Thursday, April 3, 2014

It's Not All Glory Being the King: 1976 King Kong

The seventies were a time of transition for film industries, both in America and Japan. The Exorcist had rocked audiences, Dario Argento's Deep Red pushed the bounds of gore. Horror was changing, it was no longer a genteel fright that relied on a hidden monster. It didn't have to be a quick, cheap film. Large amounts of money could be wrung from the was not just a quick, cheap film. Universal had made a lot of money off the original King Kong, and so they decided to bring their monekmaker back in style, with an updated sensibility. The result, the 1976 King Kong remake.

But first a little explanation. King Kong would normall fall outside of my definition of a kaiju, and therefore My Year of Monsters, but as I have said in my work with the original King Kong, so much was born from Willis O'Brien's masterful film that leaving it out would be missing a significant chapter in the development of the film form. King Kong is so much the prototype of Godzilla: a strange monster out of its element in a city, so many tropes come from King Kong. But Kong is not a strange monster. He is simply a large ape. He lives with exaggerated monsters; dinosaurs and giant spiders, but he himself is nothing strange. No flight, no radioactive breath, nothing that makes it completely impossible. Yes, I understand that an ape that size is impossible, but Godzilla's heat ray, Varan's ability to fly, Ghidorah's gravity beams; all of these are patently, absurdly impossible, more the provenance of a fantasy film. This gives a kaiju film a more fantastic, even bizarre feeling than the giant creatire film. Them! is a great film, and a great monster film, but it's not part of the kaiju subgenre.

Not all kings get all the glory.

Further, kaiju films usually have a subtext that doesn't bother me. Godzilla was born of a nation dealing with an atomic detonation, and from the fallout of Castle Bravo, which threatened their food supply. Kong, and many of its imitations, are racism writ large. Why else would Kong, a gorilla, which is only found in Africa, share an ilsnad with natives who are always portrayed as African-derived, live in the middle of the Pacific? Shouldn't they look more like Pacific Islanders? This might have been excuseable in the thirties, but it has carried over into the 1976 and 2005 remakes. Further, Kong is the top of the island society, he is given bride sacrifices. However, the natives give him the blonde woman who comes with the party of white explorers. The maiden is distress is rescued, and the king brought in chains to the center of white civilization, New York City. Unable to deal with his imprisonment, Kong goes on a rampage and must be shot and killed for the good of civilization. The original King Kong could easily have had a much more offensive racial subtext if Willis O'Brien hadn't made Kong a fully realized, sympathetic character. This 1976 version makes Jack Prescott's assumption of Kong's sexual interest in Dwan quite clear. Many subsequent ape and giant ape films do not make their gorillas characters, and there's a limited amount of racism, veiled or not, conscious or not, that I'm interested in watching.

Sure, they look like Pacific Islanders.

As the Godzilla franchise sputtered out, Universal was looking to reinvigorate the character of Kong. The idea was kicked around for a few years until it landed in the lap of John Guillermin. And there was life in the old monster yet. King Kong was one of the highest-grossing films of the year, and won an Academy Award for its visual efffects, despite mixed reviews. The 1976 King Kong was realized as a lush, epic film, filmed in gorgeous tropical locations. The roles of the original 1933 Kong were changed around a bit. Film maker Carl Denham has been replaced with Fred Wilson, an explorer for Petrox, a petrolium company. His balance, and the audience's sympathy character, is Jack Prescott, replacing Jack Driscoll, a long-haired, well-off associate Professor who stowes away on the exploration ship. Jack is the love interest, the guy who knows everything. Fay Wray's just-discovered Ann Darrow is replaced with hippy-dippy Dwan, rescued off the ocean.

Kong is presented with a different technology this time. Originally stop-motion animated, this time he is a man, Rick Baker, in a suit. The suit is no great shakes, but it's still leaps and bounds better than the immobile-faced Kong from King Kong vs Godzilla.

It's a guy in s suit. I miss Willis O'Brien already.

The film also echoes a lot of tropes that have been carried over from Kong into other films. Fred Wilson falls into Kong's footprint. Kong details a subway train. In a rare addition to the film from other giant monster films, Kong encounters power lines, in the same way that the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms does. Soldiers herd Kong with a flame-thrower, echoing Gorgo.


Dwan has a lot more interaction with Kong than Ann did. Where the 1933 Kong spent all his prize from dinosaurs, this film concentrates on his interaction with Dwan. It's a little difficult, since she alternates simpering with rage and appeasment which sounds to my ear a lot like a woman negotiating with an abuseive husband. Kong is more powerful than she could ever physically deal with, but he does show a gentleness, washing her and then blowing her dry. Beauty can calm the beast, until he is again provoked.

It's famous. Buy her something nice after you rage at her.

What is in many ways sad is that the award-winning effects of this Kong don't hold up against the brilliant work of the original. The fight with the snake, Kong's only clash with megafauna, is Rick Baker wrestling a static snake. It's not nearly as interesting as the many-layered fights Kong has as constructed by Willis O'Brien. And although we spend more time with Kong in the 1976 version of the film (it's thirty minutes longer), he doesn't have nearly the personality O'Brien infused his creation with. This makes Kong much more difficult to sympathize with, especially sicne we've got Jack Prescott as our caring human and Dwan's love interest. Several shots were made with a 40-foot movable Kong, one of the few lif-sized giant monsters ever made. The shots that use the giant remote-control Kong are very clear. It looks terrible. This film as a number of failings, and the inability of the director to successfully integrate the miniatures work with other footage is clear. Toho had been doing it for years, and their practice shows.

Man, that looks bad.

The unveiling of Kong to new York City is more grotesque than it was in the 1933 version. Kong wears a crown, imprisoned in a cage, rather than chained.

Kong wears a Burger King Crown.

Notably, Kong is brought down by the military. Godzilla, Varan, Mothra, and their ilk are all immune to conventional weapons, forcing the humans to think of other ways to confine or destroy them. American monsters are subject to he law of the gun; weapons can solve the problem. This will happen in the 1998 version of Godzilla, also. Kong is, by the end of the attack, covered in his own blood before he falls from the World Trade Center. John Guillermin does manage to finally wring out a bit of sympathy for Kong, but he's spent a lot of time to get there.

Not all kings get all the glory.

Overall, the 1976 King Kong is a bit of a misfire. Kong isn't well-presented, and the first hour drags a bit. Less flattering, the attention that King Kong garnered during production inveitably led to imitations. APE, Queen Kong, and Mighty Peking Man all came out within a year of Kong, and all borrowed major elements.

Next up, more stock footage than the mind can bear. Gamera is back.

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