Looking back at King Kong (1976)

Kong: Skull Island is currently rampaging across theatres.  I, for one, am excited to get our first non-remake Kong movie since the infamous and awful/great King Kong Lives.  As a huge King Kong fan I hope it does well and we get plenty more Kong films.  Long live the King baby!  Ever since I first saw the revolutionary 1933 black and white original, on a lazy Saturday morning, I’ve been hooked.  A giant ape running amok, a beautiful woman, daring rescues, and stop motion dinosaurs!?!  Oh fuck yes!  King Kong checks off every box on the awesome checklist and should be required viewing for every six year old boy and girl.  It sparked my imagination like few other films ever have and it’s still one of my all time favorites.  


That being said, despite my adoration and reverence for the original film, my childhood memories are more closely tied to the lesser known 1976 remake starring Jeff Bridges and a then unknown Jessica Lange.  King Kong 76’ was one of those films that were featured on HBO at a RELENTLESS rate.  I feel like I could flip to Channel 30, which was HBO at the time, and I’d see Kong’s hairy ass and creep-o grinning face staring back at me.  And I always watched it.  I had to have seen the movie more than 50 times as a kid.  I loved it.

Back then I didn’t know that it was one of the most disastrous, over-budget, and over-hyped blockbusters of its day.  The story goes that famed Italian Producer, Dino De Laurentiis, wanted to topple Steven Speilberg’s Jaws as the greatest blockbuster of all time.  His grand scheme for doing so was to remake King Kong.  He wasn’t going to just remake it, but he claimed that it was going to be filmed using an actual mechanical giant gorilla.  Holy shit! Here’s is a real quote from De Laurentiis:

But what’s most extraordinary is that he’s fully functional! Kong’s arms move in 16 different positions. He walks and turns at the waist. His eyes and mouth move. And all it took to build and operate the little fellah was $1.7 million and a team of 20 crack technicians simultaneously operating hair-trigger levers”

A fully functional fucking forty foot ape!  God damn! That is some amazing bullshit right there.  What a way to get people in the seats!  As anyone who has seen the film knows the giant mechanical Kong didn’t really work, was only in one or two brief shots, and looked like absolute monkey shit.  Still, I’d love to know where this giant animatronic Kong currently resides.  I bet De Laurentiis’s granddaughter, Giada, has the thing in her backyard or something.  She cooks him a big ol’ plate of “SPAH-GYET-TEE!” every night.     

If I’m making it sound like the King Kong remake is bad, I’m not trying to.  All things considered it’s actually a solid retelling of the original tale.  Sure it doesn’t have a walking mechanical mega monkey, but it does have legendary effects maker, Rick Baker, in an ape suit stomping around miniature sets.  It’s like the effects of the original have all been ramped up to modern, well 1976, standards.  Which isn’t a bad thing as even today the film still looks mighty impressive.  Sure there are a few composite shots of Kong that have aged like Mickey Rourke’s face, but overall I was shocked at how well it holds up.  The classic “beast falls for beauty” tragic storyline is fully intact and the film manages to have real heart.

Besides the top notch special effects work, the film follows roughly the same structure as the original, but shakes things up just a bit.  The boat heading to Skull Island is now a corporate oil expedition, there are sadly no dinosaurs for Kong to fight (though he does battle a giant snake), and instead of an grand finale on top of the Empire State Building it all culminates on the roof of the…oh yeah……  


Damn.  The big showdown with Kong and the military was moved to the tallest structures in New York City circa 1976, The Twin Towers.  Which, honestly, kind of makes re-watching this remake a real downer towards the end.  In fact, I’m sure part of the reason the film has faded into obscurity is because it’s since been outclassed by the far superior Peter Jackson remake, and the uncomfortable ending on the top of the Twin Towers.  

And that’s honestly a real shame because this film does still hold up in 2017.  Jeff Bridges makes for a wonderful lead, and Jessica Lange is an absolute stunner.  You know how the film One Million Years B.C. made young boys lose their minds over the fur bikini’d Raquel Welch?  Yeah, well pretty much every scene with Jessica Lange in King Kong did that to 12 years old me.  I had a SERIOUS crush on her and I totally understood why Kong went the lengths he did to try and be with her.  


King Kong 76 is hardly perfect, but it’s a surprisingly competently made film. The cinematography is exceptionable. At times it looks like you’re watching a stunning nature documentary.  The musical score is also worth noting.  It’s touching, with a wistful, almost haunting tone, yet it still maintains a touch of regality.  Played over the lush island scenes it really gives the film a sense of class.  And aside from a few dated special effects I’d go as far to say as this film looks more real and authentic than CG-laden Peter Jackson spectacle, King Kong.

Like I said, I was obsessed with King Kong as a kid…who are we kidding?  I’m still obsessed as an adult.  I will always love the original film, but my heart will forever hold onto the De Laurentiis remake.  If you consider yourself a giant monster fan than you owe it to yourself to watch this film.  The practical effects are some of the best in the genre and it comes from that era where “they just don’t make em’ like this anymore”.  It’s a flawed film for sure, but don’t let it be forgotten.  When I experienced it as a twelve year old the ramped up sexuality, amplified gore, and impressive special effects made for a Kong experience I have never truly let go of.  So while Kong is back in theaters, and hopefully your hearts, go track down this forgotten gem.  Even if you don’t love it, the film still serves as an entry point to the absolutely bonkers and laughably amazing sequel, King Kong Lives.  That’s a story for another time though.  

One comment

  1. Ufoclub1977 · · Reply

    I disagree, I think Peter Jackson’s version didn’t work as a movie at all, more of a showcase of his typical special effects and technical prowess mixed with the worst taste in plotting and I felt no real emotion when I really wanted to.

    His Fellowship of the Ring, however, worked! As did Heavenly Creatures.


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