“We may be sailing into the history books…”
…Those words, spoken by the 1976 King Kong’s blustery expedition leader, Fred (Charles Grodin), could be seen as a prophetic moment that not only predicted the towering wonder that his crew would find on Skull Island, but the film’s own charter into our collective memory. The problem is, it would be remembered for all of the wrong reasons.
Scream Factory has recently released a two-disc collector’s edition of director John Guillermin’s (King Kong Lives) troubled remake of the 1933 classic, King Kong, giving the film a king’s treatment with a mountainous wealth of behind the scenes footage and discussion that puts a Kong-sized eye on just what went wrong with the production.
Produced by famed producer Dino De Laurentiis (Army of Darkness) and written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Flash Gordon), King Kong follows a similar premise to the 1933 original, with the aforementioned Fred leading a group of men on an expedition to a mysterious island where Fred believes they will find a treasure trove of untapped oil for his overseers at the Petrox Oil Company. Following the discovery of stowaway paleontologist Jack (Jeff Bridges) and lost at sea beauty, Dwan (Jessica Lange), the crew arrive at the island. But what they soon realize is that the island is inhabited not just by natives who aren’t pleased with their arrival, but an enormous gorilla known only as Kong, who decides he wants to be best friends forever with Dwan.
Needless to say, that doesn’t go over too well with anyone, especially Dwan.
If you’re at all familiar with King Kong, then you’ll recognize all of the basic story beats here. Kong meets girl. Kong falls in love with girl. Girl isn’t happy about the idea of being undressed by monkey eyes but manages to see a soul behind them. Corrupt tycoon decides to kidnap Kong and make a monkey show out of him. You get the gist. Guillermin’s Kong is the bigger, badder, but not necessarily “better” version of the 1933 film, and regardless of the finished product, De Laurentiis deserves all of the credit in the world for trying to bring people something truly astounding with this film, something that may not be a living, forty-foot ape, but would be the next best thing.
Scream Factory’s disc takes us deep into the heart of the disastrous epic, at once shining a light on the dream that was this version of Kong, while also exposing in frustrating detail everything that went wrong. Spoiler: it was a lot.
With King Kong, De Laurentiis had promised through advertising that the film would feature the most extraordinary creation to ever be captured by film, a forty-foot mechanical Kong robot. The very thought is enough to send excited chills down the spines of Kong fans. I, for one, will always cherish the “guy in a rubber suit era”, but like Jurassic Park’s John Hammond, Laurentiis had grander dreams, and was prepared to spare no expense. But, no amount of money would’ve mattered, because as effects guru Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London) states during one of two commentaries on the disc, he scoffed at the idea, because not even NASA was capable of something like that at the time.
And he was right.
Time and again, the special features come back to the infamous scene in which Kong is first exposed to the public, rolled out inside of a giant Petrox “pump” with a crown on his head and looking like the saddest birthday boy on the planet. Various interviews with the likes of second unit director William Kronick, assistant director David McGiffert, production manager Brian Frankish, and of course Baker, go into the details of that day on set, describing the near-cataclysmic catastrophe that might’ve resulted in a few hundred people getting squished by Kong for real. Long story short, the scene was filled with hundreds of extras, surrounding the mechanical titan, which of course malfunctioned and nearly collapsed. As Kronick mentions, the filmmakers were lucky that the footage they got was usable.
As you can imagine, the mechanical ape, designed by Carlo Rambaldi, was damn near useless, so outside of a well-crafted mechanical hand, Baker himself brought Kong to life in the majority of scenes. If you are into Kong, or Baker, or just effects work in general, Baker’s feature-length interview is worth the price of the disc alone. While the commentary is not a straight up scene by scene discussion (Baker was meant to be just another interview, but ended up providing such juicy details, the feature was restructured into a commentary instead), Baker takes us through his intimate hell of working on Kong. This account is incredible, going through Baker’s love of Kong and his desire to work on the project, to the mind-blowing unprofessionalism of others involved. I could’ve listened to Baker talk Kong all day, but a couple hours is still plenty.
The disc also reflects quite a bit on the other problem with the film: the director. Actor Jack O’Halloran (Joe in the film), holds nothing back in his interview, straight up acknowledging that the director of the film “could’ve been better,” while telling stories of just how much an often over-bearing Guillermin would mismanage the set—a sentiment which is shared by many on the disc.
Oddly enough, one of the more fun interviews comes in the form of production assistants, or “messengers” as they were called at the time, Jeffrey Chernov and Scott Thaler. As someone who worked as a PA for a few years, I can tell you that they do indeed have some of the best on set stories, and these two don’t disappoint. They share tales of how intimidating Dino could be, while also expressing an infectious excitement for having worked on the project. Which is an element of the disc that shines through all of the negative memories: no matter how awful things were, or how disappointed some were in the final film, there’s an obvious affection from the cast/crew towards having worked on such a monumental movie. King Kong isn’t just another film. He’s the creature that strikes awe in all. He’s the dream that filmmakers have chased for generations, and there’s an acknowledgement of the pride from everyone in having been a part of it.
If there’s any one disappointment with the disc, it’s only that Jessica Lange is not involved. From the moment she arrives on screen until the tragic final scene, Lange is the warm, beating heart of King Kong. O’Halloran mentions that he could tell she would be a star, and it’s easy to see why. Lange brings a classic Hollywood vibe to her character in a performance that moves even the cruelest of assholes such as Fred at times, and she more than anyone is who I want to hear from when it comes to working with her hairy co-star.
Still, with this collector’s edition (which looks and sounds gorgeous, I must add), Scream Factory has delivered a prize worthy of admiring the same way Kong does Lange. Between a pair of fascinating commentaries, two cuts of the film, and a horde of interviews, this disc is a mighty achievement befitting of a mighty disaster of a movie.
You can now order King Kong from Scream Factory here. Check out the special features below.
DISC 1: Theatrical Cut
DISC 2: Extended TV Broadcast Cut
By Matt Konopka