Long before Peter Jackson took on the iconic beast, John Guillermin tried his hand at a King Kong movie and, although it didn't exactly shake the world upon its release, how does it hold up looking back?
Can man-in-King Kong-costume outdo CGI Kong?
In terms of the King Kong character and how bad you feel for him come the inevitable downer ending, I'd probably give the point to this movie. Where Jackson's mega budget motion-captured Kong was given far too many moments to be cute and likeable, this admittedly faker-looking Kong is more akin to the 1933 classic's depiction: very much monstrous but also subtly innocent. Which means that, by the time the surprisingly violent and bloody end scene happens, it should hit you pretty hard. It's refreshing to re-watch this one post-the 2005 version as it makes the latter's flaws stand out a little better. The recent film just tried too hard to get to that dramatic ending (see the random ice-skating scene), it tried too hard to entertain us (see the chaotic dinosaur chase) and it tried too hard to make its lead actress cute and loveable. Now, granted Jessica Lange also overdoes it quite a bit but, ultimately, the film is better paced and more moving.
Jeff Bridges is a hippie animal expert/photographer who sneaks onto a boat heading for a petroleum exploration expedition led by a cartoonishly villainous Charles Grodin (twirly moustache and all) who believes there is an island in the middle of nowhere loaded with oil. On the way, they find a lost actress (Lange) who joins the gang and who, of course, ends up being the object of Kong's affection. Lange's performance really is the most random part of this movie as she plays her character about as melodramatically as possible which, next to the more restrained and "real" Bridges, makes it look like she's high as a kite. I guess it's the 70's... anything goes in the 70's! The ever-entertaining Grodin is tons of fun, clearly having a ball being a grinning douchebag the entire time and the rubber-suit Kong, while not exactly 100% convincing, certainly feels like the King Kong we all know and love.
The film has a long but brilliant build-up as the clueless group lands on the island, finds the natives and their sinister customs before finally coming face to face with the titular monster. John Barry's score is haunting and beautiful, setting the scenes and the tone perfectly, not to mention brilliantly capturing Kong's character. Being a Dino De Laurentiis production, there's an appropriately grand feel to the production and it's clear very early on that real effort went into making this as well as it could be made. All that said, this King Kong isn't perfect. Characters act idiotically from start to finish: not keeping King Kong asleep during the boat trip, losing him in the middle of the city, Lange, Bridges and others not running away when they totally can, the list goes on. The logic of the expedition is completely uneven but not too distractingly so, luckily. I should also point out that the fact that the end scene takes place not at the top of the Empire State Building but over the World Trade Center towers adds a tragic dimension to an already tragic conclusion.
While this King Kong lacks the slick, CGI sheen of the 2005 remake, this one captures the feel and emotions of the original far better. If you give this rubbery Kong a chance, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. This is a classy, gripping effort and it definitely deserves more recognition.