During the latter twentieth century, Producer Dino de Laurentiis’ name on a movie’s credits pretty much guaranteed a generally low-budget cheese-fest riding on the coat tails of something slightly higher brow. From Barbarella in 1968 to Flash Gordon in 1980, de Laurentiis’ films had production values straight out of the 1920s, scripts that borrowed the best of whatever was currently popular, and hammy performances that together provided a particular kind of recipe for success. Filching from every pulp genre going, and always on the lookout for that breakaway blockbuster, it was inevitable that the Italian would eventually end up remaking the classic monster movie romance King Kong. It happened in 1976, nearly a decade on from the Summer of Love and during a climate following the American economic boom of 1972.
Charles Grodin is the proto-J.R. Ewing, setting sail in search of a secret island which he believes will send his oil company Petrox stratospheric. Jeff Bridges is the palaeontologist who has stowed away aboard the Petrox Explorer, having heard rumours of a giant primate in the Indian Ocean. And Jessica Lange, in her film debut, is Dwan (“Like Dawn, except I switched two letters, to make it more memorable”), a would-be actress and sole survivor of an exploded yacht, whom the Explorer picks up en route. The rest of the film develops in much the same way as the original, give or take the emphasis on ecological values versus capital gain, and sadly sans dinosaurs. Well, there is a token – rather poorly achieved – giant snake.
The acting carries the film, though. Bridges is as charismatic a leading man as he has latterly been as a character actor, and Grodin is always better than any material he’s given. Jessica Lange gives a startling performance in the Fay Wray role, a Golden Globe winning one in fact, as the dreamy and sexual would-be starlet who steals every shot she’s in whether against man or ape.
A rather more expensive-looking production than many of de Laurentiis’ others, King Kong’s budget of $24m led to a box office success of almost four times that amount. It’s also the one with the man in the monkey suit (“Who the hell do you think went through there, some guy in an ape suit?” quips Bridges), and while the island looks great and there are some terrific sets, the sequences with the enormous ape aren’t always so convincing. The collaboration between Carlo Rimbaldi and Rick Baker nevertheless produces a sympathetic Kong.
John Guillermin, fresh off The Towering Inferno, takes the tricks he learned there and on two Tarzan films fifteen years earlier, and produces something sumptuous and eminently watchable, albeit a little anonymous by de Laurentiis’ usual standards.
Special Features: Deleted Scenes
KING KONG (1976) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: JOHN GUILLERMIN / SCREENPLAY: LORENZO SEMPLE Jr. / STARRING: JEFF BRIDGES, CHARLES GRODIN, JESSICA LANGE / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW FROM UMBRELLA ENTERTAINMENT (AUSTRALIA)