Thirty-five years ago this December, after a lot of time and money spent on making it one of the most exciting adventure movies in Hollywood history, the first-ever remake of King Kong (1976) lumbered into theaters. Modern consensus indicates that it was a massive critical and commercial failure, a bizarre fun-house version of the 1933 classic that nobody liked and would gladly sweep under the carpet when Peter Jackson decided to take his own turn at reimagining the tale in 2005.
Like most great, incendiary arguments in pop culture, that’s only half-right.
Despite its flaws – and there are many – Kong ’76 was in fact one of the highest grossing films of the following year and an Oscar winner for its dated-yet-well-done special effects by Rick Baker and Carlo Rambaldi – no small achievement for 1977, the year when Star Wars redefined the parameters of both achievements. As intriguing as it is, though, Kong is often interesting for the most unusual reasons.
At some point in the lives of most American boys, there’s a moment when the most thrilling figure in pop culture is the mighty Kong. Plenty of public libraries possess slim hardback books full of thrilling black-and-white photos of that 50-foot-tall ape defiantly clutching Fay Wray in his paw atop the Empire State Building. As we get older, we may have perused popular theories about the sociocultural meaning of Kong; the argument that the original Kong is a stand-in for a Great Depression-era proletariat rising against its captors has stuck with scholars the most. But really, when you’re eight it’s all about a giant gorilla kicking ass across an island full of dinosaurs and then an island full of New Yorkers.
When film impresario Dino de Laurentiis fought tooth and nail to remake Kong (his film distributor, Paramount Pictures, was embroiled in a lawsuit with Universal, who claimed they had the rights to a remake), he was determined to make it as epic as possible – but he planned to add something he felt most blockbusters were missing: pathos. “Nobody cry when Jaws die,” the Italian producer famously told the press at the time, “but when Kong die, everybody gonna cry.”
de Laurentiis went for the throat in the pathos department, thanks to a wildly sentimental script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (who had developed his knack for over-the-top, button-pushing emotion by writing scripts for the ’60s Batman television show). His actors were also up for the task of emoting their brains out. The adventurous filmmaker originally played by Robert Armstrong was now a greedy oil executive looking for oil on Skull Island, hammily portrayed by Charles Grodin. The brawny, one-note first mate was now a compassionate, educated environmentalist played by Jeff Bridges. And the screaming Fay Wray blonde was now a wisecracking would-be actress played by then-would-be actress Jessica Lange, who is nowhere near the Oscar-worthy starlet she would be years later.
What’s most intriguing and infuriating about Kong ’76, though, is its attempt to answer the question of how to remake a classic like King Kong for modern-day audiences – a question it somehow answers correctly and incorrectly. In an age where every fourth picture was a Big Statement on the confusing times they were filmed in, the filmmakers decided that the movie with a giant ape running through Manhattan should be no different, riffing on hot-button issues like feminism and environmentalism with all the subtlety of a giant ape running through Manhattan.
Sadly, in doing so, the film ignores the kind of gee-whiz action that kids would be looking for in such a film. The action scenes – Kong tussling with giant snakes and elevated trains – are far too brief to be effective. This is unfortunate, because the sight of Kong destroying a modern-day New York is perhaps the only reason to spend millions on another go-round of this undying tale. (At least, that’s what I thought in the weeks before I actually saw the 1998 remake of Godzilla.)
In the end, neither of the dueling narratives about this version of King Kong are correct. It wasn’t a worthy contender for the youth of America like the still-stunning original was, but it’s not an outright fiasco. Instead, it sits somewhere in the middle, like the giant ape straddling the World Trade Center on that absurd poster.