As much grief as Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Rambaldi got for the colossal failure of the much ballyhooed giant mechanical gorilla for the 1976 version of King Kong, the execution of those giant animatronic gorilla hands was actually quite good. A bona fide miracle, perhaps, for, as the legend goes, due to an accelerated production schedule (-- the reasons for which would take a whole ‘nother post to explain), the hydraulics to run them were so complicated, they weren't really finished when filming began. And when they finally got them kinda sorta working, the crew wanted to show them off to their producer. And when De Laurentiis walked into the studio, the giant arm extended toward him and flipped him the bird. And while De Laurentiss broke up over this, so did the arm. It seized up and the obscene gesture remained as is for almost a week.
But as erratic as the hands were, the full-sized mock-up proved even more temperamental than Bruce the mechano-shark did in JAWS (1975). In theory and design, it was an ambitious, technical marvel. In the execution, well...
Now, the arms and robot were designed by Rambaldi but were engineered and built under the supervision of Glen Robinson. Originally, De Laurentiss tried to commission some aerospace engineers to manufacture the robot but they required nearly a year and a half to complete it. Thus, it was up to Robinson, who had it built in less than five months. Built? Yes. Working? No. Well, not quite. When finished the contraption weighed in at nearly six tons, filled with some 3,100 feet of hydraulic hoses and 4,500 feet of electrical wire ensconced inside an aluminum skeleton, covered with an additional two tons of molded rubber and imported Argentinian horsehair, styled and stitched in by famed wig maker, Michael Dino.
In theory, the prop could walk, turn at the waist and move those attached arms (built separately) into sixteen unique positions as piloted by a half-dozen technicians manning twice that many levers each -- all of them Italians, who needed all instructions translated, which caused even more delays. And when it made its debut, in front of an anxious crowd at Shea Stadium, including several execs from Paramount, and they engaged those levers, Kong’s eyes started to move, then his mouth opened in a silent roar and the crowd went nuts. But this was soon followed by several screams and a lot of fingers pointing to one of the legs. (Other reports said it was toward the crotch.) Seems several hydraulic hoses had burst and Robo-Kong was hemorrhaging out gallons upon gallons of crimson-tinted fluid. Things never really improved from there, which explains why the contraption wound up with so little screen-time in the finished film – and most of that were just static long-shots. All told, a mere 25 seconds.
The animatronic hands fared a little better. They were six-feet across and weighed nearly a ton each. Again, the giant body was built to accommodate them but with all the added doodads and gizmos to run them, the main structure could barely support the weight -- so much so the technicians quickly nixed a series of publicity photos of Robo-Kong holding Jessica Lange because of the stress factor of that much added weight and jostling on the tenuous joints.
In fact, after weathering that accelerated production schedule, including the widely circulated rumor that no one realized they had built two right hands until they were almost finished, causing even more delays while one of these was back-engineered into a southpaw (-- this apocryphal tale is sort of confirmed in Charles Grodin’s auto-biography), there were several close calls that could’ve led to a catastrophic injury.
Once the hands were unstuck and in nominal working order they decided to do another trial run. And so stuntwoman Sunny Woods crawled into the hand and braced herself while the contraption was engaged and the fingers slowly closed around her, and then started to lift her up into the air. But it had barely gotten more than 10 feet off the ground when the hand snapped at the wrist and several lines blew, causing the hand to lose pressure and to contract even further. Luckily, the safety bolts in the finger joints worked as designed and prevented the hand from crushing the girl, but left her dangling in mid-air. Thus the movie became a trial by fire for all involved, especially for Lange and Woods, who were essentially at the mercy of two pilot-less forklifts covered in foam rubber and horsehair for retake after retake for nearly 10 months of shooting. Lange would suffer much bruising and a pinched nerve in her heck when one of the fingers missed its mark and clobbered her in the head.
In the end, this glorified paper weight cost the studio nearly $2 million. To salvage the film they had to spend another half-million on the gorilla suit worn by Rick Baker for the majority of the picture. And then another $300,000 was spent on the giant Styrofoam corpse used for the final shots of the movie.
It’s really too bad this crew didn’t have more time to tinker and perfect the over-sized gizmos they’d made. Some of what they accomplished onscreen with those cumbersome appendages was really quite admirable. And who knows what they could’ve done with that year and half instead of the five months they got. As is, the film still won an Academy Award for Rambaldi, Robinson and Frank Van der Veer (opticals) for their efforts but even this didn’t happen without controversy when several Academy F/X board members resigned in protest (-- including Jim Danforth, who reportedly hated the film).
One of the biggest sins of King Kong ‘76, aside from the lack of dinosaurs on Skull Island, is that at no moment while watching do you, for a second, despite a valiant effort by Baker, believe that you are watching a real gorilla and not someone in a monkey-suit. Baker implored them for a better design and to allow him to walk on all fours like a real gorilla but these were all nixed to match their more anthropomorphic prop, which they were still harboring delusions of using for the majority of the picture during pre-production. As yet another legend goes, when they realized the robot might not work out and started advertising for a gorilla man in the trades, Baker said he was “the only one stupid enough to do it."
Again, you cannot blame Rambaldi, Robinson, or their crews, or Baker, for the perceived failure to light up the box-office. The film actually made a tidy profit but failed to generate ticket sales the way JAWS had the year before, sending its producer on a slightly embarrassing quest to try and top it -- ranging from Orca (1977) to The White Buffalo (1977), where he failed again and again. But you gotta admire De Laurentiis’ enthusiasm and chutzpah. Sure, his mouth wrote a check his butt couldn’t cash, but even in this failure he succeeded. For in a brash display of ballsy hucksterism that would’ve made P.T. Barnum proud, the producer promised audiences that he would deliver a giant robot Kong onscreen and he did just that. Barely.
And as I wrote this piece up, inspired by that picture way up at the top, I got to wondering as to whatever happened to the giant robot once filming was completed. I do know that when things wrapped in New York City, the thousands of gathered extras pretty much destroyed the Styrofoam replica in a wild souvenir hunt. As for the robot, well, that’s where things get a little sketchy. There are tales of it appearing at several premieres around the world. And after that, it allegedly spent some time in a circus, where it was part of an elaborate stunt-show.
There is also solid documentation that the robot went on a barnstorming tour of South America, where it would spend weeks in a traveling circus tent, where a master of ceremonies would command it to move to a stunned audience before a blackout. But as the hydraulics kept breaking down and interest waned, the sideshow angle was abandoned and the automaton was moved one last time to stand a silent vigil in the city square of Mar del Plata, Argentina, where it apparently stood for several years.
Exposed to the elements, stripped of its hydraulic and electronic guts, as the hair and latex started to rot away, rumors spread that the prop was essentially written off and hauled to some anonymous Argentinian landfill. However, this myth is dispelled by an article that appeared in the April 29, 1985, issue of the Henderson Times-News, which stated what was left of the robot was recovered and brought home to Wilmington, North Carolina, where De Laurentiis had opened a studio (De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG)), perhaps all in an effort to stir-up some publicity for his proposed sequel, King Kong Lives (1986), that was currently in pre-production and due to be released one year later.
Is it still there now some thirty years later? Well, the Magic 8-Ball says the answer is once more unclear. Apparently parts of it, the head and one of the arms, were prominently on display at the studio but have since disappeared under dubious circumstances when DEG went bankrupt a mere three years later after a few high profile flops and was taken over by Carolco Pictures before they in-turn sold the lot off to Screen Gems in 1996. So, odds are the Kong robot wound up in landfill, only in a North Carolina landfill. A sad ignominious end, really, to something so notorious that could’ve been something really great.