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First of all, no need to panic. Tim Burton is not, to my knowledge, following up his 2001 Mark Wahlberg vehicle. But that stinker will be included for completion sake. There really isn’t anything timely about this except that the original five movies from the late 60s and early 70s have been released on Blu-ray so I had access to the DVDs when someone sold them to my place of employment. What is timely about these movies is the underlying themes. Which we will get to.
So here we go.
Planet of the Apes – 1968
You know this one. Everyone knows this one. This is the one transformed into a musical in an episode of the Simpsons. The one where nothing happens for over half an hour except a gratuitous shot of man booty and lots of walking around until the apes show up. After that, it’s mostly Chuck Heston running around in a loin cloth and cursing the current alpha beings of the planet, our ancestors, apes. The poster shown here is in itself a spoiler and was not one of the originals. One point of the movie is to assume that Heston and friends have crashed on an alien planet.The other two astronauts die and Heston (Taylor) is wounded. While recovering, he meets Cornelius and Zira, two chimpanzee scientists who accept that a human can talk (all the people of the future are mute) and give him a playmate in the form of Nova, a hot but mute young human woman. Then he is discovered by the gorillas and orangutans and all hell breaks loose for a bit until he sets off and discovers where he really is. The revelation that they are in fact on earth must have been shocking at the time. Taylor’s reaction when he spies a half-buried and rusting Statue of Liberty is directed at all humanity, not the commies, which set it apart from most movies at the time. Not spending a lot of time on this one because it’s the most ubiquitous of the five.
1. Sentient beings seem to have a need to worship a God they can understand (the apes’ is a chimpanzee, I believe).
2. Sentient beings have an obsessive need for bureaucracy.
3. Man seems to have the alarming tendency to destroy itself given the chance.
4. Sentient beings have an irrational fear and hatred of the unknown which can have disastrous consequences.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes – 1970
As far as cheese factor, all of these movies are pushing the upper limits, almost to parmesan strength. But this one is runner-up only to Battle. Not long after Taylor sees the statue, he and Nova set off into the “forbidden zone” where he talks of his plans to start a family with her. There’s really no indication that she even understands what he’s even talking about, so the implication is a little creepy. Cut to another wrecked space ship. There are two survivors, but one is wounded and dies of shock when the other (Brent) tells him that the ships clock read 1000 years is the future. He is soon found by Nova, who has just witnessed Taylor disappear into an illusion of solid rock.
Nova, under instructions from Zira to return should anything happen to Taylor, takes Brent to Ape City. He freaks out, gets wounded and is Nova takes him to see Cornelius and Zira. Zira fixes Brent up and he decides to go into the Forbidden Zone to try to find a way to “get back home.”
In an interesting aside, right after Brent leaves, Dr. Zaius, an orangutan bureaucrat shows up to chastise Zira for speaking out against General Ursus, a militant gorilla with an anti-human attitude. Zaius spies blood from Brent’s wound and Zira explains it away by explaining that Cornelius had already struck her for the offense. As natural as that. WTF?
Meanwhile, Ursus has decided to go into the Forbidden Zone to look for food sources and to assess the human threat out there. There is a brief scene where apes staging a sit-in to protest ape aggression are rounded-up and taken away to be hung “somewhere out of sight.” Nice little Vietnam era commentary there.
Anyway, after a chase on horseback, Nova and Brent stumble into a Brooklyn subway station. They eventually find a group of humans with telepathic abilities. The downside of such a gift: they are horribly scarred and hairless – mutated by living in the ruins of a nuke-blasted city. And they worship a giant golden phallus that is also a bomb capable of destroying the entire planet. Built by man, of course.
Some gorilla scouts find the city and Ursus gathers an army. Meanwhile, Brent is thrown into a cell with Taylor by a hulking black mutant, who then mentally forces them to fight. And it’s not really a fair fight. Until you see him next to Taylor, you don’t realize that Brent (played by some guy name John Franciscus – not even IMDB has a pic) is short. Really short. Barely comes up to Heston’s shoulder short. So Taylor pretty much has the upper hand until the guard is distracted by the gorilla attack and the tables are turned and he dies on the spiked bars of the cage holding Taylor and Brent.
Another aside: The mutant that forces Taylor and Brent to fight holds true the idiom that “if it’s sci-fi, the black guy dies.” Also, he is never given a name. The part, played by Don Pedro Colley, is simply credited as – I shit you not – “Negro.” Way to go, progressive 70s!
Eventually, all hell breaks loose, Brent is shot by apes 50 or so times and Taylor dies, his last act hitting the fire button on the control panel for the golden god. The film ends with a shot of the planet exploding (that was some bomb!). Accompanying the image is a voice-over saying, “In one of the billion countless galaxies of the universe lies a medium-sized star. And one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.”
1. Sentient beings tend to want to war on those not exactly like them.
2. If not all out war, slavery and discrimination will do.
3. Man really, really wants to blow itself up, this time irrevocably.
4. Sentient beings are also compassionate.
5. Charlton Heston is a horny creep.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes – 1971
The third installment brings us back to the present. The year is 1973 and a space ship of familiar design has landed in the ocean off the California coast. Somehow, between sending Brent on his way and Taylor pushing the button, Zira, Cornelius and a brilliant chimpanzee scientist named Milo managed to get one of the two astronauts ship’s working and got caught up in the same time warp that brought Taylor and Brent to the future, but the chimps were instead sent to the past. Could the explosion be the very thing that caused the rift in the first place? Did future Taylor cause the very anomaly that brought him to the future? Huh? This is why people hate time travel and I love it!
The three are shuffled off to a zoo and kept inside. They have not spoken and simply listen while their human captors discuss why they are wearing clothes, carrying suitcases, etc. Cornelius even trains one of his captors to give him an orange on demand while letting the human think he’s training Cornelius. The same happens later when Zira is enticed to build a staircase in order to reach a banana. Then she speaks and the secret is out. What does she say? “I loathe bananas.”
The rough attempts at comedy in ape suits continues at a meet and greet with the press and a presidential panel of inquiry. The kindly animal psychiatrists, Dr.s Dixon and Branton, have taken a liking to Cornelius and Zira (poor Milo was strangled by a “primitive” gorilla) and is acting as their agent of sorts and has arranged it. Most questions are aimed at Zira. Finally, a member of the panel asks her if “the other one talks,” referring to Cornelius. He stands, gestures toward Zira and says, “Only when she lets me.” The ice is broken and the two become a national hit.
Almost. The president’s science advisor, Dr. Otto Hasslein (what a perfectly diabolical name) doesn’t like them. He fears what they represent.
This is a perfect role-reversal. In the original, Taylor is an anomaly: a human with the capacity of speech. He is befriended by the kindly Cornelius and Zira but hounded and feared by the scientist/bureaucrat Dr. Zaius. Here, the apes are maligned by the human bureaucrats and befriended by scientists who appreciate the marvel of a talking ape. Or two.
Then it becomes apparent that Zira is pregnant. It is eventually decided that the baby would be aborted as nicely as possible and Cornelius and Zira sterilized. That baby represented a future of human subjugation. It could not live. The kindly doctors help them escape and get them to an even kindlier circus owner, Armand, played by a young and Khan-like Ricardo Montalban, who sums up the message of these movies (intended or otherwise) with one simple question: “Aren’t we rude enough to each other without being rude to animals?”
The baby Milo is born, but the search has escalated, so the chimpanzee family is hidden on an abandoned cargo boat. Yadda yadda yadda, all three are killed by an increasingly maniacal Hasslein. Yes, he even shoots the baby. Except, it turns out that another chimpanzee in the circus had a baby a week before Zira had Milo. Yup, the baby chimp that dies is just your run of the mill ape. Milo was now under the care of Armand. The last scene is a ridiculous loop of a baby chimp saying mama.
1. Sentient beings tend to fear and hate what they don’t understand.
2. Even when it’s darkest, someone will turn out to not be an asshole (e.g.. Armand, Dixon and Branton).
3. But for every bright light, there is indeed an asshole (Hasslein).
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes – 1972
In Escape, there is a scene in which Cornelius tell Dixon of the future. The apes’ ascension began when a mysterious viral plague wiped out all the domesticated animals, or at least cats and dogs. Since humans couldn’t live without pets, they went with ones with more similar DNA that were immune to such diseases, apes. Soon, it becomes apparent that the apes can be more than just companions, they could be servants. By 1993, the year in which Conquest is set, the apes are virtual slaves, whether to private owners or the municipality they live in (by this time, an unspecified breakdown has happened and governments are now centered in city-states. No explanation. Just accept it).
The apes serve as personal servants, bus boys, garbage man, janitors and even hairdressers, while humans seem to enjoy a care-free existence of perpetual luxury. Enter Armand and Milo. They witness an unruly ape being beaten by a human security detail, Milo shouts. He goes underground while Armand is questioned. Milo is bought by the governor of the city-state and is given the chance to rename himself. An encyclopedia is placed before him and he chooses the name Caesar (side-note: Milo/Caesar is played by Roddy McDowell, who also was behind the mask as Cornelius in the first of the series and Escape).
The governor’s personal assistant is a man named MacDonald, who is less than thrilled with the treatment of apes. He even yells at a security detail to stop beating an ape. They look at him and say, “Figures.” Oh, did I mention that MacDonald is black? MacDonald takes Caesar to work with him in some kind of control room and Caesar learns that Armando has been killed. In a rage of grief, he runs off
Eventually, Caesar is captured and eventually executed as the governor is convinced he can talk and is, again, afraid of he unknown. Except MacDonald kills the juice to the torture table and Caesar is smart enough to get the hint and fake dying. MacDonald helps him escape and he trains the apes in guerrilla tactics and they make their move. The “training facility” where apes are beaten, threatened with fire and electrocuted is taken over and soon the entire city is under control of the apes. Caesar is not quite as benign as his father and tells the governor that he has brought this on himself and the city is set ablaze.
1. That fear and hatred of the unknown thing again.
2. Humans feel the need to have an inferior species around to make them feel special.
3. Most humans will take advantage of such a relationship.
4. The oppressed will take every opportunity they can to rise up.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes – 1973
This one wins for cheesiest of the five probably for the simple reason that it obviously has the lowest budget (or something – I will address this presently.) The opening takes place in the far future, about halfway between now and the end in 2955. The Lawgiver (played by John Huston – WTF?) is giving a history lesson. Turn back the clock to about 20 years after the events of Conquest. The surviving apes and humans co-exist in an uneasy harmony somewhere in the wilderness – the city is now a toxic sea of twisted metal wreckage. How it got that way is barely hinted at.
Caesar (again played by McDowell) is the “king” of the village, acting as judge and jury in case of any wrong-doing. But it is not an equal alliance. Humans are not allowed to say “no” to an ape, a throwback law to the days the apes were slaves. A human teacher says it to the gorilla Aldo when he tears up a lesson. The lesson is the most important one of all: Ape shall not kill ape). Things are so uneasy self-proclaimed “General” Aldo has plans to move against the humans.
The main go between the apes and humans is MacDonald’s younger brother, also called MacDonald (I guess we all look the same to apes). MacDonald reveals that there are videotapes of Cornelius and Zira, Caesar’s parents, somewhere in the ruins of the city. MacDonald, Caesar and resident genius orangutan Virgil (played by Paul Williams) go get some guns from the armory. This takes a while. The armorer also acts as Cornelius’s conscience and asks a barrage of questions. It is revealed that the guns were made by man – apes don’t have the capacity to build firearms). Armed, they head to the city. Virgil is there with a Geiger counter to monitor radiation (this is one of the pathetic hints of what happened to the city).
Meanwhile, back in the tree village of the apes, Cornelius, Caesar’s son and an overly adventurous 12-year goes looking for his pet squirrel in the middle of the night. He stumbles upon a meeting of gorilla militia making plans to stage a coup and usurp Caesar, rounding up all the humans in the process. The young chimp is discovered and eventually is forced out onto a high tree branch, which Aldo slices and sends the boy plunging on a fall that will result in mortal injuries.
When Caesar, MacDonald and Virgil return with news that the mutants may be planning a hostile foray, they find all the humans caged. MacDonald soon joins them.
Soon the mutants show up with a rag-tag convoy consisting of jeeps, motorcycles, a school bus and people on foot (pretty sure the writers of Mad Max watched this scene repeatedly). They are moving against a barricade of debris hastily compiled by the apes. Here’s where I think most of the budget went. They are a ridiculous amount of explosions in a very small amount of time. The apes wind up playing dead until the mutants are right among them, then spring up and drive them off from close range. Caesar says to let them go, but Aldo, who has run off during the fight, ambushes the fleeing mutants and takes care of them.
He returns to the village. Cornelius has died from injuries sustained in the fall and everyone knows Aldo caused it. Ape has killed ape. Aldo has broken the prime law of the apes. Worse, he has killed the “king’s” son. Poetically, Caesar drives him further and further up a tree until Aldo falls to his death.
1. There’s always going to be an alpha asshole.
2. Racism, domination and oppression exist no matter who’s in charge.
3. That fear of the unknown/different thing again.
There was a short-lived TV series that picks up where Battle leaves off, but no new doors are opened, so we’ll let it lie.
And the one thing my crazy mind came up after all of this: I’m convinced that Cornelius is named after himself. The scene with the Lawgiver illustrates that the apes were meticulous record keepers. And the young Cornelius would obviously have become part of the apes’ folklore if not their religion. First ape killed by an ape. He would be the Abel of the apes. Perhaps he was even a saint as what little glimpses we get of their society seem fairly Judeo-Christian based. Many religious names don’t go away. People are named after saints, as Zira’s husband probably was. The young Cornelius, first homicide and son of Caesar was most likely named after Caesar’s father, the time-traveling Cornelius. Thus, Cornelius became the namesake for the probable “saint” he was named for, thus he is named after himself. Now I think I understand why some people hate time travel scenarios.
And I changed my mind about including the Tim Burton flick. It just doesn’t fit. Not really. He did improve on a few things, however:
1. Humans could still talk on this planet run by apes. A thousand years is not a long time in terms of evolution, so it didn’t really make sense that humans would completely lose the capacity of speech. The apes didn’t really seem capable of that level of cruelty or that sophisticated a eugenics program.
2. The apes are stronger and more agile. In the original, they really didn’t seem much stronger. One gorilla could easily over-power five or six men. Burton made them more zoologically (?) accurate.
3. Flying monkey helmets!!!
Just for fun: here’s a cool little web-page at POTA archives with all the actors who played the apes. Note how many are from Star Trek stills.
And the one thing I, personally am taking from all this: I never want to hear the phrase “planet of the apes” or any variation thereof ever, ever again.