Sunday, 2 February 2014

We Three Kongs: Part one - The King of Clubs

In disco –drenched 1976 there was a gorilla in our midst once more, but these days people either choose to, or genuinely forget, the first remake of King Kong.

The ‘70s Kong (centre) might be all-but forgotten, but he was probably the best-looking.
 This is the beginning of an occasional three-part series looking at the trio of versions of a film which, although first made at the dawn of the talkies, led film technology and story-telling for many decades afterwards and continues to inspire even today.  But rather than beginning with the original King Kong, or the massively publicised 2005 remake, I’m starting in the middle.

Possibly the only thing I have in common with some of my favourite film-makers is that they were all massively inspired by seeing the original King Kong for the first time.
I first met ‘the eighth wonder of the world’ in 1974, aged 10, and was already in a state of high excitement by being allowed to stay up late on Sunday night.  With the exception of the occasional Harryhausen epic I had seen up to this point, the general rule of monster movies was that you had to wait a long time to see the monster.  Even then, usually only in brief glimpses and when it finally got some screen time it was just before the poor beast’s inevitable destruction at the hands of wooden actors you didn’t really care about.

Of course, King Kong is no mere monster movie and I realised this as soon as the toppling trees heralded his first appearance.  The legendary Fay Wray looked up and did her thing, screaming loud enough to frighten away an ordinary gorilla and suddenly there he was; seeming to my young eyes hundreds of feet tall, literally larger than life.  This was no clumsily inserted and animated model; Kong was the uncontested star of the film and I remember gasping “WOW” in instant, total amazement and adoration. I also seem to remember Mum and Dad grinning at one another.  They knew I’d eat this film up, and somehow they had a connection to it as well.  Dad would often tell me about seeing the famous gorilla, Guy, in London Zoo, making eye contact with the dignified creature and being struck by, for want of a better word, the humanity he saw there.

 I was riveted for the next hour: the T-Rex fight, the village gatecrash, the New York rampage – so much spectacle before the greatest and most heartbreaking climax a movie had ever had. For me, it was love at first sight and in repeated viewings throughout the years I came to appreciate more than the mere destruction.  The tight storyline, the performances, (most notably Kong himself), the adventure, the allegory, emotional impact and the wonderful sense of the world still holding undiscovered wonders.

Devastating overbite, turnip-shaped body and long spindly legs,
fortunately, he looked better in the film.
 So when I first heard that King Kong was being remade a couple of years after this life-changing first viewing, it was literally the most incredible news ever.  The promotional tagline was “The most exciting, original motion picture event of all time” (even then I wondered how a remake could be called ‘most … original’), but that is exactly what the anticipation of this film as like for me. In retrospect I realise it was this which triggered my life-long fascination for film news.  Up until then, movies I enjoyed were decades old and on TV - Hollywood didn’t currently seem to be producing anything with the same kind of appeal for me.  But now I had good reason to look ahead instead of backwards (and a certain film by George Lucas which debuted the following year cemented this life-long enthusiasm for coming attractions)

Dino De Laurentis’s Kong was made at a time when the disaster movie was king, and indeed, that is how this version was conceived. I accepted without question that it was going to be updated to present day (that’s just got to make it even better, right?) but baulked when I heard that this Kong was originally envisaged as some kind of giant prehistoric ape-man running amok.  It’s well-known that legendary make-up maestro and then-Kong performer Rick Baker convinced the film’s makers that Kong must be gorilla, but what I’ve only recently discovered is that the original 1933  film’s creative team seriously considered exactly the same concept.  At the beginning of production a sculpture of a far more human creature was mercifully rejected and in fact, the original Kong we are so familiar with is really only superficially gorilla-like.  The pointed-head and over-exaggerated brow certainly suggests a prehistoric ancestor rather than a modern gorilla.

This foreign pre-production art seems to depict the
more humanoid initial concept for the new Kong.
It’s been many years since I’d seen De Laurentis’s King Kong, the last time being on VHS in the early 1990s.  It has since been give a rather shabby DVD release, but unlike the original and the 2004 Peter Jackson remake on either side, the 1976 version has no lavish menu of special features, documentaries, restored footage or even a commentary.*  Perhaps the prominence of the World Trade Centre twin towers in the climax (then the world’s tallest buildings) will forever condemn this film to relative obscurity.
Whatever the reasons might be for the its ignominy, or simple ignoring, I sat down with as open a mind as possible to see how this version holds up almost forty years after its much-hyped Hollywood premiere.
Before starting though, I need to bear in mind that Kong ‘76 is now almost as old as the original Kong was when I first saw it in the mid-seventies…

“ You know, I had my horoscope done before I flew out to Hong Kong. And it said that I was going to cross over water and meet the biggest person in my life.” 

Too hot to handle: the incomparable Jessica Lange.

Jessica Lange Jessica Lange Jessica Lange…sorry, what’s this film called again? 
Her debut here leaves you with no doubt that a giant gorilla, or in fact anything with a Y chromosome, would fall in love with her at first sight. Proving the old adage about bone structure, Jessica Lange is still beautiful now.  Because this film introduced her to the world, many made the assumption that Ms Lange and her sweet, but vacuous, aspiring actress character Dwan (she swapped the middle letters of her name, see?) were one and the same.  It’s only with time and a Kong-sized list of Oscar nominations that it becomes clear that we are actually presented with Lange’s perfectly-pitched depiction of this role, and possibly the most skillful performance in the entire film.

That’s right, it’s called King Kong, so let’s talk about the other lead character.  Dino De Laurentis went to great lengths to muddy the waters about the way Kong would be realised for his remake.  Gigantic hydraulic paws holding, and pawing, Dwan were widely publicized, as was a forty foot ‘robotic’ gorilla built by Carlo Rambaldi.  The first caption at the end of the film credits Rambaldi for the creation of Kong, but in reality, the character we see is designed, constructed and performed by a man who is merely credited with ‘special contributions – now legendary effects maestro Rick Baker.  Yes, Kong is a man-in-suit.  Rambaldi’s very unconvincing full-sized version gets the only very most fleeting glimpses during one climactic scene, before cutting swiftly back to Mr Baker.

Jessica Lange gets a big hand (sorry!)

The cable operated head which Baker wore (and to be fair, Rambaldi contributed to) is actually quite masterful, and it needed to be, as Kong possibly gets more close-ups than anyone else in the film.  Baker emotes wonderfully through simian contact lenses while the rather nobly-featured face conveys amazingly subtle shifts in mood.  When Kong puffs out his cheeks to blow Dwan dry after her encounter with a waterfall, the effect of a living creature is utterly convincing.
Unfortunately, the rest of Kong is a gorilla suit, and as well-designed as it is, his strolling off screen while slouching under the weight of the slightly over-sized head does spoil the effect a little at times. The other odd thing about him as that publicity shot convinced me Kong was blue, (a little like pre-publicity embedding the mistaken idea that Godzilla is green).  I suspect reflected light from the blue screen which so many of his scenes were shot against is responsible for this effect.  And this colour cast does complement the nighttime scenes on Kong’s island home and the generally lush photography in the first part of the film beautifully.  Transferred to New York, despite some impressive miniature work Kong seems less effective, some camera angles being inexplicably shoulder-height with our star, rather than trying to emphasise his height with low angles.  I also have to question the amount of unforgiving wide shots; surely Kong would be shown to better advantage in partial view?

A fleeting, mechanical performance by Carlo Rambaldi’s full-sized Kong (left). 
Meanwhile Rick Baker fills in yet again, and exits stage right.

But so much for the nuts-and-bolts of Kong; this film does an admirable job of building the foreboding and mystery prior to his appearance.  From a strange radar blip accompanied by suitably ominous music as the crew monitor the mist-shrouded Island, to Jeff Bridges’ invoking Lovecraftian, centuries-old mariner’s accounts, (suppressed by the Holy Office in Rome), of ‘the greatest beast who touches Heaven’…
Despite some shortcomings, the 1976 incarnation of Kong has be labeled a success because he is undeniably a fully-fledged character whom the audience empathises with.
  Love-struck, courageous, kidnapped and eventually felled by the worse excesses of human cruelty and ignorance, he is nothing less than a tragic hero.

Many have commented on the ecological allegory so fundamental in the script, and this is both laudable and well ahead of it’s time. The abduction and abuse of an innocent creature is obvious enough, but upsetting natural order through greed-inspired exploitation is equally strong. Jeff Bridges character Prescott calls attention the effect Kong’s abduction will have on the human inhabitants of his Island home:
“ He was the terror, the mystery of their lives, and the magic. A year from now that will be an island full of burnt-out drunks. When we took Kong we kidnapped their god. “
Interestingly, Kong’s roars have a distinctly human note of rage (the original was a lion’s roar played backwards, whereas an actor appears to have been involved this time) and somehow this adds to his fury and torment. Kong’s exploitation leads to equally disastrous results in New York and after his disturbingly-bloody last stand atop the World Trade centre against lethal helicopter gunships, the film ends surprisingly bleakly. A grief-stricken Dwan (reportedly real tears courtesy of Ms Lange) is buffeted by an uncaring, rubber-necking crowd thronging around the shattered body of our hero, while Prescott is cut off from her and helpless to offer any comfort.

We were all young once, (but some got to become mega-stars): Dwan and ‘the Dude’
When history acknowledges this film at all, it seems only as a misguided failure. In fact, despite its then-colossal budget of $24 million, the film quickly made back three times that amount world- wide, putting it at number 5 on Variety’s chart of top US domestic moneymakers for 1977. The film won the academy award for visual effects (shared with Logan’s Run) and Jessica Lange won a Golden Globe for best female debut.
The cinematography was also Oscar nominated and Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin’s performances were positively noted in reviews. Even the infamous New Yorker reviewer Pauline Kael liked King Kong ‘76. And as she was also a supporter of The Wrath of Khan, I’m going to give her the final word, something I’m sure Ms Kael was very accustomed to.

"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."  Pauline Kael

No, I’m not going to mention the snake...

 * I actually re-watched this film on the Blu-ray edition, which does boast deleted scenes and a very good making-of documentary.  Still no Lange or Bridges interviews, though.

No comments:

Post a Comment