Written by: The Red Baron, CC2K Staff Writer
From '33 to '76 to '05, CC2k's Red Baron gets his KONG on
Let me start with the element of this event movie that I WASN’T expecting.
After Peter Jackson’s triumphant ascension to the jeweled, gold-plated throne of Almighty God of Cinema by slam-dunking the impossible task of adapting The Lord of the Rings trilogy into films that redefined the term "successful." After making these films that spoke to the common people, to beloved fans of the books ( well, a lot of them, anyway ), to hardline movie geeks. After raising the bar to insurmountable heights for anyone setting out to make another adaptation of a classic book series (good fucking luck, Narnia – which according to CC2K’s own Tony Lazlo – royally sucks).
After all this – I was not expecting Jackson to wrap up yet ANOTHER trilogy.
Yep. You heard it here first. THE KING KONG TRILOGY, made up of the trend-setting 1933 original, the glossy 1976 modernization, and the sublime 2005 re-telling.
PLAY AS MAN
Now, you’re probably asking – where the fuck does this crazy, and most likely, drunk, half-Irish blabbermouth get off calling these three versions of the same story a trilogy to hold up next to LOTR? Well, allow me to sober up with some black coffee and attempt to explain. Before seeing the advance screening of Kong last week – I tasked myself to watch the 1933 and 1976 versions just for fun. I was surprised how much I liked both of them, and how much they both still hold up as impressive pieces of celluloid, and how, after watching the 2005 version, how much all three films illuminate about the science of remakes, and the very nature of the cinema as an artform and as a societal reflection of the eras in which they were released. Believe me, I was not expecting myself to have this Kong renaissance.
Did I actually just write that? Kong AND Renaissance in the same sentence? Sweet.
Let’s first talk about the original. Viewed on its own, the entire film by today’s standards is little more than an exercise in camp, mired in the stylizations of the time. Character development is cursory, superficial, and stereotyped.
I mean, come on, 1930s filmmakers. Really.
You have Carl Denham, successful, daredevil filmmaker, who speaks with the cadence and volume of a old newsreel narrator speaking through a bullhorn at all times.
You have Ann Darrow. Actress. Flapper. Sassy. Capable of screaming very loudly and generally not being able to protect herself.
You have Jack Driscoll. First mate aboard the ship. Has no use for dames. Apparently even for sexual intercourse. Finds them annoying and nothing but trouble. Especially on sea voyages.
And the always offensive 1930s "Chinaman" stereotype, who apparently has a job on the ship, and who is obviously played by a white man with slanted fake eyebrows and an accent that my cousin’s pet African Grey Parrot could do better.
Now, you can’t hold these elements against Kong ’33. Back in the day, such devices were normal, even expected. Talkies had only been around for a few years, and the more naturalistic approach to film acting and directing would take decades to hone. It’s only through a modern lens that we see the standards of the time as silly and clunky.
Some would say I’m a corrupt, soulless, sorry excuse for a movie geek for always watching classic movies through this modern lens. Maybe they’re right. It’s hard for me to enjoy movies until they started being made in the 1970s. Maybe I should throw in the towel and take up macramé instead of enjoying modern cinema.
But, wait, ye old cineastes and film historians! Occasionally, even I, Modern Film Guy, I’ll find an old movie that has some element that holds up. That acts as a window backward in time, allowing me to see something as an inhabitant of that era.
Kong ’33 did this for me.
Despite so many elements that were almost difficult to watch, they were so dated, I was completely blown away by the visual effects. Nowadays, that’s almost an insult – to say a movie sucked but “the visual effects were so good I feel obligated to like the moive!” (ahem – “Revenge of the Sith”).
But for a movie made over 70 years ago, I was fucking shocked how good the stop motion animation and forced perspectives created a world where dinosaurs still existed, and apes were 50 feet tall.
I was also shocked how violent the movie was. Lots of hapless Skull Island natives and American sailors being torn apart and eaten by beasts, being stepped on by Kong ( complete with close shots of Kong’s foot lifting up to reveal the squished corpses underneath), and my personal favorite of the bunch – the wide shots of dummies subbing for expendable sailors falling into the ravine after Kong tosses them off the log. Especially the forced screams they make as they fall, and the loud thud they make upon landing.
Watching Kong ’33, I felt what moviegoers of the time must have felt. Awesome spectacle. Such a thing usually translates to grand entertainment. And in the case of this film – making deserving of the term “classic”.
It also transported me back to the social context of the era. The Great Depression. A time when many people relied on movies ( at least those who could afford a nickel to see them ) for escape from hopeless lives and hopeless prospects. A time when studios saw it as their responsibility to make movies solely for this purpose – to serve the public. Okay, maybe their intentions weren’t that noble and many of them were just exploiting the desperation of the time –
I’d rather stick with the noble purpose thing. At least for now.
People of the time wanted stories that were simple, where success was achievable, and love was at first sight.
When it comes to remakes of such classic fare – I’ll argue that there’s two main methods of approach – the MODERNIZATION and the RE-TELLING. Serendipitously, Kong ’76 and Kong ’05 are perfect examples of both.
Kong ’76 falls into the modernization category. The skeletal structure of the original stays the same :
White people travel to indeterminate South Pacific island for the express purpose of commercial exploitation. A lone woman travels with them. Upon arrival they find an old wall. Natives of the island kidnap the woman and sacrifice her to their local god – a giant ape named Kong. The woman befriends Kong. The men eventually rescue her and capture Kong, and bring him back to New York City to make even more money by charging admission to see him locked up in chains on a Broadway stage. Kong escapes. Re-captures woman. Climbs to top of tall building. Gets shot by planes. Kong falls and dies.
What makes this movie fun and inventive are the modern twists. Instead of a movie director seeking to make his masterpiece on a legendary island – we have the cigar-chomping, mustachioed Charles Grodin, oil tycoon, on a mission from the Petrox Corporation to commence drilling operations in the South Pacific, and become Amercian heroes for staking a claim to a petroleum oasis and rescue us from the energy crisis of the 1970s.
Instead of Carl Denham coming into possession of a secret map, we have the always welcome Rene Auberjonois ( Odo from ST : Deep Space Nine, who seems to pop up in every other movie I rewatch from the 70s and 80s ) as a scientist who explains in a company meeting aboard the tanker headed for Skull Island how unique meteorological factors have kept this island hidden from the modern world.
Instead of the dashing, yet kind of asexual, seaman Jack Driscoll, we have Jeff Bridges, a primate paleontologist, who does have that secret map, who stows away on the Petrox tanker in hopes of finding a historic specimen for his field of expertise.
Instead of Ann Darrow, down on her luck, Broadway actress who is invited on an adventure, we have a sumptuous Jessica Lange in her first film role as Dwan, ( yes – she actually says she deliberately swapped the A and the W ), an actress only down on her luck because she was on a yacht with an entourage of movie industry people making empty promises of stardom which suffered from an explosion ( I think ), leaving her all alone in a life raft – which fortunately is spotted by Jeff Bridges, and rescued by the Petrox team.
Far fetched? Sure. Inappropriate for a John Guillermin film ( of Towering Inferno and Shaft in Africa fame ) produced by Dino De Laurentiis? Absolutely not.
Please be warned that the rest of this review will refer to the Bridges and Grodin characters as Bridges and Grodin, while the Lange character will be referred to as Dwan. The reason for this should be obvious.
PLAY AS KONG
Substitute making a movie on the island, for Bridges earning his pay aboard the ship by becoming the official photographer of the expedition, and Dwan being granted the role of Petrox mascot – and Bridges is tasked to take luscious pictures of her on the beach presumably to make for hot magazine ads and billboards for Petrox brand gasoline. Hey, I’d buy some if I saw those ads. Did you see the outfit she was wearing?
But you can see how the kernels of the original script remain intact. I would argue that the choices made in Kong ’76 are more compelling and fleshed out.
The love story is more developed between Bridges and Dwan – more time is spent on the boat with them falling for eachother. It may be sappy, but it’s a more advanced effort than Kong ’33, where Driscoll falls instantaneously in love for Ann strictly because it’s dramatically convienient.
When the Petrox team come across the natives of the island, they have Bridges, who has a background in cultural anthropology, and who possesses insight into the rituals they observe, and the importance of Kong in their society. There’s a very funny scene where Bridges communicates with the natives chief through physical posture and gesture, that Dwan is not up for trade as a Kong sacrifice. But it’s certainly more interesting than the skipper in Kong ’33 who just happens to speak the native language, because, at the time I guess everyone thought savage inhabitants of South Pacific islands all spoke in the same series of tonal grunts.
After first contact, Bridges is concerned for the preservation of the native culture and shows his distaste for Westerns imperialism over the third world, while Grodin insists that the natives can be bought like anyone else on Planet Earth. After the Petrox team abducts Kong, Bridges even ruminates on how they have completely dismantled their culture by taking away their god, their magic. In a couple years, the island will be nothing more than a rock full of depressed drunks. Grodin doesn’t care. In his capitalistic mind, everything takes a backseat to commercial excess.
This scientific perspective is something we don’t get in either Kong ’33 or Kong ’05. It’s certainly not necessary to the story, but I applaud the choice.
Kong ’76 also imagines scenes that would have occurred in the original storyline, but never made it. My favorite being the time spent onboard the ship as Kong lay depressed, in bondage, inside one of the cargo holds. There’s a touching moment when Dwan falls into the cage, Kong catches her, and lifts her to safety. There’s also the sort-of sex scene, where a good 15 minutes or so is dedicated to Kong throwing Dwan into a pool as the base of a waterfall. Once she’s all wet, Kong picks her up and lustily exhales through his nostrils to dry her off. Dwan likes it. As much as one could like the sexual advances of a 50 foot tall ape.
To further the themes of commercial exploitation – once Rene Auberjonois tells Grodin that the oil on the island isn’t suitable for processing – his mustasche gets a great idea. I’ll have the company send me the tools I need to capture the ape and bring him back to New York and turn him into our new corporate icon! He actually expresses how Petrox stock will soar once the public realizes the great lengths and adventures they’ve gone through to get them their petroleum-bases energy. Ahhh, the Carter Administration. I thought this was a really cool proxy for the Broadway show in Kong ’33.
Once in New York, instead of KONG : THE 8TH WONDER OF THE WORLD in big lights on 42nd street, we get a huge parade, sponsored by Petrox, to unveil their own Michelin Man – Kong – who’s wheeled out inside a humungous gasoline pump, with dancers and fireworks abound – preparing for a world tour. I mean – really, Grodin. The EXXON-CAPADES?
Before the show, Bridges approaches Grodin, and tells him he’s quitting the tour, and that he donated his advance to the ASPCA for the Fund to Send Kong Home. What a great detail. He also asks Dwan to leave the tour and come with him. She just can’t. After Grodin’s mustache gives her the “you’ll never work in this town, or industry, again” line – she reluctantly pulls away from Bridges and goes out to reprise her role as the Skull Island natives’ sacrifice to Kong – all as part of the show. Kong freaks out, breaks free, steals Dwan and runs amok.
The World Trade Center stands in for the Empire State Building in Kong ’76 – but what’s cute about this choice is that Bridges remembers that the twin towers closely resemble two stone pillars on Skull Island, so that’s obviously where Kong is going to take Dwan. And Bridges uses this knowledge to deal with the mayor for Kong’s safe capture. It’s interesting for Kong to have a champion besides the female captive. It’s something we don’t get in either of the other two films.
And when the helicopters are shooting at Kong once atop the buildings, Kong oscillates back and forth between furious rage at the choppers, and a concerned expression for Dwan, trying to push her to safety under a stairwell. Once Kong has fallen, and we cut to Dwan approaching him, we get to share a moment with them as he lay dying, with only the sound of his heartbeat to emotionally highlight the scene. And as soon as Kong dies, that’s when the paparazzi jump in, desperately trying to snap a photo of Dwan and the beast, trying to make their press deadline. Bridges tries to go to her, to comfort her, but he’s completely blocked by the photographers and news crews. So here, in a movie about a giant ape, we get a scene where Dwan is crying at the price she paid of an innocent creature for her fame, and her would-be lover who suddenly realizes that he’ll never be able to bridge that chasm. Wasn’t expecting that shit in there.
Oh, yeah. Did I mention that Kong stepped on Grodin before his rampage? The mustache survived.