Tuesday, 8 August 2017

I Blame Society #5: Planet of the Apes (1968)

One of the absolute top experiences of this Summer has been sitting down with the Golden-Haired Youth (at the time of writing, eight years old) and showing him, at his insistence, Planet of the Apes. It is a film I've adored since I was maybe 11, one I never get tired of. Anyway, about twenty minutes in, my son turned and said to me, "This is a really good film." I'd somehow miraculously managed to keep him unspoiled, and so when That Big Reveal happens at the end, his eyes almost popped out of his head and his mouth fell open.

It was glorious.

Space is boundless. It squashes a man's ego.
Look, you know how Planet of the Apes ends. I mean, it's on the front of the DVD box, which is why I didn't let my son see said box, and it was worth it to see the look of dawning wonder on his face. And when arguably at least seven of the eight other movies1 so far made in the Planet of the Apes franchise depend on you knowing that the Planet of the Apes is really a post-apocalyptic Earth, and assume you know this from the start, it can be hard to quite get across just how much of a big surprise that final scene is, how much of a (monkey) punch in the face it is.2

But in watching the film with someone wholly unspoiled, it underlined how much hard work the film's script (co-written by The Twilight Zone's master of twists, Rod Serling) does to keep you from what should be obvious, what should be the only ending that makes any sense. At the start, when Taylor (Charlton Heston), Dodge and Landon (Jeff Burton and Robert Gunner) land on the planet, they know it's the year 3978, but Taylor assures them that they're light years from Earth, somewhere around Orion and over and over again, even when it should be obvious – the apes speak English! They write in English letters! There's the fossilised remains of a man with false teeth and glasses! – Taylor keeps saying things to the effect of, "I came from a far off planet," and "this obviously wasn't a man like me, because he was from a different planet to me, but he was sort of like me" and "this is not my planet" and the apes don't believe him, but even so Planet of the Apes tries its level best to convince you that Taylor is right, and if you haven't been told, you believe him, because you're used to science fiction films where far off worlds are breathable and the inhabitants speak and write in English, because that's the shorthand they use. 

This is, after all why aliens speak English so often, because it's a narrative shorthand to avoid having to bother with language difficulties (remember that it took Doctor Who nearly thirteen years to come up with an ex post facto explanation for doing just that, for example), and Planet of the Apes plays the part of a classic Space Opera, and then that ending, which should be super-obvious, pulls the rug out from under you, not because it's obvious, but because it reveals Planet of the Apes to be much smarter, much more thoughtful than it was before. It's not a twist that makes you go, "Holy crap, he was on Earth all along" (because you genuinely believed he wasn't), it's a twist that makes you go, "Holy crap, he was on Earth all along, and that means that the film is a much darker and much more serious film than I thought it was."

The ending changes the category of the film. It turns it from one sort of science fiction (the space opera, frothy and fun) into another (the post apocalypse movie, bleak and sad, and shaking a warning finger at you).   
"That way." "Why?" "No reason at all."
Taylor: Space is boundless. It squashes a man's ego.
You should have seen that all along, but the movie suckers you into swallowing space opera. Planet of the Apes is full of heavy, heavy on-the-nose pop-philosophical talk. Hell, it's nearly half an hour until we see an actual ape in a film that has apes in the title. Before that point, we have three guys in a desert wondering where they are, and talking about patriotism, heroism, humanity, science.

And walking. 

Landon, a patriot, wants to be a hero. Dodge wants to explore the unknown. But Taylor is more complex. He is so profoundly disillusioned with humanity that he just wants to see if he can find something better. And it's his complexity that makes it his story, that, after about half an hour of Stalker-lite, when the apes appear, Dodge and Landon both vanish from the story, one shot dead on the spot, and the other, we later discover, subject to a worse fate.

When faced with the irrational, with the collapse of reason, which is what the apes represent, the patriot and the scientist are powerless, and their story ends.   
Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook, ook. Ook.
Julius: You know what they say. Human see, human do.
The apes' world is topsy-turvy, and to enter it, Taylor must be injured in a way that renders him as mute as the animalistic humans he meets. He has to enter the world on their terms, because to do otherwise is to die on the spot, or to play the hero and cease to be human as a consequence.

But Taylor is not a hero, he is, although cast as a cynic, an idealist, and his idealism extends beyond simple ideas of patriotism or knowledge, or faith. He seeks some better world. And although irascible and unlikeable, he somehow manages to find the best and the worst in people, and in apes.

He manages to gain the trust, but not the belief, of educated chimp Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter), an animal psychologist, who does experiments on animals (read, people), and her husband, archaeologist Cornelius (Roddy McDowall). They put their reputations on the line. Both are, in their way, heretics.

Much as would have been the way in living memory in the US, the scientific establishment and the religious establishment are one and the same; the Minister for Science is the Defender of the Faith.

But as the most senior cleric (the religious primate, if you will) and the most influential official in the realm of science, Doctor Zaius (Maurice Evans) knows the secrets. He knows that the bright-eyed human who keeps pointing at his throat, who makes paper aeroplanes despite, as the apes have been told, flight being a scientific impossibility, is dangerous.
I hate every ape I see, from Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Zee.
Zaius knows something, more than anyone else, even Taylor, even the unspoiled audience. 

He knows what sort of movie this is.
I am NOT a missing link.
Officiate at funeral: He was a font of simian kindness. The dear departed once said to me, "I never met an ape I didn't like."
But Taylor acts out, fights his way out and back into the sort of story he thinks he's in. At roughtly the halfway point of the film, he is threatened with emasculation, and so he breaks out of his cage and rampages across town in a tense, funny, excellent sequence, the centrepiece of the film and the threshold between its second and third acts. He invades a funeral, a natural history museum (there is Dodge, stuffed), a market. The apes, a community, violated, become a mob. Taylor is powerless. He breaks the story the only way he can.

He cries out. 
It's a madhouse! A MADHOUSE!
Taylor: Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!
This line derails the film a second time, sends the plot careening down a new direction.

He defies the order of things. He pays for it, might pay a worse price (he is shown would-be hero Landon, a lobotomised vegetable). He declares with this signature line, the pivot on which the film tilts, that he is the human, they are the animals. But he consigns himself to an indeterminate state here, for he makes us question what an animal is.3

Because Taylor is the dirty animal here. These are respectable people. They grieve for their dead. They go to museums and galleries. They buy groceries. He's the one who smells bad, for he is not permitted to wash (and it's something, I think, that when he gains his freedom, real freedom, the first thing he does is have a shave).

He denies it, though. He is not an animal, they are. But he is the one treated as an animal. What is an animal anyway? Isn't it just a label that we assign to excuse abuse?
Dodge: Blessed are the vegetarians. 
I'm vegetarian. I'm not vegetarian because of Planet of the Apes. But it's a vegetarian's movie. In a lot of ways, in showing people caged, whipped, hosed, stuffed, vivisected and neutered, it suggests something about these practices. Because the humans, most of them, to whom these things are done, are dumb animals. But they're people. It's a simple, obvious moral the film draws: how would you like it done to you?

Let's ask again: what's an animal, anyway? No one on the Planet of the Apes seems to know. They put Taylor on trial, before a tribunal of the three wisest of monkeys. But he has no rights, he is a thing. And yet he is still the accused. He is guilty of something. 

He's guilty of blurring the bounds between person and animal. And it's only a step to Cornelius suggesting the dangerous idea: evolution.    
Monkey Trial.
Dr Maximus: Tell us, why are all apes created equal?
Taylor: Some apes, it seems, are more equal than others. 
The Monkey Trial (and it's a Monkey Trial in every possible sense, humorous and otherwise) is there to dispose of Taylor. He's a magnet for a heresy, and Cornelius and Zira are heretics. It's an amusing reversal for Cornelius to assume that apes evolved from a lesser being (humans) – don't be pedantic about Common Ancestors, it's his first try at the theory – but then all the reversals are amusing, and most of them are didactic.

But here at the trial, again, the narrative breaks down. The sitters at the tribunal, sent into a sort of profound loss, break down into the poses of the Three Wise Monkeys: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil.

And of course there's a lot wrong with those monkeys. Sometimes we have to hear even the evils. Sometimes we have to see to confront injustice. Sometimes we have to say words in anger. 
How can the appearance of one mutant send you into a panic?
Taylor: Doctor Zaius, I know who I am. But who are you? How in hell did this upside-down civilisation get started?
Zaius knows, of course. He dynamites an archaeological dig that might prove that people existed before the apes. He admits privately to destroying Landon. He suppresses the knowledge of flight because flight leads to bombs, and bombs leads to apes performing humanity's crimes. He hides these things because he believes he is protecting the apes. He is monkeying around with the truth.

But only to an extent. 
God damn you. DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!
Zaius (tied up): What I know of man was set down long ago, written by the greatest ape of all, our Lawgiver. Cornelius, reach into my pocket. Read to him the twenty-ninth scroll, sixth verse.
Cornelius (reading): Beware the Beast Man. For he is the Devil's Pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport, or lust, or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him. Drive him back into his jungle lair. For he is the harbinger of death.
Zaius: I found nothing in the cave to alter my conception of man, and I still live by its injunction. 
Zaius is, we will learn, right, because he alone knows what sort of movie we are watching, and the big reveal of the film is this. It's not the apes themselves, although it takes until the second act of the film to show us, because this is a film called Planet of the Apes and we are expecting dominant apes to be here eventually. How they are revealed, that's another matter, since the first appearance of the apes denies everything Zaius says. We see gorillas hunting for pleasure, displaying trophies, posing for photographs with the hanging carcases of people. Smile, please.

They're not really people. They're animals. Except they are also people. People are animals.

But then, that's also the business of Scripture, to hold us to a standard higher than we naturally attain, to make us hypocrites in the hope that our hypocrisy will eradicate our hypocrisy. Why wouldn't the apes have a scripture that makes a hypocrite of the one who quotes it?

They're people. or rather, they're all animals, and we're all animals. And when we vivisect, or cage, or whip an animal, we do it in some way to ourselves.

And the Planet of the Apes is, Taylor finds, a thing we brought on ourselves.

Look, Planet of the Apes is not the greatest, deepest film ever made. It's a fun film with a fun, high-concept premise. The black guy dies at the end of the first act. The only named woman with a speaking part is a chimpanzee. There's a lot wrong with it. But people keep asking me, why I bother to write about films like this when I could be writing about Proper Films, stuff that's Important and Artistically Valid and literally, almost, devoid of anything interesting to say other than "Look at me, I'm a Serious Film" like, oh, I don't know, Dunkirk or something. And films like Planet of the Apes, films that ask things, that sneak things by you under hokey premises, films that change what they are right at the end, they're my reason.

This is why I write about film.  

Notes
1The others are Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), Planet of the Apes (Tim Burton's poorly received 2001 remake),  Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017). There was also a Planet of the Apes TV series, which lasted for 14 episodes in 1974, and an animated series, Return to the Planet of the Apes (13 episodes) in 1975.

For what it's worth, I think the only really decent sequel from the original run is Escape, although Beneath, which starts as a fairly pedestrian retread, goes completely bananas (if you'll pardon the expression) in its last half hour. Seriously, it's unhinged. I haven't got to see War yet, but Rise, although uneven and unnecessarily self-referential, is pretty good value, mostly for Andy Serkis as Caesar, and Dawn is an excellent slice of the post-apocalyptic. I'm given to understand that War is at least as good. If you wanted to do a Planet of the Apes marathon, as I have in the past, I recommend Planet of the Apes (1968), Beneath, Escape, Rise, Dawn, and (probably, cautiously) War (although I'll let you know when I know for sure when I see it). Anyway, as much as I am loath to recommend skipping any film with Ricardo Montalban in it, only completists need bother with Conquest and Battle, and you need to avoid Tim Burton's 2001 effort like simian 'flu. (back

2 For example, there's that one episode of The Simpsons (WhenItWasGood) which has this amazing running gag about a musical called Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off! And it is breathtakingly, effortlessly funny, from the breakdancing orangutans singing "Doctor Zaius" in the style of "Rock Me Amadeus", to the amazing deconstruction of the movie ending. And what's most interesting about that is that some of the writers of that hadn't even seen Planet of the Apes.
Doctor Zaius Doctor Zaius, Doctor Zaius Doctor Zaius, Doctor Zaius Doctor Zaius, ohhhh Doctor Zaius
It is legitimately one of those films that's developed enough pop culture heft for people to know about the really famous bits of it, even if they haven't necessarily seen it, so all you have to do is go "he finds the Statue of Liberty and realises he was on Earth all along," and everyone knows what film you're talking about. Just like "This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship," or "I see dead people," or the bit where a monster erupts from John Hurt's chest, or "Here's Johnny!" or "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" or "They're he-ere!" or the UFO that goes doo-doo-doo-doo-DOO and I'd be surprised, genuine, if you couldn't name at least three of those, which is the point. (back)


3The one thing that pissed me off about Rise of the Planet of the Apes was that the line, "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" was put into the mouth of abusive animal keeper Dodge Landon (Tom Felton, yes, Draco Malfoy himself). It was a confused reference, a referential line uttered by a character with a referential name, and neither name nor context made the line make sense. It erased the power of the line, its outrage. (back)

3 comments:

  1. I agree that the Burton effort is feeble. In particular, the ending seems completely pointless. So it's a surprise to find that the ending of the Burton film is actually a lot closer to the ending of the original book than the original film's ending is.

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  2. The book is worth reading, not least for the different approach to the same themes.

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  3. I too have experienced the snobbery that attempts to diminish the power and effectiveness of certain films/genres. PotA is a supreme example of genre-action-scifi that becomes elevated to a "higher power" at its climax.

    It also started Charlton Heston on his apocalypse arc. Which we should all be grateful for.

    I'm jealous of your son though. I knew the ending before watching - the curse of being a young book orientated film enthusiast. Damn you, Alan Frank's Science Fiction & Fantasy Film Handbook!

    As for the Tim Burton excretion which I haven't seen since its release, I seem to recall feeling it fluffed its climax. Towarss the end a small space ship arrives piloted by a chimp. All the apes suddenly down weapons and start worshipping it. I felt what really should have happened was the apes believing that apes had conquered air and space, thus rendering humans pointless so should have slaughtered the rest of them. End of film - and probably too brutal for Hollywood.

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