Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. from an idea by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
Directed by John Guillerman
On September 11th, 2001, a dark chapter in world history was written. The World Trade Center, the part of the Pentagon and thousands of lives were lost at the hands of terrorism. A towering beacon of hope, the World Trade Center was destroyed and with it, the feeling of safety and security. 9/11 instantly became a date in which lives were mourned and evil hoped to one day be eradicated forever. To commemorate this year’s 9/11, Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, New York hosted a very special screening of King Kong, the 1976 remake of the 1933 classic of the same name. Nitehawk Cinema chose this particular film to be screened because the Twin Towers were featured very prominently in the picture’s finale location. This was a modern change of scenery since the Empire State Building served as the original location in the 1933 film.
Following closely to the original film, King Kong ’76 tells the story of greedy businessman Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), who believes there to be an ocean of oil buried within a mysterious island located in the Indian Ocean. He forms an expedition which includes a number of sailors and strapping hippie paleontologist Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges). During their voyage, they come across shipwrecked aspiring actress Dwan played by Jessica Lange, ironically in her feature film debut. Once they reach the island, they encounter hostile natives and bizarre giant creatures including but not limited to Kong, a giant gorilla who has a soft spot for Dwan. Choosing to exploit the exotic creature, Wilson has Kong captured and brings him to New York for the whole world to see. Unfortunately, the ape escapes and runs amok, creating a citywide path of carnage.
Kong ’76 is a pretty decent film. Sure, it looks dated and the visual effects, a little cheesy but it is a fun adventure of truly epic proportions. Producer Dino De Laurentiis knew this all too well and this knowledge put people in movie theater seats. Jeff Bridges’ young hero is charismatic and full of vigor and his chemistry with the gorgeous Jessica Lange is the stuff of movie magic. Charles Grodin’s slimy businessman provides some hearty laughs and he is the perfect example of a character you love to hate. As for Kong, this is a creature who is heartbreakingly misunderstood. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone and he certainly doesn’t want to cause a rampage in a heavily populated area. He just wants to be left alone and at the very least, connect with something or someone who doesn’t want to kill or exploit him.
A film as epic and expensive as Kong ’76, one must expect lavish locations, elaborate sets, a rousing musical score (composed by John Barry) and state-of-the-art special effects. Carlo Rambaldi, Glen Robinson and Frank Van der veer won the Academy Award that year for their work on the film’s effects but shared the award with the VFX team on Logan’s Run. King Kong looks a tad fake and dated today but nearly 40 years ago, one can barely notice or care. If you take them for what they are, then it really is a fun film. They actually sort of recreated some of the film’s New York sequences in an attraction featured at Universal Studios’ theme park, which spotlights a large animatronic Kong terrorizing the city and scaring theme park attendees in the process.
Using the then relatively new Twin Towers as the film’s final confrontation spot was a bold choice by De Laurentiis and director John Guillerman. This was their attempt at modernizing the classic monster tale and it certainly worked. The promotional poster art featured Kong prominently placed with one foot on each tower, grasping Dwan in one hand and squeezing a fighter jet in the other, an overly dramatic image for sure though a powerful image nonetheless. In the mid-1970s, Kong ‘76 was competing with the likes of Jaws and Star Wars the following year. This was Hollywood’s era of the blockbuster and Kong sort of wedged itself in there, trying to cash in on the sensationalistic hoopla. It didn’t leave an everlasting mark on the memory of cinema history but it did provide for a rousing time at the theater.
With Kong ’76 released in a time during porn and independent film grit, Nitehawk Cinema chose this film for two reasons: first for the World Trade Center tribute and second for its existence during Times Square’s famous “The Deuce”, a strip of trashy movie theaters which lined 42nd street (between 7th and 8th avenues). In the mid-1970s, this was considered the place where cinema came to die or in what many cinephiles today feel where cinema came to live. Kong ’76 is one such film and while it may drip with cheese and feature seemingly silly robotic effects, it is a really amusing film and times, rather fun to watch. Obviously, it doesn’t hold a candle to the 1933 classic but it is a 134-minute romp, mindless fun and old school adventure. See Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange make names for themselves in one of their earliest films and prepare to sympathize with a 50-foot ape.
One of the most memorable aspects of Kong ’76 was the inclusion of the Twin Towers in its pivotal scene. These two buildings appeared in many films since their being opened to the public in 1973. They were a part of New York culture and made for a very powerful cinematic backdrop and it is with films like King Kong ’76, that they will be remembered. Even though Kong ’76 isn’t a milestone in film history, you have to give the filmmakers credit for featuring the former landmark so prominently. The Twin Towers were as much a character in the film as Kong himself and they will be forever remembered not only through this film but by every film which proudly displayed the World Trade Center on celluloid.