‘King Kong’ or — An (Over) Analysis of the Opening Line?
“Say, is this the moving picture ship?”
It’s one of the great opening lines in cinema. But just what makes that opening line to ‘King Kong’ (1933) so great, so full of potential for wonder and excitement? Let’s climb on board find out!
For starters it’s a question and questions are also a form of invitation (“Would you like some more cake?”). They’re an offer to know more, to find out more, to peek further and discover answers. So even with just those first three words — “Say, is this…” — we’re already kinda furtively hooked.
But it’s the following three words that are so enticing, mysterious and beguiling. After all, just what is a “moving picture ship” and how does its meaning change depending on how we interpret those words? Is it a ship for moving pictures? Or is it a ship for moving-pictures? Is it a picture ship that moves? Is it a ship that IS a picture that can move? Does it show moving pictures or will it be filming moving pictures? And, most importantly, what, exactly, ARE those pictures, those wondrous images, and how will they be stored?
Either way, our imaginations have been fired and we’re eager to climb on board this vessel/film because we know we’ll be shown something incredible if we do. So the sentence might as well be directly, and explicitly, referring to the movie itself because all you have to do is remove the word “ship” and the opening line becomes the extraordinarily direct — “Say, is this the moving picture?”
So maybe it is the physical film itself that is the means of transportation, splicing its way through the sprockets the way a prow cuts through the waves? It’s the film and film magic that’ll be providing the wonders and the trip is purely in our imaginations (Denham might dream of bringing Kong to us but we’re still the ones making this distant journey with him as opposed to sitting passively at home). This is why the words “ship” and “moving picture” are mentioned in such immediate and close proximity — because they are, essentially, the same thing and once we’ve walked onto the deck we are there for the entire journey and must endure whatever frightening sights lurk ahead. From the very start we cannot turn back, but a lack of retreat is also a form of exhilaration because excitement needs and requires total commitment, an inability to about face and run away.
Taken like that then the SS Venture, the vessel that is soon to leave these fog shrouded New York docks and carry us away to god knows where, is also the theatrical auditorium itself and we’re already on board and furiously eating our popcorn with all our fellow crew members. We’re setting sail in a cinema! Besides, Englehorn might be the Captain of the Venture but it is Denham, the film director, who is calling the shots, knows the destination and is the real captain here. This is a voyage by means of cinema AND by boat, and our seat is our berth whether we know it or not.
All this excitement is further ramped up, and to insane degrees I hasten to add, by the night-watchman’s follow up question (stated to Mr. Weston but also indirectly, yet more forcefully, to the audience) “Are you going on this crazy voyage?” What the hell are we going to see on this trip?! These opening couple of lines send our anticipation levels through the roof! And, even better, ‘Kong’ delivers on all these delicious promises, only we don’t quite know that yet, but we know we’re in for something that’s for sure.
It might seem like I’m making too much out of all this but I really do believe that this is one of the greatest opening lines that any movie possesses, a sentence so pregnant with thrumming possibilities and intimations of unknown adventure, voyage, spectacle and cinema.
Many films start with a protagonist climbing on board various types of transport but with ‘Kong’ it really feels as though it is us that’s doing so as soon as the picture starts and that Denham’s promise of showing the audience “the greatest picture ever made” is going to be fulfilled… and then some. God knows where we’re going to end up but that immediate pull of adventure is utterly irresistible from the very first line.