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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Grodin’

As long term readers may have noticed, the scope of this blog has shrunk somewhat over the last nine months, mainly due to the diploma course I’ve been plugging away at since the end of last summer (the end of this is in sight, by the way, so brace yourselves). In particular those moments of personal revelation to which I was occasionally wont, never common, have become non-existent. Let me make up for this with a confession which may shock and astound some of you, and is not something I would casually say in any other public venue: my favourite version of King Kong is the 1976 one.

Well, let me qualify that straight away by saying that the 1933 Kong is, obviously, an immortal classic and one of the keystone texts of cinema – but the sheer age of the thing means it’s very difficult to appreciate it as anything other than an historical artifact. The 2005 Kong also has much to commend it, but conciseness and lightness-of-touch are not amongst its virtues. Simply in terms of watchability and entertainment value, the 1976 film scores heavily compared to both of them, and it would (narrowly) beat out the 1933 version if I had an evening with nothing to do and only a pile of King Kong DVDs to entertain me.

And yet this film retains a rather toxic reputation, described as ‘campy’ and ‘idiotic’, and is frequently accused of almost destroying the careers of its stars. So, in the first instalment of a new strand snappily entitled Is It Really As Bad As All That?, let us revisit John Guillermin’s movie and see if it really is, er, as bad as all that.

(An interesting new sense of the word ‘original’, I think you’ll agree.)

Things kick off in Indonesia, with a ship owned by the Petrox oil company setting sail for remote waters. In charge of the expedition is executive Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), who believes he has discovered an uncharted island which holds vast untapped oil deposits. Also on board is stowaway Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges, in a truly appalling hairstyle and beard), a primate palaeontologist (when the script doesn’t require him to be a doctor or expert photographer) who suspects the island may not be as undiscovered as Wilson thinks, and may hold at least one very unusual inhabitant.

Along the way they pick up Dwan (Jessica Lange), a slightly dippy survivor of a shipwreck, which if nothing else cheers everyone up a bit. But things become more serious upon arriving at the island – despite what Wilson believes, it does hold a human population, living in fear behind a giant barricade protecting them from the interior and the power of their god, Kong.

Well, the natives take a fancy to Dwan and decide to sacrifice her to Kong, who turns out to be a fifty-foot tall gorilla. Attempts to free her from the ape’s somewhat lubricious clutches proceed, but Wilson is distracted by news that the oil deposits he has gambled on finding are non-existent. He will be ruined, unless he can find something very special to take back to America and justify the cost of the expedition. Hmm, shipping a giant wild gorilla to New York City as a publicity stunt – what could possibly go wrong with a plan like that?

Okay, if we’re going to be properly objective about this movie, let’s start by looking at a few of the undisputedly good things about it. Chief among these is John Barry’s score, which moves easily between being romantic and ominous, as you would expect where such a talented composer is concerned. Even I, who like this movie and am prepared to cut it all kinds of breaks, am prepared to admit the music is probably much better than it really deserves. The cinematography is also very well done.

However, the fact that much of the movie looks so good only throws into sharper relief those moments when it really honestly doesn’t. There’s no real getting away from the fact that King Kong is always going to be a special effects movie, and likewise no avoiding the fact that the special effects in Kong ’76 are amongst the most dismal ever seen in a major studio release. Now, I don’t have an issue with giant monsters being realised by men in suits, and the ape suit in this film is not completely awful. Likewise, the animatronic Kong mask is quite impressive, and there’s nothing really wrong with the full-scale hydraulic Kong arm, either. But any shot where these elements have to interact never quite works. The compositing is lousy. Effects shots throughout the movie are plagued by obvious matte lines, fringing problems (characters and objects turning transparent around the edges), and blatantly unconvincing backgrounds.

I’m prepared to admit this is a major problem and I expect my tolerance of it is largely the result of having seen much worse in many Japanese monster movies. But let me try to persuade you that this is a case of a half-decent script being torpedoed by substandard production. Lorenzo Semple, as befits the sometime scribe of the Batman TV show, Flash Gordon and Never Say Never Again, provides a screenplay which isn’t afraid to be knowing and slyly humorous in places – some of these moments fall utterly flat, such as when Lange asks Kong what his star sign is, but Charles Grodin gives a broad comic performance which is genuinely funny. ‘Here’s to the big one!’ he cries, even before the opening credits roll. Later, on arriving at Kong’s island, he is in more cautious mood: ‘Let’s not get eaten alive on this island – bring the mosquito spray!’

Now, I know some people have accused this film of not taking itself seriously, with nudgey-winky moments for the audience’s benefit like the ones above used as evidence. But, come on, let’s remember what this film’s about – a giant gorilla falls in love with a blonde starlet and runs amok in New York City. How seriously can you really take it? Treat it as a serious, emotional drama and you run the risk of looking pretentious and absurd, as I would suggest Peter Jackson discovered in 2005.

I’m also not sold on criticisms that the movie soils the memory of the original by being excessively salacious – admittedly, some of the accusations slung Kong’s way regarding his intentions towards Lange seem a little OTT (especially given the anatomical incorrectness of the ape suit). However, the dodgiest actual sequence, in which Kong seems intent on tearing Lange’s clothes off, is only a reworking of one from the 1933 movie – in which the ape genuinely does tear some of Fay Wray’s clothes off!

Nevertheless, for a film which appears to be initially pitching itself as a light-hearted fantasy romance, there are some jarring missteps along the way – casual references to rape and some incidental profanity are one thing, but the climax is startlingly bloody, as Kong is ripped to pieces by the cannons of helicopter gunships atop the World Trade Centre. (The prominent inclusion of the twin towers may explain why this film has become much less of a fixture on TV over the last ten years or so, but you can hardly blame the filmmakers for their lack of precognesis.) Slightly less obviously, the central romance between Bridges (as good here as he usually is, by the way) and Lange concludes on a peculiarly ambiguous note.

Watching this movie again with a mind to writing about it, I have found it does have more problems than I recalled – for a fantasy movie released less than a year before Star Wars, it really has much more in common with the middle-of-the-road extravaganzas and disaster movies John Guillermin most commonly put his name to (though his is a filmography not lacking in quirks, as the presence of movies like Shaft in Africa would suggest). I still think the script, the score, and some of the performances are certainly strong enough to make it an entertaining experience – it’s nowhere near a classic, but neither is it a total disgrace to its illustrious forebear.

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