"The most exciting original motion picture event of all time."
- Advertising slogan on the movie poster.
(How a remake can be an "original" motion picture is anyone's guess.)
History abounds with myths reported as fact, and cinematic history is no different. Oft-repeated myths that exist about the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis King Kong remake require some dispelling.
- One - The title is somewhat of a misnomer since the film came out in December of 1976, meaning the vast majority of people saw the film in 1977.
- Two - The film was a bomb. The $25 million the film pulled in well over $100 million worldwide in just theatrical grosses. This figure doesn't include merchandise or television and home video rights.
- Three - The film is insufferably bad. A remake of one of the all-time greatest films in cinema history is hard to pull off, and the "campy" route enraged critics. The remake is not terrible, but the script is uneven in segments. Admittedly, some of the acting is over the top.
One of the all-time biggest myths, one I take personally, is that the television airings had little effect on building the film's cult following. Millions of people saw King Kong for the first time on TV, and Kong's appearance on the small screen was an incredibly colossal event. Or, in the words of NBC, a Big Event.
And the debut of King Kong (1976) on television was one damn big event. You positively had to get in front of the TV to see the airing, or else the boat (from Skull Island) will have sailed.
You just had to be there. Yes, there was a time when television "events" meant everything else in life pretty had to stop. The arrival of King Kong, a very unique big-budget spectacular, was just such a time.
Classic Intro to the Three Hour 1980 Airing
I Was A King Kong (1976) Child
The 1976 and 1977 theatrical hype and merchandising bonanza for King Kong helped lay the foundation for similar and over-used modern marketing movie hype. I'll always have fond memories of Christmas 1977 when I received a King Kong puzzle, a King Kong View-Master, and a King Kong mug. (I still have the mug) It took me a year to put that puzzle together, and I ended up missing ONE PIECE in the center of Kong's chest.
I never did get to see Kong in the theater, though. I am one of the few people who saw Star Wars at the long-gone Budco Orleans 4.
Watching King Kong on television was very, very important. (To me anyway) Younger people today who didn't grow up in the 1970s missed out (and, man, did you miss out) on an era that truly was special regarding movie-going, pop culture, and life, in general, was concerned.
For one, you did not have three or four $200+ million films coming out virtually every month. Motion pictures had much more modest budgets since they did not have DVD/Blu-Ray, PPV, video game, and other ancillary means of pulling in money. A movie has to sell tickets in the theaters, and even studio films maintained modest budgets.
The film also had to sign good money deals for network television debuts. The rights to Kong went to NBC, and the fee was not cheap. NBC paid well over $19 million for the rights, a staggering figure at the time.
(De Laurentiis and Paramount receive a check for $19 million, and people still think the film was a failure?)
The Somber Intro to Part Two of the 1978 Airing of King Kong
A Place in 1970s Cinema History
King Kong (1976) deserves an honorable place in the annals of 1970s pop culture. Kong-mania was massive in the late 1970s. There just weren't a lot of films like it. (Well, there was a rip-off from South Korea entitled A*P*E. The 3D film featured a giant gorilla on the rampage, and the advertising slogan was "Not to be confused with King Kong.")
The extravaganza is no Jaws, but it never reaches Orca (1977) or The Swarm (1975) levels of bad. Kong never arises to Star Trek: The Motion Picture level of boredom either.
King Kong stands out tremendously thanks to its epic nature. The scope of the film was not commonplace in the 1970s. A producer had to have the guts to produce an epic sci-fi or fantasy film. Everything you see on the screen had to be built from scratch. Computer-generated effects weren't accessible.
No CGI meant films relying on special effects had to trail-blaze into territory no one else entered. There weren't many event films in the 1970s, but the big-budget extravaganzas were memorable. The Towering Inferno (1973), Earthquake (1974), Jaws (1975), and Superman: The Motion Picture (1978) are among those iconic films that endure.
Kong Humor As A Double-Cross
The overly-serious narration on the previews for Kong's arrival on the Peacock Network completely buried any hints that the film was very campy in spots. Therein lies a lot of the trouble the film ran into during its initial release. The film was unfocused, mixing high adventure with really inappropriate humor.
Imagine if the original 21 Jump Street television focused on an important social theme. At several points during the episode, the humor and humorous style of the 21 Jump Street movie was interjected. The mix doesn't work, and that was the trouble with King Kong. Over the years, the campiness has been forgiven and adds to the charm of the film.
People who watched the previews for the upcoming theatrical release and television airing thought they would be getting a "Rich Man, Poor Man only with a giant gorilla" type melodrama.
The sillier aspects of the film were a bit of a shock to the system. Critics took the flaws with the film way too seriously. Audiences generally enjoyed things.
The Giant-Sized Arrival to Television
In both 1978 and 1980, an enormous amount of hype surrounding the television debut was Kong-like in size and scope. The big money sale of the television rights meant NBC had to hype up the airing. Promos for the film presented the movie as it was a combination of the greatest show on earth and the greatest story ever told.
The $19 million had to be recouped with advertising sales and, likely, refunds would be offered to advertisers if the ratings were poor.
The narrator on the long-lost preview commercials made damn sure unless you amassed the Treasure of the Pharaohs and were able to buy a Betamax, this two-part (1978) and THREE HOUR EVENT (1980) was your only chance in life to see the melodramatic triangle between Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, and Rick Baker in the Kong suit play out.
Few people owned VCRs in those days, so you had to set a date on your calendar to watch King Kong and, if you were not able to watch the presentation when it first aired, you would have to wait for some long, indeterminate amount of time in the future. The history books show the sad souls who missed the 1978 airing of King Kong were stuck waiting until 1980 for a repeat.
This is why motion pictures and pop culture had such a powerful influence on people. Certain projects were unique, and you could not just DVR things until some mysterious date in the future when you got around to watching it.
The arrival of King Kong on NBC was a major television event, and everyone knew it. The super-hype of Kong's appearance on TV even led millions of people to forget the film had received mostly (unfair) bad reviews.
1980 Needed a THREE HOUR EVENT
When the repeat airing arrived in November of 1980, a three-hour version airing on a Sunday night was more appropriate than a two-part special. Since millions of people had already seen the film either in theaters or on TV by this point and, honestly, the film was yesterday's news, a little extra hype was necessary to promote another "go round" on free television.
The THREE HOUR EVENT was pushed and pushed because, in case you haven't figured it out, a THREE HOUR EVENT is one hour longer than a two-hour movie. Virtually all TV movies were two-hour and THREE HOUR EVENT was an extra-hour longer, and that means it's remarkable. You better watch it. Period.
Only the self-loathing and the guilty would dare watch the garbage on the other two channels when the THREE HOUR EVENT of King Kong airs. The extra hour was designed to shame and guilt people into watching the program. If you spent $19 million (a lot of money at one time), you'd probably even try to extort old people and small children into watching, too.
A King Kong (1976) Epilogue
A three-hour major motion picture event was too much for me when I was 8 years old. I tried to stay awake and watch the film to the end, but no avail. As Kong was being shot by the fighter jets at the climax, I faltered and fell asleep. In 1980, falling asleep during a movie meant having no idea when you would see the film again.
It would not be until about 1987 when I got a copy of the old Paramount VHS. The experience wasn't the same as watching that brilliant television movie event.
Dale Anderson from The High Seas on September 26, 2020:
I saw this movie at the drive-in when I was a kid and King Kong on a screen that big really makes an impression on a young boy! My sister hated it. We haven't spoken since. Just kidding! Mostly.
Moral Man on June 25, 2016:
An interesting fun fact about the 1976 King Kong is that it was originally planned to have the giant Python snake attack the search party before it attacks Dwan and before it fights with King Kong. This idea was scrapped and the snake only appears to attack Dwan and to fight with Kong in the final version of the movie. If Kong is 40 to 50 feet tall in this movie, the snake is 4 to 5 times larger. This snake is at least 150 feet long and more likely as much as 200 feet long! It could easily swallow a human and could swallow alligators, crocodiles with no great difficulty. A snake of this size and power could overpower and kill anything. Such a monster or a population of such monsters could decimate the entire ecology of a place. Its rumored that in South America, the Sucuriju Gigante lives. A giant form of Anaconda and close relative to the Python, this monster can reach a size similar to the giant snake in this 1976 King Kong movie. So yes, 100 foot to 200 foot long snakes may actually exist in remote parts of the world.
There is some noteworthy merchandise and toys for the 1976 king Kong movie, such as a viewmaster reel and a lunchbox.
The music for this movie is impressive, and 40 years later, it continues to thrill new audiences.
Moral Man on June 23, 2016:
The 1976 King Kong is awesome. For its time, the special effects are pretty impressive. This was before the CGI in Jurassic Park. A comvincing Gorilla suit and a forty foot high mechanical robot was used, and for Kong's jungle home, the lovely Honopu Valley in Kauai's Napali coast was filmed with spectacular waterfalls and cliffs.
The most impressive sequence in the movie is when the jungle tribe kidnaps Dwan to sacrifice her to Kong. The costumes and music really give the feel of an ancient pagan ritual.
While there were no Dinosaurs in this movie, theres a giant(super giant) snake known as the Skull Island Python. Others call it a Titanoboa, an extinct snake which grew to 48 feet long and has the constricting strength of some 20,000 tons! Well, the giant snake in this 1976 King Kong movie is bigger than Titanoboa. I estimate the length of this monster to be in the neighborhood of 150 feet long, which is the length of three train cars. Its power would be beyond imagining. King Kong was almost strangled to death in its coils. Scientists say that a Python is stronger than a Gorilla and that if this fight were for real the snake should have won. In three minutes, Kong defeats the snake by ripping its jaws and killing it. Another sequence was filmed where Kong kills the snake by breaking its neck. Its King Kong's movie so King Kong is going to win even if its foe is larger and more powerful.
In the city sequences, Kong breaks loose of the enormous steel chains, and shows his power by stopping a speeding train with one arm. He picks up a train car, lifts it over his head, and tosses it like a sack of potatoes. Each train car weighs about 50 tons. Kong leaps from one Twin Tower to another and is shot by helicopters. He falls to the city streets to his death.
The 1976 King Kong is spectacular and was produced by Dino de Laurentiis, who also produced Orca the Killer Whale in 1977. The 1970s had some blockbuster movies and fun TV shows like Land of the Lost. Science fiction and fantasy movies and TV shows were shown more frequently during the 1970s than they are today.
Tony Caro (author) on February 20, 2015:
The HBO Version was the original one shown in theaters.
Tony Caro (author) on February 20, 2015:
The 1932 film is one of the top three favorite films of all time.
Tim from Los Angeles, CA on February 20, 2015:
This event was a little before my time. The original 30s film is one of my top 5 of all time but this version is a fave as well. I especially like it over Peter Jackson's 2005 version as at least the 1976 Kong did not go down so easy like in the 05 version.
Keith Abt from The Garden State on February 20, 2015:
I loved this "Kong" when I was a kid. I can't remember for sure if I watched the THREE HOUR EVENT version , but I know that when it made its way to HBO in the late 70s/early 80s I watched it a ton of times.
I recently re-visited it for the first time in many years thanks to Netflix and it's still a lot of fun. Some of the special effects haven't held up particularly well, of course, but they were pretty hot poop by 1976/77 standards.
As an added bonus, Jessica Lange was fiiiiiiiine back in the day!!
Cool stuff, voted up!