King Kong

Year: 1976
Studio: Paramount
Director: John Guillermin
Producer: Dino De Laurentiis
Writer: Lorenzo Semple Jr/Merian C Cooper/Edgar Wallace
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, Jessica Lange, René Auberjonois, John Raldolph

What can I saw about one of my favourite movies of all time? I know, you think I've put my review in the wrong place and I should be saying the 1933 version is the classic and the 1976 version is a camp letdown like everyone else thinks, but I might well be the only person in the world who thinks the opposite.

It's actually the original, by virtue of its release date, that was as camp as a row of tents, full of cheesy ragtime dialogue and paper maché sets. Yes it was brilliant for its time, but its time was 40 years before I was born. The Beauty and the Beast premise is classic, but it's not unique to the King Kong institution.

But I felt the same thrill people my grandparents' age must have at the thought of a giant gorilla living on a lost island. Scenes like Kong descending into his smoky, volcano-strewn turf and looking at his beloved moon past the World Trade Centre-shaped rocks, bashing the natives' walled enclosure in to get at Dwan or when the crew discovers that the fog bank from the second world war photo is still in the same place still make me shiver.

Updated for the 70s, it's the middle of the oil crisis and rapacious oil company Petrox is setting sail in an explorer ship from Surabaja, Indonesia. Led by lovable but morally bankrupt Petrox executive Fred Wilson (Grodin), they're bound for a seabound island of fog they believe is caused by an undiscovered island sodden with crude oil.

Primatologist Prescott (Bridges) stows away believing another theory – from historical records and scientific observation, he thinks the island's home to an undiscovered species of forty foot ape. On the way, they find castaway Dwan (Lange, in her first feature role), an aspiring actress and the only survivor of a yachting accident – Beauty to Kong's Beast.

Landing on the island, the newly integrated crew of the Explorer find the island far from uninhabited; it's home to a race of natives who perform an elaborate ceremony behind a massive wooden wall that's apparently there to keep something out.

When the party are spotted, the natives make no bones about wanting the beautiful Dwan for their ceremony – apparently some sort of wedding. When they're refused, the Petrox crew make a hasty exit and try to plan their access to the oil. That night, Dwan is taken prisoner from the boat, and as the men mount a rescue party she's offered up as a sacrifice to the real groom of the wedding.

In one of the most memorable scenes in film history, we share Dwan's drunkenness from the natives' magic and spells and the rhythmic music they play to attract her mate as she's led outside and tethered to the sacrificial dais where he'll meet her.

With the sensuous music and John Barry's haunting and sweeping score, we see something enormous crashing through the trees towards Dwan. Suddenly the music stops and she (together with the audience, by virtue of director John Guillermin's camerawork) is snapped back to lucidity to find herself strapped between two posts in the dark with a forty foot gorilla standing in front of her. Her scream is an homage to Fay Wray's iconic shriek from the original, and she's carried away.

While Prescott pierces the wild forest after her, Wilson hatches his own scheme to replace the dream of the oil that's turned out to be useless for refining; bring Kong back to America for the biggest advertising campaign gimmick ever.

Unexpectedly, Kong doesn't eat Dwan, but is fascinated by her, tending her carefully, washing her and taking her to his home territory. He even does battle with a giant snake for her, the only nod to the original film where Skull Island was home to several enormous prehistoric and monstrous beasts.

When Prescott tricks Kong away from Dwan for long enough, they flee back to the camp behind the natives' wall with the enraged Kong hot on their heels, the trap laying in wait. When he breaks the wall in and falls into the massive hole full of sleeping gas, they load him into a petrol tanker to take him to his strange new home.

Like many updates to classic monster movies, there's a strong environmental theme, and Prescott makes one of many profound observations that the natives have been subjugated by white man's tools and firepower, and with their 'god' gone from their lives, it'll be the end of them.

As we all know from the legend, Kong promptly breaks out of his introduction party in Central Park and runs amok throughout New York City. His last stand comes on top of the new tallest building in the city, the World Trade Centre towers (previously the Empire State Building), where the military open fire on him. Rather than being portrayed as fearless saviours trying to bring the savage beast down, this time they're heavies who only want to kill, even after Prescott's arranged for him to be trapped.

Kong collapses, wounded, and rolls off the edge, falling to his death with his eyes on his beloved Dwan as his heart beats the last few times. The final scene, of the crowds swarming into towards the body of the dead beast, is one of the saddest and well executed ever, with creature designer Rick Baker (who played most of the scenes in the suit) using only his eyes and dark-painted eyelids to give one of the most moving performances of the 1970s.

In the 45 years since the original, our view of man's place in nature had changed, and as such it's an environmental film with something to say about the voracious nature of 'civilisation' on the untamed world. Full of striking visuals, Bridges and Lange portray great characters very well, whereas Grodin lapses into campish burlesque every now and then.

But the real star is Baker. Producer Di Laurentiis wanted the life-sized mechanical model (eventually shown only once) to portray Kong in the bulk of his scenes. Baker's ape suit was only supposed to be a stand-in, but it ended up looking and working so well almost every shot of Kong is of Baker in the suit superimposed over people.

The giant animatronic hands that we see holding Dwan on several occasions were also a triumph of moviemaking technique – for the scenes where Kong washes her in the falls, the operations crew had to be careful not to electrocute her.

Released the year before Star Wars with a flourish by Paramount, the imagery of Kong standing on the top of the World Trade Center with the fiery remains of a jet in his hand by artist John Berkey became ubiquitous (despite the fact the the WTC battle takes place at night in the film and features helicopters rather than military planes) and film went on to be a financial success despite the longstanding belief otherwise thanks to the canny and carpet-bomb marketing.

As I write this review, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King director Peter Jackson has swept the 2004 Academy Awards and a Kong remake is next on his list. Although he'll no doubt be sourcing the original and passing over the maligned 1976 remake, it's still enough to make fans giddy with excitement.

Something about it is pure brilliance. I can't say what, it's just one of those few movies I can watch over and over again. Don't however, bother with the 'sequel', 1986's King Kong Lives, which – while it had some good visuals – was so corny it should have embarrassed everyone (including director Guillermin) into exile.

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