Sunday, 29 May 2011

King Kong (1976)



Whilst Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of the classic Merian C. Cooper-Ernest B. Schoedsack film of 1933 had some major faults, it was certainly an improvement on the previous attempt to reinvent the original, this mid-‘70s stab by Dino De Laurentiis in the first phase of his attempt to conquer Hollywood with a string of (mostly terrible) monster and horror movies. Largely pathetic, often terrible, occasionally stirring, this De Laurentiis production was brought to life by John Guillerman, who had made some good films in Britain, and produced some admirable work in his first years in Hollywood (The Blue Max, 1966; The Bridge at Remagen, 1969), but had well and truly been caught in the big-budget trash wringer by this stage. Like Mark Robson’s Earthquake (1974), there’s something about this film, with its surprising tackiness for such an expensive movie, and the enervated, cynical, campy tone infusing much of the proceedings, that summarises the exhaustion and loathing of what was left of old-school Hollywood for both itself and the current zeitgeist. Instead of the melancholic beauty of the epigraph of the Cooper-Schoedsack film, here the film leaves off with a far more laboured, yet somehow effective touch of the massacred ape lying dead, journalists crawling all over it and surrounding traumatised heroine Dwan (Jessica Lange), as she screams out the name of her boyfriend Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), who can’t get to her for the crushing, appalling spectacle. It’s no wonder people ran to see the colour and lightness of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind the following year: this film had taken a baseball bat of sloppiness and negativity to the cranium of a story that had, in its first incarnation, been fast-paced, glibly poetic, and brilliantly corny.


Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jnr’s story transmogrified the original’s team of filmmakers into a more sociopolitically obvious emblem of exploitation: a team of venal prospectors for the oil company Petrox, led by the amusingly incompetent yet cluelessly self-assured executive Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) and his chief scientist Bagley (Rene Auberjonois. The team depart Indonesia for parts unknown on the Petrox Explorer, captained by Ross (John Randolph), in search of a lost island recently photographed by satellite and perpetually smothered under a fog bank. Jack, a hippie primate scientist, having heard legends about the island and guessing the team’s destination, sneaks on board and warns them that their dreams of gushing geysers of crude might not be fulfilled. Wilson, who’s thrown himself into the make-or-break venture with his ass on the line (rather senselessly; dud prospecting has got to be an expected risk for oil companies), pushes against all doubts and obstacles to reach the island. On the way, the team pick up the lone survivor of a yacht wrecked in a storm, Dwan, a Californian actress who was being taken by a lecher producer to make a movie in Hong Kong. The team reach the island, penetrate the fog bank, and encounter the natives with their giant wall and suggestive mating rituals involving tender young maidens and guys in ape masks. Soon, Dwan is kidnapped and sacrificed to Kong, Jack and crew members, including Carnahan (Ed Lauter) and Boan (Julius Harris) give chase, whilst Wilson, after Bagley confirms the island’s oil is worthless, decides to capture the giant ape as his prize instead, to use as a marketing gimmick.


Guillerman’s film retains some initially alluring lustre, if only because of the sense of scale some of the filmmaking offers, as he generates reasonable atmosphere in the first third, and the grandiose score by John Barry, whose lush, emotive work often stands in direct contrast to the limply mocking, pseudo-hip jive infusing the dialogue of many of the scenes it’s playing over. Richard H. Kline’s photography likewise possesses a firm, cool beauty throughout, especially in the location photography in Sri Lanka. Perhaps it’s too well-shot, as the surprising limitations of the much-hyped ‘70s special effects are too often, too clearly revealed. Infamously, Carlo Rambaldi’s huge mechanical Kong wouldn’t work properly, so that Rick Baker had to step in to recreate his work for Schlock (1972) on a far bigger scale, animating the monkey suit that tramps about some half-assed models like an escapee from a Toho kaigu eiga. The effects are woeful in places, particularly in the recreation of the original’s log-rolling scene, where the set, matte work, and ape suit all seem numbingly fake. It goes without saying that this version never comes close to recapturing the sheer ferocity and epic nobility of both Kong himself and his first movie. In comparison to the miraculous pace of the Cooper-Schoedsack film, this version lumbers along, taking an hour before Kong even appears, and in spite of the fact this version runs 30 minutes longer than the 1933 film, there’s about half as much incident once he does appear. Kong’s lone battle with an island monster is a desultory wrestle with a giant snake. If Jackson’s version was finally a little overloaded by his fanboyish delight in indulging and expanding the original’s universe, this version seems barely interested in anything except bad hipster jokes.


The worst aspect of this King Kong is that deeply crass self-congratulation. The attempts to present a more enlightened version of the original’s harum-scarum natives and thoughtless kidnapping of Kong from homeland, manifests in Jack’s conscientious statements, constantly telling Wilson off for his unadorned lack of conscience and awareness, and worrying that the natives of the island will be reduced to a bunch of drunks without their god that gave mystery and terror to their lives. Unfortunately, this is shown up as pure humbug as the natives are portrayed with less sympathy and nuance in their actual on-screen behaviour: there’s nothing like the ’33 film’s great bit where the sailors and natives band together to try and hold Kong off, and their desperate defence which makes it clear why they had to keep Kong sated. Cooper and Schoedsack’s film, with its screenplay co-written by Schoedsack’s wife Ruth Rose, was galvanised by its highly personal understanding and irony about the politics and demands of adventurous movie-making; this film is a series of cheap satirical jabs. Semple’s script manages to compile almost every cheesy quip that could be associated with Kong short of quoting the popular ‘60s button “King Kong has an Edifice Complex”, as Dwan shouts “male chauvinist ape” at the giant manhandling simian, mentions that her astrologist told her she would meet the “biggest man” in her life, and other such theoretically side-splitting gags. When Kong finally gets hold of Dwan, their subsequent “romance” is embarrassing, as Kong washes under a waterfall and then blow-drys her.


Lange was plucked from obscurity – I once chatted with a guy who had known her as a waitress before she got picked for the role – to play Dwan, making it a particularly fraught experience for a young actress who was catapulted to fame, and nearly sent straight back to nothingness. Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow was desperate and dominated, but never dopey, unlike Dwan. Lange plays Dwan with an edge of Monroe-esque kooky blitheness, rambling on about how not wanting to watch Deep Throat helped save her life, and characterised as a kind of innocent nature-child – or airhead, depending on your point of view – whose relationship with Jack, who’s uncertain he can make her happy, seems to never catch a break, and finds herself rather more awed by her other suitor’s surprisingly delicate way with finger and mouth. Lange is filmed in a ludicrous shipboard montage striking cute poses, including in the shower, and later swans about in cut-offs, posing for Jack’s camera on the beach of Kong Island and skipping about in front of waterfalls, as if this had suddenly turned into a John Derek movie. If the idea was to make a film much more ironic about the crypto-sexist underpinning of the original’s image of a woman at the mercy of monstrous masculine strength, the choice of making Dwan a ditz was not wise. From a modern perspective, there’s some cognitive dissonance in being invited to ogle Lange as cheesecake: this is, after all, Jessica Lange, multiple Oscar-winning actress, jumping about in short shorts. It’s a testimony to how good her performance is that a lot of people thought at the time she was really this was dumb.


That said, Lange’s playing of guileless purity does finally gain traction in the film’s later stages, as her growing affection for her simian suitor results in her becoming increasingly anguished in seeing him victimised. Similarly, Bridges’ committed performance manages to make something substantial out of his placard of a character, finding nuance in Jack’s uncertainty about committing to a relationship with a girl from outside his world, and real passion in his final emotional witnessing of Kong’s last stand, which almost manages on its own to make the finish truly tragic. The last act of this King Kong does come surprisingly close to saving this often turgid spectacle, and in spite of the sacrilegious relocating of Kong’s last battle to the World Trade Centre, which now, inevitably stokes some tragic associations of its own. This final worthiness is thanks largely to how the film embraces, with tinny obviousness but some genuine punch, the spectacle of Kong trapped in the embrace of a commercialism, opportunism, media vultures, and, finally, military cruelty. He’s trundled out before the audience of gawking New Yorkers sheathed in a huge petrol pump, which, when lifted away, finds him in a body cage with a crown perched awkwardly upon his head. Grodin’s Wilson is surprisingly funny, if in a fashion that feels wrong for the film, in his clueless arrogance, especially when he gets Jack to stop shooting camera-bait Dwan to come and take pictures of his own heroic landfall on Kong Island. His humour value reaches an apogee in the finale as he keeps trying to reassure the audience as Kong steadily tears himself lose of his bonds, and stomps Wilson flat into the earth. In spite of Jack’s getting assurances from a slimy city official (John Agar!) that Kong will not be harmed, nonetheless Kong’s harassment by flame-thrower-wielding National Guard and final butchery by helicopter gunships results.


The grotty spectacle of newsmen crawling over Kong’s carcass and Dwan being mobbed in the final moments compounds the film’s late, awkward but affecting stab at finally taking the story seriously: the epic nobility of the ‘30s version has been squashed under the heel of the ‘70s just like Wilson under Kong’s. But there’s still something awry about this: Cooper and Schoedsack’s King Kong hit mythic heights that this one can’t – and this is a problem that Jackson’s version encountered too – precisely because their Kong was both empathetically emotional and awesomely vicious, a pagan god mistakenly transposed into a world of neon and chrome, a figure of inimical strength encountering a world of equal but pettier strength, so that his death is at once necessary, sad, and glorious in a way. In Guillerman’s and Jackson’s versions, the stress is so much on his empathetic side that both films finish up as bummers rather than tragedies. Kong in this version would have been well justified in stomping New York into ruins. There’s still some visual majesty in some moments, particularly in the excellent sequence of Kong’s breaking though the wall only to plunge into Wilson’s pit filled with chloroform. The flashes of decency in this version don’t redeem it, but they do help make rather perversely watchable. This Kong was a major hit at the box office in spite of the poor reception, and Guillerman completed his career ruination by directing the flop sequel King Kong Lives (1986), a film I watched too many times as a kid. Bridges’ and Lange’s careers survived, of course.


















5 comments:

Stephen Gallagher said...

Midway through the read, and for no reason I can fathom, I had a sudden mental image of what a Mel Gibson-directed version of King Kong might be like; the visceral jungle action of Apocalypto followed by a re-enactment of The Passion of the Christ on the New York skyline. Effing unbearable, is what it would be, which for me underscores the near-perfect balance of the 1933 original.

The original's probably my all-time Number One movie. I saw the '76 version when it came out and have dodged any opportunity to see it again. The one element that has stayed with me is a touching moment with Kong in the ship's hold, as a dropped scarf or handkerchief carries Dwan's scent down to him; other than that my memory is of one bad creative decision after another, as people whose work I've otherwise liked - Bridges, Grodin, even John "Tarzan's Greatest Adventure" Guillermin - grimly worked through their contracts.

I find Jackson's movie to be a very mixed bag of nuts. His natural-looking giant gorilla is immediately less engaging than 1933's inauthentic primate, which was a creature with its own niche in the monster pantheon. And such is his love of the original, I guess, that every point in its tight narrative inspires a digressive fantasia that he's unable to resist. I enjoyed his film much more on a DVD viewing split over two nights than I did in the cinema, where by the time we reached New York I was already willing the end to come.

But here's the remake I'd really, really like to see; a 'Merian C Cooper' cut of Jackson's footage, with the same running length as the original and closely following its editing plan. In a perfect world I'd have a more Kong-like Kong as well, but maybe I'm alone in that; it doesn't seem to bother anyone else.

Greg said...

A very good analysis of a movie that probably doesn't deserve it. One thing that kept standing out for me when I rewatched this recently for my "Short List" post (thanks for the link, by the way) was that Rick Baker, as talented as he is, didn't walk like an ape! That drove me nuts. I kept saying to the screen, "I'll buy this costume if you would just fucking hunch over! Is that so goddamn hard?! Stop walking upright! Have you never seen a gorilla walk? On tv? In a zoo? Seriously, never?"

And, yes, the buildup to finding Kong is all there is. Once Kong actually shows up it's like, "Who cares." His ascent to the top of the towers is swift and choppily edited and the optical work really isn't very good. And I don't care how much money they spent on the forty foot robot, they should have never used it (it's shown, standing lifeless, in the chained cage New York scene).

I like John Barry's music though, as always.

Robert said...

This was my first moviegoing experience, back when I was 5, in 1976. The promo ad playing on tv so blew my mind that I demanded (in whatever way a 5 year old demands) to see it. I cried in that theater. Hard. I didn't know from hip dialogue or ironic reimaginings. I only knew I loved King Kong. It was only later, maybe age 7, that I saw the Willis O'Brien version (okay, okay, the Cooper/Schoedsack version), and fell in MORE love. And of course, it was years later still before I was able to separate the two in terms of storytelling skill - 33 being the undisputed winner. Eons later, Jackson's version made me uncomfortable from beginning to end, so hard was it trying to make me like it. All in all, the wildly mockable 76 version still inspires me, infused as it is with my memory of how awesome *it was* to my 5 year old eyes. The 33 version inspires me with its impossible feat of instilling humanity in an ape model one frame at a time. And Jackson's version... well... Jackson's version is slowly slipping away from my memory already.

Sam Juliano said...

"It goes without saying that this version never comes close to recapturing the sheer ferocity and epic nobility of both Kong himself and his first movie. In comparison to the miraculous pace of the Cooper-Schoedsack film, this version lumbers along, taking an hour before Kong even appears, and in spite of the fact this version runs 30 minutes longer than the 1933 film, there’s about half as much incident once he does appear."

Only a Roderick Heath could put together a marathon review of this caliber in assessing a film that is only famous for what it reprised and perhaps prefaced. Hence I agree with Greg Ferrara when he says "a very good analyis of a movie that probably dosen't deserve it." I never thought this was an absolute disaster, but on balance it doesn't match Peter Jackson's later version, much less the 1933 classic. Since the 1976 version tanked critically (but scored finantially, contrary to popular belief)it has developed a considerable cult reputation, which has urged re-evaluation. Some will argue for the film's metaphorical references to the environment and promiscuity, but at the end of the day only John Barry's lovely score holds up. Yes Rod, I do quite agree however that there are some moments of "visual majesty that perversely make the film watchable" despite it's overall inadequacy.

Anyway, brilliant piece as always.

Amanda Field said...

You mention Rick Baker in your article, but there were actually two 'guys in ape suits' in the movie, the other being Will Shephard. Will has written a book about his experiences on the set - it's called Inside King Kong and it has lots of behind-the-scenes photos too. The paperback version is UK-only, but the ebook version is available worldwide.