Yesterday, Mr Moth talked about the foundation of the King Kong myth. Today he concludes with a look at the reinvention and retelling of it in later years.
Yesterday, I spoke of the creation of King Kong, the movie and the myth. By 1949, its creators had made three films around the theme and then fell silent. Kong lived in the popular imagination as a symbol of untamed savagery, but little more. But Dino di Laurentiis wanted an iconic monster to beat Jaws at the box office and he had his eye on resurrecting the legend of Skull Island.
King Kong (1976, Guillermin)
The first true Hollywood remake of King Kong has a bad reputation, and in one specific regard it’s definitely deserved. However, having rewatched it, I feel it is overdue reassessment. In my opinion, this marks the moment that Kong passed from movie monster to myth.
It takes some guts to remake a film as iconic as King Kong, and it would seem to take even more to ditch almost every story element in the process. In this version, our Denham figure is Fred Wilson, a rapacious oil prospector hoping to suck Skull Island dry of its crude oil supplies. The plot elements then come together in a very different way to the original – the romantic leads are Jeff Bridges as eco-warrior stowaway Jack Prescott and Jessica Lange’s dippy wannabe Dwan, found drifting in a life raft after escaping what sounds a bit like Billy Zane’s yacht from Dead Calm. No one has any idea that there is a giant ape on the island – the natives, even, come as a shock. The idea of putting Kong on show only comes when the oil turns out to be worthless.
This is a great film. It looks beautiful in all its Seventies Quality Blockbuster widescreen glory, the leads all acquit themselves well and the satirical elements are frequently quite funny (Dwan calling Kong a “chauvinist pig ape” for example, or the unsubtle imagery of the bolt holding the Great Door closed being greased with oil before sliding into its locking loops). But, like Son of Kong, it has a monkey problem.
As soon as Kong arrives on screen, this film falls down. The suit is made well enough, but no attempt has been made for the actor within to, uh, ape the movement of a gorilla. Instead, Kong swaggers around like a strategically-shaved Gallagher brother. Just a man in a monkey suit. The close-up work is excellent and very nearly rescues it, it’s just a shame the rest of the suit doesn’t live up to the mask. 1933’s stop motion may be crude but it has a vital, compelling spark. This is an update that simply doesn’t work.
It doesn’t break the film, though. By reframing King Kong as an environmentalist fable, Guillermin’s interpretation proves that the power of this myth can survive a little retooling, and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr even adds a few layers to Kong’s stature as a figure of legend. When Prescott gives the crew a lecture on the history of Skull Island, the details of lost expeditions and documents suppressed by the Vatican are subtly chilling. A later line on the natives of Skull Island makes for bleak commentary on the aftermath of colonialism and the arrogance of the West – “He was the terror, the mystery of their lives. A year from now that will be an island full of burnt-out drunks. When we took Kong we kidnapped their god.”
King Kong Lives! (1986, Guillermin)
Oh, lord. This is so, so bad. I think some people try to claim Guillermin’s belated sequel to his own film is one of those “So bad it’s good” movies, but it’s not even that. It’s boring – boring beyond belief. In fact, I fell asleep before the end and couldn’t be bothered rewinding to see what I missed.
Here’s your plot, see if you can identify why it’s bad. Kong is being kept alive in a secret research facility for some reason that is never adequately explained. All Kong needs is an artificial heart the size of a Smart Car and a blood transfusion. But where to get Giant Ape blood? Cue giant lady ape, captured in Borneo (because returning to Skull Island would be a bit of a faff, probably). Kong resurrected, falls in love with Lady Kong, they go on the lam together. Linda Hamilton and some guy who would definitely be Owen Wilson now track them across country, closely followed by the army. Shenanigans ensue. Romance blossoms between Linda and not-Owen. Kong and Lady Kong have babies. Kong’s artificial heart gives out when rescuing his lady from the army. The end.
Did you spot it? Yup, it’s the love story. By making it parallel ape-ape and human-human, it neuters the Kong myth. Without the taboo love of a massive monkey for a pretty lady, the story gets pretty conventional pretty quickly. They bent the structure so far it broke. Sure, this has its moments – a bunch of rednecks burying Kong to his neck like a Dad at the beach, or… or… OK, that’s it. That was the best bit. And the ape suits are, if anything, worse than the previous film. Like Schoedsack and company returning to Kong, this turned out as Son of Kong did; a mess, and an irrelevance.
King Kong (2005, Jackson)
Peter Jackson’s straight remake of King Kong brings only a little to the table, thematically. What it mainly brings is length. It goes on for twice the length of the Cooper/Schoedsack film and tells an identical story, more or less (see the template as laid out in the Kong ’76 section). It spends an awful lot of time in New York before the voyage, simply establishing that this film is set in 1933 – the advantage the original film had here, of course, was that it was already 1933. Then the voyage takes its sweet time, too, knocking about with the salty seamen aboard the Venture to little effect (since most of them end up squashed or et by the denizens of S-K-U-L-L Island, and have no further role to play once the film reaches New York). By the time Kong arrives, you’d be forgiven for being surprised by the arrival of a goddamn enormous monkey.
There is also a disproportionate amount of time spent on Skull Island, specifically with the dinosaurs. The ’76 remake wisely avoided them, in-keeping with its less fantastical tone. Jackson reinserts them with glee, and lavishes attention on them to the point that it becomes absurd that the main prize on this island stuffed with tyrannosaurs and brachiosaurs is just a big gorilla. The Kong vs T-Rex dust up was memorably brutal in the first movie; here it’s interminable. And the spider pit? Sheesh.
Though the characters are roughly comparable to their 1933 counterparts, the changes are tweaks rather than Guillermin’s more confident wholesale rewrites. By making the romantic lead a screenwriter and Denham more of a huckster than an adventurer, the story turns in on itself, becomes an insider’s joke about film making. The film being made, incidentally, would appear to be the first King Kong, given the dialogue rehearsed on the boat. There are so many such “nods to the original” it’s amazing Jackson didn’t end up with chronic whiplash by the end of the shoot.
Other tweaks work to neuter the story. In the original and the Seventies remake, Kong spares Ann/Dwan because he wants him some monkey lovin’. Let’s not consider the logistics. In Jackson’s version, she makes him laugh. They hang out, go ice skating, sightseeing around New York… it’s a damned romcom. The menace of a rampaging gorilla is gone and in its place is simply an enormous CGI Zac Efron.
SHOW ME THE MONKEY!
For all the changes, the structure is identical; Long sea voyage during which romantic leads become close and ambition of expedition leader is laid out. Encounter with natives, culminating in The Girl being kidnapped and “sacrificed” to Kong. Kong pursued by the crew. Log bridge bit kills off 2nd tier cast. Male lead rescues female lead while Kong fights some giant creature. Kong follows, gets knocked out, transported to New York. Is put on show, breaks out. RAMPAGE. Kong recaptures The Girl, climbs tall building. The Girl shows she loves Kong, just as the aircraft weaken him and he falls.
That’s all you need. The rest is window dressing, you can put your own message in it, change the names, change the tall building, everything. Hit the beats, though, and everyone knows what story you’re telling. Given that all you need is the structure, you could tell the Kong story in five minutes, although the first two will be on the boat. Allow me to explain that with SCIENCE
The promise of a giant ape is enough to keep an audience hanging on for a third of the movie, just messing about in boats. The least successful film – King Kong Lives – deviates from this norm so spectacularly it should have been clear from the start that it would fail. A myth requires patience to build. The world will wait for the right moment, be it an hour and ten minutes (how long it takes for Kong to show up in Jackson’s version) or four decades (between the original and Guillermin’s remake).
A story like this can survive bad storytellers, can survive being bent to serve a different narrative. I’ve not even touched the Toho Kong movies (the first of which uses elements of the classic story but adds in Godzilla because it’s Japan, ffs, giant animals have to fight Godzilla. That’s the law), the animated series, Mighty Joe Young’s remake, the Donkey Kong character or any other rip-offs (Konga!) and franchise material. I haven’t even brought up how the myth seemingly travelled back in time for the notorious “Destroy this mad brute” propaganda poster. It doesn’t matter, because in the centre of all this, bellowing defiance, there is the prize at the heart of the adventure, the savage untamed, the eighth wonder, the stolen god – Kong. KONG! KONG!!