The Filmbuff: King Kong 1976

By Morgan Leger 
In the time of the Great Depression, “King Kong” was hailed as the ultimate fantasy escape from reality. Many poor viewers cashed in all they could to see such a marvel and in the end, what they got was worth it. Who knew a tale about a giant gorilla that is taken from his captivity would be such a well-known hit. With great special effects, good casting, and dramatic score, this film proves to be inspiring and memorable to this day.
However with one mammoth hit, there is always the taboo idea of remaking such a famous title for a modern audience or just to “money-in” on it. Before Peter Jackson did his take, Dino De Laurentiis did his take with Paramount by his side and the result was something decent but yet lacking in charm.
Instead of a filming trip, we get a quest for oil on an uncharted island led by Charles Grodin who claims to “bring back the big one.” However, there is a stowaway on deck as a primate paleontologist (Jeff Bridges) claim there is a creature on the island and is left to deaf ears. This is where our first problem comes into play and it’s the altering of the original source. In comparision to the film crew in the original, they were going off to seek these fantastic places and bring them back filmed for the audience.
It was a nice send up to how adventure films were made back then and the original Kong as a whole was an homage to movies in general. Here, it’s played up to a modern audience and the oil subplot just seems like another trek to new land theme that doesn’t fit in. And when it’s later discovered the oil on the island is unusable, it makes the entire trip to the island absolutely useless. It gets one to think how come they didn’t send someone out to scout the place and bring back a sample then fund millions of dollars on a major expedition.
On the plus side, we get Jessica Lange in the Fay Wray role as she plays a literally washed –up actress that is discovered by the crew after a fierce storm. Her interactions with Bridges’ character range from sweet to heartwarming as the two provide decent screen time. Jeff Bridges also works well here playing the love interest as his notable actions include witty one-liners that are cheesy but yet catchy to being straight up rugged but manage to maintain a kind heart. Charles Grodin, in the Carl Denham spot, is also memorable but what annoyed me was having his character be completely despicable.
But the big thing that must be also noted is Kong himself. Most of the time is seen as a basic man in a gorilla suit and other times it’s a large robot. There were moments I had where the effects appeared to be almost believable but also somewhat creepy as he overlooks his new beauty. The love between Lange and this big ape is much different as opposed to the cold tone in the original. As the 2005 remake, they both share a bonding connection and see Kong as more of a sympathetic beast but not fully. We see less human qualities in his emotions and the brutality of his animalistic nature is still intact. In fact, we get less sympathy at times and still believe how brutal of a creature he is.
The overall film is ridden with references to the 1970s that this Kong itself tends to feel somewhat dated. In fact, originally there were plans to bring the film to its humble 1933 roots, but the budget really set it back to a more cheapened quality that is generally laughable at its dialogue and overall execution. One of the centerpieces of such goofy quality is Kong’s fight with a giant snake. Seriously, a giant snake fights the big ape? I would have preferred a tyrannosaurus rex thank you very much. Aside from that, this version tends to go for a more modern telling and I applaud it for that. While not the best, it proves to be entertaining in some aspect.
The only problem is where it stands today in film history. The real purpose it was created was to take out Steven Spielberg’s monstrous hit, Jaws. When Kong ’76 was released, it was a whopping success but didn’t have enough monkey power to dominate Universal’s killer shark. While it was labeled as one of the many high-grossing films of 1976 and won a couple of Academy Awards, studios deemed it a financial failure in their books all because it wouldn’t out gross one simple blockbuster. I find that inexcusable and wish Paramount Studios a little reconsideration of their choice.
This remake does have flaws, but while it strays from the original source it manages to engage the viewers in how they attempted such an action. It has potential for a new generation and can be well-received. While I feel Peter Jackson’s Kong is a better attempt and a straight up homage to the original, this version along deserves a place in history and to have it buried to the point where it’s almost forgettable is just a shame. I’m aware there is a longer version that aired on NBC in the 1980s and is currently in circulation on the Internet. While I feel that is the superior cut in terms of character development and some extra Kong moments which I felt should have been kept in, I still recommend the theatrical cut for those who are new to this outdated take. While this 1976 remake is nowhere near as good as the original, it offers a fresh, new look that is interesting and worth watching on a dull Saturday Night.