King Kong (1976)

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*. This movie had a very mixed reception when it came out, and it continues to have a very mixed reputation (among those, increasingly few, who have actually seen it). A lot of big name critics quite enjoyed it. Just listen, for example, to Pauline Kael: “I wanted a good time from this movie, and that’s what I got. It’s a romantic adventure fantasy — colossal, silly, touching, a marvellous Classics-comics movie.”
*. I don’t know if I’ve said it before, but if not I’ll say it here: Kael was a great writer and always interesting, but she had no taste.
*. Kael wasn’t the only one who liked this movie though. Richard Schickel gave it an endorsement (“the special effects are marvelous”) and so did Roger Ebert. Critics seemed to enjoy the whole “comic book” sensibility it provided. I wonder if they’d feel the same way today, when this sensibility has become so dominant.

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*. But the movie has many detractors as well. The split is pretty even. It won a Golden Turkey Award for “The Biggest Ripoff in Hollywood History,” and was apparently a leading vote-getter for the Medved brothers’ polling for the Worst Film of All Time.
*. Here’s my take: given the poor Kong effects (pace Schickel) I think this movie is about as good as it could have been. The island scenery is very nice. The script isn’t all bad (Charles Grodin doesn’t want to get “eaten alive . . . by mosquitoes” when he arrives on Skull Island), and the three (human) leads are decent. Jeff Bridges looks suitably leonine as the green crusader, but is in danger of being devoured in some scenes by the coltish Jessica Lange (whose career was set back a few years by this debut). Meanwhile, Grodin always does a good job in supporting roles.

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*. It is, however, much too long (with the two-part televised version running 45 minutes longer!), and the special effects are terrible. You can’t make a guy in a gorilla suit look like anything but a guy in a gorilla suit, and Kong is a guy (Rick Baker) in a gorilla suit. The giant mechanical Kong they built is hardly seen and when it is it looks ridiculous. Finally, the blue-screen effects are awful, with really bad burning and scaling problems. Honestly, O’Brien’s effects are better in every regard.

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*. It might have been a very different film. Sam Peckinpah, Steven Spielberg, and Roman Polanski (!) were all considered at one time to direct. As for Dwan, she might have been played by Meryl Streep (who De Laurentiis nixed because she was “too ugly”), Barbara Streisand (?), Bo Derek (she’d have her chance to play opposite Tarzan in just a bit), Britt Ekland, or Melanie Griffith.

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*. I do like the way Lange’s Dwan is saved because she didn’t want to watch a movie with her producer/sugar daddy. The movie was Deep Throat. The dirty bastard! Oh well, it was the age of porn chic.
*. Kong’s agony on the World Trade Center is decently rendered (Baker did do a good job with Kong’s face to make it more expressive, the one big improvement over the original), but again the blue-screen work and modeling lets it down. And overall there are just too many big leaps in the plot, especially at the end. How the hell does Kong find Dwan in that bar? Does he smell her out? How does he leap from the top of one World Trade Center building to the top of the other? How does Dwan manage to hold on? How do Bridges and Lange get down from the top of the World Trade Center so fast and then get let through the crowd around the dead Kong so easily?
*. It seems like such an odd film today: an epic that is undone mainly because of how cheap it looks, and effects that are huge but dated. You’ll never see a movie like this again, and that’s probably a good thing.

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4 thoughts on “King Kong (1976)

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Thanks for mentioning that. It’s really good. I remember it stuck in my head for a long time, thirty years ago. In fact, it was what I was most looking forward to on this re-watch.

      Reply
  1. Darryl M. Haase

    Toho and Planet of the Apes were the only ape type costumes and masks which preceded Rick Baker’s work on KONG, so in that respect, Baker’s work is outstanding. Take a look at APE (1976) and QUEEN KONG (1976) to see truly terrible special effects. Besides, a few months later STARS WARS would make EVERYTHING before it seem dated. 1976 KONG was a critical and financial success and its reputation suffered thanks to the head of Paramount complaining at a board meeting that it didn’t do as well as JAWS. Nothing can top the 1933 original; even Peter Jackson’s technically impressive, but uneven, overlong, bloated leviathan.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      Thanks Darryl. I’d put in a good word for the ape costumes at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Those have held up pretty well. I also like Kong’s face in this movie, the one big improvement I mention that Baker made (and something I thought Jackson handled well, using different technology). I still think this version is worth watching, in part just because you’ll never see a big-budget blockbuster made like this again.

      Reply

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