It made all the sense in the world to remake King Kong in 1976. The original changed the face of cinema, sure, but it had been over forty years earlier. Ages ago. The time felt right, and with mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis behind the scenes failure seemed to be the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Then again, kidnapping a giant ape from its homeland, bringing it back to the United States, and parading it around town like some sort of circus sideshow, seemed like a good idea as well.
Yes, King Kong 1976 was a pretty big failure, critically and commercially. There’s no getting around it. Production problems were minimal, but the budget ballooned and the shooting schedule expanded beyond eight months. A 40-foot tall replica of Kong was built for a large portion of the film, but looked so awkward it wound up with merely seconds of screen time. Critics derided this larger-than-life remake, perhaps undone by its own bombastic publicity tour and ego-filed poster leading up to the film’s release:
And there was the film itself, heavy on effects and camp dialogue, light on any sort of substance. The strange sexual relationship between the big ape and newcomer Jessica Lange, playing a ditzy flower-child lost at sea, and the love triangle between her, Kong, and hippie activist Jack Prescott (Jeff bridges) threw off audiences for sure. King Kong ’76 had everything going in its favor ahead of time, but was then upended by its desire to be, more than anything, something different.
Let’s not get it twisted.. this isn’t some sort of unheralded masterpiece. But Disco Kong absolutely has its merits. There are things in John Guillermin’s movie that work, and work well, but over the years have been lumped in with the whole stink surrounding the film’s ultimate failure. Take the three lead performances, for example. Jessica Lange is in her film debut here, and she’s totally weird in a captivating sort of way. Her Dwan is some sort of expired leftover from the late 60s, found adrift at sea after a party yacht went belly up. So fitting. Think about the backstory here, a surface barely scratched in the movie but exemplified by Lange’s intentionally spacey turn as the damsel.
From her kidnapping to her curious sexual relationship with Kong, Lange commits fully to this off-kilter performance and must be acknowledged for the direction she does take Kong’s object of desire. In the 1933 original, Faye Wray is repulsed by the monster from stem to stern, never finding anything to like in him. Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake stuck to the original with great loyalty, except when it came to the relationship between beauty and beast. That part is owed to Lange.
And let’s not forget the third wheel in this romantic triangle, the long-haired activist Jack played with some adventurous gusto by Bridges. This is Jeff Bridges here! He’s doing some admirable work with even the most absurd dialogue, and the chemistry between he and Dwan somehow manages to work. Especially when they decide to stop off for a drink in New York while Kong is in pursuit. How very bourgeoise 70s of them.
Third is Charles Grodin as the money-hungry oil tycoon Fred Wilson, who sees nothing but dollar signs in Kong. His character ties directly into something else that works here; this is the late 70s, the beginning of America’s oil crisis, what better villain than some major petrol corporation? It’s a perfect fit for the time, giving this King Kong its own time stamp and its own personality. The entire movie feels like a late 70s potluck of excess, evil corporations, a dude in a monkey suit trying to get a dress off a young blonde, and two former hippies falling in love with each other. You can’t convince me cocaine wasn’t involved somewhere in preproduction meetings or script brainstorming sessions.
There are other elements of King Kong and The Sunshine Band that cannot be wholly dismissed. The score rumbles and thunders and announces its presence with authority; the natives on Skull Island are a fascinating bunch; even though much of the effects don’t hit home, set pieces like the subway train attack are still thrilling. But, yes, the pomposity of the story, the shoddy writing, and the clumsiness of several key moments in the film hold it back. Then again… the finale atop the World Trade Center carries incredible weight and a surprising amount of bloodshed. Obviously, it’s a give and take of good, bad, and some ugly, but is it not a highly entertaining adventure picture first and foremost.
King Kong, The Carter Years may not live up to its potential – a potential set by De Laurentiis and the marketing team, remember – but try and look beyond the failures here and see the sort of weird, gleeful 70s vibe of the whole endeavor. I adore King Kong’s entire history in cinema. Like so many, he was my introduction into monster movies, and I have celebrated his films and all their iterations throughout the years (yes, even the abysmal King Kong Lives in the 80s). It’s hard not to label this version, while flawed, as the most fun of the group. Sue me.