Posted by David Kalat on September 10, 2011
The late 1970s was a period in film comparable to the present day: Hollywood developed a fixation on geek culture, turning out comic book movies and remakes of older sci-fi productions, while Lucas and Spielberg created new versions of well-worn pulp forms. Part of the leading edge of this trend was Dino DeLaurentiis’ 1976 King Kong.
I do not set out to be an iconoclast, I really don’t. I don’t particularly enjoy being the contrarian, and my life would be simplified if I didn’t have to argue all the time in defense of the things I like. But for whatever reason I end up in love with movies everyone else is determined to slag off. And if that leaves me alone in the support of things like Three’s a Crowd, Passionate Plumber, Popeye, or Ghidrah the Three Headed Monster, well I’m not about to abandon a loved one.
I may not be alone in my love for the 1976 King Kong, but I’m not convinced its fans would fill a stadium. In the book Guilty Pleasures of the Horror Film, writer Robert A. Crick set out to articulate a defense of the film, but spent most of his chapter deriding it’s flaws. Crick seemed to get the “guilty” part just fine but missed the “pleasures.”
I got into an email argument with Tim Lucas back in 2006, kicked off by the Peter Jackson version, which helped me come to grips with the nature of my preference for the 1976 version.
Uh oh, did I just admit say that aloud? Did I just admit in public that I actually like the tawdry, tacky, disco-era remake better than the elegant, pioneering artistry of the original? I’m sure I’ll be made to pay for that (but I knew I couldn’t last out the year with the most controversial thing I wrote for this blog being my oh no he ditnt suggestion that some of William Haines’ comedy doesn’t date well).
There are three attributes of the original King Kong that deserve to be clarified:
One. It is inarguably an accomplishment of special effects artistry without peer. Some of the effects may seem quaint or imperfect from a 21st century perspective, but that is beside the point–to paraphrase something David Tennant once said about classic Doctor Who, it isn’t that you can sometimes see the flaws in the effects, but that after all these decades you’re still looking.
In fact, the vast majority of the 1933′s effects remain jaw-dropping, almost 80 years after the fact. The winter 2006 issue of Science and Technology could write without irony or qualification that King Kong is “the greatest special effects movie.”
This leads us directly to number two–
Two. The dominant tone of the 1933 film is one of wonder. This attitude appears in two layers–the first being the level of the film’s text. The characters are in awe at what they encounter, and their experiences open their eyes and minds about the world in which they live.
I don’t have a complaint about either of these attributes. My problem with the original King Kong is the conflict these two characteristics have with the third:
Three. Carl Denham’s exploitation of Kong goes unpunished, and is even celebrated.
Denham comes to Skull Island and finds something rare and precious–so he takes it. A lot of pain and suffering results from this. There are deaths and extensive property damage. But Denham, surveying the wreckage and Kong’s bullet-ridden corpse, shrugs it off with a blithe “Beauty killed the beast.”
Say what? This jack wipe kidnaps an endangered species from it’s natural habitat, hauls the poor thing into a hostile and alien environment where it’s natural instincts cause it to become hunted by aircraft fitted with machine guns, and he has the audacity to say the poor critter brought this on himself by having a sweet spot for a pretty blonde?
It is true that in the sequel, Son of Kong, Denham is filled with remorse and the target of class action lawsuits. But that doesn’t really have anything to do with this film. As the Flight of the Conchords sang, The day after my birthday is not my birthday.
I’ve heard some people argue that it is to King Kong‘s credit that it doesn’t force down the viewers’ throats a given interpretation, and thoughtfully leaves up the individual audience member to evaluate whether Denham was the ultimate bad guy.
As the previously mentioned essay by Crick puts it (and remember, this is supposed to be a defense of the 1976 version):
“Perhaps the moviemakers hoped that, by saying nothing about Denham’s lack of shame–as well as Ann’s and Jack’s–viewers might be prompted to discuss the matter on their way home from the theater. Perhaps the plan was that audiences, if offered no clear moral perspective from the filmmakers, would attempt to correct the matter themselves with ideas of their own. . . Somewhat regrettably, semple’s ‘always leave ‘em wanting less’ script leaves no such openings, removing all doubt as to how audiences are expected to think.’
I object to this argument on two grounds.
The first problem is that the 1933 film hails from a period when Hollywood felt it a moral imperative to ensure that onscreen crime was not seen to pay: even sympathetic criminals had to suffer for their misdeeds. This is technically a Pre-Code film, and as such could have exhibited a looser set of moral standards than if it came out a couple of years later, but even Pre-Code films punished their criminal (anti)heroes. Pre-Code films that were too outré to pass muster in the era of Code enforcement were suppressed, forgotten until recently–yet King Kong stayed in rotation and availability all along.
In other words, while I may feel very strongly that the character of Kong does not deserve what happens to him and that Denham is in the wrong for causing this tragedy, the Hollywood Morals Police never saw this as a story about Kong’s victimization at the hands of a selfish exploitative bastard.
My second objection to the argument that the original indirectly condemns Denham’s actions is that the filmmakers–Ernst Schoedsack, Merian Cooper, and Edgar Wallace–were real-life analogues of Denham. These men were adventurers, hunters–or at least wanna bes–and almost certainly projected aspects of themselves into Denham. If you could go back in time and ask them if Denham was the villain of the piece, they’d have laughed at you and said it was just a well-intentioned escapade that got out of control. Things happen.
I don’t argue that the 1933 King Kong is ruined by the self-serving “Beauty killed the beast” excuses. At worst it constitutes an opportunity for improvement, rather than a flaw. But to find a chink of any kind in the armor of an otherwise exemplary piece of cinema provides the avenue by which to justify a remake. If you’re going to remake a classic film, you need to bring something new to the party.
The 1976 version is a 1970s film. It has taken the basic story of King Kong and brought into a cinematic culture of paranoia and cynicism. There is no sense of wonder in this version, but a pervasive atmosphere of alienation.
As was noted in Crick’s comment above, the Denham role in the 1976 version is an oil company executive named Fred Wilson, played by Charles Grodin, and unambiguously depicted as the villain.
The 70s-disaffection applied to all the characters. The blonde this time is aspiring actress Dwan, played by Jessica Lange.
She plays the role with a ditzy airhead vapidity that was misidentified by some reviewers as Lange’s own poor acting. Lange’s subsequent work–Oscar-winning and Oscar-worthy–puts the lie to that. She was tasked with portraying a particular kind of solipsistic person, and her emotional disconnection is consistent with the role.
Jeff Bridges’ bearded hippie professor is the ostensible hero–a significant change from the third-wheel character that existed in the original. He’s the voice of conscience about treating Kong humanely. . . Except when he’s not. He has none of the emotional connection to Kong that Dwan has, he accepts Wilson’s money to sell out his principles (even if only briefly), and his cheering on Kong’s killing of military pilots is understandable but unseemly. As “heroes” go, he’s insufferable and unsympathetic.
Ah, but that’s the thing. He’s not the hero, Kong is. Kong is easily the most human, the most engaging and sympathetic of the characters. He’s doomed to face a tragic Fate, and so it’s only fitting that the human leads would end up traumatized by these events, torn apart and unable to find solace even in each other. It makes for a grim ending, but one that feels more appropriate to the material. Nobody’s going to utter “Beauty killed the beast” in this one. They wouldn’t dare.
Making Kong the emotional center of the movie puts the burden on special effects wizard Rick Baker to perform like a genuine actor. A similar burden sat on animator Willis O’Brien’s shoulders in 1933, but Baker is King Kong. This is man in a suit stuff, just like Godzilla.
And boy have Godzilla fans made hay of that over the years. The effects team on Kong took home an Oscar for this work, using techniques that earned Godzilla movies only scorn.
Special effects are a curious thing. People act like the point of special effects is to generate authentic seeming images, to be judged on their realism, but history shows that people actually respond to effects in culturally informed ways.
I remember seeing the 1976 film in its original run. Nobody giggled, no excuses were needed. The Oscar was given in good faith to a film that genuinely in its day felt like an accomplishment. It no longer generates that kind of respect, but the images themselves haven’t changed. Whatever objective measure of realism they ever had is still there in the same measure. These effects didn’t become less realistic over time–but our (pop-) cultural benchmark of what we call realism has shifted.
Give it a couple of decades and revisit the 2006 King Kong, and see if hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of CGI still look “realistic.”
James Barry’s score to King Kong has remained my favorite movie soundtrack of all time. I’ve worn out two vinyl albums and now have a fine imported CD to savor. I might be unduly favorable towards the film just because of my admiration of the Barry score.
Another reason I may be favorable towards the film is nostalgia. When I say I remember seeing it on its first run, I was six. It was one of my earliest movie-going memories, and one deeply intertwined with my memories of my mother. It is a cherished fragment of happy days. I may simply be incapable of reviewing the film with objectivity.
I am reluctant to air that possibility, because it sounds defensive. I believe I am reviewing the film with objectivity, and that even with jaundiced eyes this 1979s cynical take on King Kong is a solid piece of entertainment.
Nostalgia does play a role in this aspect of the film, though:
The filmmakers cleverly concoct a reason for Kong to climb to the top of a skyscraper–it looks like the scraggly rocks of his home island, so scaling it feels natural to him. And so, he ascends the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
In the movie posters he is seen to straddle both towers at once, which is way out of scale to his actual size in the film itself but an evocative image that effectively sells the film. The poster was so iconic, it inspired imitators–like Godzilla and Megalon on the twin towers, to promote a film set entirely in Japan.
Movie monsters were drawn to those towers, but never damaged them. The towers still stand at the end of Kong’s rampage, and as mentioned Godzilla never even got close to them. It took real life monsters to change New York’s skyline.
One last moment of nostalgic remembrance, with your indulgence. The photo below I took of my wife Julie almost exactly ten years ago.
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