Somewhere in the South Pacific there is an island shrouded in fog that is home to King Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World. A place of wonder and terror that speaks to the child in all of us. In my mind there is no greater cinematic monster than Kong, keep your sparkly vampires and chainsaw toting psychopaths, because for me none can touch the power and majesty of Kong. Let’s journey back through the ages and take a look at the three films that gave us a girl, an ape, and an island.
In 1933, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack created a film that would change the look of cinema forever. There are many iconic images in film history, but few have the grandeur of the sight of a huge ape standing atop the Empire State Building as he swats at attacking airplanes. Kong himself was created through the art of Stop-Motion-Animation by the great Willis H. O’Brien and shocked audiences of the time. King Kong was a box office smash so it’s only surprising that after just one rather lame sequel it took them so long to try again.
Flash forward to 1976 and director John Guillermin with producer Dino De Laurentiis have stuck make-up effects artist Rick Baker in an ape suite atop the World Trade Center. Let’s just say it didn’t quite work as well as the original. Then about thirty years later Hollywood tried again with greater success.
This version by director Peter Jackson brought Kong back to the Thirties where he belonged, and with the aid of state of the art CGI he breathed new life into that classic tale (though to be honest he may have breathed a bit too much into the tale). Let’s compare time periods; in the original and in the Jackson version the story is set during the heart of the depression. Now of course, Merian C. Cooper was making a contemporary film that would help audiences escape their woes, however briefly, and come with him on a wild adventure to strange worlds. So in remaking this story you first have to decide whether you will make it a period piece or set it in the present.
Dino De Laurentiis wanted a big budget contemporary movie, so we got Kong striding through the streets of 1976 New York City. This was a mistake. In updating it much of the magic was lost. Can anyone buy that a modern police force would have had any trouble taking out a giant ape? In 1976 you probably had local street gangs with enough artillery on hand to take out a gorilla no matter how large. Yet at one point in the film, when Kong wades across the Hudson, the military somehow loses track of him. In all fairness to that film the police and army somehow managed to lose track of the prehistoric Rhedasaurus in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. So maybe the concrete jungle is easier to get lost in than one would imagine.
Paramount should have realized that some stories could not be properly updated without straining the laws of credibility. We can buy a pilot of a bi-plane making a pass too close to the grasping arms of Kong, but what the hell was the helicopter pilot in the ’76 version thinking when he got close enough for Kong to reach him. How hard could it be to just hover out of reach and shoot. This guy ranks up there with the idiot chopper pilot in Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla who couldn’t shake the big lizard even when one of them couldn’t fly. Needles to say, hearing that Jackson was setting the film in the Thirties filled my heart with joy.
Now let’s do as close of a direct comparison as we can. In the 1933 and 2005 versions Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong/Jack Black) is a film producer who forms an expedition to seek out Skull Island, to find the fabled beast known as Kong, and make a motion picture. In 1976 the world was in the midst of an oil crisis, so instead of a filmmaker we have a greedy capitalist oil executive Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) who is lead to believe that there is oil on the island. So on one hand we a have Denham who actually finds what he was looking for and brings it back to New York, and on the other we have Wilson who finds out that the oil on the island is worthless so he settles on taking Kong back home as some kind of consolation prize. Also Carl Denham had hired Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to be in his picture while Fred Wilson finds Dwan (Jessica Lange) adrift in a life raft. Right off the top it appears that the 1976 version is just relying on luck and happenstance to move the story forward opposed to organic storytelling.
Once we get to the island the differences become even more vast. The crew, led by Carl Denham, find a village cut off from the rest of the island by a massive wall. Fred Wilson finds a wall that looks like a leftover from Disney’s Polynesian resort. Peter Jackson shows us a massive wall that is part of ancient ruins. All three walls of course raise the same question, “If you’re trying to keep out giant beasts, what’s with the big friggin’ door?” There is some back story for the Jackson version, stating that the big door may have been from a time when the people of the island were more at peace with the giant apes, but that is if you read up on it and it’s never mentioned in the movie. So Jackson doesn’t get a pass on that one either.
What all three films certainly don’t get a pass on is their portrayal of the island natives, which are all just varying degrees of unpleasantness.
Once Ann or Dwan are kidnapped, and given to Kong by these totally not racist depictions of natives, all three versions run pretty parallel, barring one major difference. In the 1976 movie we can’t help but ask, “Where are the bloody dinosaurs?”
Let’s talk monsters for awhile. In the original, the sailors and Kong encounter a Stegosaurus, a Brontosaurus, a lizard from the pit, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, an Elasmosaurus, and a Pterandon. In the Dino De Laurentiis, a movie made decades later, all we get is a really big snake, and not even a particularly convincing snake I might add. The 1933 version’s trek through the jungle, as amazing as it is, is not without its faults. I especially love the one sailor who spots a broken branch as they try and track Kong and point this out to his crewmates. This monster is as big as a house, we saw him knocking down trees to make his way to the wall, and this idiot is noticing a little broken twig? This also raises another question, how often do these sacrifices take place that there are still trees left to be knocked down? Or do the trees that Kong tramples belong to some peculiar strain of fast growing plant?
A couple of the dinosaurs are portrayed in a manner that may confuse today’s more educated audiences. Both the Stegosaurus and Brontosaurus (more correctly labeled today as an apatosaurus) display behavior one wouldn’t expect from an herbivore.
It is possible that they were very territorial creatures and treated any incursion as a threat. We never do see the Brontosaurus actually eating the men, so that leaves room for interpretation. Still, faults and all, it really kicks the crap out of a poor Rick Baker in an ape suit wrestling a rubber snake. Now in 2005 Peter Jackson certainly didn’t skimp on the dinosaurs in his film, you get even more if you watch the extended cut, but he loses major points for the ridiculous dino-stampede that both looked silly and had unconvincing CGI to boot.
It’s obvious when watching the 2005 version that Peter Jackson spent most of the CGI budget on Kong, and the rest of the Skull Islands menagerie clearly suffered for it. Jackson is also guilty of overdoing it. In the 1933 version we watch a titanic battle between Kong and a T-Rex and it is simply fantastic, as the stop-motion artistry of Willis O’Brien brings character and power to a fight that holds up against any successor.
Now Jackson decided if one T-Rex fighting Kong was great how about three? And wouldn’t it be awesome if they fell down a crevasse and fought while hanging from vines like they were in some kind of Hong Kong fight sequence? To me this is the eight year old in Jackson remembering how he played with his toys as a kid, getting over-excited and just throwing shit together to make it more awesome. All said and done the final showdown with the remaining dino is still pretty damn great.
On to Kong’s motives; neither the original or the 1976 film tries to give any kind of reason for what a thirty-foot ape would want with a tiny human, and I don’t buy the “for love” thing in those movies. I have my own theory, and I’m eager to hear people’s opinions on it. What would a giant gorilla do with a little woman? Simple… he’d use her for bait. Think about it; you’re a big hairy ape and “the undisputed ruler of this island” so how does one pass the time? We never see a Mrs. Kong (we do get a Son of Kong in the sequel, but I guess we can assume his mom died some time before the King Kong story starts), so how does he get his jollies? The answer is simple, he loves to fight. But after a while the other creatures on the island would have figured out that Kong could kick their proverbial asses up and down the jungle any time he wanted, so they’d probably avoid him at all costs. So what’s a bored giant ape to do with himself? He goes to the village, picks up a woman, and then proceeds to leave her out in the open where any wandering dinosaur might hear her screams. Thinking it’s time for an easy meal, the unsuspecting dino saunters up to this tiny morsel for a quick bite, but before he can dig in Kong jumps out, acting all self righteous to “defend” his property. He then proceeds to rip the poor dinosaur a new one.
And thus the noble T-Rex, the poor Elasmosaurus, and the silly Pterandon meet their demise. Now the lengths that he goes to retrieve Ann Darrow would suggest that he has grown somewhat attached to her as one would a favourite pet. In the 2005 version the dynamics in the relationship between them is beautifully handled, Ann is at first terrified of the beast but then slowly begins to sympathize with this lonely creature.
The sacrifice of a woman to a giant ape seems be a ritual, which both sides seem to have forgotten the purpose of. Kong hears the drums, sees the lit fires, and heads over to the wall to grab the offering, as has mostly likely been done for countless generations. Anne is mostly likely a dead duck, as we see that there is a passel of skeletons just outside the wall belonging to previous sacrifices, but Anne fights back. This intrigues Kong, so she gets a reprieve. What follows is a beautiful, and tragic, relationship between a smart and empathetic woman and a beast that has been alone for a very, very long time. Jackson wins this one.
In 1933 film, Kong breaks through the gates and rampages through the village, killing all who would stand in his way, until he’s dropped by gas bombs thrown by Denham. In the 1976 movie he busts through the door, then immediately falls for the old pit trap trick, and quickly succumbs to the gas placed inside. Peter Jackson has Kong being gassed while sailors try to snare him with grappling hooks. The 2005 scene is a fun action moment, but the sailors restraining Kong, even for a moment, didn’t seem remotely plausible to me. I have to go with the original on this one.
All three versions fail to explain how they got this huge beast from the island and onto the boat, but the 1976 version at least gave us a scene of Kong locked in the tankers hold. Where Carl Denham would have kept him on a ship the size of The Venture, for the weeks it would take to get back to New York, is anyone’s guess. And did they pack a lot of bananas?
Once in New York the 1933 version has Kong breaking free just shortly after the curtain goes up, so one question was left unanswered; was the whole show just going to be Kong standing there chained to the platform, or would there be film shown later, or maybe dancing girls? Peter Jackson’s version gives us a bit of a lavish production number, with a reenactment of their jungle adventure, but still not sure it would have been worth $10 in 1930s money. In the 1976 film, Fred Wilson wanted to use Kong for promotional purposes for Petrox Oil.
I’m not sure how this campaign would have worked in the long run, but it does seem more plausible than people sitting down in a theatre to just stare up at a big ape. It does seem that Kong would have been more suitable for a zoo attraction rather than a Broadway show. Kong certainly wasn’t as talented as his smaller cousin was in the 1949 Mighty Joe Young. I’ve already touched on the problems the 1976 remake had when placing the story in a modern setting, Kong is not an invulnerable monster, and I just don’t see him making it four blocks before the local precinct could fill him full of enough lead to bring him down. In 1933 you could believe that Kong would give them a run for their money, and even more so in Jackson’s movie as he’s shown to be pretty damned fast.
One of the biggest failings in the 1976 remake was their attempt to make Kong more sympathetic. I thought the original did a fine job of showing us that Kong was basically a wild animal set loose in an environment he didn’t understand, lashing out in the only way he knew how. But that’s not good enough for Dino De Laurentiis; in press conference he stated that, “Nobody cry when Jaws die, people gonna cry when Kong dies.” So we are subjected to scenes of Dwan trying to get Kong to pick her up so the helicopters don’t kill him, while in the original Ann couldn’t wait to get away from the terrifying beast that had kidnapped her. Now this is where Peter Jackson’s version really works; Anne and Kong’s moments on the island show that she really does care for the big ape, and the poetic scene of the two of them on the frozen pond in Central Park pays that off with pure cinematic magic. This is a woman I believe would want to save Kong.
Let’s talk effects. Willis O’Brien, mentor to Ray Harryhausen, was at the top of his game when he created the creatures that inhabit Skull Island, and decades later they still hold up against many of it’s CGI descendants. If not in technique then certainly in character. In contrast Carlo Rambaldi’s robot in the 1976 movie was used for less than a minute of screen time because it looked god-awful and could barely move.
The rest of the film contains Rick Baker in an ape suit. Mind you it is a pretty good ape suit, much better than then the one used in King Kong vs Godzilla, but it’s still a man in a gorilla costume, and results in some of the magic being lost. The fact that that 1976 Kong won an Academy Award for it’s effects is a crime. The original won no awards because the effects categories didn’t even exist back then. As I mentioned earlier the CGI for the dinosaurs in the 2005 remake were not all that great, but Kong himself was simply amazing, and the motion-capture work of Andy Serkis really brought Kong to life. For that the Jackson movie deserves any and all effects awards it got.
As I’m sure you’ve guessed I’m a huge fan of the original King Kong, and I quite enjoy the Peter Jackson’s version as well (though it could have used some serious editing), but I have no real use for the 1976 remake as it’s effects and story are quite laughable. Both the 1933 and 1976 movies spawned sequels, but neither were as good as their predecessor, though Son of Kong is leaps and bounds better than the crapfest that was King Kong Lives. So until we get Peter Jackson’s Son of Kong trilogy, I bid you adieu.
Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.