Sunday, April 19, 2015

From the Archive: The Films of 1976: King Kong



Over a decade ago, I had a strange professional experience. The editor on a book I wrote about a classic British science-fiction TV series marked out in red ink every single reference I made in my text to the 1976 version of King Kong. 

As explanation, the editor opined that such a “bomb” could not be discussed as part of legitimate King Kong history.  If I needed to refer to King Kong, then the 1933 film would do just fine.

This anecdote reveals two things.

First, it exposes how editors can impress their own viewpoints and biases on a manuscript. 

Secondly -- and more relevantly for this review --  this story suggests the depth of hatred the Dino De Laurentiis King Kong remake has aroused over the long decades since it premiered.  The film is apparently not only “a bomb,” but it should actually be erased from the history books and our collective cultural memory.  You…can’t…even…write…about…it.

As you may have guessed, I disagree with the questionable conventional wisdom that King Kong (1976) is a bomb, and one unworthy of debate, examination, and analysis.

In the first case, the film grossed over eighty million dollars worldwide on a budget of twenty-four million dollars, with a marketing budget of fifteen million.  King Kong thus cleared its budget and turned a nifty profit, especially in 1970s terms.  In fact, the remake had approximately the same opening weekend gross as Jaws (1975), about seven million dollars. 

So financially speaking, King Kong was definitively not a bomb. The industry expectation recounted in various articles of the day (including in Time Magazine) established that the film should gross between fifty and one hundred million dollars.  Receipts landed just about in the middle of that ballpark, with eighty million.


And in terms of critical response, was King Kong really a bomb?

Critic Pauline Kael certainly didn’t think so.  She wrote in The New Yorker that the new King Kong was a “romantic adventure fantasy – colossal, silly, touching” and even termed it an “absurdist love story.”

Meanwhile, Time Magazine called the film a “confidently conceived, exuberantly executed work of popular movie art.”  

Roger Ebert also praised the film (and gave it “thumbs up” rating) during a 1976 episode of Sneak 
Previews.  Also, the periodical America noted that “in making a comment on the tragedy of the human spirit in an industrialist age, it [the film] speaks directly to and about its audience.”

So while the film undeniably received many negative reviews, it might be more accurate to state that 1976 Kong was controversial, or faced mixed critical reactions.  Those who declared that King Kong was a “bomb” were primarily die-hard fans of the original 1933 film, and members of the protean genre press (the same class that also, incidentally, savaged Space:1999 [1975 – 1977]).

Considering this dynamic and the timing of the film's release, King Kong may actually represent the occasion of the very first “remake” fan war.  As is the case with all remakes, I can see both sides of the debate, but elect to take each remake on a case-by-case basis. Some remakes are worthy and interesting and others...are not.

In the case of King Kong, there are indeed some fascinating aspects of the film to remember and praise.  It’s true that the special effects in the latter half of this Oscar-winning film are an absolute mess, especially in the film’s bungled finale atop the World Trade Center.  And one can only cringe at the craven attempts to sell the man-in-the-monkey suit (Rick Baker) scenes as featuring a giant Kong robot.  Yikes...

Yet -- warts and all -- this King Kong speaks to the 1970s as trenchantly as the original Kong spoke to audiences of the 1930s.   The film contextualizes Kong as an exploited natural resource, as a metaphor for the 1970s Energy Crisis and America’s dependency on petroleum.  And secondly, on a far more personal level, the film comments on the pursuit of fame and its consequences in our modern culture.

I grew up with the 1970s King Kong and thus possess great nostalgic affection for the film.  I’ll be covering 1976 “Kong Mania” here tomorrow afternoon, in my weekly Memory Bank piece, for example.  But childhood affection for it or not, I maintain King Kong is not the “bomb” -- either financially or creatively -- that conventional wisdom has so often suggested.

“Ah, the power of it. Ah, the superpower! Hail to the power! Hail to the power of Kong! And Petrox!” 


In Surabaya, primate researcher Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridge) sneaks aboard the Petrox Explorer as it prepares to set sail for a mysterious destination.  As Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), executive for Petrox Oil explains, he has discovered in the Pacific what he believes is an uninhabited island hidden behind a perpetual fogbank.  Satellite footage suggests the island could be a rich source of oil.

En route to this remote destination, the Petrox Explorer rescues the lone survivor of a yacht explosion, the gorgeous would-be movie star, Dwan (Jessica Lange).  And upon reaching the island, Jack, Fred and Dwan learn that it is indeed inhabited.  The natives who dwell there cower behind a huge wall in fear of a God called Kong,” in actuality a colossal gorilla.

By night, Dwan is abducted by the natives and transformed into a “bride” or human sacrifice for Kong.  But as Dwan soon learns, the giant gorilla is not a dangerous enemy, but a valiant and loyal protector.  The men from the Petrox Explorer set out to rescue Dwan from Kong even as Fred learns that there is no gusher on the island…no oil.  So as to spare his professional reputation and save his job, Wilson decides to capture Kong and bring him back to civilization as a “commercial” for Petrox.

After Kong is captured and brought to New York City, the regal ape breaks free and causes chaos in Manhattan.  Finding Dwan again, Kong carries her to the top of the Twin Towers.  Before long, helicopters armed with machine guns close in for the kill…

“Well, here's to the big one…” 


Leaving behind the context of the 1930s and the Great Depression, King Kong (1976) is truly a remake with a modern spin. The film revolves around the Energy Crisis of the 1970s, particularly the 1973 Oil Crisis. 

As you may recall, that incident occurred when OPEC slashed oil production by five percent and then increased prices dramatically, something on the order of seventy percent.  The Arab organization used this so-called “oil weapon” to protest the U.S. government’s support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War.  

At home, American consumers were soon urged not to be “fuelish” about consumption, and to conserve gasoline.  The embargo was lifted, finally, when the Nixon Administration negotiated an Israeli withdrawal from Sinai.

But the OPEC incident revealed to many Americans the heretofore un-excavated nexus between government action, international relationships, oil companies, and fossil fuel.  If America was to become truly energy independent -- and avoid a repeat Energy Crisis in the process -- it would need to discover and dig up new sources of petroleum.

King Kong (1976) is explicitly about this quest, and the mighty Kong himself stands in -- literally, in one case -- for petroleum; for a precious and exploitable natural resource. 

In the specific scene I mention, Kong is rolled out before an American audience in Manhattan…ensconced inside a giant Petrox gas tank.  It would be foolish to deny the potent symbolism of this imagery. An audience stands in awe of a giant container of gasoline, the very life-line to its twentieth century life-style of leisure and consumption.

But underneath that tank is...what, precisely?

A monster that -- if set free – could threaten or destroy everything in our modern world, here symbolized by the Big Apple

If one stops to consider that the ownership and control of foreign oil has been the precipitating cause of global conflicts on several occasions, one may begin to detect the underlying context of this Kong remake.  The race to possess and control oil could lead not to a world of plenty, but to destruction and chaos.  We try to control oil (or Kong), but look what happens?

Furthering the symbolism, Kong is brought to America inside the vast cargo hold of an oil super tanker, a fact which also visually equates the ape with petroleum, a valuable resource taken from a foreign locale and made to serve American interests.

In the original film, Kong was “the eighth wonder of the world,” an amazing spectacle captured to relieve the boredom and anxiety of a people enmeshed in an economic depression.  

In the 1976 remake, Kong is literally a mascot, a “commercial” (in the words of the script) for an oil company hoping to beat its corporate competition to larger profits.  In fact, a literal comparison is made between Kong and the famous Exxon campaign “put a tiger in your tank.” Only here the royal and regal natural power is embodied by a primate rather than a feline.

In toto, the “Kong as natural resource” angle of the remake works surprisingly well.  Wilson is described aptly in the film as an “environmental rapist” and Prescott worries about what will happen to the island culture once it is bereft of the “energy” (in this case creative and spiritual energy…) that Kong’s presence provides it. Kong is “the juice,” in other words, that powers every aspect of their lives, from organized religion to national security.  When Kong taken from them….does their culture die? What does it run on?

As Richard Eder wrote in The New York Times the impulse to explore, to discover, to bring back something that you’ve discovered - [that which we found in the first King Kong] is now replaced by simple greed – the greed of the oil company representative Fred Wilson, to find a gusher.”

In the same vein, the film is veritably loaded with references to Gulf, Shell and Exxon.  And Skull Island itself is termed in dialogue a “huge tank just waiting for us to twist the top off.”  

The idea expressed, then, is that of out-of-control oil companies hoping to sustain our 20th century life style.  In support of this endeavor, they can travel anywhere in the world, claim natural resources as their own property, and in the process destroy the natural beauty and even the people of those terrains.  The excuse?  “There’s a national energy crisis!,” as Wilson says. 

In charting this dynamic, the remake of King Kong evokes a far more cynical and troubled world than the one dramatized in the original 1930s film.  If the original film is a fairy tale of mythic proportions, the remake is, by contrast, a cautionary tale about a world running out of gas, creatively, spiritually and in terms of natural resources.  It’s a world that hopes to latch onto anything “new,” and exploit it for its monetary value even if that “new” thing is destroyed in the process. Going even further, the decision for Kong to climb the World Trade Center -- a representation of western economic and global powers -- is symbolic in some sense too.  As Time Magazine opined, the film might be seen as a "projection of Western fears of what might happen if the Third World should develop its potential power and fight back."


Menaced, literally, by Big Oil.


Kong comes to America...in an oil tanker.

In the remade Kong, Dwan also fits into the leitmotif about exploitation. She is an aspiring actress who desires, more than anything, to be famous.  Her experience on Skull Island with Kong is Dwan’s ticket to fame, and she realizes it.  Dwan is, in essence, seduced by the possibility of being a “star” and so betrays Kong…the beast who protected her and sheltered her in a dangerous jungle.  By contrast, Prescott possesses the wherewithal to detect Wilson’s exploitation of Kong, and he terms the whole affair a “grotesque farce.” 

But Dwan can’t see or acknowledge the truth fully because she is obsessed with herself, and with fame. 

This idea is woven nimbly into the screenplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.  Early on, we learn that the character changed her name from Dawn to Dwan in order to make it “more memorable,” a sign of the character’s true aspiration to be a celebrity. 

And when Kong is captured, and feeling morose about his captivity, Dwan tells the great beast not to worry, that he’s “going to America to be a star.”  This line also suggests that for Dwan, fame is the highest achievement in our culture. 

Finally, Dwan can’t risk rebelling against Fred’s wishes for her, or else, as Wilson says, “I promise you'll never get another booking in your life. You'll end up tap-dancing at Rotary clubs. This threat of public obscurity keeps Dwan in place as a team member in the “grotesque farce.”  Dwan rarely asks if Kong’s imprisonment and loss of freedom – his exploitation – is an acceptable price for her media super stardom. 

One of the primary reasons I appreciate the artistry of the 1970s King Kong involves the clever blocking and staging of the final scene at the foot of the twin towers.   

Kong is dead and Dwan stands before the cameras at his side, playing up her sadness and tears for maximum press impact.  Prescott attempts to approach Dwan through the crowd of photographers, to rescue her from the paparazzi (just as Kong did earlier, at his unveiling in Manhattan). But then Jack stops short.  A dark expression crosses his face as he recognizes that Dwan is exactly where she wants to be: at the center of attention

The blocking and reaction shot (from Bridges) represent a visual way of establishing a philosophical line of dialogue from the original film, but one not included in the remake.

It was not the planes (or helicopters in this case) that killed Kong.  It was Beauty who killed the Beast.

As the scene continues, the photographers grow so aggressive that even the attention-hungry Dwan looks legitimately disturbed and menaced by their actions.  But both of her dedicated protectors – Kong and Prescott – are now gone.  As flash bulbs explode all around her, Dwan looks dismayed, but the implication is clear.  This is the bed she made for herself, and now she must lie in it

Importantly, Prescott has witnessed another man -- Kong -- destroyed attempting to “protect” Dwan from that which she actively seeks – attention -- and so he, finally, makes a different decision.  He leaves Dwan to the tender mercies of the press.  Thus we leave King Kong on a deliberately down-beat note. There is no happy ending to be found.

For Dwan, it’s be careful what you wish for…you just might get it.  For Jack, it's his realization that everything for Dawn – even the death of Kong – is a thing to be used to further fame and fortune.


Dwan is ready for her close-up?

Jack realizes that she  will always be a fame-seeker


The press is her boyfriend now...and she knows it.
In the years since King Kong premiered, we have, as a nation, descended much deeper into this kind of craven celebrity culture, where truly unworthy people become famous for fifteen minutes for participation in a tragedy, a trauma or a scandal.  King Kong is an early commentary on this facet of modern life, granting Dwan her fifteen minutes of fame at the expense, literally, of a king among animals.  Kong had no concern but to protect Dwan, and was (innocently) unaware that she could not reciprocate emotionally.  In essence, Kong is exploited twice in the film: first by Wilson (as a natural resource) and secondly by Dwan (as a gateway to fame and celebrity).   This depth in terms of narrative strikes me as being more than enough meat for a "monster" movie.

In terms of forging a hypnotic spell, King Kong is quite an intoxicating picture, at least in its first hour or so.  Real locations (in Hawaii, I believe) provide awe-inspiring natural vistas.  There are some shots featured here that are so gorgeous, so unimaginable on a visual scale, that they literally prove jaw-dropping.  One lengthy “zoom out” from a tight shot in a natural canyon suggests a scale far beyond our capability to fully process.  Such visuals seem that much more amazing for having been lensed in the age before digital effects and CGI.  It’s absolutely appropriate that the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

About mid-way through King Kong, the film transitions from real life locations to studio sets that, alas reek of sound-stage fakery. Yet the transition -- while jarring -- may work thematically. In other words, the island seems to turn “uglier” and more claustrophobic as Fred Wilson’s motives for it (and its inhabitants) also turn ugly  As man grows dominant (and Kong comes nearer to man's world), the visuals take a turn for the desolate and despairing.

At first, the island is a place of unfettered beauty and innocence – God’s hand on Earth.  But then, technological, 20th century man shows up to put a stamp on it, and the land itself seems to change, revealing a craggy, hard-edged, ugly and ominous side.  By the time we’ve gotten to Kong’s smoky, desolate lair, Skull Island looks as though it could be a harsh, crater-filled landscape on the moon, or perhaps Mars.  And then, of course, the movie takes us to a REAL jungle...New York City.


From this...

...to this...

...to this...

...to this...

..at last, to this.

King Kong’s final scenes, atop the Twin Towers, are also pretty terrible in terms of visuals.  In part this is so because of blue screen and rear projection work that fails to maintain, in proper ratio, the size of Kong and the size of the attacking helicopters.  It’s also a matter of the lighting of the various component parts of the scene.  The night-shots of the helicopters and night sky look washed out and dim compared to the footage of Kong.

And yet, in the final analysis, I can forgive the special effects lapses of King Kong because I feel the film attempts to imbue the “monster movie” form with a new sense of social relevance. King Kong’s game is to ask questions about how, in modern times, we steal from nature and often destroy nature for our own selfish purposes.  The Dwan and Wilson characters represent two sides of that particular coin.  They are indeed selfish and foolish (or is it "fuelish?").

It ought to be noted, as well, that the 1970s King Kong is the first version of the material to suggest more than a rudimentary monster/victim dynamic between Kong and his would-be bride.  This is an important element also featured in the Jackson remake of 2005.  Here, in one of the film’s best and most poetic scenes, Kong takes Dwan -- now covered in mud -- to bathe under a natural waterfall.  

The moment is magical (and erotic, strangely...) not merely because of Jessica Lange’s extreme and ravishing physical beauty, but because of Kong’s gentleness and yes, even sweetness.  I don’t know that either of those qualities could be ascribed to the 1933 version of this “monster” character.  This Kong seems a lot more humane and less violent than his predecessor.  The waterfall scene is supported brilliantly, I should add, by the late John Barry's lush and romantic score, which -- accompanying the visuals -- practically causes swooning.  In lyrical, visually ravishing moments such as this, it's awful hard to totally hate this production of Kong.







Yet if the end game is to hate all over King Kong (1976), there’s obviously plenty to latch onto too.  No stop-motion effects, weak optical-effects in the last half, and a script that probably features too many in-jokes about “male chauvinist pig apes,”the Empire State Building” and the like.  And yet, for all its obvious failings, it must also be said that this (sentimental) Kong wears its heart on its sleeve.

Or as Pauline Kael astutely noted, “I don’t think I’ve ever before seen a movie that was a comic-strip great romance in the way this one is… it’s a joke that can make you cry.”

3 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed your review of this film. I admit I lean to the original, but I find the prejudice against this remake interesting. I'm also quite intrigued when someone wants to downplay discussion because a film is perceived is bad or a bomb. I work with literary adaptations, and I've found many others who want to avoid discussion of a bad adaptation, but I think looking at the choices made for those versions can sometimes be more beneficial than looking at more "successful" adaptations.

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  2. Want to bet that the same people who disliked this film when it came out and considered it a disgrace to the legacy of the original probably would have hated the original film had they been around for it's initial release?

    It's also problematic to remake anything that is highly regarded or loved. The original will always be part of its own time and our perceptions of it are always coloured by our memories of ourselves when we first experienced it. I'm always careful with how I treat remakes/reboots/reimaginings etc. I'm OK with not liking something just because it isn't the original but I try to avoid hating and itemizing what's wrong with the new versions as if my dislike was a rational, logical response instead of emotional.

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  3. Hasters gonna hate. And I'm going to hate the haters. I make no bones about it, I love this film. Yes, it can't hold a candle to the original, but totally crushes Jackson's overblown exercise in hubris.

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