Which is the best version of King Kong? Even though the 1933 original is one of those universally acclaimed classics that leaves me a little cold, it would unquestionably be my pick. Mostly because it conjures a sense of the mythic that both this and Peter Jackson’s bloated CGI spectacular singularly fail at. That Dino De Laurentis was the producer of the 1976 remake should come as little surprise to anyone familiar with his publicity first, quality a distant second, approach.
But John Guillermin’s film isn’t all bad. Guillermin is very far from being an auteur; a safe pair of hands blessed with minimal panache. But De Laurentis seemed to like it that way. To be fair, he was possibly just blind to the differences in skillset; that Polanski and Pecinpah were offered the chance to direct but also Michael Winner says it all. All directors are equal, but some directors are cheaper than others. Guillermin was fresh off The Towering Inferno so there was no doubt he could handle the scale and the effects-heavy nature of the picture (reportedly it was people he had problems with, De Laurentis threatening to fine him unless he treated the cast and crew better).
Ah yes, the effects. Much of the publicity for the film concerned the 40-foot robot Kong built by Carlo Ramabaldi (E.T.); ironically it ended up on screen for less than a minute. Most of what we see is Rick Baker in a gorilla suit (to be fair to Rambaldi, he also supervised the construction of the giant hands and the mechanics involved in making the various Kong masks work). Anyone can see that De Laurentis at least got his money’s worth from the giant hands, which feature prominently throughout. But, given all the expense involved, it’s ironic that the effects in the finished film are mostly on a par (or inferior to) your average Japanese Godzilla movie. At one point Kong battles a giant snake, which he shreds into a bloody pulp. It looks for all the world like a guy in a hairy suit bursting an inflatable sausage.
While composer John Barry does his best to give an emotional underpinning to Kong and his “relationship” with Dwan, the problem is that a giant ape just isn’t really very interesting. For all the faults of the 2005 version, Jackson at least understood that the most exciting thing about the original, for most kids, was the dinosaurs Kong battles on Skull Island. The first 45 minutes, before Kong arrives, are actually quite enjoyable. But once he shows up any momentum evaporates. Dwan frolics in a lake while Barry’s score blossoms romantically. He blows her dry, eliciting orgasmic gasps from his tiny amour. You can see the serious intent, but a guy in a gorilla suit tickling Lange’s fancy can only elicit mirth. Effects-wise, things don’t get any better once the location shifts to New York. We’re asked to believe that the enterprising Charles Grodin managed to stick a giant crown on Kong’s head and keep it there. And we don’t even get to see the big gorilla topple from the World Trade Center. The ape suit is memorably splattered with ketchup in the big screen’s bloodiest end for the beast.
The best aspect is the one overshadowed by its titular star attraction; the supporting cast. The interaction between Charles Grodin’s boorish oil magnate and Jeff Bridges’ hirsute paleontologist is highly enjoyable, and they’re much more fun to watch than their counterparts in the other versions. You can see that Grodin’s performance is wholly informed by his moustache. I’ve read some criticisms of him here, but I’d argue he’s suitably over-the-top and provides some much needed humour. Bridges has the proto-Dude thing going for him nicely; it’s amusing that in his first leading man role in a really big movie he’s gone for the “dishevelled tramp” look. He also get's the film's best line, acknowledging the limitations of the special effects.
As for Jessica Lange, it isn’t hard to understand why Kong had an enormous gorilla boner for her. This was her first movie role and she must have taken its critical mauling to heart as it was another three years before she featured in another (All That Jazz). Given how at variance with her later career Dwan is, you can understand if she needed a rethink before taking other parts. Lange by no means gives a poor performance, but she’s playing such a complete bimbo you’re given pause too consider whether her character is intended to be a comedy imbecile. She’s more akin to one of those self-consciously dim-watt Monroe roles from the ‘50s. When Bridges’ character testifies that he loves Dwan, you know it can’t for her brains.
This version of Kong is widely derided today, but it was a reasonably big hit for Paramount. Unbelievably, it also garnered an Oscar for Best Special Effects. In that respect, it marks the end of an era; the next recipient was Star Wars. While Kong innovates in some respects, there’s a gulf in the approach to filmmaking between the two spectacles; the old school versus the wunderkinds. A further irony is that one Steven Spielberg was apparently considered as a director. Whether he turned it down or he was never made an offer, it’s fortunate for that it passed him by. If he’d embarked on this special effects disaster following the problems that beset Jaws he might have retired from filmmaking all together.