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Monday 14 December 2020

Burl reviews King Kong! (1976)


To the beating of a chest it’s Burl, here to tell you a tale of ape! Yes, a big ape - in fact, Kong himself! It’s not the old Kong, not the new Kong, but the middle Kong, the one brought to us by none other than old Dino De Laurentiis! It’s that big hairy Christmas release of 1976, King Kong!

You won’t believe it, but my dad took me to see this one on the big screen, and let me tell you, for me it was an event! I was maybe six years old, and the movie was to my little eyes thrilling and terrifying and altogether grand, and Kong himself a figure of mythical awe with his black chest smooth as Corinthian leather and his gimlet eyes gleaming in the dark like two side-orders of jelly! It, and this iteration of Kong, no longer have that terrible power over me of course, such power having been diluted in inverse proportion to the gradual development of my critical faculties; but that original viewing, wide-eyed before a massive screen in a grand old theatre, has stuck with me!

The script, by Lorenzo Semple Jr., is not perfect of course - ha ha, who can forget, and who would not love to forget, kidnap victim Dwan’s cry of “Put me down, you chauvinist pig ape!” For that matter, who would not love to forget that silly character name, “Dwan!” On the other hand, it’s not as bad as it’s reputed to be, either - it’s a perfectly acceptable 70s update to the story, with an oil company taking the place of the movie company seen in the original! So the topical environmental themes are present and accounted for, and the outlandish outrageousness of this band of first-world pirates showing up and stealing Kong away from the island he calls home and from the people who love and fear him, is duly noted!

Jeff Bridges, well known from Starman, plays the lead, an all-purpose character whose expertise, ostensibly in primatology, extends to anything the story requires: medicine, photography, general adventuring! This was the big debut of Jessica Lange from Tootsie, and she’s required to babble about meaningful miracles involving Deep Throat, but does the best she can with it! Charles Grodin from It’s My Turn and Clifford plays the rapacious corporation man, and while he seems a little miscast, he does a fine job too! Rene Auberjonois from Walker and 3:15 the Moment of Truth, and many Robert Altman pictures besides, plays the scientist who reveals the truth about the oil on Skull Island; and meanwhile the ship’s crew features all sorts of familiar faces! The captain is John Randolph from Earthquake and Christmas Vacation, and there are sailors played by Julius Harris from Live and Let Die, Jack O’Hallorann from Dragnet, Ed Lauter from Lassiter, and John Lone from The Hunted, and then of course there’s Pahoo himself, Dennis Fimple from Creature from Black Lake, in the role of Sunfish, who so far as I can tell survives the ape’s stomping feet and his remorseless rolling of the log!

Now here’s a problem with the picture, and it’s a big one: no dinosaurs! There’s a big snake, which looks fakey in the same charming way as the one in Conan the Barbarian (another Dino production - ha ha, maybe they used the same snake!), but Kong defeats it easily and gorily, and it never eats any sailors like they were junior mints, as the dinos do in the ’33 and ’05 versions! Skull Island, or Ape Island, or whatever it’s called - actually, I don’t think they give it a name in this picture - really lacks atmosphere, ranging between location shooting in what is obviously Hawaii, and studio shots in what is obviously a studio! We do get some nice matte paintings, though, and some acceptable backlot work!

Of course, when he gets to New York and is humiliated before a crowd, the angry simian escapes and makes his way not to the Empire State Building, but further south to the World Trade Centre, the presence of which qualifies this movie as an historical document! So that adds a little retroactive interest for the nostalgic viewer, though he doesn't straddle the buildings, as on the poster, or crush a rocket or duck a fighter jet! Ha ha, I remember thinking that poster overpromised a bit!

But before the movie came out, old Dino promised, in reference to Jaws, “Ha ha, no one cry when shark die, but everybody cry when monkey die!” And do you know what? He wasn’t entirely wrong there! It’s genuinely sad when the big gorilla, shot into meatsauce by helicopters, rolls off the building and plummets to his doom! I think that’s a bit of an achievement, so whatever this picture’s faults, it’s got that! Ha ha, I give King Kong two camera hunts in the interior!


  1. I saw this on TV as a kid, not the silver screen, and vividly remember the Kong vs snake scene as spectacularly underwhelming! I wanted a dinosaur! It's a bit sad that something so kitsch should be poignant because it features the WTC at the end, but you never know how things will turn out, I guess.

    Now do King Kong Lives!

    1. Ha ha! I'd like to find King Kong Lives and watch it again! I saw that one on the big screen as well, and remember being impressed with the picture's deep commitment to stupidity! I guess a giant heart transplant makes as much sense as anything else would if you're trying to justify Kong surviving his strafing and the big plummet!

    2. Burl, as a little kid I also watched this Kong on the big screen. New Years day, 1977 with my brother. I was eleven then, and young enough to get caught up in all the hype before it was released. At that age I thought Kohg '76 was amazing. Seeing it now I recognize it's flaws, but because of childhood nostalgia this movie will always have a special place in my heart.

    3. Ditto! It was a big deal back in the day!