Son of apes

Son of apes – ‘Planet of the Apes’ movies

Michael Atkinson

Midst the prevailing epidemic of post-Boom, slack-powered, Tarantino-inflected Seventies cyber-nostalgia, it’s a shock that arguably the era’s most complex and outrageous popcult entity has been all but ignored: the Planet of the Apes cycle. To cast a cold eye back on the infamous SF pentalogy is to revisit, for me, a preadolescent compulsion and state of feverish Saturday matinee worship. Largely regarded then as the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th movies were in the Eighties-a seemingly neverending series of lurid fantasies meant exclusively for the grade-school readers of X-men, Creepy, and The Monster Times – the Apes films were hugely popular with their target audience. The phenomenon didn’t even end with the release of the final film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, in 1973; that summer saw a spate of “Go Ape!” festivals, during which theaters would play all five films in sequence, starting at 11 A.M. The series subsequently spawned two television shows (live-action and animated) and a kudzu jungle of spinoff merchandising: models, novels, comics, bubble gum cards, etc. That three out of the five films were simply wretched, directed by hacks J. Lee Thompson and Don Taylor, only further justified their exile to the kids’ table.

For 10-year-olds (of which I like to think I was the archetype), the Apes movies were a snowballing, nightmarish spectacle of disorder and madness whose collected narrative fucked with both time and racial doom in ways that could shock anybody used to convenient Hollywood conclusions. Few adults, then or since, seem to have recognized the cycle as the radical, subversive popculture apocalypse it still is, formally and thematically (each of the five films ends with a narrative Nagasaki). It’s one of the few science fiction movie texts that rivals in sophistication the best SF literature, and the only cinematic experiment with time travel that completes its own hopeless cycle on a planetary scale – an elaborate scheme worked out in the four sequels by screenwriter Paul Dehn. Most of all, especially when viewed in 1995 and in light of Oliver Stone’s upcoming, doubtlessly hamfisted remake of Planet, the Apes films stand as the scariest, ballsiest essay on racial conflict in film history.

Think about it: where but in film #4, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes ’72), has a movie ever dared to climax in a successful, implicitly global armed slave revolt? But the series was a broad and hysterical parable on race relations from the gitgo. The first film emerged in 1968, knee-deep in civil rights dialogue and hippie-era liberalism. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, co-scripted by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson (from the otherwise trifling and witless Pierre Boulle novel), Planet of the Apes was packed with glib Twilight Zoneisms (the orangutan tribunal gesturing See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evill; a gorilla guard muttering “Human see, human do”) and roughshod potshots at apartheid-think: an elder ape maintaining that only apes have souls, the observation that being clean-shaven makes a man “look less intelligent” etc. Darwinian dread is implicit in every ape’s reaction to stranger-in-a-strange-land astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston), who, as chimp scientist Zira (Kim Hunter) boldly if ungrammatically asserts at one point, “must have sprang from our own” She doesn’t know how right she is (neither do we, until the end), and every supremacist’s deepest fear rears its head: of being the progeny of an inferior, less divinely inspired” breed of creature, of having other” blood run in your veins.

The movie laughed at every tribal instinct we’ve got. Remember the first word spoken by an ape, over a stack of human corpses: “Smile” Recognizable American authority icons are routinely defiled: the Statue of Liberty, NASA (the nexus of anti-ape hysteria in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, ’71, film #3), the scientific establishment, presidents and governors portrayed as bigoted scum. Even John Ford’s Monument Valley stands in for a nuclear wasteland-in a film about racial rancor, yet. And there’s no ignoring HUAC-roadkill Lew Ayres’ appearance in the last film as an orangutan who deems himself “the keeper of his own conscience.” Still, what as children gave us the heebie-jeebies seems, in retrospect, relatively less fantastic. The apes, after all, were only a few hundred years behind the human civilization that Taylor left behind and, with their slave hunts, superstitions, and medieval admixture of science and religion, seemed hardly stranger or crueller than man at his most modern. What remains most disturbing-and what may have been a larger part of our juvenile fascination with the films than we ever suspected – was the recognition of our de-evolved selves in the apes’ xenophobia, righteous ignorance, and mythmaking. Both Planet of the Apes and the first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (’69), were intended as crude we’ve-seen-the-enemy-and-it’s-us metaphor; what doesn’t seem as intentional is the primal qualm over otherness it stirs within the viewer, regardless of race. Somewhere under the skin the central ordeal of Heston’s missing fink is one we face only in our darkest dreams.

But, as a text, is it inherently racist? (Note, queasily, the implicit IQ caste system stretching from the light-skinned heads-of-state orangutans to the pitch-black, thuglike gorillas.) What begins as a evolutionary switcheroo turns, as the series progresses, into a civil rights conundrum: can apes be equated with African Americans without setting off a sociopolitical H-bomb-even if the apes themselves become oppressed, violently oppose their oppressors, and succeed in acquiring a social equilibrium (in Battle) at least temporarily just and peaceful? In 1968, perhaps not; today, most certainly-stone has his work cut out for him. (If he uses the same measure of clubfooted aplomb he brought to Natural Born Killers, he can expect an honorary Klan membership.) Identity politics being the ethical quicksand they are, the Apes films read today like koans: contradictory, equivocal, cryptic. Within every deliberate liberalism lurks a reactionary instinct; every racist misstep is steeped in radical good intentions. They may be, when the smoke clears, the film text for the Nineties, the ultimate cross-country track on which to run the principles of political correctness against one another.

In the first two films, the apes represent white Western Civ a few Galileos short of a Renaissance; it was with Escape that the tables began to slowly turn. Suddenly, the free-thinking chimpanzees Zira, Cornelius, and Milo (Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, and, briefly, Sal Mineo) are caged, victimized, characterized as freaks, and eventually as threats, by Seventies America. As was clear from the start, the Apes movies are a study in the hunger for, and transferral of, political power. Within minutes of glimpsing the primitive humans in the first film, Taylor asserts that in a month “we’ll be running this planet.” Of course, the power is divided along special lines. In Escape, the weasely white-men-in-charge Eric Braeden and William Windom are ostensibly out to prevent the planetary decimation that ends Beneath (recounted by Zira as seen from Taylor’s resurrected spaceship – the cycle’s only serious lapse of reason), but an acute sense of irrational lynch-mob fever percolates right under the surface. There’s more than a whiff of Johannesburg in the final helicopter shot of Zira and Cornelius shot dead in an empty California naval yard, and perhaps a hint of Malcolm Little in the penultimate scene of the orphaned baby chimp burbling “Mama!”, suggesting an inevitable moment when the future will have its revenge on the past, thus creating itself.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the cycle’s Gotterddammerung, a shrill, anarchic pulp prophecy of social mayhem, and without it the series would have remained merely a baby-boomer guilty pleasure. It’s also the most incendiary: we’re introduced to a near-future (“North America-1991” says a title) where “normal,” present-day, yet still oddly un-apelike apes are kept as slaves, after being cultivated years lier as pets. This is the B-side of the. world as seen three films ago and many thousands of years hence. Escape’s mileu was recognizably here-and-now; in Conquest, set a few decades later, suddenly we’re in Harriet Tubman territory. Indeed, Cornelius and Zira’s grown son Caesar (also McDowall) watchfully enters the modern, ape-serviced metropolis with revolution running hotly in his veins. The slaves have serial numbers, cannot gather together or communicate (their masters are fined if they do), are routinely administered electroshock, and are trained for everything from waiting tables to factory work, a coldblooded service economy so mercenary we glimpse at one point out-of-work humans protesting the shortage of jobs. (Evil governor Don Murray does little else besides agonize over ape disobedience stats.) The humiliations and atrocities-including subduing gorillas by flamethrower – are both futuristically hyperbolic and ringing with memories of Eisenhower-era Alabama (Caesar refers to his ape army as “my people” at several points). We are never meant to ponder the fate of the planet as Braeden and Windom did; indeed, concern for the outcome of the human race is a moot issue. Right here, right now, the apes must revolt, and if it means the end of human civilization, or eventually Earth itself, so be it.

Conquest’s only sympathetic human (beyond liberal circus-owner Ricardo Montalban) is MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), the governor’s black assistant and the film’s sole voice of conscience. “What’s with that guy, he an ape lover or something?” says one stormtrooperish cop when MacDonald stops him from beating an ape. “Yeah, don’t it figure?” is his partner’s reply. Though in a position of power, MacDonald bitterly weathers with tight lips and heady glower the reverb of a slave society, and even the governor is wary of his token staff member, calling him a “bleeding heart” and proclaiming confidently, “All of us were slaves once, in one sense of the word or another.” Neither Caesar or MacDonald would agree, of course, and yet once the hellish revolt gets rolling, with shuddery, wild images of gorillas swarming through the city’s nighttime streets, MacDonald is forced onto the MLK-like high ground. “By what right are you spilling blood?” he demands indignantly after Caesar’s ape forces have succeeded in conquering the city. “By the slave’s right to punish his persecutors'” the messianic Caesar replies, and though Conquest makes feeble, last-ditch effort to be pacifist with a dreadfully unbelievable, tacked-on speech dubbed over closeups of Caesar’s eyes, the film supports him right down to the brickbats.

The facile lessons about the evil s of race hate fall away in the face of a five-film-long depiction of the hopelessness of special, and racial, fraternization. In fact, the cyclical structure of the series, in which the roles of oppressor and oppressed are perpetually exchanged, suggests the circular motion of human history in grim detail. There’s no small cynicism in portraying a rabid social dynamic that must and will lead to Armageddon over and over again. The last film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, affects a manageable degree of interspecies cooperation, but Caesar has established himself as no-questions-asked autocrat (with a son to continue the bloodline), and the Lawgiver (John Huston) regales us with a version of ape-human history that sounds objectionably mythic and revisionist. In the end, the Lawgiver assures us that ape and man can five side by side in peace and harmony, but we remember the mad future of the first film, and the uses to which the Lawgiver’s teachings are eventually put, and we know it’s all a lie. Cheap B movies meant for kids, the Apes movies knew then what many earnest, high-profile films about injustice and race relations don’t today: that intelligence cannot housebreak our inner homunculi, seething with pigheaded pride and raw jungle hate; that all intelligence, even dolphins’, will breed war and waste given half a chance. Battle’s paramount tenet is that no ape shall kill ape – is it better that they kill men? Along which borderland do the moral lines get drawn, xenophobic separatism or quality of intelligence? Clearly, the former; in movies or life, intelligence has never been insurance against bloodletting. As evil white man Don Murray puts it in Conquest, under a splay of gorilla gun butts, “Man was born of the ape, there’s still an ape curled up inside every man, the beast who must be whipped into submission, the savage that has to be shackled in chains. You are that beast, Caesar.” By the time the world ends, with a Charlton Heston-instigated bang and not whimper, the apes could say the same of men. In fact, orangutan zealot Zaius (Maurice Evans) does say it, in several different ways. And they’re both right.

As films, four-fifths of the Apes phenomenon is pure dross, fashioned in different degrees of hackhood but maintaining the creepy cheapnes that has empowered popcult apocalypses from metropolis through Invaders from Mars and The Ten Commandment to Night of the Living Dead. The first film is the most fluent and original work Franklin J. Schaffner ever did (though he’d win his Oscar two years later for the leaden Patton). The sequels were somewhat carelessly chaperoned by Ted Post, on his way to mezzobrow Seventies beauts like Magnum Force and Go Tell the Spartans; Don Taylor, as an actor. one of the gregarious POWs in Stalag 17, and style-vacuum behind Damien: Omen II and The Island of Dr Moreau; and J. Lee Thompson, who has become a paradigm for promising directors crashlanding into hack landfill, arcing from the early Sixties with the stalwart The Guns of Navarone and the genuinely frightening Cape Fear to the post-Ape rockbottom of Charles Bronson jalopies. If an individual, and not simply the entire operandi of media libido in the early Seventies, is to be credited with the distinctively wacko wallop of the Apes cycle, I nominate screenwriter Dehn, whose grand, nasty vision supports the whole cycle. But kudos too for the host of design craftsmen – including mask engineer John Chambers, for his subtle adjustments between human and ape physiology-who dared to make the more-loathed differences and evenmore-loathed similarities between ape and human uncomfortably intimate and skin-deep. Try to imagine coming up with the visual and thematic conception of the cycle from scratch, and suddenly even the most crudely made entries seen formidable.

The films’ use of time travel discontinuums creates a spectacularly claustrophobic context for the racial nihilism, and for man’s mad sense of significance and destiny as well. There’s no escaping the global whorl of cause and effect. The first film merely leaves Charlton Heston, and us, on the beach with nowhere left to go, while the second drove its combat-driven narrative (throwing nuke-workshiping mutants into the mix) right to doomsday. The third, however, made ersatz sense out of what merely seemed an atomic scrambling of evolutionary logic, by positing Taylor’s initial plunge through the time warp as the event that changes everything – once his ship (on its preprogrammed course) enters the future, it opens the possibility of retreating into the past. Which it does, carrying Cornelius & Co., who proceed to inspire a revolution and the ape sovereignty that literally creates the scarred, “upside down” world Taylor finds thousands of years later. Chronologically, the “first” moment in real time is Heston chewing on a cigar in his ship’s cockpit in the first film’s precredit sequence; the “last” is the Heston setting off the doomsday bomb in the final mements of Beneath. Everything else happens somewhere in between. It conforms to the films’ sense of scalding irony that Taylor and his crew are sound asleep when the time warp is penetrated; the earth’s future history is set on a permanently self-destructive course, and no one knows that happened until it’s too late. Even we don’t fully understand the fatalistic ramifications until the fourth film.

Intimations of demnation haunt every step of the film’s chronology – once the wheel of history began turning, nearly every character is overcome with panic. Just as the orangutans in the first film knew Taylor was trouble on a scale they couldn’t comprehend, the jittery humans of both Conquest and Escape(*) were dead-on in their cosmic paranoia. The signs were everywhere, even if we didn’t notice them the first time around: the slave apes of Conquest even wear color-coded uniforms that subtly prefigure the ape fashions of cornelius’s day, first glimpsed four movies earlier. Mull that over: the weird, half-Egyptian, half-Mao earth-tone dress styles of the distant simian future began as totalitarian jumpsuits for the service population circa 1991. Talk about “chickens coming home to roost,” in Malcolm X’s words; the manner by which the films are narratively constructed and visually designed forces you to discount any hope or promise for the fate of the two competing species because it all leads to a genecidal auto-da-fe’ we’ve already witnessed.

The miracle of the Apes films is that such complex textual issues dominate an otherwise preposterous manifestation of cheap trash culture, one that was from the outset unashamed and unfettered by art or conscience or responsibility. This is, of course, the gutsy, low-rent glory of authentic pulp. It’s not a quality that can be recaptured in expensive remakers, no matter how strenuous the effort; if Planet of the Apes is indeed to be reincarnated for the Nineties – starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, yet – the brute nerve and chilling disorientation of the thing will surely be lost amid the acres of trod-upon eggshells. Of course, the remaining films will never be remade – they’re too disreputable, too berserk. America prefers Forrest Gump as a prescriptive psychic history of itself. Ruefully, cheap carny visions of everlasting heat-death seem to be a thing of the past.

(*)The humans here include Natalie Trundy, actress-wife of series producer Arthur P. Jacobs; as yet another neat miscegenative subtext, Trundy holds the dubious honor of having played a human, an ape, and a mutant at different points in the series.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group