King Kong (1976): Urbane Gorilla

Kong enjoys some private time with Jessica Lange

King Kong (1976)
***
Rating: PG
Run Time: 2 hours 14 minutes
Stars: Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, Jessica Lange
Writer: James Ashmore Creelman (Based on 1933 screenplay)
Director: John Guillerman

This review appeared in the January 27, 1977 edition of Critiques, the arts supplement to the Rutgers Daily Targum 

By the time you read this, enough copy will already have been written about Dino DeLaurnetiis’ production of King Kong to keep the magnificent monkey himself buried in typewriter ribbons. 

Thus far, among the things, he has been called  symbol of mankind’s rape of natural resources, a political foreshadowing of a coming world war, and the personification of that real-life monster, the American city. Writing in National Review, Hugh Kenner went so far as to expose Kong as a remake of Milton’s “Paradise Lost.“

Kong has got to be, and probably is, any or all of these things, because as a monster film, it certainly doesn’t cut the mustard. Neither did the 1933 original.  Neither one is all that scary. So much effort goes into making the monster lovable and, most importantly, pitiable, that we forget how terrified we are supposed to be. At least the original had Kong chew up an occasional native or subway rider. Paramount’s new widescreen ape is, comparatively, as menacing as a big, fluffy sheep dog. 

What we get then, is (with apologies to Patty Hearst), an urbane gorilla who would, if he could speak above an occasional growl, say “Please” before  making off with  a screaming and scantily-clad Jessica Lange. With the aid of some astounding special facial effects, Kong can look curious, infuriated, confused. He can even smile with a big, toothy grin. 

Is this a monster?  Of course not. Monsters are mechanical, thoughtless creatures who make little kids spill their popcorn. The only popcorn I saw spilled during Kong was when the monster partially undressed the heroine. And that guy was no little kid.

Still, if Kong is not scary, then at least it is entertaining. The characters each pursue their individual vices with jolly good humor. The Princeton professor (played by Jeff Bridges, and why do they always have to be from Princeton?) selflessly seeks the source of an age-old monkey myth. He stows away on an oil company ship bound for Skull Island, where Ape and Oil await. He is discovered by the executive in charge of the operation (Charles Grodin), who designates him the official photographer for the expedition, because that is apparently what you do with stowaways. 

It’s here that the story begins to break down. The executive, who is supposed to be a whiz at this sort of thing, has brought along three thousand dollars worth of photo equipment, but not anyone who knows how to use it. Luckily for him, it just so happens that Mr. Princeton Professor is also an ace photographer. Ah-Ha!

Lange is the beautiful woman who, in another hard-to-absorb coincidence, is found adrift in the middle of the ocean. She is soon torn between her love for the Princeton professor and for the ape (not much of a choice, I’ll admit, but in another unrealistic plot twist the Princeton guy wins out). 

Director John Guillermin is very careful not to allow any of his actors to out-play the ape. They give generally flat performances, their main triumph coming as they manage not to act too embarrassed by the silly dialogue. 

Ah, yes, a word about the dialogue. The script is self-consciously contemporary, with an occasional not-too-offensive vulgarism (Lange goes so far as to pound at the leering Kong and scream, “You male chauvinist ape!”). 

One cannot help burtrecall the original Kong, and how in the early 1930s everyone in Hollywood was so enthralled with sound in film that they felt obliged to jam in as much spoken word as they could. So we found Robert Armstrong turning to Bruce Cabot and spitting out gems like, “I’ve seen it before: A swell egg like you gets a look at a pretty girl, then he cracks up and goes sappy.” 

Now, that’s dialogue!

And so the ape is taken to New York City, where he is to become the centerpiece of a huge oil company promotional campaign — after all, when you think of petroleum products, you think of a monkey the size of an apartment building. It is notable that, from the South Pacific, Kong is taken to far-away New York rather than the more convenient Los Angeles. This confirms the suspicion that King Kong is a Metropolitan New York Monster. Let’s face it: When it comes to monsters, L.A. is out. They always head straight for Manhattan or Tokyo. And if you happen to live in Tokyo, you can just forget it — there are just about as many monsters living there these days as people. 

Kong, of course, goes ape during a show at Shea Stadium (probably after getting a glimpse of Lindsey Nelson’s latest sports jacket). The National Guard immediately blocks all the bridges to New York, not once thinking the charging chimp might wade across the East River. Which he does. 

Clutching a rather upset Jessica Lange in one hand, Kong scales the World Trade Center, and it’s not giving anything away to say it is there that he meets an untimely end in a  shower of ape blood that would make Sam Peckinpah cringe. 

For those unfortunate — or foolish — enough to have never seen the original Kong, this new production provides a worthy substitute. Watching a monster on a rampage is always exciting, and director Guillerman does a good job of keeping us somewhat interested in the foibles of the human characters. 

But the real star of this Kong, as of the older one, is an idea: A powerful imaginative concept in the form of a huge, prehistoric being returning to punish modern man for messing with Mother Nature. Dino DeLaurentiis spent millions upon millions building a bigger and better monster — but in the end the new one is no more impressive or frightening than the jerky, Gumby-like creation of four decades ago.

This is not to minimize the latter’s accomplishment. If it takes a $40 million remake to get people’s imaginations churning again, then I suppose it was worth every penny. 

Published by

Bill Newcott

Award-Winning Film Critic, Columnist, TV Host and Creator of AARP's Movies For Grownups, Bill writes for publications including National Geographic, The Saturday Evening Post, Delaware Beach Life, Alaska Beyond and Northwest Travel.

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