Ever since Kong: Skull Island arrived in theaters and reawakened the King Kong fan within many a movie maniac, myself included, the 1976 update of King Kong has been on my mind a lot. While older viewers remember the hatred for this film upon release and younger viewers might have never experienced it before, I managed to grow up constantly watching it in tandem with the 1933 original and 1964’s King Kong vs. Godzilla. Because of this, my mental image of King Kong was never locked into a single version in terms of tone or characterization.
So what sets this incarnation of the Eighth Wonder of the World apart from its cinematic brethren? Chiefly, it’s far darker than the rest. Be it the other three films listed above or three of the four other Kong films (The Son of Kong, King Kong Escapes, and Peter Jackson’s remake) all generally aim for a pulp adventure feel. There’s some variance in terms of the exact tone between each picture, but that’s the milieu that they fall within overall.
This picture does have elements of adventure, but they all bear an ominous tone. Not that Kong films have ever been excused of having feelgood endings, but you just know from the get-go that this isn’t going to end well for anyone. The exquisitely beautiful score by John Barry lulls you into a false sense of security at times, but there’s always an air of menace lurking around the next corner. That might be off-putting to many, as it’s a very different direction for a Kong picture, but it’s responsible for a lot of what I love about this film.
The nuts and bolts of this film are great. It is well-directed by John Guillermin (The Bridge at Remagen, The Towering Inferno), the script by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Three Days of the Condor) is a clever beast, and it has a great cast. Seriously, not only is it an impressive collection of names actors and character players, but they’re all on point throughout. Jeff Bridges makes for a great super-handsome hero, playing primate paleontologist Jack Prescott, Charles Grodin is slimier than the oil that his corporate sleazebag Fred S. Wilson seeks, and Rene Auberjonois is a hoot as scientist Ray Bagley. We’ve also got some nice supporting turns by Ed Lauter (Death Wish 3), Jack O’Halloran (Superman II), and Julius Harris (Live And Let Die) as standout members of the crew. Dennis Fimple (House of 1000 Corpses), John Lone (Year of the Dragon), Joe Piscapo (Dead Heat), Corbin Bernsen (Major League), and John Agar (Revenge of the Creature) also appear in small roles.
The real star of this particular show, of course, is Jessica Lange as aspiring actress Dwan. No, I didn’t spell that wrong. Her name is Dawn and she has changed it to Dwan to make herself appear more exotic. Much like Wilson will do anything to return to the natural world with a massive success to tout to the shareholders at Petrox, Dwan will pretty much do anything to become a star. She comes into this story after being found floating on a life raft in the ocean, having survived an explosion on a yacht. While it’s never outright stated, the dialogue makes it pretty clear that she was lounging on the boat of an adult film producer and was likely on the verge of starring in porn. I’m not even kidding. She makes it a point more than once to proclaim that her life was saved by the movie Deep Throat!
Backing up a bit, our characters are heading to the “Island of the Skull” as part of a Petrox expedition to hopefully find a record-breaking untapped supply of oil on this lost island. Prescott stowed away on board because he’s had his eye on making it out to the island any way he can. Once he’s discovered, he ends up becoming the expedition’s photography to pay his way, as it were. As for Dwan? Well, if you’re going to shoot pictures all over the island with an eye for magazine covers and spreads, you might as well have a model. Both Jack and Dwan have a touch of destiny about them. For better or worse, they were meant to be a part of this expedition and the calamity that will eventually befall all involved.
What follows is the basic structure of what one assumes a Kong film to be, but without being a direct riff on the original like Jackson’s 2005 remake was. The Kong-worshipping island natives are there, the kidnapping of the female lead is there, the log scene is there, the capture and transport of Kong to New York is there, and the eventual tragic end of our titular monster is there. It’s all in there to some degree, but in a (then) more modern way.
Most giant monster movies (especially Japanese kaiju films) end up having some sort of environmental message. Sometimes it’s the “there are some places man was not meant to tread” routine and other times it’s the “man destroys everything beautiful in nature” ordeal. Both are present here, with a heavy helping of criticism about our addiction to fossil fuels. When Kong is displayed before the city of New York (and the world, via satellite), he is first wheeled out covered by a tarp that is shaped like a gigantic gas pump. Monster movies generally aren’t subtle films and there’s absolutely nothing subtle about the bigger themes at play here.
There are subtler themes at work, of course. As a child, one of the few things I didn’t like about this film is the fact that there is only one other giant-sized creature other than Kong in this film. Whereas the original, its sequel, and the 2005 film are filled with dinosaurs and the Japanese films have other big beasties, this Kong only has a gigantic snake to tangle with. As an adult, that lone sequence of monster-on-monster action plays very differently.
This film has heavier sexual tension between Kong and Dwan. She dirties herself at one point and he helps bathe her, albeit with her clothes still intact, in a waterfall. He also adorably blow dries her with his breath. Both things are rather innocent, but that changes further into the film. At one point Kong takes her to this plateau high above the valleys of Skull Island. They sit together under the full moon and then he begins to slowly undress her. He eventually stops when she keeps covering back up, but it’s quite clear that he wants to see her in all her glory. Immediately after this, as Dwan sits there only barely covered up, the giant snake arrives and fights to the death with Kong. Let me reiterate that a huge, sinister phallus slithers into the scene right after Kong makes a pass at her. Sure, it primarily functions as a monster brawl, but it’s hard not to also view it as Kong battling his animal libido into submission.
Pulling back away from the titular beast, this might be the only Kong film where I actually give a damn about the leads, outside of the original. Unlike the destined true love of Jack and Ann in the 1933 and 2005 versions, Jack and Dwan are almost doomed from frame one. Jack doesn’t seem particularly bothered by Dwan’s fame aspirations, but he clearly takes issue with her methods. You can tell before they even get back to New York that he’s already given up on having a romantic relationship with her.
He feigns an offer for her to run off with him, instead of participating in Petrox’s publicity farce, but both Jack and the viewer know that she won’t accept. Dwan might like Jack to an extent, but she clearly isn’t as emotionally attached to him as he is to her and she definitely values her potential career over their future. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it grants us a classic case of two people in the thralls of attraction that really aren’t right for one another. This ultimately culminates in the final scene of the film, where Jack races back down to the plaza in front of the World Trade Center.
He’s rushing to see if she’s alright and potentially embrace her, but the moment he lays eyes on the reporters swarming her…something she’s always wanted…he realizes that he’ll never belong with her. So, despite her desperately calling to him, he stops short of reaching her. The brief romance is over and the next scene after the camera fades is probably just him walking away.
The film’s ending is rather soul-crushing. Kong is dead*. Wilson is dead, along with who knows how many other New Yorkers. Petrox is likely screwed due to the multitudes of lawsuits that will head their way. Jack’s faith in humanity has hit rock bottom. Dwan was achieved fame, but not in the way that she wanted to. Humanity has not only raped and killed nature, but has murdered its own soul in the process.
What a great movie! I’m not even kidding. Sure, some of the shots of the ape suit are off and the occasional process shot is wonky, but I contend that it is still one of the better Kong films in existence. It’s probably my second favorite in the “franchise” overall, although I did love Kong: Skull Island a lot upon seeing it a few weeks back. This isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s so well-made in most areas, the writing is sharp, and the acting is so good that the flaws wash away for me. It might not be a masterpiece like the 1933 film, but it is a great monster film AND a great Kong film nonetheless.
* – At least until 1986, where producer Dino De Laurentiis had John Guillermin crank out a sequel where Kong has been in a coma for a decade, having been given a mechanical heart, and is revived after getting a blood transfusion from a newly-found Lady Kong. Despite that sounding glorious pulpy and the film starring Linda Hamilton, it’s a stinker. Seek King Kong Lives out if you must, but keep your expectations low.
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