Examining Hollywood Remakes: King Kong

 

King Kong was created in 1933 by Universal Pictures and was the prototype for the Kaiju genre, years before Godzilla ever stomped on Tokyo. The image of Kong atop the Empire State Building is one of the most iconic images in the history of film and pop culture. The first film led to a sequel (the Son of Kong), an animated series, lots of rip-offs (Mighty Joe Young, Konga, A*P*E, the Mighty Peking Man) and years later inspired a pair of remakes (Not counting the campy Kaiju films King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes.) After all these years, Kong remains one of the greatest giant movie monsters of all time. Let’s take a look at the classic original and see if the two sequels live up to it.

The 1933 Universal Pictures version of King Kong was directed by Merian C. Cooper, and starred Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot. The original draft was written by famous mystery writer Edgar Wallace who died before completing it, so Ruth Rose completed the screenplay. King Kong has an impressive 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

 The Plot of the Original: Daring but reckless filmmaker and adventurer Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), who has gained a reputation filming dangerous wildlife in remote and perilous jungle regions, has heard the Legends of an undiscovered island beast and quickly recruits a leading lady named Anne Darrow (Fay Wray) to star in his latest movie, wherein he hopes to film the unknown animal. He sails off for a remote, unexplored island on the SS Venture, commanded by Capt. Englehorn and studly first-mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), who falls in love with Anne. Arriving at Skull Island, they chance upon a sacrificial ceremony where a native girl is placed on an alter while dancers chant, “Kong! Kong!” The villagers spot the intruders and are hostile. However, upon seeing Ann, the chief offers to buy the “golden woman” to offer up as the “bride of Kong.” Denham refuses, and they beat a hasty retreat back to their ship, but after dark, a party of native islanders sneak onto the ship and kidnap Ann. They strap her to a huge sacrificial altar just outside the gate, then summon their “God”… Kong, a 25 foot ape. Kong is fascinated by the “golden women” and decides to keep her. This leads to a rescue mission led by Jack, where the crew of the venture have to avoid an island full of dinosaurs and find a way to tackle Kong himself. Many of the crew are killed but Kong is finally subdued by gas bombs. Kong is taken back to New York, where he is put on display by Denham. Kong breaks loose on the night of his Broadway premiere, searching for Anne, wrecking an elevated train in the process. He finds Anne and takes her to a spot he thinks is safe atop the Empire State Building, but Kong doesn’t know about airplanes. He ends up facing a fleet of World War I fighter planes. After being wounded by multiple bullets, Kong realizes that he is not a God in this world, but rather prey for the humans, so he releases his grip and falls to his death.

 At the time, the SFX by Willis O’Brien were cutting-edge and people were amazed at his Stop-Motion technique. It could be argued that King Kong was the pioneer for the FX genre. Roger Ebert, in his book “The Great Movies: Volume 2” wrote that King Kongpointed the way towards the current era of special effects, science fiction, cataclysmic destruction and non-stop shocks. King Kong is the father of Jurassic Park, the Alien movies and countless other stories in which heroes are terrified by skillful special effects.” This movie is an important achievement in filmmaking, as well as being a fun, exciting and atmospheric film.

 Next we come to the 1976 version, which is far-and-away the weakest version of the story. It was produced by Dino De Laurentiis, along with Paramount Pictures/Viacom. King Kong ’76 was directed by John Guillermin and starred Jessica Lang in her film debut as Dwan, Jeff Bridges, still early in his career as Jack Prescott and Charles Grodin as Fred Wilson. The movie has a low 46% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

 The Plot of the 2nd Version: A Petrox Oil ship, led by Fred Wilson (Grodin) is looking for new petroleum deposits on a recently discovered island. Stowaway and radical environmentalist Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) is a paleontologist who tries to discourage them from disturbing and possibly exploiting the natives of “Skull Island”.  They also discover Dwan (Jessica Lange), a wanna-be actress who is found adrift after a shipwreck. When the group lands on Skull Island, the local natives capture Dwan and use her as a sacrifice for the giant ape, Kong. However, kong takes a liking to her and carries her off. Jack comes to her rescue and successfully brings her back to the Petrox ship. Wilson, having failed to find oil, decides there’s money to be made from Kong, and so arranges for Kong to be captured and locks the big beast in the cargo hold of his ship, bringing him to New York City. Kong is used as a giant mascot for Petrox oil but predictably, Kong escapes and wreaks havoc across NY, recapturing Dwan and climbing up the World Trade Center for sanctuary. However, helicopters come after him and shoot him off the roof where he falls to his death.

 Kong, in this version, is not a SFX as in the other films. Here he’s a combination of costume and make-up. Rick Baker—who did the alien creature make-up for Star Wars—not only designed Kong’s appearance; he also played the giant ape. He does his best to portray the ape as a primal creature, and tries to make you forget that you’re looking at a man in a costume.

 Finally, we come to the 2005 version. This one is directed by Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit fame, for Universal Pictures. It stars Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow, Adrien Brody as Jack Driscoll and Jack Black as Carl Denham.  Andy Serkis, master of motion capture acting, plays Kong. The movie has a solid 84% on Rotten Tomatoes.

 Plot of the 3rd Version: In the early 1930s, Carl Denham (Jack Black) is an ambitious, impulsive filmmaker who, despite the objections of his financial backers, plans to film his next project on Skull Island, an uncharted isle he discovered on a rare map. Realizing that his cast and crew will be wary of sailing off to parts unknown for months, Denham tells them they’re traveling to Singapore. Before they sail, his leading lady drops out of the project. Needing a new lead actress willing to take a risk, Denham finds Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a beautiful but down-on-her-luck stage performer, and offers her the role. She is cautious but so desperate for work, she takes the role. While onboard, she begins a romance with Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), a respected playwright hired by Denham for redo the script. When they arrive on Skull Island, the natives react with violent savagery and kidnap Anne. Worse than that, the island is overrun by prehistoric creatures. The dominant alpha-beast who rules over the island is called Kong, a 25-foot-tall gorilla. The natives offer Anne to Kong as a sacrifice; Kong is charmed by her and they begin a strange relationship where she wins his trust by using visual humor. Jack is determined to save the woman he loves and leads the ship’s crew in a rescue mission. They are besieged by oversized creatures at every turn. Eventually, Jack finds Ann and Denham captures Kong, taking the big ape back to New York for display. But Kong escapes. He has bonded with Ann Darrow, and tracks her down, carrying her off, stopping only for a romantic ice-skating moment. Kong takes Anne to the top of the Empire State Building to get away from the humans but this proves to be his undoing as airplanes attack and kill him.

 This most recent version has the best production values of all the versions, with some groundbreaking motion capture FX, allowing Andy Serkis to play an ape years before Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The dinosaurs and other creatures of the island also look great. Jackson adds a nice tribute to the original film by recreating the lost Spider Pit sequence, which has been a Holy Grail of the film industry for decades. No one has ever been able to find any of the remaining original footage but Jackson recreated it from the original story boards. Nicely done.

 The relationship between Kong and Ann is at the heart of every version. Kong’s relationship with Ann changed after the first film. In the first version, Kong had no human qualities and only wanted to keep Ann because he was curious about her golden hair. Ann, from her perspective, was terrified of Kong and wanted nothing to do with him.  She saw the experience as a nightmare. The latter two versions changed the relationship. The 1976 movie added a sexual component to the mix, such as when Kong blow-dries the wet Ann and she acts as if it was an orgasmic experience. In the 2005 version, the relationship turned romantic, most notable in the scene where Kong and Ann slide on the ice in the park, while touching music plays in the background.

 The main female character is written as an actress in all the versions. In the 1933 movie, Ann (Wray) is a film extra looking for her big break. Ann starts off as an optimistic character who sees the ocean voyage as a chance at experiencing something new and exciting. She likes everyone on board and persists in trying to break down Jack’s resistance until he admits “I guess I love you”. (Silver tongued devil!) This makes the terror she experiences when Kong gets his paws on her all the more effective. (Wray’s iconic screaming in this movie was the origin of the term “Scream Queen”.) In the 1976 film, Dwan (Lange, still a novice actress at this point) is also a would-be actress who was on the yacht of a Hollywood producer when the ship sank and left her adrift until she is rescued by the Petrox ship. Dwan comes across as a bit more eccentric and flighty than the two Ann’s. She has some comical moments, such as when she takes umbrage as the ape tries to remove her clothes and she shouts, “Male chauvinist ape!” punching him in the nose, and then trying to apologize by telling him about her anger issues. Unlike the other two versions, she gives up Jack in favor or fame-and-fortune. Finally, the 2005 Ann (Watts) is a working stage actress who likes to do comedy gigs but Denham sees a sad soul inside her, telling her that she has the saddest face he ever saw. When Kong gets angry at her because she tries to escape, she uses her gift for comedy to bond with him.  The three actresses all do a fine job and they are all beautiful women.

 

Now let’s look at the three Jacks. In the 1933 movie, Jack (Cabot) is a big, macho sailor. True there are moments early in the film when you may wonder about his sexuality because he insists he hates women, but this is all a ruse because he quickly falls head-over-heels for the blonde beauty. The 1976 Jack (Bridges) is a counter-culture environmentalist with 70s style long-hair. He likes to make anti-establishment comments. He’s much more sensitive than his predecessor. I never understood why Wilson and the crew seem to defer to Jack so often when he was a stowaway who was trying to disuade them from their assignment. The 2005 Jack(Brody) is also a sensitive man. This Jack is a successful Hollywood screenwriter who Ann was a big fan of even before they first met. This is before Brody bulked-up for Predator, so he seemed an unlikely action hero.

 So which is better? First we’ll eliminate the 1976 version as the weakest of the three. As for the other two; which reigns supreme? The winner is…the original! Yes, the first is still the best. I rank the 1933 movie above the 2005 Jackson film and I’ll tell you why. There are three reasons.

 One is the interpretation of King Kong himself: In the original, Kong was just an animal. He was bigger and stronger than other animals but had no motivations except to fight for dominance and take whatever he wanted, which in this case was “the golden woman”. He couldn’t be reasoned with or tamed. He was a monster king. Some people may say that the 1933 effects are dated and distracting, however some disagree. Roger Ebert wrote, “In our age of technical perfection, King Kong uses it’s very naivete to generate a creepy kind of awe.” In the 1976 version, Kong was a man in a costume. It was a good costume—it wasn’t one of those awful Gilligan’s Island monkey suits—and Rick Baker did a pretty good job inside it, but at the end of the day, he was a guy in a costume. Also, this version of Kong doesn’t have all the cool dinosaur fights that the other two Kongs had.

In the 2005 version, the motion capture effects are excellent and Andy Serkis—best known as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings—gives a fine performance, but there are two problems with it. One is that the FX makes Kong look like a real gorilla, except bigger. He doesn’t have that other-worldly quality that the 1933 Kong did. Also, Serkis often comes across as a bit too human-like in his body language and reactions. He doesn’t seem quite animal enough.

 Reason number two: Of the three “boss” characters, Robert Armstrong is by far the best as Carl Denham. He was overconfident, foolhardy and reckless yet he was a strong leader who stood his ground and took down Kong with bombs while everyone else was running away. The 1976 boss Wilson, as played by Grodin, was just a corporate tool, with no interesting qualities. The worst of the three was Jack Black in 2005, who turned the dynamic Denham into a comedy character. Black played the role completely wrong.

 The final reason was that the first version had a great balance between action and dialogue. The 1976 version was lacking the action and excitement that the other two had. As for the 2005 version, it went too far in the other direction. Once we finally reach Skull Island (which took way too long, by the way) the movie never stops for a breath. We’re inundated by constant FX of weird creatures chasing the crew. Sometimes you need to pause in between the action sequences to allow emotion to set-in, and allow the characters to connect with us through dialogue. The 2005 film was a bit of overkill.

 Therefore, the 1933 original is the best of the Kong films. Was it a perfect film? No, it wasn’t. The dialogue was sometimes a bit clichéd. Also, it leaves you with a lot of questions, such as why did Denham only bring one single cast member (Ann) to the island to film his movie? Still, despite these flaws, the 1933 King Kong is immensely entertaining and a great achievement for its day. It paved the way for modern movies like Cloverfield. King Kong is an important classic in film history.

 So that’s it for this week’s look at cinematic remakes. We’ll be back next week to dissect another one. Until then, feel free to look up our previous articles Examining Hollywood Remakes.

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