Some movies that get panned by critics really aren’t bad. Some of them are terrible. The Final Verdict is a column that’s all about discovering the truth and having the final say on the matter. Don’t take it too seriously. This edition will focus on the much-maligned King Kong 1976.
I can’t claim that my enjoyment of the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis produced version of King Kong is objective. It is one of my earliest movie memories and certainly my first encounter with the great ape. I don’t even know for sure how I saw it the first time, but I imagine it must have been on network television sometime in the early ’80s. I very clearly remember being mesmerized by the poster, created by artist John Berkey, of a roaring Kong straddling the space between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, a woman in one hand, a smashed aeroplane in the other. I tried multiple times to recreate that image on the drawing pads that I was constantly hunched over as a child. Certain parts of the movie scared me, but I also remember being remarkably sad when Kong lay dead in the street at the foot of the World Trade Center. Since then, Kong has always held a special place in my heart. Seeing this iteration of Kong again after many, many years, I am much more open to seeing its shortcomings. However, I still think it has a lot going for it.
The most obvious strength of this version of King Kong is its stellar cast lead by Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, and Charles Grodin. Of these three, Jessica Lange faced quite a bit of backlash for her performance at the time, so much so that she left the industry for a few years to take acting lessons. She returned to great acclaim in 1982 for her role in Tootsie, but there is really nothing wrong with her performance in King Kong. The issues stem from problems with the character itself, but we’ll talk about that a bit later. Lange is particularly good in the scenes between just herself and Kong. For the most part, she is being held in a giant mechanical hand and acting against a blue screen in these sequences, but completely sells the illusion. She frankly has the most difficult role in the film and pulls it off beautifully, striking the fine balance between fear of Kong and the forming of an emotional bond.
The rest of the cast is fully aware of the movie they are in and having a great time doing it. Bridges is something of an odd choice for a leading man in a film like this, but the energy and craft he brings to every performance is here along with a touch of what would eventually become the Dude. As oil tycoon Fred S. Wilson, Charles Grodin leans into his villain role with gusto, falling just short of actually twirling his moustache. He may be something of a caricature, but it’s exactly what audiences wanted to see in an oil baron in the mid-’70s. Other cast notables are René Auberjonois as a geologist and cohort of Wilson, John Randolph as the ship’s captain, Julius Harris as Boan, Jack O’Halloran as Joe, and Ed Lauter as Carnahan. There are a lot of things that can be said against this movie, but its cast is not one of them.
One other key player is Kong himself and the man behind him—Rick Baker. Though the great Carlo Rambaldi, who would go on to create creature effects for Alien and E.T., is credited as the designer, Baker does a great deal to bring Kong to life. What the entirety of his “special contribution” was may never be known, but we do know that it is Baker himself in the Kong suit. Between Baker’s body language and the surprisingly advanced facial expressions of the mechanical face, Kong is a complete character. Baker’s own eyes (presumably with contact lenses) are used, giving a power to the performance. Related to this is the full-sized hand used in many shots. It is nearly as impressive an achievement as the costume itself. Not everything works entirely when it comes to Kong but for the most part, the work still holds up 45 years later.
There is some truly excellent filmmaking on Skull Island as well. Filmed in Hawaii, the scale of the mountains and cliffs of the island are beautiful and impressive, giving a sense of the insignificance of humanity against the awesomeness of nature. On another technical point, the score by John Barry is…alright. It may not be particularly memorable, but it works for the film on the whole. So, there are definite pluses to the film, but there is a lot more to discuss.
The biggest problems of King Kong are in the script and lacklustre direction. The biggest script issues have to do with Jessica Lange’s character. It is clear that screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. has no idea how to write a good female character. Her motivations, bizarre dialogue, and even her name all work against her in the film. Unfortunately, this had a negative impact on Jessica Lange’s career as she very unfairly received much of the backlash for the film’s failures. As noted before, Lange is good in the movie, her character is just rather poorly written. Even her arrival on the ship itself is so strange and unlikely that it reeks of bad writing. Out of the blue, the most beautiful woman in the world just happens to float into the sights of this oil ship in a tiny raft. There is a brief mention of a maid ai call early in the voyage, but then she happens to be spotted by the guy who isn’t supposed to be on the ship at a moment that he is attempting to escape from being confined as a stowaway. When she says she doesn’t remember what happened, the Captain answers, “by some miracle ma’am, a life raft was blown overboard near you that was self-inflating with an automatic flare.” First of all, that’s quite a coincidence. Second of all, how could he possibly know that?
The dialogue is a mixed bag. There are several moments that are quite funny in the right hands, but others just come across as silly. Dwan seems to be a caricature of a certain type of mid-’70s, California socialite that Semple didn’t like, further making Lange’s job very difficult indeed. The constant references to her horoscope are an element of this and lead to the most heavy-handed moment of foreshadowing in the film. As she is about to board an excursion boat to Skull Island, Dwan says, “my horoscope said I was going to cross over water and meet he biggest person in my life.” This is a forehead-slapping moment and just one example of the problems with script and dialogue.
Next is the most troublesome issue that ends up in just about every King Kong movie: casual racism. As in other versions, the island natives are treated as broad stereotypes. The fact that they seem to be of African descent doesn’t make much sense in the first place as Skull Island is in the South Pacific. The rituals are the kinds of tired clichés of tribal cultures that have been unfortunately displayed on film since the early days of movies. This is really something inherited from the 1933 film and carried over into 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla. Perhaps the filmmakers could have avoided this by consulting members of the Pacific Islander community and developing these sequences alongside them, but it’s hard to say for sure.
Finally, many of the special effects simply do not hold up. Matte lines and blurry background plates abound throughout the film but not necessarily more than in other special effects-heavy films of the era. Far more distracting are elements like the giant snake, which looks pretty ridiculous, especially in comparison to Kong. Apparently, Dino De Laurentiis insisted and even advertised that Kong was not a man in a suit but a full-size, fully-functional animatronic, something like the mechanical shark in Jaws taken to a brand-new level. Even today this would be extremely difficult and certainly impractical. In 1976, it was impossible. A giant (and immobile) Kong animatronic was built, but thankfully, only appears in a few shots in the film for only seconds at a time. It doesn’t look much like the costume and its movements are unnaturally slow. It seems that a great deal of the special effects budget for the film was blown on this monstrosity.
A couple of nitpicks are that the film is about 15 or 20 minutes too long. Several things could be lifted right out and never missed. It is not necessarily that it is long, it is just not always well-paced. In comparison to the 1933 original and the 2005 Peter Jackson remake, Skull Island is enormously dull. It seems to only be inhabited by Kong, a giant snake, and the small band of natives. Otherwise, there isn’t a mystery or wonder like what is very much present in the other two versions.
The Final Verdict
For all its faults, I still enjoy this version of King Kong quite a bit. It may not enthral me the way it did when I was a kid, but I still find a lot to like. Most of the actors are having a great time and are a great joy to watch. I love the look and performance of Kong in this film. Even the missteps with Kong (monkey-breath anyone?) are endearing in their way. Ultimately, at the end of the film, I still find myself very moved by his death. The emotion and bond that Lange and Baker convey through their performances is still touching and feels authentic. It’s the performances, the characters, and the sense of truth in their interactions that hold up best about King Kong. Because they still work, the film as a whole still works. This King Kong will probably never be my favourite version, but it is one that I will continue to revisit—both for nostalgic reasons and reasons that go beyond nostalgia. Is it a great film? No. Is it uneven? For sure. Does it still speak to me and move me? Absolutely. And with a fun, mid-’70s popcorn movie, you can do a lot worse than that.
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