Notes for the Eleventh Lecture




The impact of "current events"

The arrival of the depression and escapist films from something fearful or is this what the film is about at all?

Kong and the questions of interpretation

Whose? When? Why?

The depression is clearly there in the opening sequences. Is it still there at the end?

King Kong 1933 at the height of the depression is said to have played to sold out houses at Radio City Music Hall and the Roxy

In terms of genre, King Kong is classified as fantasy, horror, and monster movie!

If by fantasy we mean the film does not deal with the "real" world but injects none real (or fantastic) possibilities into it, whether they be living beings like unicorns, dragons or things or techniques like flying carpets then King Kong qualifies as fantasy. On the other hand, horror films are film in which something which is repressed, erupts in often a violent way. Monster movies are sometimes seen as sub genres to horror. A paper found on the Cambridge University web site ( looks at the etymology of the word and says:

"The etymology of monstrosity suggests the complex roles that monsters play within society. 'Monster' probably derives from the Latin, monstrare, meaning 'to demonstrate', and monere, 'to warn'. Monsters, in essence, are demonstrative. They reveal, portend, show and make evident, often uncomfortably so. Though the modern gothic monster and the medieval chimaera may seem unrelated, both have acted as important social tools."

Problems of Interpretation

Film "theory" and/or analysis deals with the interpretation of a film through what is often called "hermeneutics" a kind of symbolism. Symbols are defined as having an arbitrary relationship between the symbol and the referent. So the footprint of a dog is a sign of the dog, whereas the word for "dog" is a symbol for the dog. Signs are "of" symbols are "for".

Because of the arbitrary nature of the symbol, it is open to a myriad of interpretations. If you look at a variety of languages we find the same set of sounds in two languages may have very different meanings. For example: The German has a word "gift" which sounds like the English word "gift" but means "poison". Japanese has a word "ohayo" (early in an elevated form) which sounds like the English word for a mid western state.

So it is with symbols. What an object may mean in one culture, may mean something else in another culture. Even with a single culture, different people will interpret symbols differently. So when it comes to something like a film or a piece of writing, different people will interpret the symbols relative to their own backgrounds, their religious beliefs, their political beliefs or any other aspect of their background and come to some conclusion as to what the film is about. There are no "right" or "wrong" interpretations of a film or novel or what have you, but for the purposes of analysis one should be able to explain, show or demonstrate how that conclusion was arrived at.

King Kong (1933) is perhaps the best known (and beloved) of all the King Kong remakes. There is a kind of "feminist" take in the 1976 remake produced by Dino DeLaurentis (followed by an abysmal sequel also produced by de Laurentice called King Kong Lives ; and then there is what is probably a remake of the deLaurentis film; Peter Jackson version of King Kong (2005). And hopefully a final attempt in a 2018 Brazillian entry into the field. Kong has also "starred" in a number of films with other monsters King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and a number of other films. Along with Godzilla Kong is one of the most popular monsters around.

King Kong traces its ancestry to the earlier film called Lost World, another film dealing with prehistoric animals with special effects, in part by Willis O’Brien.

At one level, the film is reflexive in that it is a film about movie making - and presumably a film something like King Kong. Denham and his crew are off to make a film about wild animals and takes a woman along with him because "the public" wants to see a woman in his films. You can almost read the film as the "documentary" on the "Making of Carl Denham’s King Kong". Thus one can argue that the film is about reflexivity.

Most interpretations lean toward the political, the religious, or the sexual (a la Freud, Jung or whatever psychological approach takes your fancy). As happens in The Passenger where the line "Your questions will tell me more about you than your answers will about me" occurs when Nicholson asks to interview someone. In some senses, the interpretation of a film may tell you more about the analyst than it tells you about the film. One analysis of The Shining is that is about the "extermination" (not really exterminated – still around) of the American Indian. The argument is that since the hotel is supposedly built on an American Indian burial ground (of which, if films are to be believed can be found every 3 or 4 feet since that is often the rational for a place being haunted), and there are American Indian motifs in the hotel, but no Indians. It is hard to believe that the entire films is really just about that.

So perhaps a good film is open to a number of interpretations - that is it has a broad statement to make and can be seen as having "deeper meaning" on several levels or in several directions. Typically we talk about "plot" and "theme" or "text" and "subtext".

The thing we have to watch carefully is the justification of the subtext from the text. This is a major problem for actors and directors where the performance is of the text and when an option is available - you might chose to go with a specific subtext. Problems often arise when actors have a specific subtext in mind and the director has another. Since the director is making the production, the director has to coordinate all the pieces which means the subtext has to be in a specific way.

The film was released at the height of the depression and managed to play to sold out houses at Radio City Music Hall and the Roxy Theater.

It is important to note that the Empire State building had just been built that year and hence it was a brand new marvel or engineering, representing in some ways the apex of the technology. Its role in the film is clear.

RKO was in some financial difficulties at the time and balked at the producers wanting to hire a composer to write a score rather than using stock music the studio already had. This was not an unusual practice with films using music from other films. The studio yielded and ultimately Max Steiner wrote the score for King Kong.

The film has (alas) had sequels, spin-offs and has been remade twice. The Son of Kong was made at the same time as King Kong and never had the same impact as the original King Kong. There is even a "rip off" called Unknown Island (1948)!

The film has been a classic for more than 75 years and its popularity seems to lie in its mythological feel, and its more complex subtext along with its special effects (stop motion) that are still classic today.

An actual full size head, foot and hand were created for come close - ups. One for the native being eaten, one for the native being crushed under foot, and one for Fay Wray and Gertrude Sutton (woman grabbed by Kong from the hotel room) The film rocketed Fay Wray (who plays Ann Darrow) to stardom, although her career was severely limited by her performance in this "horror" film. It led to her being cast in a number of horror films despite her brilliant performance in earlier films like the silent film Wedding March in which she stars in with Erich von Stroheim (who also directed the film). When Wray died in 2004 she was negotiating with Peter Jackson for a cameo in his version of King Kong (most likely a remake not of the 1933 original, but more likely the a remake of the de Laurentiis remake of Kong). She was to appear as a woman at the end who says the line given to Denham "No, it wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty that killed the Beast." Because the Empire State Building is so tightly tied to the film and Fay Wray, the building turned out its lights for 15 minutes when Fay Wray died.

Lights are on

Lights are out

Lights are on

The question of whether a huge gorilla constitutes a monster is an interesting one. In collecting lists of monster films from a variety of people, King Kong is on virtually every one of them, yet people tend to balk when pressed if Kong is really a monster. Some argue he is just a large gorilla - but JUST a large gorilla he is not. He is a monstrously large gorilla in a way that no gorilla actually is. He is at one and the same time, peculiarly animalistic and human. The question becomes "What is the nature of his monstrousness"? Is it his size? Is it his confusion between animal and human traits? Remember that the original meaning of the word is something half human and half animal. In this case the animal is not biologically split, but rather split between a psychological and physical side – a kind of mind/body problem.

The film has a certain amount of reflexivity about it. Watch for that and see what it says.

The film uses stop motion animation for both Kong and the dinosaurs which appear in the film.

Notice however, the backgrounds in the animated scenes. Monster films (along with disaster films) often show a great deal of visual chaos which involves many people. Some of the social statuses that may be involved are :

authority figures (police, military, politicians)
religious people (priests, ministers)
It is also often important to note how both gender and ethnic minorities play a role in the films. In terms of the filming, one should be aware of set pieces such things as the first appearance of the monster, the first time the main characters in the film encounter the monster, and the final shots of the monster.

A word to the wise:.
A gorilla is not a monkey. Prosimians, monkeys, apes and humans make up a group known as Primates.
There are five major kinds of apes divided into greater and lesser apes: the lesser apes are the gibbon and siamang, the greater are the Orangutan, Chimpanzee and Gorilla (technically Pongo, Pan and Gorilla). Chemically people are closely related to the chimp (much to the chimpanzee’s disgust). The result of this is you should not call Kong a MONKEY.


The Text

The text deals with a group of movie makers going to an unknown island to photograph a "mythological" Kong who turns out to be real (and a 50 foot or so tall gorilla). The scene in which Denham talks with Engelhorn sets up the tension about the film’s title. Remember when the film opened no one knew what Kong was. The discussion of the "religion" of the natives in that area starts the audience wondering about what Kong actually is. This is complemented by the scene where Denham films Ann Darrow on the ship and has her look up and screams and Driscoll asks “What does he think she’s really going to see”. Notice in the Peter Jackson version the scene discussing what Kong is does not occur leaving the audience to rely on its own knowledge to identify Kong as the ape. The natives say the word, but no one in the crew understands the language.

After meeting the natives on the island performing a ritual to Kong, Ann is kidnapped and "sacrificed" to Kong who takes her away. The sailors follow and after many adventures, Driscoll manages to get Ann away from the ape and bring her back to the village, where after the gorilla breaks through the gate, he is finally captured. Kong is brought back to New York where he goes on a rampage and is ultimately killed.

Analysis can be made of a single film, but it is also possible to analyze some aspect of a class of films. Films with prehistoric people often deal with a man and woman who come from different groups. His group is usually more primitive and savage, dress in skins, don't share food and don't sing or laugh. Her group usually wears cloth, shares food and sings and laughs.

The films normally deal with the "civilizing" (or "feminizing") of men which usually has disastrous results for the men in the film who become less competent. In King Kong Driscoll is cleared losing some of his harsher aspects to the point that he becomes tongue tied around Ann, and admits he is not only "afraid for her" but also "afraid of her". He is able to rescue her on the island but once he is brought back (with Kong) to civilization and becomes engaged to her, he can no longer save her. Only what amounts to a "male" army air force can do that.

The idea that women "demasculinnize" men seems pretty overt from Denham’s constant reference to "Beauty and the Beast" and "Kong was master....until..."

Driscoll’s loss of potency in rescuing Darrow also points to this as a kind of "right below the surface" subtext, which can be enlarged on,.

The Filmic Effects

Visual Effect

The film’s special effects are for many the highlight visually of the film. Not only do we have all the scenes of Kong on the island, but also the dinosaurs running around there too. There is a good deal of interaction shown between natives and the ape in which some are handled with split screen techniques with mattes and some with large models (the scenes with the natives being stepped on and eaten were cut because of their extreme violence - there was a fear that films would get progressively more and more violent).

Several of these scenes: one of which shows a native being chomped on and another being crushed underfoot were removed as too violent. Rear screen projections are used as well.

Certainly the interactions with the dinosaurs are memorable, but one of the highlights of the film is Kong’s breaking through the doors into the natives’ village. In terms of a horror film, there isn’t a much better visual for the eruption of the repressed than this.

The foreshadowing of Kong is evident from the monkey on the ship, as does the costuming of the natives in the ritual who are dressed like and imitate the movements of a gorilla.

The ship encased in fog marks a serious change in the film. It is a kind of liminal state which is a state marking a change of status. It is intensified by the appearance of music at that point.

The film has little action until the arrival on the island. Kong appears for the first time about 47 minutes into a film that runs 104 minutes - in effect almost at the half way point so the film takes its time building up tension. Once he appears, however, the action goes into full swing pausing only briefly as the audience files into the theater in NY to see "The Eighth Wonder of the World". When the sailors leave in pursuit of Kong we get to meet in rapid succession a Stegosaurus, a Brontosaurus (now called Apatosaurus), some kind of lizard that crawls up from the ravine, a Tyrannosaurus, a snake like lizard and a pterodactyl - all in rapid succession

Notice that Kong has distinctively "human" traits. His match with the Tyrannosaurus becomes a wrestling and boxing match on his half. He is somewhat playful with Ann Darrow (but rather hostile to males).


The music is thematic with specific melodies (motifs) representing different things. First the film is given some "significance" by the use of an overture. The three note motif for Kong appears under the opening titles and is repeated throughout the film in a number of variations.

The film has virtually no music until the ship is on the ocean in the fog. From there on in there is almost no break in the music. The sound of planes as they attack the Empire State Building constitutes the "music" for the attack until Kong’s wounds cause him to slip.

The constant musical accompaniment that starts a few minutes before the crew hears the drums from the ritual on the island, gives the film a similar ritualistic quality.

The music is often something called "Mickey mouse" music (Mickey Mousing) in which the music follows the movement of characters, Listen to the music when the chief approaches the camera and the music comes on each of his steps.

The music is often on Kong's side, being somewhat playful when he tickles Ann Darrow, rather than fearful (which would be what happened if the music represented her internal state). This leads to audience identification with the Kong.

The music is occasionally imitates sounds of objects in the film (i.e. the elevated train and the planes when they take off. It is replaced by sounds from objects in the film on occasion such as the sound of the airplane motors and the machine guns.

Camera Work

There isn't much camera work until the people reach the island. The camera then becomes much more active. There are tracking shots and overhead shots (from the top of the wall for example) To make the animation scenes more real animation is done in front of rear projections with things that move naturally like flowing water which give a feeling of realism to the entire scene.

Notice the high angle tracking shot as Ann darrow is being led to the huge gates.

Special effects

It is said that 11 different kinds of special effects were used or developed for King Kong. These include rear screen projections (patented by Willis O’Brien) , stop motion photography, mattes and Dunning effects

Dunning effects (an early precursor to "green screen") the final version sometimes called a "Dunning shot" were preceded in time by the Williams effect. This is a processes in which film exposed to actors working against a black background, The negative is intensified and "reprinted" so that the black background becomes transparent and the figures are black silhouettes. Then the two are merged so the actors replace the silhouettes and the background is clear. This is then merged with some other background which has had the positions of the actors removed and the actual actors are now merged with the new background. This was the only way at the time to do "moving mattes".

This was used successfully the same year as Kong in James Whale’s The Invisible Man with Claude Raines.

The Dunning Process or effects is similar but relies on panchromatic film’s reaction to specific color lighting. It produces a black and white image which allows the matte to be made more efficiently.


The Text

The text is verbally very terse. There is little extraneous dialog. Almost everything is expository. The opening of the film sets up the main characters with their backgrounds and personalities as well as their motivations. It is very "real world" and the absence of non diagetic music is important in giving it that feel.

Once we leave the real world and enter the fantasy part of the film, Max Steiner’s "Wagnerian" score (complete with leitmotifs) takes over. (Leitmotifs are specific melodies or musical themes that represent characters or events. The three descending notes, that open the film after the overture represent Kong for example.)

The "realism" of the first part of the film is needed to allow the audience to identify with the characters in the later "fantastical" part of the film. Working from the text:

The film is distinctly male with men in NY looking for a woman (who Denham doesn’t really want in the film and Driscoll doesn't really want on his ship). Women are seen on bread lines, and aside from Ann, there are none on the ship. Kong is also a male gorilla.

Minorities do not appear until we meet the one Chinese man, the cook, on the ship, and then the natives on the island (the chief, played by Noble Johnson, who appeared in many films and founded, along with his brother, a production company, The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which made films for the African American audience and produced films portraying African-Americans as real people instead of as racial stereotypes and caricatures). Mexican born Steve Clemente (billed as Clemento), is the "Witch king" whatever that may be!


The subtext is far more complex as one would expect. It deals with a question of evolution, which is defined over space rather than time. The sophisticated (although depression ridden) New York marks the "high point" of evolution and the journey takes us back "in time" on a male dominated ship, to the primitive natives of Skull Island with its huge wall that separates it off from an even more prehistoric world with dinosaurs and of course, Kong.

One can see Kong as the human representative in this even more primitive world, whereas the natives are more advanced and New York (and the film makers) even more advanced.

Kong’s peculiar interest in Ann Darrow causes his downfall. The opening card talk about how the beast looked at beauty and from that point on was as one dead. The idea of beauty and the beast is a recurring theme in the film. Beauty is responsible for the Beast’s fall (death). Denham, the film maker, says the line repeatedly and even calls it his "theme song" at one point. Ann Darrow chooses the "Beauty and the Beast" costume for her "screen test".

Tough first mate Jack Driscoll saves Ann on the island but cannot in New York after they are engaged. Beauty seems to have gotten Driscoll too.

The evolutionary aspect of the film tends to imply that women have a civilizing or taming effect on men, and this is in a sense needed to "civilize" them. This civilizing process has a kind of negative effect at the same time, in that the men become less capable of acting, but at the same time allow them to become "civilized" and produce civilization. Driscoll is more civilized than Kong so he can be changed and still live, but King is too primitive for that and has to die.

The civilizing effect of women (and hence weakening) on men is also seen in other films like One Million B.C. (1940), directed by Hal Roach of all people!

Interestingly enough the film uses an all male set of pilots and gunners to kill Kong on the Empire State building (perhaps we can make an argument about colonialism from this), but at the end of the film the when someone says the planes killed the monster Denham intones the famous line: It wasn’t the planes, it was Beauty killed the beast, thereby linking the film to its initial title card about beauty and the beast.

A Second Interpretation

The lack of ethnic minorities in NY contrasts with the Chinese cook on the ship (the only non sailor) and the natives on the island. This says volumes about the filmmakers’ culture’s attitudes to minorities as somewhat lower on the evolutionary scale. This is probably part of what has led to a different analysis which sets up the idea that the film is about racial relations with Kong being considered emblematic of Africans being transported in chains from Africa and the idea of the film makers that African Americans are interested in pursuing "White women" who are appalled and terrified by them. There is little doubt that there is more than an overtone of sexuality in the film, although it is unclear what Kong’s interest in Ann Darrow is. It seems rather overtly sexual at times, and also simply a kind of curiosity about what Ann is since she is "different" from other women presumably sacrificed. Perhaps her light skin and blonde hair which the film mentions overtly. This presumably gives rise to one interpretation of the film as white people’s fear of miscegenation between blacks and whites, although I have to admit I feel rather strange of thinking that Kong is somehow a black male in appearance or behavior. One could argue it is the male in appearance or behavior. One could argue it is the "white" film maker’s perception thereof.

Of course, Skull Island can only represent Africa in such an interpretation, since the coordinates are actually given in the film, which place the island clearly in the Indian Ocean. Natives in that area are certainly seen as "blacks"and the look of the island in terms of huts on stilts and grass skirts is certainly more Polynesian than it is African.

Psychological Interpretations

The film can be taken as a virtual Freudian festival. The uncontrolled, untamed id needs to be brought under control in order for people to become civilized (super ego and ego). And the gorilla easily can be seen as representing this uncontrolled state.

(See also Forbidden Planet as a film in which the id is dangerous when let loose)

Colonial Interpretations

Colonialism is currently "in" and so it is always nice to try to fit the films into that mode. The invasion of the island and the disruption of the culture and the removal of a major animal from the island to benefit the invading culture might be possible, If not try to force it. This will give you a clue about reading into something and reading out of it.

One scene in the film is actually shot in Brooklyn, Do you know which one it is and where it is shot?

The shot is of the planes taking off