King Kong (1976) - DVD Review

With the original film reaching its 80th birthday this year, Ben has set out on a journey to a land that time forgot, watching all of the King Kong films along the way.

'Bridges' performance has more than a hint of Richard Dreyfuss' Jaws character Hooper, also forming the film’s moral compass which was largely absent (and most likely not seen as necessary) in the original'

John Guillermin’s remake of King Kong was released just a year after Jaws, and the influence of that prototypical and most influential summer blockbuster can be seen throughout. Guillermin attempts to do for giant apes what Spielberg did for great white sharks, and it’s a stylistic choice which in many ways pays off.

King Kong is not a straight remake; a more accurate description using modern film terminology might be a reboot, with the time period updated from 1930s to 1970s and only the core elements of Kong’s journey from his island home to America left intact. It’s a decision which infuriated many at the time of the film’s release, but in all honesty when combined with the Spielbergian feel, it largely works a treat. The updated elements can be spotted more overtly during the film’s final act, and whilst Guillermin takes the brave decision to alter two of the original’s most iconic images - Kong’s US d├ębut and the setting of his final moments - they are changes that work well, fitting the film’s aesthetic and its underlying themes of corporate greed and nature versus man.

The opening act set-up to the arrival at Kong’s island effectively establishes the epic tone of the story, with unanswered questions and eerie historical passages alluding to the isle’s enigma and convincingly building up the tension. Writer Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s choice to shift the story’s focus from the film industry to Big Oil is an inspired one, and whilst the script paints greedy oil exec Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) with broader strokes than the original’s filmmaker Carl Denham, he’s an effective character brought to life successfully through Grodin’s performance.

Jeff Bridges does well opposite Grodin as “primate paleontologist” Jack Prescott, developing the role from its 1933 foundations in Bruce Cabot’s Jack Driscoll. Bridges' performance has more than a hint of Richard Dreyfuss' Jaws character Hooper whilst still bringing a satisfying originality to Prescott, also forming the film’s moral compass which was largely absent (and most likely not seen as necessary) in the original. Jessica Lange however becomes the second actress after Son Of Kong’s Helen Mack to fall under the shadow of Fay Wray as the original’s damsel. Lange does deserve credit for her part in crafting the mutual feelings between Kong and her character Dwan, a relationship which in the 1933 film was entirely one-way and therefore arguably less complex and intriguing.

Unfortunately, despite its admirable strengths, Guillermin’s film also suffers from some fairly weighty flaws. The script fluctuates from the convincing to the camp to the utterly cringeworthy (how Grodin managed to deliver straight-faced the line “he tried to rape you, honey” when talking to Lange’s Dwan about Kong is utterly beyond me). Despite the epic feel effectively established at the start, by the time we reach the end of the second act the two-hour-fifteen-minute running time begins to feel really quite bloated.

But the biggest problem within this version of King Kong is regrettably Kong himself. 1933’s Kong was both a hugely impressive special effect and a compelling screen presence. 1976’s Kong is most accurately described as a giant gorillagram. From the moment he first appears on screen, Kong seriously underwhelms and proceeds to stink up pretty much every scene he’s in. A sequence in which Kong fights a giant snake (which holds the dubious honour of being the only special effect here worse than Kong himself) is laughably bad, with comparison to the original’s T-Rex battles only compounding the scene’s ineptitude further. It’s rare for special effects to make or break a film for me, but it cannot be understated how crucial and pivotal an element the realisation of Kong is. The fact that, any time the giant ape is on screen, all you will see is a man in a monkey suit is by far the most critical blow to the credibility of Guillermin’s film.

King Kong turns out to be an awkward marriage of excellent ideas and mediocre execution. The performances from the talented central cast, the saga-like mythology and the moral questions used to effectively flesh out Kong’s story are regularly at odds with ropey dialogue and unsightly B-movie effects. Whilst enjoyable, Guillermin’s film ultimately rests uncomfortably between success and failure, never delivering an experience as pleasurable as the 1933 original.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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