"No one cry when Jaws die, But when the monkey die, people gonna cry. Intellectuals gonna love Konk; even film buffs who love the first Konk gonna love ours. Why? Because I no give them crap. I no spend two, three million to do quick business. I spend 24 million on my Konk. I give them quality. I got here a great love story, a great adventure. And she rated PG. For everybody." - Dino De Laurentiis
If you've never seen a King Kong movie, I have one question: What planet do you hail from, and welcome to Planet Earth. I'm sure many of you have seen Peter Jackson's extravaganza magna opus in 2005. Even more of you may have seen Kong: Skull Island and/or Godzilla vs. Kong. If you're any kind of film buff, you just had to have seen the original 1933 version.
There was King Kong vs. Godzilla brought to you by the good folks at Toho Studios in 1963 so that the mightiest monsters could battle it out in downtown Tokyo. That rubber-suited Kong was bigger, more powerful, clunkier, and uglier than the stop-action creature of 1933. But by the 21st century, with CGI being the order of the day, and after Stephen Spielberg brought dinosaurs to life in Jurassic Park, Kong moved with all the grace and fluency of a male ballet dancer. It was alive!
All that aside, in 1976, another big-budget Hollywood production ventured onto Skull Island's King Kong Amusement Park. In 1976 Dino De Laurentiis geared up his extravaganza, which plucked Kong out of the thirties depression and into the gloriously glitzy disco era of the seventies. One early poster of Kong is called Travolta Kong because of Kong's Vinnie Barbarino-style haircut. Pre-production on the film began in earnest in 1974, with Lorenzo Semple writing the script and Producer De Laurentiis doing the PT Barnum bit in promoting his upcoming epic. The race was on for De Laurentiis to beat Universal Studios, who were planning their own Kong film, into the theaters.
One thing that De Laurentiis loved to brag about before the film went into production was that his movie would have a colossal 40-foot working gigantic mechanical monster be the star of his film. The idea certainly stroked my imagination at the time. However, suppose one remembers all of Spielberg's trouble with a mechanical shark that was a dwarf at only twenty-five feet long. In that case, they'd have been a lot more skeptical about De Laurentiis being able to pull off his exercise in Monster Mechanics 101.
Bruce the Shark had the disadvantage of performing in an ocean of salt water. Still, as far as I knew, Kong didn't have any swimming scenes, and nobody would need a bigger boat, so it may have worked.
I was wrong about the swimming bit, as Kong takes a quick dip in the East River. Still, many people and I should have been warier about giant robots covered with horse hair. There were a lot of naked horses running around in 1976, freezing their asses off in the barn.
The 1.7 million dollars mechanical Kong toy turned out to be a bust of massive proportions. Unlike the shark in Jaws that Spielberg could hide through most of the film, it's hard to find a place to hide a 40-foot mechanical ape, especially when he's the star of your show. More about that fiasco momentarily.
That left Dino to choose one of two alternatives. He could use the stop motion animation process used in the original, and enhanced since then in many a Ray
Harryhausen film such as Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came From Beneath the Sea, Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Clash of the Titans.
Dino went the TOHO Productions route and put a man in an ape suit, much to the chagrin of all the stop-motion supporters. I'll give him this. The man ape looked a helluva lot better in this movie than the one that TOHO put on the screen.
Dino, the Konk Man, hired makeup artist Rick Baker. Baker would eventually win seven Oscars and a slew of Emmys to go along with them in his trophy case. He did not win this one, but Carlo Rambaldi won a special achievement award for visual effects. As for Mechanical Kong, he ended up with about thirty seconds' worth of screen time. It averaged out to about 500,000 dollars a second.
Linearly speaking, the 1976 film doesn't delineate too much from the famous plot line. Girl meets Ape. The Ape gets the girl. Ape loses girl. The Ape takes a trip. The Ape gets the girl back. Ape meets friends in high places, and that's all she wrote.
But there were a few changes and wrinkles added here and there. Instead of heading over to Skull Island to film the next great adventure movie, this boat is taking the trip because infrared satellite pictures show that there may be a vast oil deposit lying around waiting to be pumped out of the ground and into your Chevy. This expedition is led by Big Oil Company executive Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), who came into possession of the satellite photos after making a campaign contribution to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Also on board the Petrox Boating Expedition, is a stowaway, anthropologist Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges). He got wind of the fact that someone from the Petrox Explorer (the name of the ship owned by the Petrox Oil Company) was buying charts for the area he was interested in exploring because he heard some silly nonsense about a giant ape-like creature. Since Carnival Cruise lines didn't have an excursion going in Jack's direction, he decided to hop on board the Petrox and discuss details about his fare later. After Wilson, being the nice guy he is, checks out Jack's credentials, he decides to let him stay on board and become the official photographer.
Not too much later, a rubber lifeboat is spotted, and conveniently lying inside is Ann Darrow wannabe Dwan (Jessica Lange). There's some silly business regarding her name, but I won't go into that minutiae here.
It seems she was partying on board a yacht when the storm kicked up and threw her overboard into a rubber dinghy parked nearby. Nobody else on board the vessel was quite that lucky. Still, we didn't need to bog down the film with more needless characters anyway.
Besides, they died happy. They were watching Deep Throat at the time while Dwan was up on deck because porn just wasn't her thing. But instead of looking like a gal who just climbed out of a life raft, Dwan looks as if she just stepped out of the cover of Vogue.
Dwan makes a speedy recovery after about a second and a half of mourning her fellow passengers, and this, in turn, enables the ship's crew to donate their clothes to her so that she can quickly shrink them and then pour her 5'8”, 120 lb. perfect frame into them for Jack to take some photographs and extend the running time of the movie an extra ten or fifteen minutes more so every red-blooded heterosexual male and some not so heterosexual females can leer at her. Sexist? Probably, but that's the only purpose for every outfit she puts on to reveal her assets in skin-tight clothing, halter tops, and shorts cut way up to you know where. I mean, why else do you include this scene which has nothing to do with anything else? Still the movie is rated PG, and I'm not one to argue, although apparently Google is, missing the point I was trying to make about the abundant sexism in this 1976 creature feature. Unless it’s something else. It could be anything from this picture to my hints of sarcasm ridiculing the certain beer boycott in a couple of places. Nope, wouldn’t want to offend those jackasses. But Google won’t tell you what the story is; you’re just supposed to be a good guesser, I guess, but that’s kind of difficult to do in an essay with over 4000 words. At any rate, I’m considering removing the post from here and just linking to it where one doesn’t have to go through this silly nonsense.
We are supposed to notice that Jack and Dwan are falling for each other although you could have fooled me. Call it Beauty and the Geek, the 70's edition.
After ogling Dwan for all its worth, we finally reach the perpetual fog bank in the middle of nowhere, climb into our trusty rowboat and head for shore. It is referred to in a legend as The Island of the Skulls and is quite different from the rendition we saw in 1933. Instead of being dark and foreboding, once the fog bank is left behind, the curtain rises on an island that could easily double as the Garden of Eden in a remake of the Old Testament or a vacation spot in Hawaii.
Fifty minutes into this monkey festival we get to finally meet Kong, who wastes no time running off with his betrothed, that being Dwan. Jack and the other guys run after him without Wilson, who stays behind to check on his oil reserves.
Unfortunately, after having already wired the home office at Petrox, Wilson discovers that the oil still needs to be cooked to perfection. As scientist Roy Bagley (Rene Auberjonois) puts it, "It needs a little more aging of about 10,000 years or so, hardly a drop in the bucket in geological terms." Still determined to bring in the Big One, Wilson begins devising a plan to capture Kong and take him back to star in his own Petrox Television Commercial. Yep, Kong is now the big 'un.
Meanwhile, the Indiana Jones-type adventures behind the Great Wall of Skull Island begin with
Jack and the crew battling dinosaurs, Kong fighting a giant T-Rex, a giant Sea Serpent, and giant insects. It's a special effects extravaganza you'll…… oops. Sorry for that. That was 1933. My bad. DeLaurentiis, having shot his wad on a mechanical ape that didn't work, had no money left for real special effects. So Director Guillerman and screenwriter Semple are forced to concentrate on the Jack/Kong/Dwan love triangle. It’s one love story that will never give Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw a run for their money.
You do get scenes of Kong gazing lustfully into Dwan's eyes, and I don't think there's any mistaking what's on his mind. I guess there's a scarcity of female giant apes on the island, and a horny ape has got to do what a horny ape….. Well, never mind. But he isn't intent on sliding those clothes off Lange to play strip poker.
We also get a replay of the boat crew being thrown off the log and into the canyon by Kong. Compared to Kongs I and III (1933 and 2005, respectfully), it isn't very well done or even remotely frightening. It’s one of those scenes where the blue screen and matte paintings are painfully obvious.
There are, of course, the usual two survivors, Jack, and another crewman, Boan. Jack will carry on to rescue Dwan while the Boan heads back to tell Wilson to leave the island barn door open because the big 'un will be coming full steam ahead. And while Kong is battling the Realistic Rubber Snake With Glow in the Dark Eyes, Jack absconds with Dwan, and the angry Kong comes rushing after them with a full head of steam.
You know what happens next.
Kong smashes down the door, trashing the native village, eating natives, stomping them to smithereens, splitting them into atoms…..oops, sorry. That was 1933.
There is no scene of destruction of the native village. There are no stomped natives. There are no chewed-up natives. There are no smashed huts. The natives must have caught the nearest Ferry Boat and headed to Singapore for a night out on the town with a complimentary case of my favorite alcoholic beverage, Bud Light.
Kong bursts through the gigantic door, promptly falls into a 100-foot-deep pit dug out by Wilson and the gang, and falls gently asleep when several giant drums of chloroform that just happened to be lying around Singapore to be flown out to Kong Island are released. At the same time, Dwan hums the Ape Lullaby of Broadway.
What was a novelty in this film and one of the better sequences is the method they used to transport Kong back to the mainland. In the original Kong, we had to guess. In King Kong vs. Godzilla, they built a giant raft which they blew to shit, allowing Kong to go to the mainland to beat the crap out of his opponent. That was cool and also funny in a Japanese way.
In this one, they stick him into one of the giant cargo holds designed to transport oil. And once Kong discovers Dwan is on board, he goes into a blind rage, nearly destroying the ship, which for my money, is probably the best sequence in the film. Dwan manages to soothe the savage Beast with a few kind words before they flood the tanks, and we're off to New York, Shea Stadium, and our first authentic look at Mechani-Kong. Still, we’re left to figure out how they got him in that tank in the first place.
As good as the Kong sequence on the Petrox Explorer was, that's how lame the Shea stadium sequence is. It also takes little time to figure out why the 40-foot-tall Mechani-Kong was abandoned. First, it doesn't look like a real Kong but a Walking Dead Zombie Kong, except he never walks because he would have fallen over. That’s why they wheel him out on a cart covered with a Petrox Gas Pump cover.
As I later found out ( by watching the extras on the bluray), he almost took a nose dive, even standing still. There were 40 or so men behind it manipulating the tubes and wires to make him go, and it was impossible for them to co-ordinated who was supposed to be operating which part, when, and what for. According to those there for the action, they had no sooner begun the sequence than Kong started to fall apart, hydraulic fluid began leaking all over the place, and it was all they could do to hold it together to get the shots we have here.
Worse yet, the indestructible cage looks like Dino's grandkids built it with their erector set that morning. It's bad enough that they parade Kong out in a giant gas tank, but they went to great lengths to steal a crown from Burger King and place it on top of his head. And while they wheel Kong out to the crowd, Wilson chants about the power of Kong and the power of Petrox oil as if he is Donald Trump working his bigoted, useless followers into a frenzy. Thankfully, Kong soon puts Wilson and us out of our misery. After another clunky-looking, poorly done special effect sequence where Kong takes on a railroad car looking for Dwan, he eventually catches up to her and Jack having a Bud Light and decides to take Dwan on a ride to the top of the World Trade Center.
Why the World Trade Center? Probably because Dino wanted everything in his movie to be more significant. That also enables Kong to do an Olympic Trial for the long jump.
Jack, for his part, calls the army and tells them where Kong is headed after eliciting a promise that they won't kill him. (Like nobody will notice a forty-foot ape climbing a building with a sexy blond perched on his shoulder as if she were a parrot). And if you guessed that, as soon as they hang up the phone, the army calls out the heavy flying artillery to promptly shoot Kong down; you win the big Ape stuffed animal, and intelligent guy Jack looks amazingly stupid for having made the phone call.
It gets bloody messy atop the World Trade Center as Director Guillermin leaves nothing to the imagination. Bullets rip Kong apart, and blood flies everywhere as if someone had just struck a red oil gusher in Kong's chest. Then things get a bit silly as Jack Prescott cheers when Kong grabs hold of one of the choppers and hurls it to the street.
I mean, this was a serviceman just following orders. Of course, they were hurting the giant monkey, so maybe we aren't going to give Jack a pass when he refers to the guys in the choppers doing their job to save New York from destruction as dirty bastards. Hey Jack, that could have worked if you had gotten in your own helicopter to confront them as Sam did in Outbreak.
Then Kong decides to make one giant leap for apes and one giant leap for ape kind by jumping off of one tower and over to the other, with poor Dwan holding on for dear life. However, it's one of those many times when they used the Dwan Barbie Doll to achieve the effect, which pops up several times and is evident on a large screen like mine.
You know how it ends, so what can I tell you? Some praise the movie as high camp and a novel way to look at the Kong legend. Even Pauline Kael, who was a real hard ass and more demanding than my World History teacher in high school when it came to passing grades, gave it a good review.
But we're here for my thoughts, and despite what Kael and even Roger Ebert thought, I can't see my way to giving Dino's Konk anything better than a C. The flaws are way too many and way too obvious to do any better than that, despite all the ridiculous goofiness taking place on the screen.
I distinctly remember going into the theater to see the movie upon its release with great anticipation and feeling slightly disappointed. I had expected at least a little sense of adventure or horror, but there was none. Instead, you got Kong spending most of the running time on Kong Island, leering at Jessica Lange as you leer along with him.
There is one scene well done where Dwan falls in the mud. He washes her off in a waterfall, balanced by an earlier silly scene of her punching Kong in the mouth and calling him a male chauvinist pig ape.
Dwan could not have known if that was a gleam of Love in Kong's eyes or if his stomach was growling, but he was supposed to be a vegetarian. Frankly, I wouldn't be sparring with a forty-foot ape that obviously has the upper hand.
One of the best things that came out of this movie was the four glasses given away by Burger Chef and Jeff at the time. Or was it Burger Chef? Doesn't matter. They were great for drinking my Bud Light. I don't have them now. I think my ex-wife got them in the divorce.
It doesn't matter, though. The awful snake and the snake fight sequence destroy any chance the Kong Island scenes had of totally redeeming themselves. Didn't anybody bother to look at the rushes? Or did they decide that with no dinosaurs or other animate objects besides Dwan's fist to put Kong up against, it was better than nothing?
If they hadn't wasted so much time and money building a Mechnica-Kong that turned out to be useless, they could have come up with something better. Frankly, if Willis O'Brian can perform the magic on Kong that he did in 1933, you would think that 43 years later and with 24 million dollars at your disposal, your special effects would be dazzling. The apparent flaws are glaring while watching the film in my home theater last night. Chief among them is that you are well aware of the blue screen sequences and, in the log sequence, the abundance of matte paintings in the background.
They obviously knew that Mechanica-Kong didn't work, so why bother trotting it out for a few seconds in the Stadium sequence? Its flaws are awesomely obvious, making it easy to spot when we are watching Rick Baker in a monkey suit and when we're watching Dino's 1.7 million dollars worth of furry crap that probably ended up in a landfill. The use of forced perspective runs rampant in this film. The rule of thumb is when it walks like a man and acts like a man, it is a man horsing around in a monkey suit.
It's not that the cast doesn't give it that old Kong try, though. Still, they all look silly as they recite constant groaners such as "Let's not get eaten alive on this island. Bring the insect repellent.”
Lange's Dwan could have been an interesting character, but Semple's script does nothing more than paint her as a sex object and then piles on by turning her into a total air head. Still, give Jessica Lange her due. She manages to shine despite the mind-numbing dialogue and working with a giant ape as her leading man.
As for Bridges, I could never be convinced he was an anthropologist or scientist. Instead, he looks like he just stepped out of the cast of Hair. And some of his actions are really stupid towards the end. At times, he seems to want to blame Dwan for Kong's plight when her only crime was being a gorgeous blonde on an island where there weren't any.
Honestly, if some nitwit came and told you that what you saw on a satellite photograph was animal respiration, wouldn't you have him carted off to the funny farm when you finally finished rolling on the floor laughing? And although Prescott and Dwan are supposed to be attracted to each other, they have absolutely no chemistry in their scenes with each other. There was more give and take between Dwan and Kong, and we all know Kong is an ape of very few words. By the end, I was pretty sure Prescott had an erection for the ape way more than Kong had for Dwan. I’ve seen this movie several times over the years, but I have to say by the end of my most current viewing on my home theater, I came away feeling like Jack was kind of a conceited self-absorbed monkey’s butt.
But no matter. Bridges and Lange would win Oscars later, so no harm, no foul.
Grodin knows what kind of movie he is in, and he spends all of his screen time good-naturedly hamming it up for us. We're supposed to hate him and what he stands for so that we feel some pleasure when Kong stomps Wilson's lights out. But I didn't feel happiness, pain, sadness, or anything. I didn't care.
If you have never seen the film, you should see it at least once, and then you can form your own opinion about it. Maybe you'll be like Pauline Kael, who hardass that she was, actually had praise for the film. Or perhaps you'll fall somewhere in between, like Roger Ebert:
De Laurentiis' version plays like a tacky Italian knockoff of "King Kong," only using the actual name and costing tens of millions of dollars. The centerpiece of the '76 "King Kong" was to be a life-size robot Kong built by special effects maestro Carlo Rambaldi. It was constructed and promptly failed to work or move in the slightest realistic manner. Rick Baker was brought in to play Kong in an ape suit for most of the film. And in this special audacity that was De Laurentiis' trademark, the film ends with crediting Rambaldi for Kong and thanking Baker for his "special contributions" to the film.
The film has a 51 percent critics review score on Rotten Tomatoes but only a 32 percent audience score.
Whichever Kong pleases you, they are readily at your disposal. Kong has been around for 90 years and will probably be around another 90 years, and that suits me just fine.