King Kong (1976)

Bring the mosquito spray!
John Guillermin
Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin
The Setup: 
Remake of King Kong, updated for the 70s.

With the Peter Jackson King Kong coming out soon, I became excited about watching this version again. I had seen it when it came out and a few times afterward, and always remembered completely enjoying it. When I was eight [the year it came out] I remember having a “making of” book that described the mechanical arm and how they did several of the [not so special] effects. Now, watching it with a bit more of a critical sensibility, the whole thing, while still fun, is also relentlessly silly and wholly misconceived.

In this version there’s no film being made, we have an oil company heading off to the uncharted Skull Island in hopes of scoring a big load of oil. There is a lot of exposition about how there could still be an uncharted island in 1976, and, my favorite detail, a theory that the fog bank that perpetually surrounds the island is in fact created by the breath of large animals. Seems to me this crew is headed to Halitosis Island and they’d better bring a giant Altoid, but like many details, this is dropped after it gets it’s “ooh” effect and never comes up again.

So anyway, Jeff Bridges is Jack, an anthropologist or whatever who for no discernable reason thinks there’s a giant ape on the island. He is treated as though he is not flat-out insane, and he makes several arrogant speeches in an snide “I know everything” tone. He is also treated, against the evidence of our own eyes, as attractive. I guess this is the dark side of my penchant for all those bearded 70s guys. Soon enough Jessica Lange shows up in a very skimpy evening gown as a castaway from a sunken yacht. She is revived and reveals that her name is Dwan. Like “Dawn,” but dyslexic-friendly.

Ms. Lange as Dwan is relentlessly sexualized throughout the movie, and her character is written as a total nutcase bimbo. For example, she is chattering away quite happily about “how her luck is about to change” and asking everybody for their astrological sign just SECONDS after being told that she is the sole survivor of a shipwreck and that her friends have been killed. I was thinking “I hope she’s supposed to be in shock, because if not she is quite psychotic.” Nope, she’s psychotic, demonstrated soon afterward as she runs ahead of the group of explorers toward a waterfall [which she could not have seen from the angle she was at], chasing idiotically romantic fantasies [island, waterfall, hunky hippie photographer] with no regard to the fact that the day before she was shipwrecked/friends killed and now she is on an uncharted jungle island expedition where danger quite probably lurks. One feels bad for the way Jessica was treated here, but it helps one admire her all the more for being able to break out of the “boob supplier” roles and move into being taken seriously for her capability as an actress.

Anyway, after a lot of dreary “romance” with Jack [Dwan literally throws herself at him in several scenes, insultingly treating every possible situation as an occasion to begin an exotic romance], she is kidnapped by the natives of the island and made a sacrifice to Kong. One of the things that bothered me about the movie when I was eight and still bothers me about it now, is that the natives obviously just wrap vines around Jessica’s arms—they don’t TIE her up, and she could easily get free at any time. It’s details like this that ultimately preclude any attempt to take the movie seriously. Trees are shaken, the natives chant, and a big guy in an ape suit shows up.

Let’s take a moment now to catalogue a good many of the more stupid and careless elements that result in one’s inability to take this movie seriously in any way:

>I repeat: the fog bank surrounding the island is the bad breath of the giant animals inhabiting the island. But since we only ever see Kong and one giant snake, one can only assume it’s Kong blowing out all that hot air, which can only elicit sympathy for poor Dwan, who gets to experience all that freshness up close, especially in a stupendously dumb scene where Kong puffs up his cheeks and blows on her.
> Please note that Jessica has quite an array of fabulous [and form-fitting] outfits for every occasion, quite remarkable when you consider that she was stranded in a raft with nothing but what was on her back.
> Jeff takes several rapid-motion shots, his camera going “ka-tsst-ka-tsst-ka-tsst-ka-tsst-ka-tsst,” which seems like a waste of film as he’s invariably shooting still subjects.
> If it’s so easy for the Americans to get over the native wall then… what’s the point of the wall?
> Perhaps my favorite point of the movie, after the giant fog bank of bad breath, is when Charles Grodin’s character comes aboard the island and grandly commands: “Let’s not get eaten alive on this island. BRING THE MOSQUITO SPRAY!”
> I love how Jack, as the arrogant hippie anthropologist, is always snidely schooling everyone else with his superior knowledge of native cultures and giant primate behavior, but whenever anyone asks him a pertinent question, is always free to exasperatedly shout “I don’t know!”
> Also note that Jack, with his enhanced knowledge of native peoples, is able to understand the native leader with perfect clarity after just a few seconds.
> Dwan calls Kong a “goddamned chauvinist pig ape” because he refuses to just eat her and get it over with. …and feminism takes another hit from friendly fire.
> During the log-and-chasm sequence, take note of the sets that are quite clearly recycled from Land of the Lost.
> When Jack is hiding in the alcove in the side of the chasm, it’s obvious that Kong could easily grasp him—if he wasn’t just a poorly articulated mechanical arm.
> We see Kong dump the log into the chasm, which seems to be the only way across this huge gorge—so then how did Jack get back to the native village with Dwan?
> If Kong can reach the top of the native wall, couldn’t he just jump or climb over?
> Jack is presented as the only one who can communicate with the natives… so it’s pretty remarkable that Charles Grodin handled the delicate negotiations that resulted in the natives allowing his crew take over and perform complex heavy construction work inside their village.
> At a certain point during this part you suddenly think: “Wait a minute! WHERE are the natives?” They’ve vanished. A bit later we see them creeping back in, but where did they all go?
> Note that Dwan is initially delighted at the prospect of become a star by exploiting Kong, and though she does have a few momentary pangs, is fully behind the program.
> Know-it-all Jack smugly predicts that because Kong has been taken from the island, the natives will all become “burnt out drunks.” It was impossible for me not to picture an alley of dive bars, off-track betting kiosks, check-cashing services, fast-food joints, casinos, cigarette shops, and liquor stores located behind the native settlement, just out of view. Maybe THAT’S where they went while all the construction was going on.
> Jam on the “Disco Kong” music played during his grand exhibition once in NYC.
> So Jack sees the world trade center as looking like this formation from Halitosis Island. But it only looks that way from a certain perspective, and the movie assumes that 1) Kong saw it from precisely that perspective on the island, and 2) Kong saw it from exactly that perspective in NYC, which is impossible, as he is way, way uptown.
> There is discussion that Kong “tried to rape” Jessica. Uh… isn’t that kind of… I don’t know.
> Dwan is revealed to be a compulsive alcoholic late in the film.
> Kong falls, and Jessica makes it from the roof to the ground with him in what seems like 25 seconds. Those sure are some express elevators.
> Incredibly, all the reporters are only interested in Jessica, and don’t seem to find the 50-foot ape corpse lying next to them to be all that newsworthy.

In this movie, Kong is a guy in a suit, and looks like a guy in a suit. Which is fine by me. But his face is frozen in an expression of demented fascination, which seemed more than a little bizarre to me. His lack of expression, along with the utter misconception of Dwan’s character, makes it impossible for the relationship between her and Kong to have any emotional resonance. I assume that this area, as well as all the sillinesses catalogued above, will be mostly what is repaired in the Jackson version, as that’s what Peter Jackson seems to do: take somewhat silly material absolutely seriously and thus wring all potential emotional impact out of it. Aside from not insulting his audience’s intelligence.

I was wondering who this director, John Guillermin, was that he is treated by the credits and the trailer as some sort of noted auteur. Turns out the interesting parts of his resume includes Shaft in Africa and The Towering Inferno [!], and he went on to direct the sequel to this version, King Kong Lives [now safely on my Netflix rental list]. I must thank this film for introducing me to the work of mustachioed sweetie George Whiteman, who assuages the role of Army Helicopter Pilot, after cementing his pedigree in the “Doomsday is Tomorrow” episode of The Bionic Woman, the “Go-Cart Terror” episode of CHiPS. He would later triumph in the role of “passenger” in Airport ’77 and “Beck” in Raise the Titanic.

Nevertheless, it was all pretty fun. It would have been a lot more fun if it wasn’t quite so needlessly long, and if we didn’t have such frequent pit stops to chart the ludicrous romance between Jack and Dwan, but it was at least SOME fun. I wasn’t really interested in revisiting the 1933 version before this [seen it plenty], but now I am. I was hoping to come out of this saying that this version is not quite as bad as it’s cracked up to be. Alas, hopes dashed.

Should you watch it: 

It can’t hurt, it’s a bit of a hoot. Booze and friends will enhance your viewing experience.