The 1976 remake of King Kong is the version of the great ape’s story that no one ever seems to want to talk about.
Everyone, of course, continues to appreciate the original King Kong from 1933, with its charmingly dated but still somewhat effective special effects. The Japanese King Kong films have their fans, even if it still annoys me that two endings were made for the original King Kong vs. Godzilla. The Peter Jackson-directed remake from 2005 had many admirers, including me. The monsterverse Kong certainly has many fans, as is indicated by the fact that Godzilla vs Kong is the first box office hit of the post-pandemic era. King Kong is a beloved character and yet the 1976 version of his story never seem to get as much attention as all the others.
Some of that, of course, is because the 1976 version of King Kong is often described as not being very good. It tells the same basic story as the first King Kong but there’s a few key differences. The expedition to the hidden island is no longer made up of a film crew. Instead, everyone has a separate backstory that doesn’t really make much sense. Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) is an energy company executive who is looking for a new source of oil. Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) is a long-haired hippie environmentalist type who stows away on Wilson’s ship. Prescott apparently thinks that there’s some sort of ancient primate living on the island. Meanwhile, Dwan (future great actress Jessica Lange, making her film debut) is an aspiring actress who is discovered in a life raft, floating out in the middle of the ocean. It turns out that Dwan (that’s not a typo, that’s her name) has escaped from the yacht of a sleazy film producer. Nobody on the ship seems to be surprised when Dwan suddenly shows up in her life raft and Dwan doesn’t seem to have any hesitation about accompanying a bunch of strangers to previously unexplored island. That’s the type of film this is.
After a considerable amount of time, during which Dwan falls in love with Jack and Fred spends a lot of time looking generally annoyed, the island is discovered. As you can already guess, Dwan is kidnapped by the island’s natives, and she’s rescued by a giant ape who falls in love with her after she punches him in the nose and says, “Put me down, you male chauvinist pig ape!” In some shots, Kong is obviously a man in a rubber suit. In others, he’s just as obviously an animatronic model. Unfortunately, the animatronic version of Kong sometimes appears to kind of be leering whenever he looks down at Dwan in the palm of his hand, which bring a definite element of ickiness to a few of the scenes in which Kong carries Dwan across the island.
Eventually, just as in the original film, Kong ends up a prisoner in New York. This time, when he escapes, grabs Dwan, and goes on a rampage, he ends up climbing the Two Towers. This leads to scenes of helicopters and fighter planes all firing at the Two Towers, which is a bit difficult to watch today. I remember a few years ago, one of our local stations actually broadcast this version of King Kong on September 11th and it definitely did not feel right.
The 1976 version of King Kong was a hit at the box office and was nominated for three Academy Awards. It won the the award for Best Visual Effects, sharing the Oscar with Logan’s Run. That said, King Kong wasn’t exactly popular with critics, either at the time of its release or today. To a certain extent, it’s understandable why this version of King Kong is so frequently criticized. The script takes a deliberately campy approach to material that, in order to have any real emotional impact, needs to be played straight regardless of how silly the story might seem. Charles Grodin never seems to be sure whether the film is a drama or a comedy. Jeff Bridges is likable but a bit too naturally mellow for his role. Jessica Lange made her film debut in King Kong, famously beating out Meryl Streep for the role. Despite the fact that the film was a box office hit, the reviews of Lange’s performance were so negative that she didn’t work for three years after appearing in the film. (She spent that time studying acting. She went on to win a Tony, two Oscars, and three Emmys so take that, critics.)
And yet, I kind of like this version of King Kong. When taken on its own very silly terms (and not as a remake of a legitimate classic), it’s definitely entertaining. Even the fact that Grodin, Bridges, and Lange are all miscast kind of works to the film’s advantage. You can’t help but appreciate that all three of them are trying so hard to be convincing in roles that they shouldn’t have been playing. For all the criticism of Jessica Lange’s performance, she actually does as well as anyone could with some of the dialogue that she gets stuck with. It’s not easy to pull off a scene where you explain to a giant ape that the relationship is never going to work because you’re a city girl and he’s a …. well, he’s a giant ape. But Lange manages to deliver the lines without laughing and that couldn’t have been easy. Lange’s then-inexperience is obvious whenever she’s having to react to or interact with the other actors but she does fine when she’s having to talk to a guy in a rubber suit or a big animatronic head. (Let’s see Meryl Streep pull that off.) Though it seems to take forever for Kong to actually get captured, the film picks up once he’s transported to New York. If you can look past the awkwardness of how the film uses the Twin Towers, the scenes of Kong rampaging through the city have an over-the-top grandeur that’s both ludicrous and compelling. By the time he reaches the top of the World Trade Center, you will totally be on his side. That’s the way it should be.
This remake of King Kong is deeply, deeply silly but, sometimes, that’s exactly what you’re looking for.