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Not quite the disaster people remember
on 13 December 2006
Even though there had been three other Kong films since the 1933 version earned its place as `The Eighth Wonder of the World' - Son of Kong, King Kong Vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes - it's King Kong in its 1976 incarnation that became the poster boy for bad remakes, a reputation it's never really managed to shake off in the intervening decades.
Due to confusion over the rights, there were actually two rival productions at the starting gate in 1975. In one corner was Paramount with its modern-day Dino de Laurentiis production, in the other Universal's planned rival Senssurround version The Legend of King Kong, set in the 1930s from a script by Oscar-winner Bo Goldman and to be directed by Joseph Sergeant with stop-motion effects by Jim Danforth. After much bickering and posturing from both sides, De Laurentiis won the race and Universal withdrew, and the rest is infamy. The film was given a huge publicity campaign, a massive amount of merchandising - along with ice lollies, bubblegum, coke glasses, board games, model kits, you could even get tufts of Kong's hair with every pair of Sedgfield jeans, not to mention an unauthorised autobiography of the great ape, My Side - and even grabbed the cover of Time magazine. It didn't take long for the backlash to hit: critics loathed it and it failed to live up to the unrealistic expectations that it would be bigger than Jaws, making its then-impressive and very profitable $90m gross seem rather underwhelming. It didn't help that Dino's choice of tagline for a remake was `The most exciting original motion picture event of all time,' which was just asking for trouble for a remake. Yet taken away from the inevitable disappointment of its massive hype and comparisons with the original, it's a bit more substantial than its given credit for.
It certainly isn't the turkey everyone seems to remember - or at least not when Jessica Lange is offscreen, which sadly isn't nearly often enough. It's a wonder her career ever survived her Marilyn-without-the-intellect impersonation, all exaggerated breathy mannerisms and inane dialog ("Did you ever meet anyone whose life was saved by Deep Throat?" - relax, she means the movie). Just as everyone assumed she really was that dumb at the time rather than just playing dumb, many people took the film's knowing humor for unintentional comedy. Despite some bad jokes ("What do you think took her, some guy in a monkey suit?"), Lorenzo Semple Jr's script is smarter than it's been given credit for, quite effectively updating the story to reflect the 70s concerns of rapacious and indifferent corporations, a worldwide energy crisis and cynical politicians. With the movie business in decline it's now a multinational petrol company in search of oil that captures Kong for its new corporate logo while his last stand is relocated from the Empire State Building to the World Trade Centre - which in the 1970s carried very different associations than it does today - for more than mere reasons of scale: this Kong dies because of big business. Even the replacement of biplanes with helicopter gunships shooting him bloodily to pieces evokes Vietnam.
At the same time there's a softening of Kong himself, no longer a rampaging beast but one simply trying to survive after being taken out of his element, but, curiously, in its efforts to make Kong more sympathetic (no native villages destroyed here, with Jeff Bridges' palaeontologist, almost as hairy as Rick Baker's Kong himself, constantly on hand to protect his reputation and attempt to stop him taking the big drop) it just ends up diminishing him. There is genuine pathos along with a revulsion for humanity in his last moments as his heartbeat fades while photographers climb over his body for a better shot. Unlike the original, throughout the characters are aware of their actions and its consequences but go ahead anyway, ending up, in typical 70s fashion, left in their own private hells. That does tend to make the film at times a preachy examination of ethics and exploitation rather than a great adventure story, with a lot less action and a lot more talk this time round.
But while it packs considerably less into its 132 minutes than the original did in its 99, and wastes too much time on Lange instead of the big guy, parts of it are surprisingly well directed with an impressive epic scale by John Guillermin, there's a fine John Barry score and a decent human cast, including Charles Grodin, John Randolph, Ed Lauter, Rene Auberjonois, Julius Harris, Jack O'Halloran and monster movie veteran John Agar. You can even spot John Lone, who would make a memorable ape man himself a few years later in Iceman, in the background in a few scenes. But pride of place among them goes to Rick Baker, whose contribution is simply `acknowledged' in the end credits but gives an impressively communicative performance as Kong, aided immensely by Carlo Rambaldi's pioneering use of electronics to make the face more expressive that more than compensated for the hugely expensive giant 40-ft robot Kong that didn't do much and only features in a few seconds of footage (though it was worth millions in free publicity for the film). It may be a man in a suit rather than the groundbreaking stop-motion animation of the original, but it's a helluva good suit. The rest of the special effects are variable at best - often excellent, but frequently suffering from less than seamless bluescreen work and all-too obvious studio sets and miniatures.
Ultimately this is a Kong for the 70s rather than one for the ages, and in many ways much more a time capsule of its era than the 1933 original. It was never going to be too hard for Peter Jackson to top this, but take it on its own terms and it often works surprisingly well.
As is Amazon's wont, they've put the reviews for the various different versions together. Sadly, the UK DVD is a little too dark in places - a big problem come the night-time finale. The only extras are the original trailer and a stills gallery. The French two-disc DVD fares rather better, including some negligible deleted scenes with non-removeable French subtitles, trailer, stills gallery and an impressive booklet (even if many of its stills are from Dino's sequel, King Kong Lives).
StudioCanal's French and Australian Blu-ray offers a decent 2.35:1 transfer, though there is some image fluctuation that's particularly noticeable in the first third of the film (though nowhere near as bad as on their Highlander Blu-ray). The main extra is a 22-minute featurette Making Kong dating from 2005 and obviously cashing in on Jackson's remake, which works better as a critical analysis of the more political 70s tone of the remake than an account of its making. Rich Cline is good on the themes but poor on the facts - he claims that De Laurentiis kept the methods used to portray the star a secret, yet the 40-foot robot that didn't work was right at the centre of the film's massive publicity campaign while extensive clips from a 1976 TV interview with Rick Baker about his work in the suit contradict him even further. Nor is it accurate to say that it was the veteran producer's first really big budget picture (what about Waterloo, The Bible ...in the Beginning or Barabbas?), while M. J. Simpson's pure children's television dumbed-down discussion of the special effects uses a still of Ray Harryhausen animating The 7th Voyage of Sinbad for Willis O. Brien. Nor is there any mention of the race to beat the rival remake. Also included are the original trailer and 8 deleted scenes (though two more from the French DVD are missing), mostly extended scenes, including longer versions of the fight with the snake and Kong breaking through the wall as well as a brief bit of additional mayhem in New York as he smashes a very obvious model car into a building.