King Kong (1976, John Guillermin), the television version

You know, a three-hour King Kong movie may just be a bad idea. Though the television version of Kong is intended to be a two-night experience, turning the original two hour and fifteen minute movie into two two-hour network blocks. An almost mini-series event, only not because the only way to get it so long is to add in a lot of excess. There’s so much pointless footage. Some of it you can tell editor Ralph E. Winters cut intentionally because it’s redundant exposition, some of it is bad special effects, some of it is just more establishing shots.

There are a handful of fine additions. I can’t remember a single one, however, so not a full handful. Just little moments where it wasn’t a bad addition instead of being an obviously taped in piece messing up the flow of the editing. Like the new introduction to Jeff Bridges, which makes him more capable than Jessica Lange will give him credit for later on, at least as far as his ruthlessness. Arguably, it’s probably worse than anything bad guy Charles Grodin does (intentionally).

The worst addition are the extended Skull Island natives sequences. Unless you count the score, which doesn’t seem like the original John Barry score, rather some junior editor’s attempt to reuse the original John Barry score for another forty-five minutes or so. But it’s not just adding more music, it’s taking it away, so the television version actually breaks sequences. Often.

The stretched out Kong still spends most of its time on the island, but with a lot more material at the beginning. There’s a semi-good moment—when first mate stand-in Ed Lauter rolls his eyes at Grodin being extra and having to pretend it’s legit. Kong’s got a very interesting approach to camp; director Guillermin refuses to do it and the cast refuses to emote it, but the script’s still got it. The contrasts give the film a lot of personality (for a while).

But there’s also a lot more stuff with the natives preparing their sacrifice to Kong. There’s enough shots of the dancing natives, with a focus on the uncredited girl going to be sacrificed. See, you can’t stretch exceptionally problematic sequences too long because it just invites reflection; not only the characterization of the tribe, but the entire racist, colonizer nature of King Kong, which the film ends up playing with a tiny bit but also the logic to it. There’s absolutely no reason to think the fifty foot tall ape likes Jessica Lange more because she’s a blonde white lady and there’s also no reason to think he ate the regular native brides. It seems far more likely he takes them, plays with them like living dolls, then gets them killed through carelessness, month after month (timed to the full moon). You can even rationalize the natives’ elaborate dance sequence as amusing to Kong in the distant past so he wouldn’t eat the funny little hairless micro-apes.

There is so much empty time in Kong’s three hours. So much time to reflect.

Like how there’s an added scene with a couple guys perving on Lange onboard the ship—the only time she’s seriously objectified even though she dresses like it’s a skimpy casual photo shoot—and they end up dying first on the log sequence.

So are we supposed to feel a little less bad about them going?

The extra footage also implies more character development for the crew—namely Jack O’Halloran and Julius Harris—which doesn’t go anywhere but it’s an almost interesting idea, the perspectives of the crew on this wild goose chase.

Grodin gets another scene or two but ends up suffering the most in the extension. He’s barely in the second half of the film, which is really too bad since he’s initially the one who can sell the muted camp the best. He’s a profoundly good middle manager jackass.

The extra scenes literalize the ending with Lange and Bridges, which is too bad but I guess it’s cool to know it’s the film’s original intent. Also the more literalize, the more obvious Bridges is one weak dude. Despite his solid abs, which get at least one more scene this version, maybe two. He can’t cut it with Lange, who despite being initially characterized as ditzy is never ditzy once she gets going because her performance is too good. It’s even more clear with the excess footage—Guillermin just sets the camera on Lange and lets her vamp. It’s an incredibly bold, incredibly good, incredibly unappreciated move.

Kong’s all about the interiority of Lange’s experience. Well, when she’s in the movie. She also disappears in this version, thanks to more Kong in New York, which runs hot and cold, but then subzero when the finale—because TV version—cuts out most of the blood and gore in the showdown. Sadly the uncredited TV version editor doesn’t take advantage of the constraint to emphasis Lange and Bridges’s experience of it but what can you do.

Bridges is okay. The character doesn’t age well, what with him willing to ignore Kong in plight to finally score with Lange, even though their delayed romance seems entirely due to his classism and lack of confidence in her. There’s potential for a weird love quartet between Kong, Bridges, Lange, and Grodin, with only Grodin understanding Lange’s superego.

But it’s not in this television cut. It’s also not in the theatrical cut. But the theatrical cut doesn’t so definitely decide against it. The television cut adds a bunch of minutes, reduces a bunch of character and, consequently, performances. And the John Barry score. And it does a disservice to Ralph E. Winters’s editing.

And probably Richard H. Kline’s because it screws up the pace of the special effects accomplishments.

I’ve probably been wanting to see King Kong: the Television Version since my first Leonard Maltin movie guide, thirty plus years ago now; it’s all right. It could be worse. But it’s definitely not one of those cases of the expanded version bettering the film. Quite the opposite.

Though, for while he’s in the movie, Rene Auberjonois is a lot better with more to do, even when it’s mugging through transition montage material.

And Lange is excellent as ever.

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