Review: King Kong (1976)

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

There are good things and bad things about the new King Kong. One of the good things is that it’s nice to look at. Though the photography and production design are scarcely more interesting than those of the 1933 film, they are on an epic scale, impressive and economic, using widescreen and color to more purpose than merely out-spectacle-ing the original. The designers have retained much of the architecture in the island sequence, especially the bridal altar and the huge gate with phallic bolt, and they were wise to do so. They were equally wise to avoid the dinosaur encounters of the 1933 film, for which Willis O’Brien’s model animation was perfect. In the new version the only attempts at model work come off as distressingly poor: the huge rubber snake against which Kong battles while zoologist Jack Prescott stages his daring, pure Frank Frazetta pulp rescue of a bare-breasted Dwan from the ape’s mountain lair; and its parallel sequence in New York, Kong’s battle with a toy-sized El that, in his hand, visibly does not contain the panic-stricken passengers we see at the windows in the intercut interior shots.

More dramatically altered than the original’s design is the characterization. Carl Denham, given the plainer name Fred Wilson, has a more mercenary profession: colonialist leader of an oil expedition. He’s become a villain pure and simple, without the ambiguity of Denham’s likeable charm and nice-guy enthusiasm. Jack Driscoll, the original’s dull-witted strongman, has become Jack Prescott, with all the difference in the world: no longer the great white hope who has to save his beloved from the beast, he is more frequently in the position of protecting and understanding the ape, and in the climactic scene is visually and behaviorally identified with Kong. Most important is the change of Ann Darrow to “Dwan,” the vacuous starlet who returns Kong’s love as Ann never did. Jessica Lange is poor in the role; her flip dialogue with Kong comes off as neither comedy nor affection (contrast Josette Day’s conversations with the Beast in Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête). Without the layers of ambiguity that intensified the original film, Dwan’s acceptance of Kong serves only to limit the variety of available audience responses to the monster, to soften Kong’s potential as an object of terror, and to make obvious (“Hold on to me, Kong! Don’t put me down or they’ll kill you!”) what was more appropriately and stimulatingly subtle in the 1933 film.

Semple’s screenplay has a proper religious sense about it, and seems to understand and appreciate the complexities of primitive religion, with totem and taboo reflecting the ambivalent nature of fear and worship. But Guillermin has abandoned much of the more promising potential hinted at in the early dialogue in favor of pursuing the ape–woman love affair to the exclusion of all else. So ultimately all the new King Kong does is pay lip service to an already-existing myth. Fashioned by people who obviously know and love—wisely, if not well—the original, this new King Kong has been rendered with respect and affection, if not always the greatest competence, and is generally fair to its predecessor. But because it constantly limits itself, insists on interpreting itself and its characters for us, this film and its Kong are always less than archetypal. Though some suspense attends the approach of Kong to the altar where the drugged Dwan has been tied as sacrificial victim, an odd thing suddenly happens: we get subjective shots from Kong’s point-of-view before we ever see Kong! The effect of this is to press us into sympathy and identification with Kong so early that—though he will become conqueror, lover, victim, and martyr—Dino de Laurentiis’s guy in a monkey suit never gets to be what the original Kong was foremost and for always: scary.

KING KONG
Direction: John Guillermin. Screenplay: Lorenzo Semple Jr., after the screenplay by James Creelman and Ruth Rose, from an idea by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace. Cinematography: Richard H. Kline. Production design: Mario Chiario, Dale Hennesy; art direction: Archie J. Bacon, David A. Constable and Robert Gundlach; set decoration: John France Jr. Editing: Ralph E. Winters. Special photographic effects: Frank Van Der Veer, Harold E. Wellman. King Kong design and engineering: Carlo Rambaldi. Music: John Barry. Production: Dino de Laurentiis.
The players: Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, Charles Grodin, René Auberjonois, John Randolph, Julius Harris, Ed Lauter, Jack O’Halloran, Dennis Fimple.

© 1977 Robert C. Cumbow

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


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