I’d be straight-up lying if I said there’s not a ton of surface thrills in this movie. This was exactly what Guillermin, producer Dino De Laurentiis, and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. wanted from the start, a big-budget blockbuster thrill ride. “We thought times had changed so much that audiences were more sophisticated. Dino felt we could have more fun with it,” Semple Jr. told Starlog in 1976. At one point in the movie, King Kong long-jumps between the two World Trade Center buildings as an aggressively bearded Jeff Bridges screams in triumph, which, yeah, is a pretty fun time. And yes, Kong himself is primarily a man (Rick Baker, primarily) in a suit—the exact type of process that Cooper once called “belittling” when it was first used in 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla—but it’s with an impressively expressive mask created by effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, and the movie does feature some incredibly well-aged miniature work, especially in Kong’s run-in with an elevated train.
But there’s a lot going on under the hood of the ’76 Kong, voiced mostly by Bridges’ Jack Prescott—again, giant beard, very good—who makes it clear, time and time again, how deeply fucked-up it is for a bunch of American yahoos to do what they do to Kong. There’s certainly tragedy in the original film—”It was beauty killed the beast” makes that plain—but none of it is reserved for Skull Island or its native residents, who exist mostly to terrify the main characters in an uncomfortably 1933 way and then get brutally stomped on during Kong’s escape. Jackson’s King Kong also makes you feel for the title beastie, but in a way that’s so personal it ironically keeps you at arm’s length; despite the best efforts of the cast, Naomi Watts and Jack Black in particular, you don’t feel a real reckoning for what’s taken place. It can’t, because these characters—our way into that story—love Kong like a person, like Jackson does.
Contrast that with the ’76 film, which paints the kidnapping of Kong as a sacrilegious act. It actually keeps the residents of Skull Island in mind—treats them like human beings instead of spooky set dressings—and makes clear that the crewmembers of the SS Venture are not explorers, they’re intruders. Thieves, arguably. One of the film’s least subtle but most effective changes is to make the main characters part of the Petrox Oil Company, so there’s always a hint of uber-American greed to their journey. Whether they found oil or a 20-foot-tall gorilla, they were always going to be plundering a place they never belonged.
“Actually they’ll miss him a lot,” Jack tells Charles Grodin‘s Fred Wilson. “You’re dead wrong. He was the terror, the mystery of their lives, and the magic. A year from now that’ll be an island of burn-out drunks. When we took Kong, we kidnapped their god.”
This becomes even more grotesque in the way Guillermin stages Kong’s introduction to the public. In both the ’33 and ’05 versions, it’s a high-class Broadway production, a black-tie affair on stage in New York City. In the ’76 film, it’s a damn monster truck rally that feels like it was sponsored by Red Bull 11 years before Red Bull was invented. It’s a carnie mess, transparently tacky—Kong gets wheeled out in a giant branded Petrox oil pump—and it also feels so, so undeniably American. The only way this scene could feel more American is if someone did a backflip on a dirt bike over Kong’s head while Ted Nugent ripped a guitar solo. Kong comes to America in chains in all three versions of this movie, but this is the only one that doesn’t give the audience an “eat the rich” safety net. It makes you sit with the idea of gawking at a captive in a cage as an everyday American activity.
Both remakes had to grapple, in their own ways, with the more questionable aspects of Kong’s creation, the “potent blend of the fascination, fetishization, and fear rooted in many in the prevailing ideas about Africa being a wild, untamed place rich with wonders for any white Westerners bold enough journey into the jungle,” as i09 writer Charles Pulliam-Moore wrote in a brilliant piece in February. Peter Jackson simply loved the movie too much to really take that idea head-on, even in 2005. But the ’76 Kong sits with it, and it does so in a way that still feels relevant today. That’s why this Kong and his explosion-filled rampage through New York city remains so jaw-dropping. The rage. The very, very understandable lashing out at a world that decidedly fucked around and found out.
But it’s also worth noting that this Kong is the only one who climbs the highest building in the city not only to carry his blonde obsession (in this case, Jessica Lange) as far away as possible, but because he recognizes the World Trade Center as something similar to the peaks of his native island. The tragedy of this King Kong isn’t just that he’s shot down, but also that he falls from a place he thought of as home.
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