Though the movie was a huge hit with audiences, the critics were less kind. But this came as no surprise. Even before the 1976 King Kong hit the theaters, it was anticipated that the critical reaction would be hostile. The original 1933 version was simply too beloved, too sacrosanct; to remake it was blasphemy. And, indeed, critics made no bones about this bias. What's more, over the years, the original King Kong has attained a mythic status out of all proportion to what that film actually offered. Ask any critic to describe the '33 King Kong, they will say, "A tragic love story." But, in fact, the '33 King Kong was less a tragedy, or a love story, than it was a fast-paced, rollercoaster ride, popcorn adventure along the lines of a Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was very good, very fun cinema, but one thing it was not was emotionally involving. The 1976 King Kong tried to be something more. It tried to be what everyone only thought the original was -- a romantic tear-jerker. For this, it was criticized as having made too obvious what was only "implied" in the original. Audiences, though, thought otherwise, and voted their approval at the box office. Unfortunately, audiences didn't write the reviews, and so it's difficult, after all this time, to know precisely why they liked it so much. Thankfully, though, the highly respected critic for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael, went against the pack in writing a remarkably thoughtful review of King Kong '76. (Kael was the only critic to recognize, after seeing The Sugarland Express, that a fresh young director named Steven Spielberg was someone to watch.) Not only did she thoroughly enjoy the movie, but her comments about the original were refreshingly insightful. This is probably the closest we can get to the voice of those who really matter -- the audience.
What follows is a shortened version of
her review taken from Pauline Kael: 5001 Nights at the Movies, and then
the complete review.
"The greatest misfit in movie history makes a comeback in this new version. Monster, pet, misunderstood kid, unrequited lover, all in one grotesquely oversized body, the innocent ape is martyred once again. The movie is a romantic adventure fantasy -- colossal, silly, touching, a marvellous Classics Comics movie (and for the whole family). This new Kong doesn't have the magical primeval imagery of the first King Kong, in 1932 [sic], and it doesn't have the Gustave Dore fable atmosphere, but it's a happier, livelier entertainment. The first Kong was a stunt film that was trying to awe you, and its lewd underlay had a carnival hucksterism that made you feel a little queasy. This new Kong isn't a horror movie -- it's an absurdist love story. When the 40-foot Kong stands bleeding and besieged at the top of the World Trade Center, and his blonde (Jessica Lange) pleads with him to pick her up, so that the helicopters won't shoot him, even Wagner's dreams seem paltry. We might snicker at the human movie hero who felt such passion for a woman that he'd rather die than risk harming her, but who can jeer a martyr-ape? This film can stand in one's affection right next to the original version."
Pauline Kael, from "The New Yorker"
|"The greatest misfit in movie history makes a
comeback in the new King Kong. Monster, pet, misunderstood kid, unrequited
lover, all in one grotesquely oversized body, the innocent ape is martyred
once again. I wanted a good time from this movie, and that's what
I got. It's a romantic adventure fantasy -- colossal, silly, touching,
a marvellous Classics-comics movie.
"Kong has become a pop diety in the years since the 1933 version came out, and the tone of the new film, directed by John Guillermin, from a script by Lorenzo Semple Jr., is different from that of the first. It had to be since we know what's coming. Semple turns our knowledge to advantage by giving the characters lines that are jokes on them. Yet, with this Beat the Devil edge to the dialogue, the romantic appeal of the material is, if anything, even stronger this time around. The film doesn't have the magical primeval imagery of the first version; it doesn't have the Gustave Dore fable atmosphere. It's big in a much simpler, clunkier way, but it's also a happier, livelier entertainment. The first Kong was a stunt film that was trying to awe you, and its lewd underlay had a carnival hucksterism that made you feel a little queasy. This new King Kong isn't a horror movie -- it's an absurd love story. Taking into account the feelings that have developed about Kong, the moviemakers have pared the theme down to that of the instinctive animal-man of the collegiate graffiti: "King Kong died for our sins." (The hair on the college kids is noble-savage hair, and Kong has more of it than anybody.) The film moves unhurriedly, in a clean, straightforward progression to the ritual love-death. When the forty-foot Kong stands bleeding and besieged at the top of the World Trade Center, and his blonde (Jessica Lange) pleads with him to pick her up, so that the helicopters won't shoot him, even Wagner's dreams seem paltry. This is opera at its campiest, yet that doesn't mean our feelings don't soar. We might snicker at the human movie hero who felt such passion for a woman that he'd rather die than risk harming her, but who can jeer a martyr-ape?
"The plot is a tale of two islands -- Skull Island, where Kong is god, and Manhattan, where he is a rampaging menace. In the first version, Robert Armstrong played an explorer-showman who made jungle pictures. Just before setting sail on a highly mysterious moviemaking expedition, he went looking for an actress to provide love interest for the film; he needed somebody desperate enough to sign on, no questions asked. After casing the women in the breadlines, he spotted a blonde (Fay Wray) stealing an apple in the Bowery; an orphan who had been working as an extra at the Astoria studios, she was unemployed, starving, and ready for anything. They sailed immediately, and on board, en route to the island, the tough showman tested her for her chores by photographing her screaming for her life. The hero was Jack (Bruce Cabot), the first mate, who rescued the girl after the savages on Skull Island abducted her to be the bride of Kong.
"For the updating, this trio had to be reassembled in plausibly modern terms. Semple went a step beyond that, treating the updating as a comedy, and inviting us to peg the differences between old and new. The expedition to the island is now financed by Petrox, an oil company, and it's headed by Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), who has convinced the Petrox executives that he'll make an oil strike. An "environmental rapist" with a flat haircut, trimmed long sideburns, and a dark mustache for twirling, Fred is a snarling villain out of an animated cartoon. Grodin roots around in the comedy of measliness: Fred is so money-hungry he's funny. And he's so fatuous he's the butt of all his own remarks -- like the square-riggers Ralph Bellamy used to play. Jack (still called Jack) is now a Princeton paleontologist (Jeff Bridges) who specializes in primates; having heard where the ship is going, and having a suspicion of what's to be found on the island (he's the only one who does), he sneaks on board as a stowaway. Jack is more a hitchhiking hippie than an obsessed scientist, and there's a satiric point in casting the rough-hewen Bridges in this role: As the long-haired, shaggy-bearded friend of animals, Bridges is like man in his natural state in a Time-Life book on evolution; you can see him in one of those plates with a rock in his hand, except he's got a shirt on. His Jack is the human equivalent of Kong, and, like Kong, he falls for the blonde.
"Semple has hold of an idea, all right; the big corporations are the show-business entrepreneurs now. But in using Petrox as an ecological target he gets awfully glib and topical, and remnants of the earlier conception still turn up, because the mythic structure requires them. Grodin's pomposity is ludicrously endearing when he's the company toady in the early sections. Coming ashore and putting his foot down on Skull Island, he attempts a historical pose, like General MacArthur returning to the Philippines, and can't make it. However, the plot requires him to shift into the Robert Armstrong-showman role, and he loses his character in the process -- his later scenes have no humour. Both the men's roles are pieced together out of scraps of old and new, but they're passable.
"The movie is sparked mainly, I think, by the impudent new conception of the screaming-in-fear blonde, and Jessica Lange's fast yet dreamy comic style. Her Dwan has the high, wide forehead and clear-eyed transparency of Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey. Dwan, an aspiring starlet, doesn't join the expedition; she's picked up along the way, unconscious, from a rubber raft in the ocean, the sole survivor of a yachting party. The yacht belonged to a movie mogul, and she'd been on board hoping to get a part that he'd promised her. Dwan (she changed it from Dawn) is one of the cloud-borne movie groupies who lead charmed lives. The way she's photographed, she seems to have stepped out of an expensive shampoo commercial; languorous and polymorphous, like a taller Tuesday Weld or a more slightly built Margaux Hemingway, she has the sensuousness of a kitten. Dwan is so innocently corrupt she's as childlike as Kong himself, and her infantilism gives the picture a sexual chemistry that the movie-makers couldn't have completely planned -- some of it just has to be luck. She has one-liners so dumb that the audience laughs and moans at the same time, yet they're in character, and when Jessica Lange says them she holds the eye, and you like her, the way people liked Lombard.
"The story is no longer an ape going for a blonde, but the loneliest creature in the world -- the only one of his species -- finding the right playmate. Dwan is the smart nit American femme fatale -- a daisy, impulsive, well-meaning, yet so giddy, unstable, and self-centered that you know exactly why Kong is driven to despair. The elusive Dwan is the kind of crackbrain who can delight and exasperate the most controlled of men; the poor big ape never knows what hit him. Lolita accepted Humbert Humbert's devotion with barely a flicker of interest in how desperate he was; that's how Dwan is with the Great Ape. She concentrates on what she's interested in: if you told her World War III had just started, she'd say, "Save it and tell me later, would you? I'm off to the hairdresser." Kong, brought to New York, is caged and exhibited to the public at Shea Stadium. (It was a theatre in the earlier version.) He thinks that the photographers are hurting Dwan with their flashbulbs, so he breaks his bonds, tears up the place, and chases after her. Sniffing her out, trailing her to Manhattan, the obsessed, faithful ape is like Blume in Love. When he carries her off and reaches his final destination at the top of the World Trade Center, his eyes keep saying, "Do you love me?" And Dwan can't give him a truthful answer, any more than she can give Jack a truthful answer. Neither of them hold it against her. She's forgotten the question.
"The central enjoyment in the film is Dwan's relationship with Kong: she humanizes him, as Streisand humanized Redford in The Way We Were -- she makes you love him. On the island, she talks to him the same way she might have talked to her movie mogul in a Beverly Hills bedroom. When he's got her in his paw and she screams "Put me down!" many of us women know we've played that scene, and many men will konw they've played the ape. This verbal gag becomes a visual gag when Kong breaks down the gates of a high wall to get her: it's as if a man and a woman had been having a fight and the woman had done about the most infuriating thing she could do -- locked herself away from him. Dwan may seem out of contact with reality, but there's a craftiness in her -- an instinct for the main chance. Even with the ape, she half believes he can do something for her, and he does -- he makes her a star.
"The eroticism of the earlier Kong was rather nightmarish, especially for women -- though black women may have experienced it differently, as a slap. Whites have sometimes spoken of the movie as a racial slur, but the black men that I've known have always loved it. It was their own special urban gorilla-guerrilla fantasy: to be a king in your own country, to be brought her in chains, to be so strong that you could roar your defiance at the top of the big city and go down in a burst of glory. This time, Kong is less threatening, and the sexual references are out on top. After the Skull Island savages abduct Dwan and put her on the altar as a full-moon sacrifice to Kong, they scurry back to safety on their side of the high wall and slide a prodigiously long, slick black bolt across the gate. However, it's almost an invasion of the viewer's privacy when one of the men on the expedition (Ed Lauter) quizzes Jack about what the ape wants with Dwan. Since the conception of the movie is a phallic joke carried on the level of myth, why raise this lame, prosaic question of what Kong wants? Obviously he wants to consummate his passion, and just as obviously he can't. He's the misfit extraordinaire. Like the earlier Kong, this one has no visible gentitals; he doesn't need them -- Kong is a walking forty-foot genital. What makes him such a pop mythic hero is that he's also pre-phallic -- the Teddy Bear Christ of the sixties flower children, Christ as a mistreated pet.
"Modernizing a forty-three-year-old pop fantasy is a tricky business. One might assume that the very first thing the moviemakers would do would be to work out a more authentic view of the culture on Skull Island and get away from the African "savages" for Central Casting of the thirties version, but there isn't much way to do that without disrupting the basic story. The original King Kong wasn't made innocently: it was a ingeniously made exploitation picture, and camp elements are integral to it. This version accepts what the material is and treats it playfully. (Contrary to rumors, the original has not been legally withdrawn; it is still available in 16 mm. and for television, and it will probably be available again in 35 mm. for theatres after a discretionary period -- probably a year.) Some of the new details fizzle because they haven't been changed enough, others because the changes involve dated, sophomoric counterculture attitudes. The big presentation of Kong to the public at Shea Stadium is clumsily staged, and when this Kong emulates the first and tears down an elevated train, he might be playing with an antique toy; the sequence lacks excitement -- it feels half-hearted, as if Guillermin did it because it was expected of him. The direction isn't as assured in New York footage as it is on Kong's island or on the ship, but this may be because the script is weakest here. The special effects are generally enjoyable, though the full-moon scenes on the island are dark and don't give the impression of moonlight, Kong's fight with the serpent is lackluster, and at the end, Kong's actual fall from the World Trade Center -- which cries out for a slight slowing down, for a Peckinpah poetic image -- is skimped and is over before we've seen it.
"There are earlier scenes that stay with one: Kong dipping Dwan in a waterfall and blowing her dry, his cheeks puffed out like a fairy-tale illustration of Zephrus, the billowing wind god; Kong when he's trapped, his head and arm lifting out of the miasmal fumes and dropping back, then his hand rising again and falling in defeat. The original version skipped over Kong's trip to New York, but this time we see him imprisoned in the hold of a supertanker, and Kong, morose, enslaved, with the ship's crew throwing food down into his cell, is a spectular image of a degraded king. When he roars and beats against his prison, it's like the sound of a gorilla battering the bars of his cage at the zoo, but magnified so that the whole ship is pounding. The reverberations prevent Dwan from going to bed with Jack; they're ominous -- Kong is shaking the universe. There's a lovely, campy sequence with Dwan's scarf, caught in a gust of wind, drifting down to Kong in the hold, and also a visit, when Dwan falls into his prison and he catches her. This is his finest scene: knowing the pain of being a prisoner, he frees her, and is grief-stricken as she leaves.
"Guillermin is rather too Spartan; he rations the use of imagination. But he has an uncluttered style; he knows what point a scene should make and why. He sets a visual tone by the clean bigness of his images and by his long takes; if the original Kong was nightmarish, this one has a monumental comic dreaminess. The ape is always slow; his movements as he climbs the World Trade Center have the Bruckner feeling of heavy orchestration. When Guillermin needed a little more poetry, he may have been locked into the choppiness that often results from extensive use of special effects. Guillermin, who is British, directed his first feature in 1949, when he was twenty-four, and worked steadily in a varity of genres -- including two Tarzan pictures (the rousing Tarzan's Greatest Adventure, in 1959, might have been a warmup for Kong) and two with Peter Sellers (the demonic-gangster melodrama Never Let Go and the Anglicized, hacked-up-by-the-producer Waltz of the Toreadors) -- before settling into big international co-productions and action films (Guns at Batasi, 1964; The Blue Max, 1966; The Bridge at Remagen, 1969; Skyjacked, 1972; and The Towering Inferno, 1974). This picture must have been a backbreaking series of problems, yet, with his action director's experience, he has streamlined the myth. The original Kong had long passages without dialogue -- just Max Steiner's music heaving, shrieking, and portending doom, and Kong grunting and beating his chest in triumph. (Oscar Levant once said that the film "should have been advertised as a concert of Steiner's music with accompanying pictures on the screen.") The score, by John Barry, doesn't heighten the imagery with quite so many premonitory rumblings; it's more a love poem -- a great big swatch of mood music sweeping you along. It gives the picture an amplitude that goes well with Guillermin's big, bright-colored storybook imagery.
"In a movie of this scale, Fred's lickspittle villainy comes across trivializing, and the virtuous scientist Jack, with his gibes about the oil company and the environment, might also seem undersized if Jeff Bridges didn't have such heroic reserves of good humor. Without his amiable slouchiness, his hand pushing his dirty-blond hair off his face, his quick, natural-sounding delivery, Jack might have been a stick. (Instead, the role may help to give Bridges the popularity that he's earned in the past few years.) There is an awkward lapse toward the end -- an insert of Jack cheering as Kong rips off pieces of the World Trade Center and hurls them at his attackers. This cue to the audience to be on Kong's side cheapens everything -- Kong, the picture, us. Yet the story is paced majestically, and no mistake or excess seems to matter much, since Kong himself is an emotionally consistent protagonist, whose flickering expressions -- lechery, bewilderment, tenderness -- amuse us at the same time that we're in thrall. The picture works because, despite what you know, you believe in Kong as a living creature. You feel bad that the ape is killed -- but you also feel tickled that you feel bad.
"Guillermin, his boss (the producer Dino De Laurentiis), and his associates started out with a powerful, silly idea that gets to people in a special way, and some of these people may regard the remake as desecration. Others may be put off by the scale of the advertising campaign and the very concept of a twenty-four-million-dollar movie. There is an element of obscenity in this kind of moviemaking -- a remake that costs more than thirty-five times what the original did, and is so plugged into merchandising idiot items that the script's ecological claims acquire an extra layer of embarrassment. Nevertheless, the moviemaking team has come up with a pop classic that can stand in our affections right next to the original version. The most meritoriously intentioned movies are often stinkers, and this epitome of commercialism turns out to be wonderful entertainment. I don't think I've ever before seen a movie that was a comic-strip great romance in the way this one is -- it's a joke that can make you cry."