robot 5Robot Kong!

"He'd make one hell of a commercial, wouldn't he?"




The King Kong robot was the greatest, most audaciously daring and deviously deceptive ad campaign ever created to sell a motion picture -- comparable to William Castle's famous "Tingler" campaign.

If there is one thing that everyone seems to agree on -- whether you loved King Kong '76 or hated it -- it is that the 40-foot robot Kong was a colossal failure.  And, yet, the truth is, it wasn't a failure at all.  It accomplished exactly what it was meant to accomplish.  It was a fantastic con job which did its job so well, even today the critics still haven't caught on.

robot 2From the moment he announced plans to remake King Kong until it hit theatres more than a year later, Dino De Laurentiis's PR machine hammered home one message:  Audiences were going to see a 40-foot tall robot Kong. 

And yet, almost immediately this ad campaign began to backfire as rumours leaked out that the robot was behind schedule, that it wasn't working, that they had accidentally made two right arms, that they only had the arms, that it was pissing hydraulic fluid, etc., etc. 

In the end, the robot only appeared in a few brief glimpses tearing apart his "escape-proof" cage in the Shea Stadium scene.  And, certainly, if you watch King Kong enough, the difference between the robot and the costume used in the rest of the movie is glaringly obvious.

Nevertheless, to read modern reviews, the way the critics put so much emphasis on those few unfortunate seconds of film, you would think the robot was on screen for half the movie.  You would think those few seconds apparently wreck the entire show!  You certainly wouldn't guess that, in 1976, the critics didn't notice the difference at all! 


And yet, the irony is...the King Kong robot was the greatest, most audaciously daring and deviously deceptive ad campaign ever created to sell a motion picture -- comparable to William Castle's famous "Tingler" campaign.   How so, you ask?  Allow me to elucidate.


It was the easiest lie to sell, because everyone wanted to believe in a 40-foot robot Kong.  They largely fooled themselves.

robot 8Obviously we don't know for sure what De Laurentiis was thinking when he came up with the impossible idea of building a 40-foot robot.  But the bottom line is just that -- it was impossible.  For all the rumours of delays, it is clear in hindsight that De Laurentiis knew very well that the robot could not be used to make his movie and from the start filming concentrated on Rick Baker in his gorilla costume with its ground-breaking animatronic mask.  Stories about the filmmakers only having the arms completed were confused reports arising from the fact that they really did use two full sized robot arms (technological marvels in their own right) for the close-ups of Dwan in Kong's hands.  (Real delays came about because of technical problems with these arms.)

But De Laurentiis knew no one would take his movie seriously if they knew he was only using a "man in an ape suit" -- not if he wanted to sell King Kong as the most expensive, state-of-the-art motion picture ever.  Time proved how right he was, as the critics endlessly mocked the use of a costume, sight unseen, unaware that the technology really was ground-breaking, was in fact ushering in a new age of animatronic special effects (and a successful career for a young up-and-coming SFX maestro named Rick Baker).  The first problem then was how to convince audiences that they were watching a film that truly was technologically state-of-the-art.

Robot 1The second problem was this.  The ultimate goal in a movie like King Kong is to convince the audience that they are really watching a 40-foot gorilla on screen.  Obviously this goal is impossible to achieve -- the audience knows there is no such thing as a 40-foot gorilla.  But De Laurentiis realized that he could do the next best thing -- he could convince the audience that they were seeing, not a 40-foot gorilla, but a 40-foot robot gorilla.  Thus, he killed two birds with one stone, solving both problems at once.  All he had to do was lie.

And lie he did.  Article after article implied the robot was being used extensively.  From time to time, mention was made of Rick Baker in his animatronic costume, but no one wanted to hear that.  It was the easiest lie to sell, because everyone wanted to believe in a 40-foot robot Kong.  They largely fooled themselves.  Moreover, there really was a 40-foot robot, so that part was true.  It just wasn't true that it was being used to make the movie.  P.T. Barnum would have been proud.

It seemed a small step from Abe Lincoln to a 40-foot Kong.

robot 3To a modern audience, it may seem hard to understand how audiences could have been fooled so easily, when, for example, the British magazine Look-In described Robot Kong this way: "In fact, today's Kong is an ingenious forty-foot mechanical monster, weighing six and a half tons. Able to cover fifteen feet in one stride, he's electronically controlled by a complex hydraulic valve system that can roll his eyes and give sixteen separate movements to his hands."  After all, to this day, no one has ever managed to create a two-footed robot capable of walking, let alone a 40-foot tall one!  Forget C-3P0, it simply hasn't been done and it certainly could never have been accomplished in 1976. 

But audiences of the time were still amazed by the recent advances in robotics displayed at Disney World at the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and the Hall of Presidents.  It seemed a small step from Abe Lincoln to a 40-foot Kong. (The movie The Stepford Wives made this connection explicit -- the villain who invents the mechanical wives of Stepford explains that he got his training working on the robots at Disney World.)

It is clear reading reviews written at the time that critics really thought a substantial portion of the movie they watched had used the 40-foot robot.

robot 4Of course, De Laurentiis knew he could only carry a lie like that so far.  He had to have the robot put in a brief appearance in the movie, so he could claim that he hadn't lied, he had just exaggerated.  At the same time, he used the public filming of the Shea Stadium scene -- where the robot was unveiled in front of a live audience -- as a chance to bolster his lie.  Now reporters were certain they were going to see a 40-foot Kong robot in the movie -- because they had seen the beast with their own eyes!

Robot Kong paid off in spades.  It is clear reading reviews written at the time that critics really thought a substantial portion of the movie they watched had used the 40-foot robot.  Some of them thought they were clever enough to spot the difference
robot 6between Rick Baker's costume and Robot Kong -- even as the examples they cited proved that they didn't have a clue.  None of them guessed that the robot only appeared in a few brief glimpses.

Make no mistake, De Laurentiis is hardly the first or last producer to lie in the service of "suspension of disbelief".  George Lucas attempted a similar con, implying that C-3PO and R2-D2 were real robots.  Not only were Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker initially forbidden to appear at conventions out of costume, but I well remember watching a Making of Star Wars documentary which described how the robots kept breaking down, even as it showed C-3PO tripping in the desert.  To quote  The Rocketeer: "It's all part of the show!"

Even as the audience knew they were watching an illusion, they didn't realize how great that illusion really was.

From a special effects point-of-view, this was an amazing experiment.  Normally the effectiveness of any film effect is limited by the fact that audiences know they are robot 9seeing an illusion.  Knowing it is an effect, they look for the tell-tale clues that give the illusion away: the zipper down the back, the nearly invisible wire.  In the case of King Kong '76, most of the effects involved illusions of scale -- making small models seem like much larger objects.  Although there was no way to convince the audience that they were watching a real 40-foot gorilla, by convincing them that they were watching a real 40-foot robot, they were fooled into accepting the miniature sets as full sized buildings and trees.  Even as the audience knew they were watching an illusion, they didn't realize how great that illusion really was.

With just "a guy in a monkey suit", De Laurentiis came as close as any filmmaker is likely to ever come to the ultimate dream of all special effects films...he made the audience believe.


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