While there were many sequels, side projects and imitators to the throne, it took 43 years for a big-budget reboot of King Kong to be made. It starred many great talents of the day: Charles Grodin, Jeff Bridges, Rene Auberjonois and introduced the always brilliant Jessica Lange.
In a Time magazine cover story, famed producer Dino De Laurentiis was quoted as saying, "No one cry when Jaws die but when the monkey die, people gonna cry. Intellectuals gonna love Kong. Even film buffs who love the first Kong gonna love ours. Why? Because I no give them crap."
I believe I speak one of the least controversial statements in the history of cinema when I say that 1976's King Kong remains some of the corniest piles of crap to ever be $#@! out by Hollywood and that Dino De Laurentiis' quote carries with it all the emotional and intellectual honesty of a Donald Trump tweet.
But before we get to the bad, let's look back at what makes the 1976 version of King Kong so interesting. Because the background for this remake is way more fascinating than what we actually saw on the screen.
It makes a lot of sense that The Eighth Wonder of the World would make his return in the same decade that brought us Airport, The Poseiden Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Jaws and a remake of another science fiction classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The '70s was a fantastic decade for disaster films as well as science fiction, even before Star Wars came along. It was a decade often defined by its man vs. nature stories, with man often portraying the role of the villain.
And considering what a great time the '70s was for indie actors becoming big-name stars, who could imagine a better time for King Kong to make his triumphant debut? Certainly both De Laurentiis and Universal did (along with others), creating some fierce competition over who would actually end up bringing Kong back to the big screen.
A BIG STAR MEANS A BIG BUDGET
Airport, The Poseiden Adventure and The Towering Inferno all performed very well at the box office (along with being critical successes) and so it seemed reasonable to drop $25 million on Kong, an exceptionally sizable budget at the time. And make no mistake, a lot of that budget was for Kong himself.
While the 1933 original Kong was a miracle of stop-motion animation, the 1976 creature was a mixture of enormous animatronics, highly detailed masks, and, yes, a guy in a suit. That guy being Rick Baker, credit where credit is due.
The 40-foot-tall Kong alone, made with a 3.5-ton aluminum frame and 1,012 pounds of Argentinian horse tails, cost $1.7 million just by itself. And that 3,100 feet of hydraulic hose with 4,500 feet of electrical wiring monstrosity controlled by 20 operators is just one aspect of the overall King-Sized Kosts. There were individual hands and feet constructed, along with large replicas of subway trains and NYC buildings, all so that Kong had a city to destroy.
And that just touches the surface of costs incurred over the insanely long eight-month production period. The location shoots, the extra units, the 12-hour days, the insane number of extras ... and that doesn't even account for any issues that may have cropped up during filming -- 1976's King Kong was a behemoth in every way.
And as so often happens with too-large productions, the film, like Kong himself, got away from De Laurentiis and company.
During the course of the two hours and fifteen minutes of sometimes gorilla storytelling, you would be forgiven if for brief moments you forgot that there's an anti-petroleum element to 1976's King Kong. The villain (such as he is), Charles Grodin's Fred Wilson, is a guy in search of oil for gas company, Petrox. Yes, that is a pun referring to the 1970s fad, pet rocks. Ha ha ha. Wow. What were they thinking? It certainly wasn't about their own subtext which I guess was "We're too reliant upon oil and don't understand the risk of messing with nature." How else can we explain the sequence in which Kong is housed in a 40-foot high cage shrouded in a faux Petrox gas pump? Symbolism! This movie is terrible at it.
But for that baseball-bat-to-the-head shot of morality, most of the movie isn't about oil at all. What's it about? Well ... nothing, really. After the first 15 minutes or so of Grodin hoping he hits paydirt and Jeff Bridges sneaking aboard a ship to talk about gorillas, King Kong takes a hard left turn into the plotless ravine that is ...
Now listen. I like Jessica Lange a lot. She is a wonderful performer with a lot of range and if she wanted to be my friend I would be a very happy movie dweeb indeed. But her character, Dwan, is one of the worst-written roles in the history of big-budget moviemaking. She's an actress who was probably going to work in pornography but instead survived a boat wreck only to get gawked at by nearly everyone involved with production (including the cast) before being pawed topless by Kong whose astrological sign she asks for. She asks everyone about their sign. Are you an Aries? I can tell by your ears. LOLOLOL WTF are you on, Dwan (and can I have some)?
The camera spends an obscene amount of time ogling Lange in a way that's both exploitative and unbelievably boring. I don't need to see Charles Grodin rubbernecking to get a look at dat ass. Not one bit do I need that, friends. And I don't need the camera to follow her around like it's about to get slapped with a restraining order.
Dwan is not very bright. When she and Jeff Bridges' character, Jack, are running from Kong at the end of the movie, she begs him to dip into a bar for a drink. REALLY, LADY?! No wonder Jack seems resistant to spend the rest of his life with one of the most beautiful women to ever live. Ain't no amount of stunning beauty can make up for that kind of trouble, friend.
Dwan is the only woman lead in this whole movie and she's, surprise, surprise, in the role of the sex kitten. And I mean, sure, fine, you can be as sexy a kitten as you like, but must she also be an incredibly thoughtless buffoon, too, with no redeeming traits other than being physically attractive? I dunno. Maybe have, like, other women in your movie to balance it out? No, other women being picked up and hurled from a train by Kong without having so much as a word of dialogue do not count. Try harder.
Sidebar: Did you know Meryl Streep tested for Dwan, but De Laurentiis said she was "too ugly" for the part to her face? He said it in Italian, but Streep speaks Italian so HAHAHA WOW. I mean Meryl Streep who, am I right? Not like she amounted to much of anything.
Anyway, back to the point, which is ...
KING KONG 1976 IS REAL BAD
In addition to the wayward plot, the boring obsession with Dwan posing on the beach and the unfortunate-in-hindsight choice to have Kong climb the Twin Towers, the 1976 remake of King Kong just isn't good by any measure, save some of its effects.
Sure, it made back its production budget and then some, but ultimately it just feels toothless. No one ever feels like they're in real danger save Kong himself (and the extras who fall into a ravine in an embarrassingly low-budget sequence). And there's no one to care except for Kong either, and even that's a stretch once we watch him clumsily take Dwan's top off against her will.
Is it worth watching? Well, it's on Amazon Prime as of this writing so, sure, if you've got a little over two hours you're cool with losing forever and want to see if Kong: Skull Island drops any references, I say go for it.
Or, alternatively, you can skip ahead to 2005 when Peter Jackson makes a far better reboot of King Kong that's a true love letter to everything that makes the Eigth Wonder of the World great.