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. So 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, taking the field of fantasy adventure to a whole new level, and King Kong birthed a whole new genre. There are many iconic images in film history, from the birth of Frankenstein’s monster to Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea, but few have the grandeur or majesty of-of a huge ape standing atop the Empire State Building, swatting at attacking airplanes. Kong himself was created through the art of Stop-Motion-Animation by the great Willis H. O’Brien and it shocked audiences of the time, it truly was the Eighth Wonder of the World. The only thing surprising about the success of King Kong was that – after only one rather lame sequel – it took them so long to try again.
Flash forward to 1976 when director John Guillermin and producer Dino De Laurentiis ditched the classic stop-motion technique and stuck make-up effects artist Rick Baker in an ape suit and placed him and Jessica Lange 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 – though he doesn’t get to beat up any elevated trains – and with the aid of state of the art CGI, they were able to breathe 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 both the original and in the Peter Jackson version the story is set during the heart of the Depression, but in the case of Merian C. Cooper’s film he was telling a contemporary story – that would help audiences escape their woes – Jackson had to make the decision to remake this story as either a period piece or set it in the present.
In the case of the 1976 remake, Dino De Laurentiis wanted a big-budget contemporary movie – so we got Kong striding through the streets of 1976 New York City – and this was a key factor in the film’s failure. In updating this adventure tale much of the magic was lost – greedy oil barons replacing movie moguls – and 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.
Note: 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 fill Kong full of lead – that 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 – needless to say hearing that Jackson was setting the film in the Thirties filled my heart with joy.
Now let us do as close of a direct comparison as we can of these three versions. 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 – to make a motion picture, yet ends up going the “Bring’em back alive” route. In the year 1976, the world was in the midst of an oil crisis – lines at the gas pump going for miles – so instead of a filmmaker we have a greedy capitalist oil executive Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) who is led to believe that there is oil on the island. So, on one hand, we have Denham – who actually finds what he was looking for and brings it back to New York – and then 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 just so happened to find Dwan (Jessica Lange) adrift in a life raft. Right off the top, it appears that the 1976 version was just relying on luck and happenstance to move the story forward, as opposed to the organic storytelling of the original.
Once we get to the island the differences become even more vast. In the 1933 version, Carl Denham finds a massive wall – originally built for the 1927 Biblical epic The King of Kings – that cuts off the island’s native population from the rest of the island, in the 1976 remake the Petrox crew, led by Fred Wilson, find a village cut off from the rest of the island by a massive wall, a wall that looks like a leftover from Disney’s Polynesian Resort. – while Peter Jackson shows us a massive wall that seemed to be part of an ancient ruin. 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 I don’t hold to theories that require the audience to read up on movie’s backstory. 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 to each other – barring one major difference – in the 1976 movie we can’t help but ask, “Where are all the bloody dinosaurs?”
Let’s talk monsters for a while. In the 1933 original, the sailors and Kong encounter a variety of dinosaurs; a Stegosaurus, a Brontosaurus, a lizard from the pit, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, an Elasmosaurus, and a Pteranodon, while in the Dino De Laurentiis – a movie made decades later – all we got was a really big snake, and not even a particularly convincing one at. The 1933 version’s trek through the jungle – as amazing as it was – is not without its faults. I especially love the one sailor who spots a broken branch as they try and track Kong and that has to point this out to his crewmates as if he’s some great tracker. 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 standing so as to be knocked down?” Or do the trees that Kong tramples belong to some peculiar strain of fast-growing plant?
Paleontologist Note: 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 behaviour one wouldn’t expect from an herbivore.
It is possible that they were very territorial creatures – treating any incursion as a threat – and as we never do see the Brontosaurus actually eating the men – that Bronto could have spit the sailor out – so that leaves room for some interpretation. Still, faults and all, the 1933 film really kicks the crap out of a poor Rick Baker in an ape suit wrestling a rubber snake. The 2005 Peter Jackson version certainly didn’t skimp on the dinosaurs – you get even more if you watch the extended cut – but he loses major points for the ridiculous dino-stampede that both looked silly – with some of the most unbelievable action beats – and had a large amount unconvincing computer-generated dinosaurs to boot.
It’s obvious when watching the 2005 version that Peter Jackson spent most of the CGI budget on Kong – with the rest of the Skull Islands menagerie clearly suffering for it – and he is also guilty of overdoing many of the action scenes. In the 1933 version, we watched a titanic battle between Kong and a T-Rex and that is simply fantastic – the stop-motion artistry of Willis O’Brien brings both character and power to a fight that holds up against any successor – and you are on the edge of your seat during this rumble in the jungle.
Apparently, Jackson decided that if one T-Rex fighting Kong was great then adding two more would make the scene better, 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 nor the 1976 film tried to give any kind of reason as to why a thirty-foot ape would want with a tiny human – and I don’t buy the “for love” being a thing in those two 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” 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 sometime 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 collective asses up and down the jungle any time he wanted – so they’d probably avoid him at all costs – and what’s a bored giant ape to do with himself now? 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 Kong goes to retrieve Ann Darrow would suggest that he has grown somewhat attached to her – as one would a favourite pet – but 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 to be a ritual – which both sides seem to have forgotten the original purpose of – and so when Kong hears the drums, sees the lit fires, he heads over to the wall to grab the offering, and it is likely all out of habit more than anything else. Anne is most 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, and so she gets a reprieve. What follows is a beautiful, but 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 the 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, while in the 1976 movie, he busts through the door and then immediately falls for the old pit trap trick, where he quickly succumbs to the gas placed inside. On the other hand, Peter Jackson has his Kong being gassed while sailors try to snare him with grappling hooks, kind of a blend of the new and old, but as fun this action scene is with Kong tossing sailors around like toys I didn’t buy for a moment that they ever had a chance at restraining a creature as large and as strong as Kong. 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 – just moving him from the island and onto the ship seems impossible – 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 for him to eat? And what sort of plan did they have for exhibiting Kong?
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 a film shown later, or maybe dancing girls?” Peter Jackson’s version gives us a lavish production number – with a reenactment of their jungle adventure – but I’m still not sure it would have been worth the $10 dollar admission, going by inflation that would be about $150 dollars. In the 1976 film, we get an even more ridiculous money-making scheme, with Wilson having failed to find oil he decides to use Kong for promotional purposes for Petrox Oil.
I’m not sure how this campaign would have worked in the long run, the cost of feeding and housing Kong would be enormous, not to mention the cost of fighting off animal rights groups, 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, and the big guy certainly wasn’t as talented as his smaller cousin, Mighty Joe Young.
I’ve already touched on the problems the 1976 remake had when placing the story in a modern setting – Kong not being an invulnerable monster like Godzilla – 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. While in 1933 you could believe that Kong would give them a run for their money – scampering across the city’s rooftops – and even more so in Jackson’s version, 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 a 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 as Anne and Kong’s moments together 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.
Now let’s talk about special 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 its 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 so god-awful, and it could barely move.
The rest of the film used Rick Baker in an ape suit – mind you, it was 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 this results in some of the magic being lost. The fact that 1976 Kong won an Academy Award for its effects is a crime in of itself. The original won no awards because the visual effects categories didn’t even exist back then. As I mentioned earlier, the CGI for the dinosaurs in the 2005 remake was not all that great – almost cartoony during the dino stampede – 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 – it’s the film that made me fall in love with cinema – and I quite enjoy 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 – though neither were as good as their predecessor – but Son of Kong was 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.