This version of the popular monkey invasion movie has the reputation of being the worst of the big three (the third being Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake), and while this is probably true, this isn’t as far below the quality of its imperfect siblings as its detractors would have you believe.
While Jackson’s remake opted for taking the same 1930s setting and story as the original and fleshing it out by doubling the length, 1976’s version updates things to the time it was made. Instead of going to make a film, the ship heads to the mysterious island in search of oil, with a biologist, Jack (Jeff Bridges) sneaking aboard to observe the legendary wildlife on the island. I actually prefer this premise. Exploration of dangerous places is common when looking for oil, but not when making movies, so it makes a lot more sense. It means that this isn’t, as I argued in my recent review of the original, a film about film, so it loses something of interest here, but this also eliminates some of the contradictions in criticising the pursuit of spectacle in a spectacle based film.
Having the character of Jack replace the ambitious film maker, Carl Denham, means that there is a far more appealing protagonist. In the original, and Jackson’s remake, Denham is greedy and stupid, but we’re still supposed to be on his side to an extent, even when he destroys half of New York and utters one of the worst closing lines in movie history. In those versions they don’t really know what to do with Denham and whether he’s supposed to be a good guy or not. In 1976 we have a biologist with a respect for nature who holds the moral high ground against the oil tycoon who decides to bring the ape back to the city; a far more interesting dynamic. Other improvements include the fact that this is the only version with the sense to have a boat big enough to bring the monkey back, and as such the only one to show this stage in the film.
True to the original the only female character, Dwan (Jessica Lange) is ditsy and terribly acted, but thankfully doesn’t spend the whole film screaming like her annoying 1930s counterpart. She’s also slightly less obviously bossed around by all the men in the film – even if they do talk to her like a child – and displays a range of emotions slightly better than Fay Wray’s “terrified” and “bored” repertoire.
In 1976 it was also, apparently, possible to get the word “wog” in a PG rated film, something I’m not sure I’ve heard in any film before. That’s right, the racial politics here are as bad as both other versions. At one point the tribe offers the exploring white men six of their black women for Dwan. But racism is pretty much an accepted feature of a Kong movie now, like Arnold Schwazenegger and muscles or Ewan McGregor and bad acting.
There’s one big reason for this film’s reputation, and it’s certainly a justifiable source of derision: the quality of the monkey. Let’s be clear, the main appeal of a King Kong film is Kong. His name is the title for Christ’s sake. In this incarnation the effects don’t appear to have improved at all in 43 years. This doesn’t have to be a problem. The original still works even considering how dated it looks. It just stretches the limits of believability when Dwan has to stand completely still to allow herself to be grabbed by the painfully slow mechanical ape arm, then after it’s gripped her she starts struggling for it to let her go. Some of these scenes are laughable, which really puts a dampener on the thing.
But the main problem is that the monkey is a person in a monkey suit. Again, this could have worked- Kubrick just about gets away with it in 2001– and it certainly avoids the jittering of stop motion, but they should have put someone in the suit who’s seen a monkey move before. This ape strides around bolt upright and can’t climb for banoffee. In fairness to whoever was in the suit they do have excellent posture, but not for an ape. It doesn’t have to look completely real, but it also shouldn’t look like a guy in fancy dress walking round Legoland. Especially when your script includes the line, while looking at crushed trees, “who the hell do you think went through there? Some guy in an ape suit?”
That’s not the the only hint that the film’s makers realised how bad it looked. Before the end credits a special message from the producer comes onscreen telling us who created the ape effects, but omitting to thank them. At least now we know who to blame.
There are a lot of changes here, perhaps because they felt the original too dated to remake identically, something which may be true. Some of them are for the better and some for the worse, and while this isn’t as good as the original and will never be as loved, it’s far from the eighth blunder of the world that people make it out to be.