“The big one. Jee-zus, who says I ain't gonna?”
Just before Star Wars overhauled the visual look of the fantasy film, and special effects in general, another epic “event” movie swung across the cinema screens, wowing audiences the world over for a very short time before being relegated to moviedom's Room 101, and suffering the scorn of generations of film-goers seemingly ever since. Dino De Laurentiis' lavish production of King Kong ate up vast amounts of its own budget just hyping itself up, an ill-advised State-wide promotional tour wreaking such havoc upon the huge, Carlo Rambaldi-designed ape that the animatronic was virtually unusable once the cameras started to roll. And with the funds from Paramount largely squandered, the budget for special effects took an all-too-obvious nose-dive. History has dictated that the first remake of one of the greatest monster movies of all time be considered an abject failure and suitable only for scorn and ridicule. Most reviewers these days consign their critical appraisal of Dino's unfortunate spectacular to single line observations that do nothing but enhance the movie's mediocrity. Well, folks, history and those half-witted critics can go hang, because I'm here to set the record straight about Kong's infamous cinematic misstep. On the eve of the great ape's newest incarnation, let's take a look back at how he was depicted in the revisionist seventies, after the sexual revolution had arrived, and fighting for the ecology was seen as an unusual, but heroic, endeavour with arch-capitalism poised as a dangerous target to utilise in such escapist fare. King Kong was one of the first films to consider it legitimate to see ourselves as the enemy, exploiting of the third world, or “raping the environment” as the screenplay puts it.
“Don't worry, any large furry blip seen heading in your direction ... you will know.”
Just as Carl Denham and Jack Driscoll made an ill-fated journey to Skull Island back in 1933 in Willis O'Brian's and Merian C. Cooper's all-time great King Kong, director John Guillermin and legendary Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis voyaged into equally troubled waters in their much anticipated remake. And, just as the Beast Lord of the island made life difficult for those hapless vintage explorers, the ramshackle monstrosity he turned out to be this time around threatened to pitch the entire production off that precarious log and down into the ravine - spider-pit or no spider-pit. The screenplay, by the usually hack-scribe, Lorenzo Semple Jnr. (who had the camp Adam West Batman show to his name) amazingly ditched the dinosaurs and the rip-roaring adventure that made the original such an intense tour-de-force, placing it in the top ranks of the fantasy/thriller genre for all eternity, and opted to replace them with one of the strangest, and most heartfelt, love affairs ever filmed. Quite intentionally, he upped the emotional interplay between ape and girl considerably, with long scenes of bizarre affection, pining simian lust and a courtship at once warped and touching. We saw plenty of Kong in the original, in which he was forever brawling and battling, a noble warrior, yes, but still a rampaging brute. In 1976, we got to see even more of the mighty King of Skull Island, yet this time we were treated to his caring, sensitive side and his smitten, flirtatious naiveté. The entire middle section is virtually swallowed up by his wooing of Jessica Lange's Dwan - it should be Dawn but he character has swapped the letters around to make it sound more interesting - and the confusing, often difficult relationship that inevitably blossoms. The stop-motion Kong was similarly taken with his blonde captive, but O'Brian ensured that chaos and danger where only ever a yard or so away. Audiences then, and now, were unsure about the direction this new version was taking, the lack of action on Skull Island coming across as a suicidal approach to such a big-scale adventure that promised so much. Yet, perhaps Semple has had the last laugh, after all. The original movie gave Kong dignity, ferocity and power. Semple gave him heart and soul in what is, when all said and done, a love story. Let's just hope that Peter Jackson can combine all these elements to give us the final, fully rounded King Kong.
“Who the hell do you think went through there ... a man in an ape-suit?”
This was the first remake I saw when I actually understood what the term meant. I'd have been about seven years old and already a huge fan of monster movies. The original Kong loomed large and fantastic in my mind, but this time it was going to be a new Kong, in colour and not grainy old black-and-white. And bigger. Much bigger. My mother had shed a tear when the stop-motion puppet tumbled from the Empire State Building and, only young, I hadn't really understood why. Sure it was sad, but I hadn't felt connected to the clay ape. He was something to fear, not mourn. But, a few years later, it took Rick Baker in a ropy gorilla costume plummeting out of a bad matte shot down the side of the World Trade Centre to make me realise just how deeply Kong's tragic saga tugged at the heartstrings. I saw Guillermin's movie every night for its opening week, thanks to my best mate's mum working at the local fleapit, and a few times the following week also. And at the time it was the biggest film I'd ever seen - Skull Island literally yawning around me in incredibly colourful widescreen vistas that took the breath away - and everything about it seemed to work for me. Its imagery was powerful and inspiring - the exotic island setting, the frightening marriage ceremony, the footprints of squashed people in New York - and its theme of a raped environment, of an animal stolen and killed for nothing more than man's greed hit home to me, and hit hard. Kong's horribly bloody demise amid the appalling machine-gun fire from above was the most shocking thing I'd ever witnessed. And for many nights afterwards I'd cry myself to sleep as I kept hearing his thudding heartbeats thump slowly into silence.
“It all depends on Kong ... I mean he's bigger than both of us.”
The updating of the tale quite boldly took on the might of the big oil corporations in its depiction of Petrox Oil bigshot Fred Wilson (a smart and knowing hamming-up from Charles Grodin) as he seeks out the vast, uncharted crude deposits far away on the mysterious island he suspects lies at the heart of a perennial fog bank. Eco-warrior and primitive culture expert Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges sporting longer hair than Lange and a truly frightening beard) stows onboard the big Petrox Explorer vessel when he gets wind of its mythical destination, and the date with destiny is secured when Dwan, the only survivor of a yacht explosion, drifts up alongside them and hitches a ride. Semple also saw to it that Dwan's initial airhead persona was swiftly elbowed aside with some unexpected modern-woman rants against Kong's male chauvinism. Her love triangle with the big hairy guy and Jack (not as big, but almost as hairy) is quite cleverly fashioned. As she tells the ape that “it just wouldn't work out” between them, it becomes painfully obvious that it won't be a bed a roses with Jack, either. Her fickle lust for fame, which she acknowledges may be her downfall, often proves far too alluring and the closing moments beside Kong's shattered body offer a daringly ambiguous tease as to where their relationship is heading. Kong, as we all know, will not get the girl in the end, but it seems to appear that Dwan will not get her man either. It's a clever little subversion of the norm that actually comes to typify the whole era-altered enterprise. In the thirties, it was clear-cut, high and dry. The seventies held no such silver lining. At least Semple was savvy enough to realise that.
“This is no longer the 19th Century. You can't just walk in and take their island.”
“Thanks, Jack. I'll check that with the U.N.”
There are many great elements in the film that still hold up well today, however. The lush island location, actually Hawaii, looks amazing and suitably lost in time. It's only when the pursuit of Kong and his bride takes Jack and the luckless crew of the Petrox Explorer higher up into the volcanic heights of Kong's lair that it loses its visual splendour amid a disappointing welter of polystyrene rocks and woeful miniatures. The log sequence is a real let-down after the galvanising terror of the first one, as well. But the native village is earthy and realistic, and even if the tribe is given practically as little screen-time as the one in the original, its wall is still an imposing delight and that colossal gate is absolutely magnificent. The sacrificial ceremony is seductive, colourful and frenzied. The film's sense of ominous build-up, so well-drawn and manipulated by Guillermin throughout the early getting-to-know-you sections on board the ship, finally comes to a thunderous head. The lead-in to the altar is full of primitive foreboding, dread and suspense. The symbolism is overt and the emotional resonance of this fated meeting just as impactful as it was back in 1933. The chanting of the natives and the horn-call for Kong is supremely well realised with terrific camerawork sweeping along the torch-lit ramparts and a wonderful over-the-wall crane shot that reveals Dwan's terrifying predicament on the other side. If only the film could have sustained this level of wonder and excitement. But, once the leading man pushes through the trees - and if this is such a regular affair, they shouldn't really be there anymore, should they? - and reveals himself, the movie and the legend sadly fall from grace.
“Where's the groom?”
“You see the one in the ape-mask? You could say he's the groom's stand-in.”
The original monster was such an iconic figure, such a genre-defining creation that he alone spawned generations of special effects geniuses and filmmakers. Even viewed today, his stop-motion antics have a charm and a level of make-believe so removed from reality that we have no problem accepting that he really is a giant rampaging ape. But in Dino's movie, it is as though time and techniques have taken a retro-slide backward in imagination, let alone talent. Even as a child, adoring this movie as I did, I was acutely aware that this lumbering fur-ball was no match for his scratch-formed, jerky predecessor. Festooned with rips, loose matting, tucks and patches, the costume has certainly been through the wars, but it is not so much this that disappoints. Rather it is the damage caused by Rick Baker (who built and wore the suit when Rambaldi's costly animatronic gave up the ghost) and the posture that he strikes, his poise and movement so inescapably that of a man that, for many, the laughable pantomime of Toho's Godzilla series was clearly recalled. Whilst it is incredibly easy to poke fun at this, from the neck up, however, it is a radically different story. Because Baker's mask works wonders. Still so obviously a latex appliance, its capacity for expression is surprisingly good, the real eyes radiating out through it so full of life, anger and, ultimately, pain and sadness. Check out his look of raw animal rage when he spots Wilson atop the wall and then comes striding towards him. It still makes me shrink back into the sofa, even now. Again, the scene in the cargo hold (which is another clever point in that Guillermin actually shows us Kong being transported to New York) features a truly harrowing look of incomprehension as to his captivity. And then, shortly after Dwan has calmed his bestial tantrum, the aching gleam in his eyes when he lets her go conveys a fateful resignation to a doom that he cannot possibly understand. It is in these moments of vulnerability that the movie finds its dignity once more, and the tragic passion of the story returns.
“Are you sure that monkey'll be able to bust through that gate?”
Of course, almost all of this would be nothing but men running amok in ape-suits, were it not for the glory of John (Born Free) Barry's magnificent score. And I'm going to take a moment of indulgence here to pay respect for what is, arguably, the most successful component of the film. You can always tell a John Barry score - be it the exhilaration of the early James Bonds, the mighty sweep of Zulu or the heartfelt plea at the passing of a nation in Dances With Wolves - from just a couple of bars. Deep, lush and flowing with emotion, sometimes his music is almost too overbearing for the film it accompanies, too powerful for its imagery (The Specialist, anyone? Or The Black Hole?). But here his beautiful melodies transport the occasionally insipid, or ailing, visuals to a much higher plane. His main theme has a doomed, emphatic depth, rolling with ominous, portentous chords. The sacrificial ceremony pounds with tribal excitement and the driving, percussive rhythm of Kong's enraged return trip to the great wall are standouts. But, it is the love theme - be it for Dwan and Jack, or especially for Kong and his diminutive betrothed - with which he expertly toys with the emotions. He also utilises a simply gorgeous echoing piano motif around three times throughout the film (the waterfall sequence, for instance, being the most memorable occasion) that has haunted me since I was a child. Hearing the score and re-watching the film again now still provides that ethereal quality, still lifts the dodgy photographic effects from Frank Van Der Veer, and the cumbersome, slow-moving mechanical arm into the realms of cinematic magic that, on their own merits, would have been impossible to achieve.
“Here's to all the future sons and daughters of King Kong.”
I'll drink to that, myself.
So, re-released to coincide with the celebrated original's definitive collector's edition and, of course, the really big remake roaring out of the jungle soon, Dino De Laurentiis' version stands battered but unbowed. The effects may vary drastically in quality and Skull Island may have lost some its most exciting features, but this King Kong Remake No.1 deserves another chance. Jessica Lange, in her terrifically assured feature film debut (can you believe they actually wanted Barbara Streisand for the part?), has never looked more stunning. Jeff Bridges gives his role a laconic touch, but he still has the heart and lungs to bellow out his fury alongside Kong as he swats a helicopter out of the sky, or incinerates a squad of goons with a fuel tank. And the King of Skull Island, himself, may be saddled with the worst fancy-dress costume in the shop, but those eyes really do deliver such a performance that I can forgive all of that.
This film is part of my childhood, folks. And I still love it. My heart demands a higher score ... my head, sadly, won't allow it.
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