Skip to main content

The Making of "King Kong."

Film historian Rudy Behlmer on the making of "King Kong." The original movie soundtrack for the 1933 classic film has just been reissued on CD. (Rhino) The film was directed by documentarians Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack who also worked together on the groundbreaking documentaries, "Grass" and "Chang." The score was by Max Steiner. Behlmer wrote the liner notes for the the new CD. He's also the author of "Behind the Scenes."




Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on December 13, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 13, 1999: Interview with Garry Wills; Interview with Rudy Behlmer.


Date: DECEMBER 13, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 121301np.217
Head: "A Necessary Evil": An Interview with Garry Wills
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

One of the traits that has characterized the '90s is a distrust, even fear, of government. On the extremist end, there was the rise of the militias and the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building. But even within the government there's been a movement to dismantle agencies and undo regulatory boards, as expressed in the mid-'90s by the Contract With America.

This antigovernment streak provoked my guest, Gary Wills, to examine the history of American distrust of government. His new book is called "A Necessary Evil." Wills is a historian who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book "Lincoln at Gettysburg."

I asked him to discuss what inspired him to write the new book.

GARY WILLS, "A NECESSARY EVIL": Well, I began considering it when the new Gingrich Contract With America seemed to express tremendous hostility to the government in things like term limits and cutting back on government agencies and activities.

But then I started looking at the larger picture and realized that we have a long, deep tradition of mistrust of government, one that has even made us misread our history and think that the Constitution itself mistrusts government, that it set itself up to be inefficient, to check and balance itself, to find itself in gridlock.

GROSS: I was taught -- and I think just about everybody was taught in history classes that, yes, there are checks and balances built into the Constitution. The reason why there are three branches of government is to make sure that one doesn't get too powerful, that it was a way of kind of equalizing things, holding everything in check. And that's not your reading of history. What's your reading?

WILLS: Mine is the reading of the people who drew up the Constitution. We began with inefficiency. We began with a single branch, only the Continental Congress, under the Articles of Confederation. And that was so inefficient because it was checked by the people. There were only one-year terms, they could -- the delegates could be recalled, they had to submit to instruction. And they couldn't get anything done.

Since there was no executive sitting over from session to session of the Congress, they had to have committees set up that were very cumbrous and that took up the legislature's time, and there was no separate judiciary, so they had to set up very cumbrous adjudication schemes.

And Jefferson himself said that we can't do any legislating because we have to do all these other things. So the aim was to set up a more efficient operation, and that's why they said, "We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union" -- perfect, in this case, does not mean ideal or dreamy or swoony, it means what Aristotle meant when he talked about a perfect constitution, one that has all its parts.

We inherit that language from the Greeks, especially in matters of gynecology and obstetrics. When a doctor says, You have a perfect baby, he or she means that it has all the right number of toes and fingers and eyes and ears. And so a perfect government is one that has the parts that can do the proper tasks.

So these were set up for efficiency, not inefficiency, and they were far from equal. Madison said in a republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates. So the legislature's supreme in this arrangement, as you would expect. It makes the laws that the other branches only apply.

And it is the one who -- that can decide when the laws are being properly applied. If they're not being properly applied, the Congress can impeach a president, and impeach a Supreme Court justice, or any federal judge or any federal officer, and dismiss them. There's no reciprocal power in those branches to investigate Congress, dismiss a congressman, impeach the Congress, reorganize the Congress, do any of those things.

So the legislative authority predominates.

GROSS: My guest is Gary Wills, and his new book is called "A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government."

One really good example of American distrust of government is the militias. And you say that the militias see themselves as heirs to the Minute Men, those militias during the Revolutionary War. But you think that they get a lot wrong about what the militias were really like during the Revolutionary War. You even quote George Washington as having said that the militias made him ashamed for his countrymen. What was embarrassing about the behavior of the militias?

WILLS: Well, the militias were poorly armed and poorly trained all through the Colonial history, and in the Seven Years' War, which is when he said that, which we call the French and Indian War, he was serving in the British Army then, they were so bad that the British Army really didn't want them around. And he found himself put in the same position during the Revolution. When they came, they were disorderly, their hygiene was terrible -- you know, disease kills as much as bullets in many wars -- they would leave at the slightest provocation.

So his whole effort was to build up a regular army. The militias had been used principally in the past to patrol the borders in Indian territory, and to keep down the slaves in the South. The militias were the police force against the slaves. And they did not train regularly. There were very few guns in Colonial America, that's another of the great myths.

And so the use of the militias was something that Washington deplored.

GROSS: Well, you describe, you know, the militias as underarmed, badly trained, ready to desert. Do you think that the militias nevertheless got romanticized over the years?

WILLS: Yes, there is the whole myth of the Minute Man. The Minute Man, by the way, was not the full militia. The Minute Man was a thing formed on the eve of the Revolution when they wanted to keep a kind of watch over the British troops in Massachusetts. They were an elite, small group that was armed, that was able to be called out quickly to respond to any action that they thought was threatening. And they were kind of tripwire to warn people.

So they were not the regular militia. And even most towns in Massachusetts never got around to forming bands of Minute Men. You know, now the defenders of militias say that they're against elite militias. They call that -- the National Guard an example of that. If they were (ph) only for the whole citizenry armed. Well, that's not what the Minute Men ever were.

GROSS: When did the Second Amendment start to be interpreted as applying to private ownership it -- of guns and justifying people carrying guns?

WILLS: On a large scale, it started only in this century. Up to that time, everybody thought that it referred to the militias. The language on its face seems to bear that meaning. For one thing, it talks about the right of the people to bear arms. Well, you don't bear arms against a rabbit. When you pull a pistol, which was not a weapon that was much used in Colonial times, you're not bearing arms. That's a military term. And "arms" in that sense doesn't mean simply guns, it means swords, cannon, ships, all of the apparatus of war.

So the idea that it referred to some kind of private right is a recent invention. In fact, in the whole of the debates over ratifying the Constitution, although the right to bear arms was brought up over and over and over in a militia context, it was brought up only once, by one man, late in the process, in a motion that nobody considered in Pennsylvania, that it would apply to private ownership.

And he was citing a part of the Pennsylvania constitution which didn't have to do with the right to bear arms but with hunting territories, with where you could hunt, whether on your private property or public grounds.

GROSS: Do you think that in some ways the Constitution is like the Bible, that, you know, every generation people come along and reinterpret it, and the interpretations can totally change the meaning of what previous generations interpreted it as meaning?

WILLS: Well, it's certainly true that there's a variety of interpretations possible. But it's not at all like the Bible in this sense...

GROSS: We know who wrote it.

WILLS: Not a -- yes, exactly. And it's a short legal document.

GROSS: And -- yes.

WILLS: And legal language is careful, and it's something that is scrutinized in case after case after case, and there's a long documentary history, there's a long paper trail. And as I say, the language is very controlled. We tend to forget that, but we can go back and reestablish what the language is.

You want a quick little example of something that I find fascinating?

GROSS: Sure.

WILLS: The president is ordered to give a report on the state of the Union "from time to time." "From time to time" doesn't mean occasionally, sporadically, whenever it suits his purpose. It's a legal term for reporting, and it means "leaving nothing out," that is, when you pick up the report on the state of the Union, should go back to the last time that you reported and make the whole record clear.

And that's proved in the other two uses of the term in the Constitution, where it's said that the Congress must publish a record of its debates "from time to time," and it must give an accounting of public monies "from time to time."

So this is a duty of the president to report back to his bosses. A subordinate reports back to the superior. But we've forgotten that. So last January, when the Congress was getting very angry at the sins of President Clinton, some people said in Congress, We'll show him, we'll take away his privilege of delivering the state of the Union address, as if it were some kind of presidential prerogative, when it's a duty he owes to them, and the last thing they should do is not call him to that duty.

GROSS: My guest is Gary Wills. His new book is called "A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gary Wills. His new book is called "A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government."

Let's move on to term limits, something that was particularly strongly advocated during the Contract With America period, and the ideas of, you know, not only limits to the number of years you can serve in Congress, but the idea of the citizen politician, of somebody who comes from one profession, briefly enters government, and then returns to their profession. They're not lifelong professional politicians.

What are the precedents for this approach to politics?

WILLS: Well, that ideal of the citizen politician was tried during the revolutionary period, and under the Articles of Confederation, and it was such a spectacular loss, such a disaster, that it was deliberately rejected in the Constitution.

And the opponents of the Constitution brought this up constantly. They said, This is not the kind of government that we have had or that we want, because people can be perpetually reelected, they have long terms, they have overlapping terms. The Senate will be a sitting body of an elite. So the whole Constitution was formed to go against the experience that had been so unhappy.

During the Revolution, governors were normally of one term, and there was rotation. That is, they couldn't serve beyond two terms or three terms, whatever it was. And that proved to be simply unworkable during a war. When a governor got into some kind of control of the situation, he had to go out of office. And the same was true in -- at the federal level. All of the members of the Continental Congress were limited to one term, and there was rotation of terms that they couldn't serve beyond a certain number of terms.

Again, during a war, to get to the Congress, which was often in a new place because of the exigencies of the war, and to get back within the term limit of one year, was extremely difficult. Many people couldn't be called away from their homes during wartime. So it was very hard even to form a quorum of Congress. At one point there was a need to call on help from General Washington's army, and they didn't have a quorum of Congress to authorize them to do that.

So when the Constitution was drawn up, Madison argued, for instance in the terms of the Senate, six-year terms, and overlapping terms, We need to have something more stable. We have to have a government with institutional memory, so that when a foreign nation draws up a treaty with us, it knows that this government has some kind of continuing entity, that it won't go out of existence every two years when the whole Congress can be overturned.

So in terms of the 18th century, four-year terms for a president, six-year terms for the Senate, two-year terms, perpetually renewable, for the Congress, were a deliberate affront to the idea of term limits. It was something that had been tried and had failed.

So people who try to read into the Constitution some kind of ideal of the citizen politician, limited by terms of office, are simply neglecting the true history of the document.

GROSS: Do you think that today's strain of what you describe as antigovernmentalism is any stronger or substantially different than, like, preceding strain of it have been?

WILLS: Well, it flares up and it dies down, and you can have rapid fluctuations. For instance, the whole Contract With America went too far in the closing-down of the government, and there's been a relapse now to a more sane approach. But what's interesting about America is that we have this reservoir of arguments that can always be quickly mobilized and can say, See? The Constitution itself is against strong government.

And that comes up over and over on things like health care. The minute somebody brings up federal health care, all you have to do is say "Socialized medicine, the government is coming," and you kill it. I mean, I can remember when that happened during the Truman administration, and it's happening today. The whole idea that we should have a gun for every man, woman, and child in America, as we do, or that we should have three guns for every adult male, is simply absurd to the rest of the world.

But when you say the government should not take away your gun, that instantly brings up all of these mythical arguments from the Constitution.

GROSS: Do you think that today's more extreme antigovernmentalists, like Timothy McVeigh, who, you know, blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma, or the various people who have shot at federal agents, do you think that this is a more extreme expression of antigovernmentalism than we have seen before in American history? Is this anything new?

WILLS: No, of course, as I say, the Civil War was the extreme. But people shooting at revenuers down in the South in the distillery regions is an old kind of tradition, unhappy tradition. Opposition to the federal law enforcement agencies has been with us for a long time, so I don't think it's any more extreme than certain episodes in the past.

GROSS: You don't think there's more paranoia now about government?

WILLS: No, I think there is a certain change in quality, because the government is now more obviously all around us, because of the state of modern communications and interdependence. And all of us feel uneasy about that, and probably should, that we are such a complex and interdependent world now, not simply nation, and the government has a role to play there, a regulatory role to protect us, among other things, to protect privacy, for instance, in the Internet or in other kinds of communication and trans-border arrangements.

So that it's more threatening, in some ways, than it was in the past. we see it more visibly. And we should be properly chary of power of all sorts.

What I'm opposed to is setting that natural human resistance to authority within a framework which seems to disarm the government even from its proper roles. After all, if you think the government really is always bad, then you're quickly tempted to give up on it, say, Well, there's nothing you can do to make it good, it's bad of its nature, and therefore I'll just be apathetic. Or I'll resist it in every way possible, perhaps even with force and violence.

GROSS: You know, I'm thinking that most of us, not you but most of us, really know so little about American history and about the history of the Constitution, that it's easy for anyone to come along and quote the Founding Fathers or misquote the Founding Fathers and use all that as a rationale for, you know, whatever, and most of us wouldn't be the wiser, in terms of being able to challenge them and say, No, that's not really what happened, you know, when the Constitution was being written or whatever.

WILLS: I know, and I was talking to some journalists recently at a lecture in Cambridge, and wondering out loud with them why the misuse of terms is never corrected by journalists. For instance, we all hear "sovereign state" or we hear "coequal branches" or we hear "the president is our commander in chief." He's not. And journalists just report on that and never correct it. They wouldn't do that about medical language or legal language or economic language.

There's been a very good tendency to send journalists to school now if they're going to cover medical or legal or economic or religious affairs. And yet constitutional language, which is very misleading and loose and general, they don't supply the same kind of expertise. And I was suggesting that perhaps there should be a movement to do that.

GROSS: What do you find most dismaying in terms of statements about the Constitution that you read in newspapers that go uncorrected?

WILLS: Well, I suppose it's not so much what is said but what is assumed. For instance, the CIA is an unconstitutional body. Every bit of public monies are supposed to be reported openly to the public. And the CIA was based on a hidden budget from the outset, and it was said, of course, Well, it's Cold War, we have to keep it secret from the Soviets, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

But when the Cold War is over, the same kind of secrecy is going on. There's a kind of pseudo-reporting now that's not full and public, as it was meant to be in the Constitution. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in his very good book "Secrecy," just said that you would think, at the end of the Cold War, that the number of secrets would go down, but it hasn't, it has increased, not only in absolute numbers but in the rate of growth.

So that kind of ignoring of the demands of the Constitution is what I find dismaying.

GROSS: Well, Gary Wills, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

WILLS: Thank you.

GROSS: Gary Wills' new book is called "A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Garry Wills
High: Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Garry Wills discusses his new book, "A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government." Wills is also the author of "Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America," and he's written other books on Nixon, Reagan and Kennedy, as well as a look at the relationship between politics and popular culture via celebrity, "John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity."
Spec: Government; Profiles; Garry Wills

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "A Necessary Evil": An Interview with Garry Wills

Date: DECEMBER 13, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 121302NP.217
Head: "King Kong": A Behind-The Scenes Look at a Movie Classic
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue