First things first, a big thank you to Stuart Freeborn, the British make-up artist who passed away last week at the age of 98. If you don’t know the name, chances are you at least know his work. Even Mom has likely marvelled at this artisan’s contributions to an incredible list of film classics: “Oliver Twist” (1948), “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Superman” (the Christopher Reeve films), and of course the inaugural Star Wars trilogy. Among the creatures he’s brought into our lives are Yoda, Chewbacca and “Mr. Tongue” – Jabba the Hutt. As for the subject of this review, Freeborn had his own simian connection. In the Dawn of Man sequence that opens Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” he used animatronics to give the actor/apes a range of expression through make-up. To watch the sequence and wonder what you were looking at, man or beast, says it all.
Now, Happy Birthday to those “damn dirty apes.” Two landmark science fiction movies share a birthday this year, the previously mentioned Kubrick film and another, released 45 years ago this month. “Planet of the Apes” was barely on my radar as a young Homo sapien. I have vague memories of the short-lived television series that aired in ’74, the one co-starring “Apes” regular Roddy McDowall and actor Mark Lenard (Spock’s father), and the Marvel comic tie-ins published in ’75 and ’76, but before long my world would be swallowed by the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek. Happy SF. It’d be years before I’d give this bleak classic its due. The film is based on a novel by French author Pierre Boulle, “La Planete des singes” – “Planet of the Apes” or “Monkey Planet” – about a group of astronauts treated as beasts on an alien planet. Its tag reads, “Where Man is Brute and Ape Intelligent,” the former a key ingredient in any evening newscast.
The damn dirty story. The crew of an American spacecraft succumbs to deep sleep after a six-month mission to the stars. They’re going home, but not one they’re likely to know. Travelling half a year at the speed of light has projected them 700 years into Earth’s future (Special Theory of Relativity stuff). Why then are they being awakened in the year 3978? The ship crash-lands on a breathable planet, in a lake encircled by lifeless canyonlands, as alien a landscape as Luke’s Tatooine or the restrooms in any bus terminal. Of the three survivors, Taylor (Charlton Heston) is leader, gruff, practical and cynical of the world he’s left behind. “Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbors children starving?” He’s ventured into space to find something better.
Their search for life leads them to vegetation, a skinny-dip, then a group of primitive humans without language, wearing Tarzan-approved apparel. They could live here. But the real twist is to come, unvealed in efficient steps using foreshadowing, sound and then movement. In a bizarre about-face, it’s the apes who rule this world. Apes, chimps and orangutans to be exact. Their introduction smacks of some sadistic toy commercial narration: They walk! They talk! They subjugate humans for slavery and scientific experimentation! Taylor is separated from his crewmates in a violent attack and caged in Ape City, a community of crudely carved stone buildings. We’re allowed a bit of fun when the hairy creatures partake in very human acts – kissing, posing for photos and so on. For our newly oppressed hero though the situation is hopeless, but he has caught the eye of one pair of likable chimps, an animal psychologist named Zira (Kim Hunter) and her archaeologist beau Cornelius (Roddy McDowall). She is hopeful that Taylor may be proof of human intelligence, he that Taylor might be a missing link to an ancient species of advanced humans. Both claims are considered heresy against sacred ape texts, and the chief orangutan, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), will have none of it. He will enslave, prosecute, lobotomize and kill humankind before he lets the truth about his world see the light of day.
As is often the fate of the unconventional, “Apes” producer Arthur P. Jacobs initially shopped the Rod Serling (TVs “The Twilight Zone”) screenplay from studio to studio without success. But Heston, an actor ostensibly lured to grand stories across the span of time, was intrigued by the idea and with a major star on board the project finally took (Boulle himself was skeptical of any film potential). Heston recommened Franklin J. Schaffner (“Patton,” “Papillon”) to direct. One of the major concerns of then 20th Century Fox president Richard Zanuck was the creature make-up, specifically whether it would a) suspend disbelief or b) propagate laughter. He wanted ape-thenticity. The studio would get it from John Chambers, a wartime medical technician turned prosthetics designer who would, among other things, father Spock’s ears. He won a special Oscar for his work on the film.
“Apes” is an intelligent costumed morality tale, a 112 minute Star Trek episode with twists (Indeed, Taylor even fights like Kirk). It’s also quite playful. The film is sprinkled with in-jokes for Homo sapien audiences (well, yeah), utterances from simians such as “Human see, human do,” and “I never met an ape I didn’t like,” but as is often the case in speculative fiction, the future is overwhelmingly pessimistic. Of the five films that complete the storyline, only the last, “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (1973), ends with any hint of hope for monkey or man. Until then, major characters are killed off and the Earth even destroyed (by guess who?). Thank god for time travel. Watch all five if you have the chance. The full story arc is more satisfying than any one of the films and plays as somewhat epic. As for “Apes” prime, audiences didn’t much mind the gloom and doom. The movie grossed $32 million and change domestically, nearly 200 million in today’s dollars.
But is it any good? It’s a relative word but after four and a half decades, 4 direct sequels, 2 re-inventions, a multitude of merchandising and a new film in the pipe for 2014, “Apes” couldn’t be accused of inspiring anything less than a cultural phenomenon. Today’s audiences, suckled on less talky, more visually polished SF might find the sculpted Flintstone-ian sets and the lack of an obvious villain a difficult meal. Tim Burton’s 2001 remake corrected these “defects” with more action, improved sets and make-up and a fierce performance by Tim Roth as the power-tripping chimp General Thade, but the enduring themes that gave the original such food for thought (equality, racism, blind faith, mankind’s destructive impulse) were too often masked in crash, boom, bang. This is a large part of the original film’s appeal I think, its critique of mankind using apes as a mirror. Just as World War I had “knocked much of the optimism out of science fiction projections of the future,” so too did Vietnam and the Cold War likely continue to give form to that spectre that mankind was his own worst enemy. The above quote by writer/critic Peter Nichols continues here in reference to “Apes.”
“The old idea that laissez-faire capitalism and the American way of life was bound to be the cultural norm for millennia to come was given a severe bruising by this film…”
I often wonder how New Yorkers react to that unforgettable final scene, the one on the beach, the one that reveals the truth about Taylor’s new home like a slap in the face. After years of seeing their Statue of Liberty broken (“Apes”), decapitated (“Escape from New York”) and entombed in ice (“The Day After Tomorrow”) as a symbol of the West’s fallen king, are they embarrassed? Tickled? Proud? I’m trying to think of a Canadian equivalent. A broken hockey stick perhaps. Damn dirty NHL lockout.