King Kong (1976) 

Film history isn’t a highlight reel of universally agreed-upon classics. It’s an epic story. But some chapters of the story draw more attention than others. Secret Cinema is a column dedicated to shining a light on compelling, little-noticed, overlooked, or faded-from-memory movies from years past. Let’s talk about the films nobody’s talking about. 

The original King Kong hit theaters in 1933, and I doubt it could have been released much later. Rooted in the promise of lost lands and undiscovered pockets of mystery, King Kong—the brainchild of producer Merian C. Cooper, who co-directed it with Ernest B. Schoedsack—owes a lot to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and the subgenre of popular literature it inspired. It owes even more to the dreams of European colonialism and the notion that the world was there for the taking. By 1933, those dreams were starting to fade. There were still blank spots on the map, but they had started to get filled in as technology shrank the world and removed its mysteries. Dreams of far-off lands and exotic creatures were being replaced by flickery images from newsreels and travelogues, some of them of places a generation of men would get to experience firsthand via World War II. Films like King Kong could keep those dreams alive, but only for a little while—and even in Kong, the conquest of a foreign land visits horrible consequences on the conquerors.

But even as the world that made King Kong possible faded, Kong carried on, getting a second life through regular re-releases of the original film. The monster-loving culture created by reruns of old movies on television in the 1950s and ’60s kept Kong alive too, as did spin-off cartoons, comic books, models, a dubious team-up with Godzilla, and more. By the ’70s, the idea of remaking King Kong started to pick up steam, and a complicated legal battle concerning who owned the rights to the big ape followed, pitting Universal, Paramount, and Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis against each other. Universal wanted to do a remake set in the 1930s. De Laurentiis had other plans: He set out to make a King Kong for, and set in, the 1970s. And a good one, too. “Intellectuals gonna love Kong,” De Laurentiis promised Time. “Even film buffs who love the first Kong gonna love ours. Why? Because I no give them crap.”

History begs to differ, but unfairly so. De Laurentiis won the right to remake the 1933 King Kong, and Paramount distributed the film; Universal ultimately bought the rights to the character and story, but didn’t produce its own version until the Peter Jackson King Kong in 2005. And De Laurentiis’ remake didn’t in any respect top the original, with its dreamlike tone and its remarkable stop-motion creatures, created by Willis O’Brien. It’s also been overshadowed by Jackson’s recent take, which I like a lot, even though I associate it with a friend who found it overwrought and dubbed it The Passion Of The Kong. But the ’70s Kong still has much to recommend it—though as I write that, I’m not sure anyone should trust what I’m saying.

Here’s the first image I encountered of King Kong in any of his incarnations:

That’s a poster by John Berkey, a fantasy artist familiar to fans of science-fiction paperbacks and some of the less widely seen Star Wars posters. As recounted on the fan site kongisking.net, De Laurentiis commissioned the poster seemingly the moment Universal backed down on its version of Kong, and printed it in The New York Times more than a year before the film’s release. In fact, not a frame of his Kong had been shot, and the heroine had yet to be cast, requiring Berkey to draw a generic blonde in Kong’s paw. But De Laurentiis knew how the film would end, anyway: with Kong atop the then-new World Trade Center, fighting as hard as he could and making a ferocious noise. In a canny move, De Laurentiis gave the poster away to those who wrote in to ask for it; tens of thousands did. Then he made sure to reprint it on everything that would hold an image, from drinking glasses to toy punching bags.

Now that movie posters are usually just a bunch of portraits dropped into three or four arrangements that have proven effective in the past, and so many films compete for a slice of attention on their appointed weekends, it’s difficult to convey how deeply and for how long King Kong saturated the landscape, and how well Berkey’s powerful image—refined to feature helicopters, as the movie featured no jets, and altered from its original version so that the plane in Kong’s hand became a vague heap of metal—cut through the fog. Or maybe it’s not. Take another good look at that. Is that not a movie you’d want to see? If you were alive in the mid-’70s, even if you were just a tot at the time, as I was, you saw Kong. You knew Kong. Kong was a big, angry ape on top of a skyscraper. (Berkey, incidentally, followed the poster up with other images, some depicting scenes that never made it into the movie and all bearing precisely the same ape face, which Paramount’s marketing department cut and pasted over Berkey’s original variations.) The 1970s were ready for Kong. One question remained, however: How did Kong fit into the 1970s?

In a word: awkwardly. The ’70s Kong often gets called “campy,” a description that doesn’t exactly fit its generally respectful, even overly serious tone. A veteran of the Batman TV series who later wrote Flash Gordon, screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. understood camp, but his work here hews closer to the films he wrote in the early ’70s, an impressive stretch that included The Parallax View and Three Days Of The Condor. Semple tries to rework the story of the giant ape for more self-aware ’70s audiences. Where the original Kong had a film crew traveling to an uncharted land to make a movie, Semple substitutes an oil expedition looking for a big score, led by Charles Grodin. Pointing out Big Oil’s arrogance, greed, and poor environmental record at every turn, Jeff Bridges co-stars as a stowaway primatologist eager to confirm some ancient legends about a mysterious island whose existence Grodin has confirmed via satellite photos. (Grodin’s character, it should be noted, brags about obtaining those photos by paying off someone at the White House; Kong casts a long shadow, but so does Richard Nixon.) Also along for the ride: a pretty, bubble-headed would-be star named Dwan (not a typo) picked up by Grodin’s ship after she’s spotted floating in a lifeboat, the only survivor of a yacht accident. Jessica Lange plays Dwan in a big-screen debut that threatened to undo her career before it began. Seen now as part of a long filmography, there’s nothing wrong with her performance, though it’s possible to see how viewers might have confused Lange with her dimwitted character. They were both breathy, aspiring actresses at the time, and both most famous for looking striking in the paw of a giant ape. 

Perhaps further confusing audiences at the time, Lange plays into the weird sexual undercurrents running just beneath the surface of the film. Her character recalls being able to reach the lifeboat only because she refused to remain below deck while the wealthy, older patron—to use a polite word—who promised to make her a star remained below deck to watch Deep Throat with his friends. She then spends the rest of the film getting drugged, tied up, kidnapped, and carried off by Kong, who cradles her, bathes her, and—just as the original Kong did with Fay Wray—tries to remove her clothes. Her reaction to this isn’t entirely the shock and horror that might be expected. When Kong dries her off by blowing on her gently, in fact, she looks enraptured.

Once Kong is captured, she defends him vociferously against Grodin’s insistence that Kong “tried to rape” her. Later, in what has to be one of the ickiest come-on lines ever, Bridges looks at her admiringly and says, “The ape had the right idea” before kissing her. (Bridges is almost always charismatic, but the character he plays here—a hippie professor with an awful beard and a habit of explaining everything that’s going on in a scene with self-righteous indignation—pushes the limits even of his charisma.)

Director John Guillermin, a British journeyman who earned the high-profile project after the success of 1974’s The Towering Inferno, shoots Lange with the hazy languorousness of an old Playboy spread, which only underscores the sexuality. It’s one of the few distinctive visual touches he brings to Kong, which is otherwise handsomely undistinguished. And though De Laurentiis first approached Roman Polanski before settling for Guillermin, he might have imagined that a strong stylist would only get in the way of the theoretically spectacular effects De Laurentiis promised audiences. Most of those promises concerned the 40-foot-tall robotic King Kong designed by Carlo Rambaldi, an Italian special-effects wizard who later designed E.T. And while it’s true that Rambaldi did make a 40-foot high robo-ape, blink and you’ll miss it in the final film, where it makes only the briefest of appearances. Don’t blink, and you’ll see an extremely awkward-looking, barely mobile ape statue.

Instead, Rambaldi made some giant ape hands to interact with Lange, and worked with makeup-effects expert Rick Baker to create a series of ape masks and a convincing ape suit, which Baker then wore to perform the part of Kong on a miniature set. The effect is, unavoidably, reminiscent of a Godzilla movie—to my eyes, charmingly so. De Laurentiis promised state-of-the-art, and though the publicity leading up to Kong’s release played up the robot ape, only kids would mistake the Kong who gets the most screen time for anything but an extremely talented guy in a (mostly) first-rate costume. 

And so a Kong that aches to be cutting-edge with its social relevance and topical references ends up being a throwback to a simpler sort of monster movie. Looking back, I don’t know if that’s why the movie—which I didn’t see until it started to appear on cable regularly a year later—got under my skin. Maybe it was something about Lange and those clingy costumes that played like a visitation from an adolescence still years in the future. Or maybe it was just that poster, powerful enough to carry viewers through the disappointments of the film itself. 

Whichever the case, I’m still deeply fond of De Laurentiis’ King Kong now, no doubt in part because we’ll never see its likes again. Whatever the failings of its ape effects, they have a tangible quality that even Jackson’s great CGI work couldn’t fake. (If younger readers wonder why the generations ahead of them complain about CGI effects no matter how impressive they become, it’s undoubtedly because films like this got into our dreams at a tender age.) The finale is now poignant in ways no one could have imagined at the time. Kong climbs one tower of the World Trade Center, then leaps to the other before falling. The ape dies. Years later, the towers would fall, and the dream of a big world filled with unexplored wonders would be edged a little further into the past by the reality of the smaller, more dangerous place in which we now live.

Next: Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958)