Monday, March 4, 2013

KING KONG (1976)

(December 1976, U.S.)

What was the one film you saw as a kid that may have changed your entire perspective and experience of going to the movies? Was there even such a film? Anyone in my age bracket (40s) whose childhood was part of the 1970s could very easily claim that JAWS (1975) or STAR WARS (1977) would fill that honorable position. And why not? I can't imagine any kid back then who wasn't affected by those films the first time they saw them on the big screen. But there was another film in between those two that took a very high honor and priority in terms of box office grosses and blockbuster thrills. And for this particular writer and film fan, it was an experience that ultimately changed the way he would experience the movies.

It started with an advance poster in December 1975 that promised something really, really big was coming, and it would arrive in just one year. All you had to do was wait. Take a look...

(that's funny - I don't remember the Twin Towers being constructed of so much continuous glass!)

Now we jump several months ahead to the Summer of 1976 when I was spending the better part of it with my dad and his girlfriend in New York City. In the newspapaers and in the magazines, the Hollywood buzz on the new film version of KING KONG was impossible to be missed. On telelvision, they spoke of thousands upon thousands of people showing up at the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to try and be a part of the climactic moment of the film as an extra. Yes, folks, it was in the air - the new Dino DeLaurentiis remake of KING KONG was coming! When it was finally released that December, it was to be the first PG-rated film I would to see on the big screen at the age of nine years-old after having experienced nothing but Disney re-relases, wilderness family films and the first "Benji" film. Not exactly thrill-a-minute movies, yes? So there I am with my family sitting inside the Astor Theater in New York City (this was a really, huge screen!) seeing the great, legendary monster in all his colorful glory and roaring to a volume that could surely bring the house down. For the first time in my life, I was witnessing a motion picture that could easily classify itself as a blockbuster event film. Suddenly, the movies were not so innocent for me anymore. They were now bigger and more spectacualr. KING KONG was surely a rite of passage from family innocence and purity to a new world of thrills, danger and fear.

Not to say, of course, that bigger is necessarily better. Anyone with half a brain of appreciation for quality cinema would surely agree that the original 1933 version of KING KONG surpasses any remake. Remember, though, we're talking about a writer with very strong, detailed memories of his moviegoing childhood, so it's more than safe to say that the '76 remake of KING KONG hold a very specific and special place in my heart and thoughts. On the other hand, however, there are also sequences in the '76 KING KONG that I actually DO feel exceed the original black and white film in superiority. Here's what they are...

- To begin with, Jessica Lange as Dwan (what the fuck kind of a name is DWAN anyway??) is a far more interesting character to watch that Fay Wray's Ann Darrow; her strongest point being that she actually takes the time to talk to and and learns to trust the big ape, whereas Fay Wray does nothing but scream throughout the entire film. I realize it's that endless screaming that made her so damn famous for that role, but truth be told, it always kind of annoyed me after a while.

- Dwan's sacrifice and Kong's arrival afterwards. This entire sequence is far more epic in scope, choreography, cinematography and musical score. It's nothing short of dark, menacing and terrifying as you watch poor Dwan await the arrival of the great beast, apparantly so high on native drugs that she's barely aware of what's happening to her. Then the trees begin to rustle, the camera gets in real close to the ape's eyes and mouth, the musical score of John Barry gets louder and louder and we know the great monster is coming closer and closer!

- Kong's breaking through the great wall. Like the previous scene described, this, too, is shown at a great epic scale. Rather than simply try to push the big doors open as in the original version, Kong unleashes all of his anger and his roaring as he smashes the wall and doors, bit by bit, piece by piece until he's finally broken through and raises his arms in a loud, great victory. We don't get to see him destroy the village, but since that was done in such detail in 1933, perhaps a remake is best suited not to copy every sequence as it was previously done.

Now then, this KING KONG is hardly perfect. It's greatest flaw is surely the ape suit worn by Rick Baker which is undenyably cheap-looking by today's standards. But one needs to consider the fact that stop-motion animation had been played-to-death in the original KONG and computer generated imagery was still decades away. I believe, cheap monkey suit or not, the filmmakers did the best they could do with the technologies of the time and cheapness can often be easily compensated by good acting, fine photography and a killer musical score. Also, in terms of technological achievement...well, let's just say that where the 1933 KONG may have achieved great stop motion animation and the 2005 KONG may have achieved great CGI, the 1976 KONG is truly an impressive achievment in the use of hydraulics for the great ape's arms and legs. On the not-so-plus side, though, I've been known to have some very serious geographical issues with the entire New York City sequence. First of all, as best as I can make out, Kong crosses the East River into Manhattan somewhere near the Queensboro Bridge. When he's close to reaching the shore, however, the Twin Towers appear to be right in front of his point of vision (the towers were nowhere near the Queensboro Bridge!). Also, when Kong retrieves Dwan from the abandoned Manhattan bar, he appears to be headed straight for the towers. However, in a scene almost immediately following, it appears that Kong has mysteriously traveled UPTOWN before finally arriving at the towers when a National Guardsman declares that he's "coming down Fifth Avenue, almost at 42nd Street". Talk about your inexplicable detour!

This remake of KING KONG is perhaps the one film that truly glorifies the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center more than any other film in history. You can tell just by looking at the great movie poster. To watch it all again since the events of September 11, 2001 gives the towers whole new meaning for this film. They're more than just the great ape's climing destinations, but characters in themselves for the thrilling and bloody climax of Kong's demise. In the 1970s, it seem to make perfect sense that Kong would climb the World Trade Center tower rather than the Empire State Building all over again. They towers had just opened in 1973 and had been made world famous when French high wire acrobatic performer Philippe Petit walked between the towers on a tightrope in 1974. Yes, the timing seemed just perfect to feature the towers in the new KING KONG movie!

If you ever saw KING KONG when it made it's NBC television debut in 1978 and subsequent repeats that followed in the 1980s, then you'd know there was nearly forty minutes or so of extra footage not seen in theaters. Some of it was really good and expanded the film's story a good deal. To date, this material has yet to be released on any United States DVD or Blu-Ray disc. Fans of this lost footage are still waiting for Paramount Pictures to get their asses in gear!

Now then, take a look at this movie poster for a very badly-dubbed Japanese monster movie called GODZILLA VS. MEGALON...

You see what's depicted there?? Two monsters fighting to death, each of them standing on one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Now I ask you, if you were a nine year-old kid and saw this movie poster, wouldn't you be dying to see a movie that would promise a spectacular sequence like that?? Well, I found out later from seeing it on television that such an event was not to be. Clearly the American distributors of this film were simply cashing in on the popularity of KING KONG and the infamous poster of him on the towers. No such sequence takes place in the Godzilla film. It was the first time I learned the concept of movie poster fraud (damn them!!!)! But that a real wicked movie poster, or what??

Finally, let me just say a few things about Peter Jackson's 2005 version of KING KONG right here and now because it's not included in my film collection. It was once, but not anymore. When I first saw LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING in 2001, during a sequence in which a large monster tries to kill our hobbit heroes, I remember thinking that if they were to make another remake of KING KONG, then Peter Jackson would be the perfect man for it. Lo and behold, four years later, my idea was right on the money! Like 1976, I looked forward to a new version of KONG with great, childlike anticipation. When it was released, I saw it twice and I loved it (for a while, anyway). After I bought the DVD and watched it again, something strange happened in that I seriously began to question the contents of this film. Although the 2005 KING KONG has some pretty awesome CGI sequences, particularly the final battle atop the Empire State Building, I couldn't help but ask this important question; what had Peter Jackson honestly achieved here other than to pay great homage to a great classic film of 1933 that clearly had great influence on his life and career as a filmmaker? The story, the characters, the settings, the time period, even a good portion of the dialogue - nothing has changed! Time period, in particular, is where I think KONG 2005 suffers the most. KONG 1976 clearly updates itself to a post-Vietnam, post Watergate era that had also seen its share of oil crisis. Would KONG 2005 not have been greatly improved were it part of a modern, post 9-11 world of New York City and its citizens who reside there? I say, most definitely YES (and quite frankly, having to sit through three hours of Jack Black is more than should be required of anyone!)! Of the 1976 version of KING KONG, Peter Jackson himself called it "just bloody awful" in an interview. Really, Mr. Jackson?? Do YOU think you could have done a better job way back in 1976?? I doubt it.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Jack Prescott: "Dammit, do we have a deal?"
Mayor of NYC: "Yes, Professor, we have a deal. Where is Kong headed?"
Jack: "There's one place in Manhattan that looks like a certain part of his native habitat. Let him though to it and you can trap him there. Let him climb to the top of the World Trade Center."


  1. Both the Original King Kong and the remakes, hold a place in my heart because the fantasy elements formed my taste in stories early on. A kid who loved Kong would not find it hard to pick up Tolkien, Asimov, Verne or Wells. Your posts on these movies is inspiring a post of my own, when it is ready I will let you know. I will say for the moment, that even as an 18 year old adult, I looked forward to this movie with the glee of a child. My Dad and I ordered the mini poster that features the image of Kong on the Trade Towers. I think it was a cereal promotion and we had to send in box tops or coupons. When they came, that poster went up on my wall and stayed there until after I married and moved out. All three versions have things to recommend them, but of course the Original stands as a true film classic. I've been sick and swamped at the same time so I have not kept up as much as I would like, but the noir film posts have all been excellent as well.

  2. I remember that mini poster very well. Kong looked a bit different, the jet fighters looked bigger and the Twin Towers looked as if they were completely made of glass. On the poster, it said something like "One year from today, Dino DeLaurentiis and Paramount pictures will bring to you the most exciting original motion picture event of all time." Wish I'd gotten one.

  3. I should never have moved out, Mom cleaned up and I lost out. That was exactly the promo on the poster.