Friday, August 31, 2012

Don't Believe The Hype

I was in high school when the 1976 King Kong remake came out (proving that Hollywood remakes aren't anything new!).

I'd seen the original 1933 Kong of course so I wasn't particularly excited about the new version, as I didn't see how they could improve on the original. My interest was piqued though when I started reading behind the scenes info about the film in Starlog magazine (which was the only source of geek news we had before the internet). They boldly claimed that this new Kong film wouldn't use stop motion animation like the original but would instead feature a giant 40 foot tall robotic gorilla

My young mind positively reeled at this news. Had the field of robotics really advanced that far in 1976? Was it really possible to build a convincing giant mechanical ape that could act and perform its own stunts? I was skeptical. I couldn't see any way that such a thing could run and jump without tearing itself to shreds.

In the end though I decided that yes, it must be so. A movie studio couldn't just lie about something like that and get away with it. After all, if it was in print, it had to be true!

As the film's release date approached the Kong marketing engine kicked into high gear. Producer Dino DeLaurentis appeared on virtually every talk show on TV, loudly proclaiming that his mechanical "Konk," as he called it, was the marvel of the ages and would revolutionize the film industry.

Every magazine in the country featured articles about the robot ape as well. I remember one in particular that described the filming in precise detail. It claimed that the giant robot was able to take fifteen foot strides, could reach down and pick up an actor in its giant paw and its face was capable of displaying dozens of expressions. That article settled any doubts I might have had. 

I hungrily consumed every bit of information I could find about the production. I couldn't believe it— I was actually living in a world populated by a giant robotic ape. Could flying cars and jet packs be far behind? 

After what seemed like years the release date finally came. I arrived at the crowded theater and anxiously took my seat. The lights dimmed. The moment had finally come. I was about witness film history. I was going to see a giant mechanical ape make its triumphant appearance on the screen. I was practically trembling with anticipation.

The film began and somewhere around the fifty minute mark the new Kong finally appeared, and... it was a guy in an ape suit. Sonuvabitch!!!

As a fan of Godzilla movies I knew an actor in a suit when I saw one and this was most definitely nothing more than an actor in a suit. And it wasn't even a particularly good suit at that. It most definitely was not a giant mechanical ape capable of walking and running and climbing up the side of the goddamn World Trade Center under its own power. I was crushed and supremely disappointed.

As soon as I saw that Kong was just a guy jumping around in an ape suit I was so disgusted I wanted to get up and leave. I didn't have a driver's license yet so I'd have had no way home. So I sat there glaring at the screen until it was over.

To be fair, technically the producers really did build a giant robotic Kong. The problem is that it's only in the movie for about fifteen seconds.

Mecha-Kong shows up in the scene in which he's unveiled to a crowded New York arena. It's pretty easy to spot the robotic ape; his arms are usually hanging stiffly at his sides and he has a glazed, vacant expression on his face as if drunk. The robot is even less convincing than the man in the suit, if you can imagine such a thing. The producers must have thought so too, because the camera never gets less than a hundred yards from it.

All that pre-release hype and buildup for a mechanical contraption that was only slightly more animated than the average Christmas lawn ornament.

Apart from its slow, jerky movement, the main problem with the robotic Kong is that it looked completely different that the suit version. Take a look at the two images above. That's the full size robot at the top, with the awkwardly stiff arms and legs and glassy-eyed stare. Compare it with the man in the suit below. They don't look the least bit alike. The proportions and head sizes aren't even close.   

I felt bitterly disappointed and horribly betrayed that I'd fallen for the studio hype. Maybe even a little embarrassed with myself for believing them. But I learned a valuable lesson that night: Don't believe anything you read, especially a studio press release. The more exciting the hype, the more likely it is to be a load of bushwah. Studio marketing departments exist for one reason and one reason only: to get you to buy their product. And they'll do anything it takes to make that happen, up to and including outright lying.

The movie couldn't even stop lying once it was over. At the end of the film it should have been obvious to anyone with a pulse that what they'd just seen was a guy in an ape suit cavorting around on the screen for two hours. But then the credit above pops up, giving a big old pat on the back to Carlo Rambaldi and Glenn Robinson, the men who built the giant robot ape, implying that their creation is what you saw during most of the film. 

The credit does grudgingly call out "special contributions" by Rick Baker. Baker was of course the man in the suit who appeared in 99.99% of the Kong scenes. Yeah, I suppose he might be worth mentioning in passing.

Incredibly, King Kong won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects! That's just rubbing salt into the wound. I wonder how many members of the Academy thought they were voting for a giant mechanical ape instead of a guy in suit?

While we're at it, let's take another look at the movie poster. Like the movie it's promoting it's a veritable cornucopia of exaggeration and outright lies.

First off that's a pretty bold tag line they used there. "The Most Exciting Original Motion Picture Event Of All Time." I guess if by "original" you mean "the same exact plot as a movie made 43 years earlier" then it's true. It's Marketing, kids!

Also, note that Kong appears to be holding some sort of smoldering, gigantic mechanical cigarette butt in his right hand. I think that's supposed to be a jet plane that he snatched from the sky, possibly of the same type shown buzzing around his head. There are exactly zero jet planes in the actual movie. A few model helicopters flit around his head in the film's climax, but no jets. Behold marketing!

The poster also depicts Kong's spectacular aerial battle as taking place during broad daylight. In the movie it takes place entirely at night, in a vain effort to hide the zipper on the back of the suit.

And lastly, the poster depicts Kong straddling the World Trade Center, one furry foot resting on each of the towers. You guessed it, no such scene occurs during the movie. Kong is supposed to be 40 feet tall, and the towers were about 200 feet apart, so he would really have to do some stretching to straddle them as depicted in the poster. In fact in the movie he has to make a running jump from one to the other (and barely makes it). Marketing!

The Marketing Team must have really liked artist John Berkey's depiction of Kong's roaring face. They used it unchanged (if flopped) on several other posters as well.

On an unrelated note: Next time you watch the movie, you can amuse yourself by looking for the guy frantically waving a handkerchief at the camera during Kong's final touching death scene.

The moral of this rambling, semi-coherent story: we couldn't build an agile giant mechanical ape in 1976, and we most likely never will.


  1. You can find images of the unaltered original poster on the internet, where the lump of smoking metal in his hand was, indeed a jet (a jet that was in proportion with exactly nothing else in the image, looking like it was about the same size as twelve stories of the WTC towers).

    My favorite thing about the poster is the fact that Cooper Black was considered an appropriate font choice for an action/FX spectacle movie, because The '70s, that's why.

  2. @Lysdexicuss: Jessica Lang was definitely nice to look at, but here acting... woof!

    @Dan: Yeah, I have a copy of the later poster with the giant jet. I think this one with the mechanical turd shape was a teaser. I used it because it had the "most original story ever" tagline.

    And yes, Cooper Black IS an odd choice for an action movie logo. But it was the 70s after all.

  3. The "Suit" was actually a piece of Higtech Animatronic and Make-Up Work, done by Rambaldy and Baker. So they're Names are there for good Reasons.

  4. @Christian:

    Whoops! Looks like my point sailed right over your head!

    That screen credit lavishly praises Carlo Rambaldi (not Rambaldy) twice, along with Glen Robinson. They're the ones who built the giant mechanical Kong. You know, the one that appeared in the film for all of about thirty seconds, and the one the producers desperately wanted the audience to think they'd been watching for two hours.

    The credit then grudgingly acknowledges Rick Baker, who played Kong for 99.9999999% of the film.

    Seems to me it should have been the other way around.

  5. this 1976 version of kong was my favorite despite its flaws. So much more enjoyable to watch than the 2005 version although I did like king kong the ride at the universal studios tour.

  6. I agree, I liked the 76 Kong better than the bloated 05 one. Have you seen the sequel, King Kong Lives? It's a hoot!

  7. As A Young 3 Year Old Child Seeing The 1976 King Kong Movie On Television In 1980 For The First Time, I Honestly Thought That The 40 Foot Robot Was Used In The Duration Of The Movie, I Thought That Only The World Trade Center Scene Was The Guy Dressed Up, Rick Baker, Now I Feel Like An Idiot Believing The Myth About The Giant Mechanical Kong Being What I Had Seen All Those Times I Watched That Movie, LOL!!!!!

  8. I was a kid when my dad brought us to "see" KK on my first visit to the Twin Towers. We ended up being one of the extras (in a sea of extras) for the final scene. I was 6 and I wanted to see Kong. I saw Kong's silhouette with a cameraman in a crane, a lot of people, soldiers, army vehicles, and even Jessica Lange (who appeared to be crying), and alot of butts. When you're six -- & very confused. It is what it was! In hindsight im super thankful for dad taking us. I still love this movie version & the beautiful John Barry soundtrack ...which really enhanced the mystery of the God of Skull Island


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