King Kong is one of the most iconic, beloved movie “monsters” in cinematic history. Birthed in 1933, Merrian C. Cooper’s film was, as advertised, one of the new world wonders. The epic adventure story was a watershed moment for special effects and thrilling creature features, culminating in an unforgettable showdown atop the Empire State Building. It defined cinematic epics for the world. You know the story, you’ve seen King Kong at least… a dozen times? I’m sure you have.
King Kong spawned a number of spinoff films and imitators, from its semi-sequel Son of Kong, to serving as a partial motivation for Toho to create Godzilla (that, and the nuclear fallout from WWII). Cooper’s film and its legacy extended throughout the years, finally getting the remake treatment in 1976 thanks to big-time producer Dino De Laurentiis. De Laurentiis, with a history of big-budget blockbusters on his ledger, had stars in his eyes when he tackled a new Kong story. The film would feature groundbreaking effects, much like the original, and would star fresh-faced newcomers Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges, accompanying Charles Grodin.
This new amalgamation of King Kong would focus on the current climate in 1976, namely the oil crisis in the U.S. that had started earlier in the decade. Rather than being adventurous filmmakers traveling to a mysterious island to capture footage for a feature, Grodin’s Fred Wilson would be a businessman traveling to Skull Island for the prospect of crude. The rest of the film fell mostly in to place as far as the story structure is concerned: Americans find natives, natives capture the woman (in this case, Dwan, played by Lange), the woman is kidnapped by Kong, Kong is then captured and brought to the U.S. and, well, all hell breaks loose. Despite the bloated bottom line and appropriately epic scope, John Guillermin’s version of the Eighth Wonder of The World failed to recoup its budget, and was met with mediocre to poor reviews.
Before we get too far into the meat of Kong ’76, fast forward to 2005, and Peter Jackson’s vision to re-make one of his most beloved childhood movies. Jackson’s King Kong would approach the story from the 1933 version, of course, after Kong ’76 failed. Again, Carl Denham (Jack Black this time) would be the filmmaker, Naomi Watts the young starlet Ann Darrow, Adrian Brody the leading man Jack Driscoll, etc. Jackson, ever the epic filmmaker, decided to add cut scenes from the original version back into his story. He also decided to expand some creature fights and add a few more, because he had the new CGI tech at his disposal. Why not?
While the 2005 version of King Kong wasn’t groundbreaking, it was generally lauded by critics and managed to bring in around $220 million domestically (albeit on a $207 million budget). But now, ten years later, and 39 years beyond Kong ’76, I am here to say the 1976 version is better, flat out, than Jackson’s film.
Jackson’s version was broad, epic in scope, dare I say bloated. Yes, Jackson’s version of the classic tale clocks in at three hours and seven minutes. I am all for three-hour films if the story deserves such a treatment. But King Kong at three hours? This is an adventure surrounding a giant ape who is captured and brought back to New York City, this is not Schindler’s List or Lawrence of Arabia. Had Jackson’s film been able to fill those hours with weighty material, it might have worked. We get nearly 90 minutes before the arrival of Kong himself, an extended journey to Skull Island, extraneous characters, the insertion of a deleted scene from the original featuring giant spiders that was deleted for good reason, and endless side roads and detours from the core of the story. In contrast, the 1976 version of King Kong clocks in at two hours 14 minutes, almost an hour shorter. It avoids the asides. Because of that, the film never has extended lulls in its narrative thrust.
Also, I realize that 2005 CGI allotted much more dexterity for Kong, and the freedom for Jackson to insert extended battle sequences and creatures on top of creatures. But was it necessary? Eventually, computer-generated bugs lose their luster, and all of the creatures carry with them a slick, homogenized look and feel. It isn’t nearly as compelling when it is clear Kong is on a green screen. Granted, the ’33 version used stop-motion puppetry and a giant robotic hand and head, but that ws what they had at their disposal and it worked. Then the ’76 adaptation used several techniques – mostly a man in a monkey suit. But those tangible effects gave those versions a texture, something that could seemingly be touched and felt. As hokey as the ’76 scenes might look in this age of seamless CGI, it has its own undeniable charm.
Something else working in the favor of the ’76 version is the three-dimensional development of the human characters. In both the ’33 version and Jackson’s version, the three central characters are utterly forgettable cogs in the story. In 2005, Brody and Watts have absolutely no chemistry, and they have little to do aside from gazing at the assembly line of beasts in front of them (via green screen). Jack Black tries hard to shed his scowling comedic energy, but it doesn’t work. In 1976, Charles Grodin channels the maniacal single-mindedness of Fred Wilson, his oilman version of Denham. Jeff Bridges, playing Jack Prescott, an environmental stowaway aboard the ship, adds serious weight to what is typically a throwaway savior character in the other versions. Meanwhile, Jessica Lange’s Dwan is a dreamy starlet, shipwrecked and brought aboard the ship. Lange plays up the aloof adventurousness of her character, rather than scream and stare aghast at the monster. And what Dwan also does that Faye Wray’s Ann Darrow didn’t do in the original, she falls in love with Kong. She brings real emotion to the character, and manages to develop a relationship with both Kong and Jack that drives the film. This makes Kong’s last stand (atop the World Trade Center, another fascinating element of the ’76 version) impact the audience on an additional level. In fact, the only element of the ’76 version Jackson brought to his adaptation was Ann’s unusual romantic relationship with the ape.
The 1976 version also manages to keep the original story in tact while becoming something altogether unique. The timely storyline, focusing on an oil crisis, makes it a product of its time more than Jackson’s straight period-piece remake. It has charm, emotion, and some tongue-in-cheek bizarro 70s romanticism that sets it apart from the other two versions. And it also adds a crucial element of the story that was glossed over in both the original and Jackson’s version: 1976 King Kong makes sure to add an important scene after Kong is captured where we see how he is transported across the ocean and back to the U.S. This minor (major) detail was never broached in either of the other two films.
Nobody will ever say the 1976 big-budget version of King Kong can hold a candle to the 1933 original. They shouldn’t. The ’33 version was the birth of a new genre of filmmaking, a thrilling and lean adventure picture that is seminal. What some should consider are the merits of Kong ’76 when compared to Jackson’s version. Kong ’76 is all-too-often marginalized and looked over when discussing the film versions of the classic beast. But Jackson’s version is unjustly praised when it is, for the most part, dull and bloated and lacking any true emotion. More becomes less. I defy anyone to tell me the 1976 version is in the least bit dull. It’s easy to praise Jackson and scoff at any monster flick from the 70s, but that would be missing the better version of the classic creation.