King Kong (1976) isn’t the remake the great ape deserved. Since monsters as iconic as King Kong never truly die, a reimagining of the classic 1933 film wasn’t entirely out of the question. Kong remained relevant throughout the 60’s thanks to being licensed in Japan. Toho made King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes. Meanwhile, the rights to Kong in America were split between two seperate studios. The idea for a remake was pitched to both Paramount and Universal. Since RKO Pictures barely existed anymore, the rights were basically public domain.
There was apparently a big legal battle that allowed Paramount to make their version before Universal (29 years later in 2005). While I do have my mom to thank for introducing my brother and I to the original, I can’t say the same for the 1976 remake. I didn’t watch it because she warned me it wasn’t very good. King Kong (1976) is different, but bad is a strong word. 1933’s King Kong is an old fashioned larger than life adventure, while 1976’s King Kong is a contemporary light hearted romp. King Kong (1976) takes the basic structure we’re familiar with and changes it enough to be mostly memorable…
King Kong (1976) was developed by major Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis and directed by John Guillermin. Directing a movie that involved an enormous skyscraper wasn’t exactly new for him after The Towering Inferno. Their goal was always to make something different, but familiar to the original. It’s so different that you never know what iconic scenes will be kept, altered, or removed entirely. The biggest change was setting events in present day 1970’s. Rather than follow a film crew on a mysterious voyage to Skull Island, King Kong (1976) takes advantage of the current energy crisis. A decision that doesn’t always make as much sense as simply wanting to capture exotic wildlife. Carl Denham is replaced by Charles Grodin as equally reckless Petrox Oil executive Fred Wilson. He mounts an expedition to Skull Island with the belief that it’s rich with oil. Jack Driscoll is replaced by a very young Jeff Bridges as hippie primate paleontologist Jack Prescott. He stows away on the boat just to warn them against disturbing the giant creature that lives there. They ignore his pleas, but keep him aboard anyway as a photographer.
Since a Beast is only as good as his Beauty, a beautiful blonde woman literally drifts onto their ship. Ann Darrow is replaced by Jessica Lange in her very first film role. Although calling her Dwan instead of Dawn is dumb regardless of explanation, she is right about being memorable. Unlike the original crew, everybody loves Dwan’s fun loving personality. Despite being PG, I can’t blame them for giving her partially obscured nude scenes. Jack falls in love with Dwan and becomes her hero similar to the original. The build up to Kong is even longer, but it doesn’t drag too much. Skull Island natives are almost exactly the same with grand rituals and a desire to trade their women for Dwan. She’s quickly kidnapped and sacrificed nearly an hour into the 2 hour & 14 minute movie. Kong is slowly revealed with a signature chest pound, but his appearance is a mixed bag. Although often depicted as brown on posters or in Toho productions, black & white has always made him appear black.
This Kong stands upright with dark brown fur worn by a stunt performer. An ape suit can’t beat the meticulous effort of stop-motion, but he is expressive and it is impressive to see him in the same frame as the humans. Kong lumbers around at an even bigger 55 feet tall. A lot more attention is given to Kong’s love of Dwan. Their romance has less subtle sexual undertones shown when Kong bathes and undresses her. Dwan isn’t exactly afraid of Kong, but she doesn’t want to stay with him either. Their relationship feels like a screwball comedy at times. Kong protects Dwan by overturning a log like the original, but the remake’s lamest decision is leaving out all of the dinosaurs. The only creature Kong has to fight is a giant snake. Kong doesn’t even terrorize the native village when he crashes through their wall.
Another change is actually seeing Kong’s boat trip to New York. Wilson makes the unusual decision to use Kong as a promotional tool to sell oil. Dwan wants to be a star, but she and Jack can’t help but feel sorry for Kong. In fact, Dwan is actually split between her two loves. She comforts Kong when he gets rowdy, but still participates in the show. Kong is instead locked in a giant cage with a crown on his head. He escapes captivity and steps on Wilson. A train is destroyed and a woman thought to be Dwan is tossed aside, but the most major deviation is Kong scaling the World Trade Center instead of the Empire State Building. You can imagine the changes that were made to the poster after 9/11.
Kong takes Dwan to the Twin Towers where Jack thinks he’ll be netted by helicopters. Little does he know they plan to shoot him down. The change in venue only succeeds in giving Kong 2 buildings to jump from. Otherwise, Kong meets an even bloodier fate after barely defending himself at all. Dwan cries for Kong since an attempt was made to make him more sympathetic. The iconic final line is replaced by Jack unable to approach Dwan in a sea of photographers. Although critics were split, King Kong (1976) was a rare successful remake with another Special Achievement Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. King Kong (1976) left its footprint on cinema regardless of quality or personal opinion.