John Huston once said: “”There is a willful lemming-like persistence in remaking past successes time after time. They can’t make them as good as they are in our memories, but they go on doing them and each time it’s a disaster. Why don’t we remake some of our bad pictures … and make them good?” This Distracted Globe recycles itself and examines the best and worst remakes.
In Surubaya, Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), an executive with Petrox Oil Company, gambles on infared images that reveal an island hidden behind a perpetual fog bank in the South Pacific. He believes the island is a huge reserve of petroleum, while a primate paleontologist named Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) stows away on the expedition, believing a large ape described by explorers is behind the fog.
Before being tossed in the brig, Jack spots a raft on the horizon. Inside is Dwan (Jessica Lange). She tells Jack that she’s an actress, and survived the explosion of a movie producer’s yacht because everyone else was below deck watching Deep Throat. During the voyage, the two become attracted. Penetrating the fog bank, the explorers discover the island is inhabited by a tribe living behind a giant wall in fear of their god, Kong.
The natives kidnap Dwan. They offer her as a sacrifice to a gigantic ape, who crashes through the jungle and grabs her. Kong is awesome and terrifying, but develops a soft spot for the feisty Dwan. Jack leads a rescue mission, which has the misfortune of catching Kong while crossing over a chasm on a log. Almost everyone is killed except Jack, who is able to rescue Dwan while Kong is distracted wrestling a giant python.
Kong chases the couple back to the village, where Wilson has learned that the island does not have usable oil reserves, but does have a giant ape he could use to promote his company’s products. Using chloroform, he traps Kong and transports him to New York for his public debut. Kong doesn’t care for the arrangement and breaks loose, grabbing Dwan and making his way to the World Trade Center, which shares a skyline with his home.
The unprecedented success of Jaws in June 1975 got Universal Pictures thinking about big creatures that could be turned into blockbusters. Producer Dino De Laurentiis was ahead of them. He had already entered into negotiations with RKO for rights to remake King Kong. Universal joined the bidding, and believed they had a deal, until RKO announced the sale to De Laurentiis, whose version would be distributed by Paramount.
De Laurentiis briefly considered a co-production, but rejected Universal’s script, which was set in the 1930s. De Laurentiis had a script by Lorenzo Semple Jr. that took place in the present day. In spite of a 40-foot tall mechanical ape constructed by Carlo Rambaldi that kept breaking down, it was clear De Laurentiis would beat Universal into theaters, and they pulled the plug on their version.
John Guillermin was hired to direct, and Barbara Streisand came close to agreeing to star before passing. The search for an unknown leading lady brought Jessica Lange – an actress and fashion model who had never appeared in a film before – to the attention of De Laurentiis. Using Rambaldi’s 40-foot mechanical model to play Kong proved impractical, and makeup artist Rick Baker performed almost the entire role in an ape suit he designed.
A perception exists that the De Laurentiis remake of King Kong was a disaster. Not only did it gross $90 million worldwide on a budget of $24 million, but critical reception was good. Pauline Kael in The New Yorker, Charles Champlin in the Los Angeles Times, and Roger Ebert wrote positive reviews, with Kael commenting, “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.”
This is the King Kong I grew up with, not the 1933 version, and watching them back to back as an adult, this is actually the one I prefer. The only things missing are Willis O’Brien’s lovable stop-motion effects, and the dinosaurs running amok on Skull Island. Everything else in the beloved original version ranges from antiquated to laughable.
The ’70s remake of King Kong is an improvement in every category that counts: script, casting, direction, music, visual effects. Instead of trying to make a quick buck, De Laurentiis spared no expense, using forty years of advancement in the arts and sciences to make a bigger and better movie. The script doesn’t make fun of itself, and builds a tremendous sense of mystery, awe and terror until Kong is revealed.
Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange could have been cast in every movie of the ’70s and ’80s, as far as I’m concerned. Lange is terrific in this, playing a baby doll starlet who reveals herself to be a hip, sexually liberated chick. She stands up to Kong, instead of just screaming like Fay Wray. It took another six years for most people to realize Lange wasn’t playing herself, but could actually act.
The thunderous musical score by John Barry and exquisite lighting by Richard Kline – who Rick Baker credited for making Kong work – are first rate. Instead of recycling the blatantly sexist “it was beauty killed the beast” theme of the original, the remake treats its characters and tragic title beast with a lot more sophistication, presenting Kong as a mythological creature exploited and destroyed by the greed of the modern world.
“This is one biblically awful piece of cinema, yet it gets two stars because it’s just so damn funny,” writes Scott Weinberg at EFilmCritic.
Sam Kelly & Shahir Daud at The Lumiere Reader say the remake of King Kong is “surprisingly upbeat and humorous, melding the original’s sense of tragedy with an up-to-date evocation of greed.”
“This might rank as one of the most uneven movies ever made, ranging from exceptionally good to downright awful, with special effects at times both impressive and laughable,” says Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews.
“They will discover an uncharted island that is the home of the most incredible creature on the face of the Earth.” View the original theatrical trailer here.