Although film studios Universal and Hammer had also shown interest in remaking the 1933 classic King Kong in the ’70s, it was famed producer Dino De Laurentiis who actually got one off the ground, for distributor Paramount Pictures.
The screenplay for Dr Laurentiis’s forty-three-years-later remake was written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., the man who had developed the Batman property into the ’60s television show and also scripted films such as Pretty Poison, Flash Gordon, and Never Say Never Again. While Semple’s take on the concept starts out in much the same way as the original film did, with a ship setting sail to reach a mysterious island, he made a very strange choice with the characters.
The person in charge of the first movie’s expedition had been filmmaker Carl Denham, who wanted to shoot an adventure picture around the uncharted island that was said to be home to a legendary, monstrous, all powerful creature called Kong. There was an excitement to Denham’s quest to prove that Kong was real, it was a grand adventure.
The remake’s expedition is all about the quest for oil. A satellite passing over an area of the Pacific Ocean called the Magic Circle has captured imagery that shows there is an island shrouded within a dense perpetual fog bank, a fog bank that has not lifted or changed in at least thirty-five years. Due to the chemical composition of this fog, it must be caused by vapors seeping through the ground… Vapors from oil. Petrox Oil executive Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) believes that his company can make the biggest oil strike ever on this hidden island.
Oil workers? This isn’t an exciting, adventurous approach to the material. Maybe the thought of finding oil was more exhilarating in the oil crisis plagued ’70s, but it’s still no journey to find a beast of legends.
Luckily, Jack Prescott of Princeton’s Department of Primate Paleontology, a character played by the great Jeff Bridges, has stowed away on the ship called the Petrox Explorer as it heads toward the Magic Circle, and he is aware that this uncharted island may in fact be the home to a legendary creature. Prescott believes the fog bank is actually caused by animal resperation, and he shares with Wilson and the Petrox crew some of the stories he’s heard about an island hidden by fog. The story of a sailor landing on such an island in 1605 and hearing the roar of a beast. Of a lifeboat being discovered in the area in 1749 with the image of a huge beast drawn on it in blood. The rumor of a dying Japanese submariner mentioning the island in a note in a bottle tossed into the ocean in 1944.
Wilson has no interest in Prescott’s monster stories, that’s all nonsense to him. At first he suspects the long-haired, bearded, hippie-looking fellow is from a rival oil company, but once he gets Prescott’s identity confirmed he has the stowaway pay for his passage by serving as the expedition’s photographer.
It’s Prescott who spots an inflatable raft floating in the ocean. On the raft is a young woman named Dwan (Jessica Lange), an aspiring actress who had been out at sea and headed for Hong Kong with a filmmaker when the yacht they were on, for reasons unexplained, went to fiery pieces. Dwan was the only survivor, which she credits to the fact that she was on the deck when disaster struck. She wasn’t down below with the others because they were watching a movie she didn’t want to see. She repeatedly says that she owes her life to Deep Throat. Name-checking a porno in a family film is another of King Kong ’76’s questionable decisions.
Dwan being an actress is a callback to the female lead in the original Kong, although the character is sort of an airhead and less interesting than Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow ever was.
The Petrox Explorer reaches the fog bank and stops, a small team going ahead to the hidden island, the sailors and oil workers accompanied by Prescott, so he can take pictures, and by Dwan, who convinces Wilson he should have a pretty girl in some of those pictures. It’d be good for publicity.
Once the group has landed on the island, Wilson’s belief that no other humans have ever set foot on it is disproven in a big way – the island inhabited by a tribe of natives. Natives who worship a beast they’ve built a massive wall to protect themselves from, and who are preparing an elaborate ritual… One which they really want Dwan to be a part of when they spot her.
Dwan is taken back to the Petrox Explorer, but some of the natives arrive at the anchored ship that night to kidnap her and take her back to the island.
Realizing that Dwan is gone, a rescue team headed up by Prescott return to the island… But they arrive too late to stop the natives from carrying out the ritual.
As the natives chant “Kong” over and over, Dwan is tied to a platform on the other side of the huge wall and offered up to this Kong. Their god. Their king.
The 1933 King Kong had been an amazing technical achievement, the stop-motion animation with which special effects artist Willis O’Brien brought to life its titular character and the other creatures featured in the film was nothing short of incredible. King Kong should never have been touched if the remake’s updated effects couldn’t in some way recapture the marvel of O’Brien’s work. Any new take on Kong needed to be as impressive and innovative as the original was. And the effects on display in ’76 really aren’t all that mind-blowing.
There was an attempt to be impressive and innovative. Special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi was hired to bring Kong to life through animatronics. Rambaldi built life-sized mechanical hands to wrap around Jessica Lange’s Dwan, as well as a forty tall mechanical Kong. However, very little of Rambaldi’s huge construction made it into the finished film. For the majority of the movie, King Kong ’76’s effects are merely accomplished through the suitmation approach pioneered by Eiji Tsuburaya for Japan’s Godzilla series. Within the gorilla costume with animatronic extensions on the arms was future Oscar-winning FX creator Rick Baker. Suitmation was great for Godzilla (and for King Kong vs. Godzilla), but for a movie that’s holding itself up for comparison to King Kong ’33 and its stop-motion, suitmation is a major letdown.
Baker-Kong makes his first appearance 52 minutes into the film, picking a screaming Dwan up from the offering platform and carrying her into the jungle and back to his den.
Although the ensuing scenes depicting Kong becoming smitten with Dwan are handled well, Kong ’76 continues to disappoint and fail to live up to the adventurous spirit of the original with how the scenes of the Petrox people on the island are handled. The original had a 40 minute stretch of action centered on a team determined to rescue Ann Darrow from Kong encountering all sorts of prehistoric creatures while pursuing the beast across the island. Kong himself did battle with a couple of the dinosaurs he shared the island with, fighting a T-Rex to the death, tussling with a snake-like plesiosaurus. Here Prescott is the only person who’s particularly concerned with finding Dwan, the rest of the people are still focused on finding oil and spend most of their time just sitting around.
There are no dinosaurs for the men to encounter. There is no T-Rex for Kong to fight. The suitmation and lack of creatures really work together make Kong ’76 feel like a half baked, low rent cash-in… At least a huge snake does eventually show up for Kong to wrestle with, and he kills it by tearing its jaw apart, the same way he killed the T-Rex in ’33.
It isn’t until Wilson discovers that there is no oil here that he supports Prescott’s desire to save the girl… Simply because, if he can’t get oil out of this place for Petrox, he’s going to get that giant gorilla and use it boost Petrox’s publicity.
Prescott manages to rescue Dwan from Kong while the giant beast is distracted by the snake, getting her to the other side of the massive wall. Prescott stealing his girlfriend makes Kong angry enough to come busting through the wall that has long kept him at bay. As Kong steps through the wall, he tumbles into a pit that has been dug by Wilson’s men and is knocked unconscious with barrels full of chloroform.
Kong is loaded into an oil tanker to be transported to the United States, and as the tanker makes its way across the sea Wilson excitedly plans an extravagant coast-to-coast tour for the beast… Meanwhile, Prescott and Dwan are severely depressed over what’s being done to the poor animal and how his capture will affect the people of his home island. Their god has been kidnapped. This is a tragedy. No matter what Prescott and Dwan say, it doesn’t deter Wilson.
The Petrox Kong tour kicks off in New York City, a terribly cheesy affair built around a garish recreation of Dwan being offered to Kong. She stands on an offering platform as a giant gas pump is lifted to reveal Kong, with a crown placed on his head, shackled and held inside an indestructible cage. This show is one of the absurd things ever, and when he sees Dwan being rushed and crowded by reporters, which he perceives to be a threatening action, it only takes Kong one minute to bust free of both his wrist and ankle restraints and tear that “indestructible cage” to pieces. On his way out of the arena, Kong stomps Wilson and puts him out of the audience’s misery.
It’s something straight out of Toho as the suitmation Baker-Kong proceeds to rampage through a New York created with miniatures on a quest to reclaim Dwan. The most famous moment features the giant ape tearing into an elevated train, a scene that became the basis of the King Kong ride at the Universal theme park.
Soon enough, Kong has Dwan back in his paws. While the original film featured giant beast carrying Ann Darrow up to the top of the Empire State Building, this remake makes one of its few sensible decisions and has Kong take Dwan up to the top of the World Trade Center buildings, which had only just opened in 1973. The rooftops of the towers are the setting for the film’s tragic ending, as rather than capture Kong alive, as Prescott and Dwan are hoping, the authorities choose to use lethal force against the beast. It’s always very sad, regardless of the version, to see this giant animal taken out of its natural habitat and into a modern world that it doesn’t belong in, just for that misunderstanding world to assault him with its high-powered weapons and kill him… In an incredibly cruel moment, Kong is even attacked with a flamethrower in this iteration.
Dino De Laurentiis’s production of Kong comes nowhere near the level of the film it’s based on. The screenplay isn’t very good at all, and even though Semple stated in an interview with Starlog magazine that the intention was for the remake to be bigger and more fun than the original, which he called a little backlot movie, it seems like every decision made along the way worked in the opposite direction of making it a large scale adventure. The ’76 version is 34 minutes longer than the original and yet a whole lot less happens in it. The action that is there isn’t nearly as captivating or entertaining as the spectacle of the ’33 film was, and the special effects are not as special as they should’ve been.
King Kong ’76 was a promising venture that missed its opportunities all across the board.