Grodin tussle a bit, but quickly persists to help Dwan, not knowing what he is getting himself into. In the end, he has no idea what to do with her, and love does not win or succeed, it just sort of perishes under the weight of emotion. Throughout though, Bridges persists to provide a character who is fun-loving, but still a serious counter balance against the antics of those around him. One who understands the seriousness of the situation, and works hard to maintain a professional but still caring attitude. He is sort of a Jack of all trades in his chosen field of study, and in that, helms this film rather nicely, if in the end providing a dark temper as he goes.
When I think of King Kong, just imagine him in my head the first thing that usually comes to mind is the scene where Jessica Lange is sacrificed to the great ape, and Kong walks through the forest, pulling down trees and yelling at his high voice. This for me is what King Kong is supposed to be like, not some generally big animal like gorilla, but something more God like, something that is not necessarily a force of nature, but still a powerhouse of a creature, one so special that he does not act like a normal animal. Here, we have one that stands and walks upright like a person. That scene at the wall is one I like a lot, as it is the first time we see Kong, and first impressions are important. So we see him, just his face or back of his head, then towering over Dwan, shouting and yelling before grabbing her then simply walking away. This first impression though gives us one important point of imagery; that in the way he is posing. By standing upright he looks big, he looks strong, he looks powerful. TO explain that further one could point to how George Bush (the recent one) used to put his arms out to the side, like a monkey of sorts, but it makes him look bigger and more powerful as a result. But the clearest way of saying that is to think of times when Animals are scared of things bigger than they are. By having Kong positioned like this, he looks daunting and un-nerving, but also makes you already consider that he is more than simply an ape. Kong though is not just about power. In here, we get a sample of behavior that he expresses which in turn shows what he is like deep inside. Yes, he is besotted by his bride to be, but he cares for her, even offers her a shower and blows her dry. Yet, his inner instinct is very man like as later on he tries to undress her, giving in to a more primitive man like temptation to desire what is underneath. Could it be that his signs off affection are selfishness, or could it be that he is looking for a way to connect to be closer to her? He shows great levels of defense for her too; even to defend her from a Giant Rattlesnake and even the Press, but this could once again be him, trying to keep hold of her for himself. However, this relationship is far more believable, as she can see it’s not going to work (where as for some reason Naomi Watts seemed to be actually falling in love with Kong, like that Simpsons episode). But that is not say that he does not understand that, but in the end, she does show a level of sympathy to his death, as it was really for her that he did die.
King Kong as a film utilizes of course a large level of special effects to pull off what is a very big film. These could be considered relatively primitive to today’s output, but, for the most part, still work. Kong is of course a Suit, but a pretty good suit, in fact it’s very lifelike, and supposedly because the now legendary Rick Baker, (and Peter Cullen, and Will Shephard) a human is in the suit (Cullen did voice), the actions are very lifelike. All the scenes containing the suit are incredibly well done and really go far to present the image of an ape that big actually being in existence. Scenes such as tearing down the gate, bursting through the trees at the introduction as well as the chase aftermath, and even climbing the Twin Towers. It looks real, because it is a real suit, in a real shot and being performed (by evolutionary standards) by a descendant or at least relative of apes like Kong. Combine that though, with other stand out moments of special effects that were revolutionary for their time and you still gets some interesting perspectives that just enhance the film further. Things like the staging of people on a wall, looking down on a suit that is as big as the wall and is still tearing down trees. That shot only appears a couple of times but is a nice detailed shot that makes you think that you are really there.
Similar moments of staging happen earlier on when Kong goes after Wilson at the first wall, or when at the second wall, Kong can be seen walking on and through the crowd from a low-level shot. Sadly, this is not continued throughout, why, because, well, for the sake of the film, a large full size animatronic was built for scenes where they felt that might not be achievable. But the thing with that is, is that it’s obvious when the scene changes to show the large animatronic instead, I don’t even need to point them out, just look for them, it’s easy. All though, I would say that the animatronic hand of Kong, is actually pretty good and is able to convey enough fluid movement to look real, and those scenes where it’s just the hand and arm, look fabulous, yet similarly terrifying. Altogether the design for Kong is fantastic, and at times can look incredibly terrifying when the scene demands it, but also rather humbling. While those effects are one thing, the film does have moments when it suffers from others. The only one that really gripes me enough is some use of fake backgrounds, which just look atrocious. The film especially in the New York scenes works hard to convey an empty city, one under panic and horror from the might of the situation, but some scenes sort of rid themselves of either set pieces or staging, and instead layout a near 2D image of an island view or city street. If it wasn’t for the content in the middle, the shots would be pure ugly. These moments are rare but also sadly noticeable, and even worse, as Kong climbs the tower, they use real shots of the beautiful city scape of New York in the background to provide real perspective. So why they couldn’t have done that earlier is anyone’s guess, because those shots are beautiful and in the end, more of those could have been great. But like I said, those situations are only rare.
What isn’t rare though thankfully is the film’s soundtrack composed by the iconic John Barry. The film has different tunes all the way through, but manifestly it uses and carries three distinct pieces of music which it sort of adapts all the way through. Sometimes they are mixed in, but in the end, we get three rather interesting tunes. One is the Romantic Theme which is used in spots of light moments between Dwan and Kong and Dwan and Jack. It’s pretty simple but it sort of works and is positively not over the top, or camp. It’s more of a filler, but it’s used wantonly throughout. The second starts and builds from the islanders chanting. It stays this way for a bit, but then builds from that each time it’s used and becomes the main Destruction Theme for all rampages involving Kong, especially his arrival. The third though, is my all-time Favourite. The soundtrack does have its moments of irregularity. The main theme is a combination of most while trying to continue a sense of both wonder and amazement. On the other hand though you get things like the parade music which then leads into a sweet near electronic disco sort of piece which is a nice break, but rather bright compared to the scene of Dwan and Kong in the Ship’s Tank where there is a real Baroque heavy pounding tune probably from a brass section which really sticks in your mind and brings feeling to an even darker situation and is used again when Kong begins the climb. The third distinct piece though, is different to all the rest, as it’s this near replica to all villains residing in an inner sanctum playing an organ. This Organ Theme is used a lot, but I really like it. It’s on show the most when Kong arrives into the city arena and it builds, but for the brief few seconds that it plays, it has this real level of feeling about it. It’s not dark, it’s not bright. It’s chilling, like something is coming, possibly wearing a cape, coming, but taking its time, time for you to behold their presence before it brings you your doom. It’s a real nice theme, chilling, yes, but nice.
I regard this film as one of the all-time best Monster Movies. Its many things really, all of which I have gone into. Many of the people involved in this film I have found were either successful when it came out or have gone onto become successes in their field not forgetting the Prolific John Guillermin, the Powerhouse Dino De Laurentiis and the Iconic John Barry. It contains a nice select and enjoyable group of actors, which together with the filmmakers produce one of the best adaptations of classic film making to date. Posting it in a more believable modern and realistic setting and in turn make it feel like something that could really take place in our world; all the while, not forgetting the true star of the film, in turn bringing new life and a new audience while also creating new memories that are still true, as today as it did 40 years ago. King Kong, remains one of my favourite Monster Movies, and is one that I will always cherish and give time for when it is shown on TV, and more bizarrely is a film I end up having dreams about on a more consistently regular basis. I love this film; with as near a passion as King Kong loves a beautiful lady, and for me, at least for the time being, will remain, the real and true; King Kong.