FROM THE ARCHIVES: The original ‘Planet of the Apes’ movies were more complex than you remember

10:18 a.m. Wednesday, July 12, 2017 Movies
A poster for the original "Planet of the Apes"

Assuming Fox can complete the down-to-the-wire post-production, Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes" will open Friday.

Described over and over by Fox press releases as a "re-imagining" of both French author Pierre Boulle's 1963 novel (originally titled "Monkey Planet") and the 1968 film, it is the most anticipated movie of the summer. After all, fans have been hashing over a possible remake for years.

The original "Planet of the Apes" spawned four sequels, one live-action TV show, one animated TV show, a comic book, a rip-off comic book and countless toys and games. 

In time, the films became a staple of hipster pop culture and a subject for academic study. What is it about these movies and their now-primitive special effects (the budgets went down with each successive film) that keeps new generations of fans interested?

On the surface, the films seem simply a strange series of kid's action pictures with minimalist sets and not a single happy ending. But scratch the surface, and the "Apes" cycle reveals itself to be -- intentionally or not (the jury is still out) -- one of the most profoundly pessimistic meditations on race in American film.

In his study, "Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics and Popular Culture" (Wesleyan University Press), Eric Greene, now an attorney and policy wonk with the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles, says: "(The movies were essentially) about difference, fear, guilt, survival, violence and reconciliation."

The first two movies, "Planet of the Apes" and "Beneath the Planet of the Apes, " shoehorned in all sorts of hot '70s topics -- nuclear anxiety, urban decay, skepticism about the space program, youth revolt and the hippie revolt against technology. But by the third film, "Escape, " the films had narrowed their focus to the racial conflicts that make them a continuing source of fascination decades later.

Or maybe there's just something glorious and true about seeing Charlton Heston get a severe beatdown.

Oh, come on, that's gotta be part of it.

'Growing up as a kid, you're not really thinking about the deeper meaning behind what's going on the series, " Sacha Jenkins says from his home in New York. Jenkins is one of those guys that Fox should shower with free movie passes for keeping the Apes flame alive. A 29-year old African American journalist, Jenkins was the co-founder of the late, lamented "Ego Trip, " one of the sharpest, funniest and most entertaining music magazines of the '90s.

The final issue appeared in 1998.

Ego Trip began, as Jenkins puts it, as a "free music 'zine here in New York that covered some alternative rock and punk as well as hip-hop." The staff was multiracial: "(Editor in chief) Jeff Mao is Chinese. (Managing editor) Gabe Alvarez is Mexican. (Editor) Elliot Wilson is black and Ecuadorian and Greek. Racial humor was a big part of our day."

Over time, Ego Trip morphed into something more than the best hip-hop magazine in the world. "Ego Trip evolved from being a music magazine to becoming a race magazine in which we dealt with satire and lots of issues that were taboo. The apes in 'Planet of the Apes' fit right in." Apes references and pictures were often scattered throughout the magazine, symbolizing a stomped-on minority that struck back.

"The filmmakers have always maintained, 'We were just out to entertain, ' that they weren't out to make any sort of social commentary about what life was like for people of color, " Jenkins says. "Well, as a person of color, there are a lot of different themes that, as I got older, really spoke to me."

He wasn't the only one. Michael Atkinson is a film critic who has written on all things ape in his book "Ghost in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema" (Limelight Editions). 

"I was addicted to them as a kid, " Atkinson admits. And Atkinson says that critics at the time weren't all that interested in the deeper themes going on in the films. "They were thought of as kid's movies, sci-fi junk. They were very easily and very conveniently dismissed by everybody. But these movies remain the most scabrous take on racism ever made in Hollywood."

Written (at least in part) by Rod Serling, who stayed faithful to the novel's ideas and heart while dialing down the apes' technical prowess, "Planet of the Apes" stars Charlton Heston as Taylor, a misanthropic astronaut who lands on a planet ruled by highly evolved apes. His two companions, one white and one black, are quickly neutralized. Humans are little more than wild animals and used for study by the apes, who consider them a threat (the apes' "Sacred Scrolls" depict humans as a profoundly destructive species). 

Heston convinces some friendly chimps named Cornelius and Zira that humans are intelligent, but the orangutan leadership, represented by the vaguely genocidal Dr. Zaius, wants to make sure the talking human remains safely locked up and ultimately castrated. Zira and Cornelius help Taylor escape into the Forbidden Zone, an area of deserted land into which apes are not allowed to go. There, Taylor realizes that he is on Earth, 2000+ years in the future, signified by the famous image of the half-buried Statue of Liberty.

Welp.

While the racial issue was ultimately the most critical to the film's arc, other hot-button late '60s concerns are all over "Planet." 

In portraying ape society as pre-industrial, the film introduces a hippieish, back-to-basics setting that would have resonated with contemporary audiences. American ambiguity concerning the space program is spelled out in the ship's crash landing and in Taylor himself: He is an astronaut because he was fed up with humanity, not because his discoveries would aid anyone on Earth.

Taylor himself is a profoundly counter-cultural fellow, "so deeply conflicted, that he's the perfect audience identification figure, " says the ACLU's Eric Greene from his office in L.A.

Atkinson sees Heston's performance in "Planet" as one of its most intriguing features, a combination of cynical anti-authoritarianism and libertarian self-reliance. "Up until 'Planet, ' Heston's characters were kind of pious and noble. It was kind of boring, " he says. "But Taylor is just this misanthrope who's ready to just grab a gun and take care of things. . . This movie ends with him going into the Forbidden Zone with nothing more than a gun and a loincloth, and you have the sense that he's still probably thinking, 'This is still better than if I'd stayed at home.' "

Says Greene: "All he's missing is a six-pack."

Initially, it seems as if "Planet" will fall into the same racial mathematics that plague dozens and dozens of simple-minded movies. 

"In the first film, there were three astronauts and one was a black gentlemen, " Jenkins says. "The joke has always been that (in most movies) the black guy dies first. Well, in this film, the black guy dies first."

But it soon becomes clear there's a much more intriguing dynamic at work.

"Historically, whites have associated apes or monkeys with African Americans. Images of apes have been used to belittle people of color, " Jenkins says. "Well, in this film, the apes are running (things)." 

And there are layers upon layers of racial commentary in the apes world. "Within the ape culture, there are issues of color and class,” Jenkins says. “The lighter-skinned orangutans (such as Dr. Zaius) are the law of the land, and then you had the chimps, (such as Zira and Cornelius) who were brown-skinned, who were educated, but on a lower class than the lighter-skinned apes. (Zira) was battling to . . . be recognized as an equal. The really dark-skinned apes (the gorillas) were always (angry military leaders). They were always unreasonable. And then you had the humans, who were white and savages."

As Taylor cracks at one point, paraphrasing George Orwell: "Some apes are more equal than others."

Ape racial issues color the first, second and fifth film most heavily. The orangutans are haughty and elitist, the gorillas simple-minded and resentful. The chimps are the only ones portrayed as fair-minded, but they are a powerless, professional-class bourgeoisie, caught between the gorilla military and the orangutan aristocracy, forced to elicit favor with both though they disdain each. And Zaius and Taylor are essentially two halves of the same complex coin.

"Theirs is easily the most interesting relationship in the film," Atkinson says. "Taylor and Zaius can't talk to each other without speechifying."

Says Greene, "Taylor's ultimate irony is that he doesn't like humans any more than Zaius does. This guy who loathes humanity is suddenly thrust into the role of rebuilding human society." 

But Taylor's discovery that he is on a bombed-out earth proves the apes' "scared scrolls" -- and Taylor's misanthropy -- correct: Humans are incurably destructive.

The point is made in the sequel, "Beneath the Planet of the Apes." "Beneath" takes up some of the nonracial anxieties introduced in "Planet." Vast areas of New York are shown buried and destroyed, a fear that certainly played into an era when urban unrest and governmental dysfunction were seemingly intractable facts of life. "Beneath" also spotlights a group of mutant humans who worship an atomic bomb, an even less subtle take on Cold War mania than Kubrick's eternal shot of Slim Pickens straddling a nuke in "Dr. Strangelove." Taylor, held prisoner by the mutants, detonates the bomb at the end of the film, destroying the world.

Yes, that is a nuke they're worshiping in "Beneath..."

Atkinson sees this scene as the apex of the relationship between Taylor and Zaius. "When Taylor is shot and asks Zaius for help, Zaius essentially says, 'I'm not gonna help you, you're a man.' " 

While Atkinson believes that Taylor's destruction of the world is supposed to be "accidental, " Greene sees something far more sinister. 

As he puts it, "rather than see the rising tide of color engulf him, Taylor, the representative of the white West, destroys the whole world." Greene admits that he went back and forth on this interpretation quite a bit: "Taylor's plea for help doesn't make sense if he's going to intentionally blow up the world, but after (his wife-like companion) Nova's been killed, Taylor just says, "Why not?"

Racial chaos, nuclear anxiety, Western expansionism and mutants: the "Apes" series had all the bases covered. But it was just warming up.

Though it may seem illogical to make a sequel to a movie in which the world has just ended, "Escape from the Planet of the Apes" offered its own, more explicit, racial logic. 

Gone (for this film, at least) were the nuances of intra-ape racial difference; the overt conflict between ape and man took center stage. 

Race had finally subsumed all of the other themes, and would be the central operating metaphor from here on out. “These next three movies work far better than 'Beneath, '” Greene says.

In "Escape, " Cornelius and a pregnant Zira go back in time to 1973, where the charming, intelligent apes first become a media fad and are then hunted down and killed by the government, in a mirror image of Dr. Zaius' paranoia from the earlier films.

Three chimps in spacesuits who have come back in time in “Escape the Planet of the Apes.” Beat that, Spider-Man.

In "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, " set in 1991, apes, not yet hyperintelligent, are turned into personal slaves by an increasingly fascistic government after the cats and dogs all die. 

Zira and Cornelius' son, Caesar, becomes a personal slave to the governor, and gains the trust of the governor's African American aid, McDonald. ("(McDonald) is sort of a Harriet Tubman figure, " Jenkins says; Atkinson sees him as a voice of reason who is "despised by both sides.") 

When Caesar's best human friend, Armando (the weirdly charming, scenery-chewing Ricardo Montalban) is killed by the government, Caesar becomes radicalized, convinced that human society must be overthrown by force. 

Ape uprising in "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes." Oh, it's on.

Caesar arms the apes and they rebel, overthrowing the human government. But thanks to intercessions from McDonald and Caesar's ape wife Lisa (and a nervous production team), he refrains from massacring the now-defenseless humans.

"But nobody bought that tacked-on ending, " Atkinson says.

In the 1998 documentary "Behind the Planet of the Apes, " Fox executives admit that the ape rebellion was modeled on Los Angeles' 1965 Watts riots, and that African American audiences identified with the uprising, cheering as Caesar overthrew his oppressors. 

Jenkins admits stealing a scene from the film for one of Ego Trip's house ads, which always featured an old back-and-white photo set off by a famous line from a hip-hop song. "One shot (from 'Conquest' features) these darker-skinned apes surrounding this white guy; they all have the butts of their guns aimed at the white guy's head. Our caption was: 'The ghetto's trying to kill me' (from Master P's song of the same name). It's role reversal at the highest level. You know, 'Yeah, you call us monkeys, well, in this world the monkeys are running things, and guess what? Now the ghetto is trying to kill you. Now you understand how black youth feel when they're being surrounded by cops and the butts of their guns."'

By the fifth and final "Apes" movie, "Battle for the Planet of the Apes, " the series was getting long in the tooth, but the politics hadn't gotten any less interesting. 

A few years after "Conquest, " Caesar is now the ape leader; "An autocratic ruler, " as Atkinson puts it. A nuclear war has wiped out much of humanity, and the remaining humans and apes are attempting co-existence, the apes suddenly having learned to speak. Humans essentially remain second-class citizens, with McDonald as their leader. (In an intriguing parallel with contemporary use of a different n-word, apes are allowed to say "no" to each other, but humans are forbidden to say "no" to apes, as the apes heard it all too often during their slave days.) 

A less radical Caesar is trying to keep the peace, but the gorilla general Aldo decides to exterminate the humans once and for all. After a bloody battle in which Aldo kills Caesar's son and Caesar kills him in revenge, Caesar grimly attempts to put human-ape society back together.

The ape council chopping it up in "Battle for the Planet of the Apes."

Flash forward 600 years: An orangutan Lawgiver (john Houston!) is telling a human and ape group about Caesar. It seems as if there is some peace in the valley, but a final shot of a statue of Caesar shows the statue weeping, as if he knows what's in store for the future. 

As Atkinson puts it, "Remember, the end of 'Battle' is still far in the past in relation to the first film. The audience knows that by the time of the first movie, the Lawgiver, who's giving us a supposedly happy ending, will be elevated by future apes into this sort of conservative, medieval (deity)."

It's a mighty ambiguous ending to one mind-bendingly complicated series. “No one gets off the hook in these films,” Greene says. "Everyone is equally capable of sin, and everyone is equally capable or incapable of redemption."

Even after the films' conclusion, the story wasn't over. 

The original five movies became TV staples, often shown back-to-back. They were hits in other countries as well, resonating with both Western colonizing powers and the colonized. 

Two television series tried to add to the "Apes" mythos, but only made things more gloriously confusing. Roddy McDowell showed up as yet another ape in the live-action TV series, unrelated to the Cornelius/Caesar family, but equally interested in the day-to-day elements of ape society. 

The animated show -- which Greene thinks addressed some anxieties regarding the Vietnam War-- suddenly showed the apes with airplanes, contradicting the tech level of the earliest films, but bringing it in line with the Pierre Boulle novel.

Ape soldiers getting orders in the animated "Return to the Planet of the Apes"

Comic books, which in pre-video game American held a far greater cultural sway among kids, got into the act. 

Marvel produced a popular black-and-white magazine, but it was DC that captured the spirit of the apes the best. 

So elastic was the talking-animals-as-thematic-vector concept that DC Comics, uh, paid tribute to it with "Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth." 

Written and drawn by comic-book legend Jack Kirby, Kamandi took themes, concepts and settings from "Planet of the Apes" and cubed them. Portrayed floating past a sunken Statue of Liberty on the cover of the first issue, Kamandi was the last human on a planet ruled by talking animals of all stripes: tigers, dogs, cats, snakes -- everything but horses, which would have been a little too Mr. Ed to cut it. (And now that the tigers were walking upright, they of course had to ride on something.)

If the "Apes" saga was at heart about race, then Kamandi managed to toss every social anxiety of the early '70s -- everything the first film tried to address and more -- into its thick stew: UFOs, environmental damage, Watergate. (At one point, our hero finds the missing 18 minutes of Nixon tapes -- and no, he doesn't get to hear what's on them.) 

A panel from "Kamandi." No matter how hard you think it rocks, it actually rocks harder.

If the apes films had attempted to keep addressing everything at once, they probably would have ended up looking and feeling like Kamandi -- clever and entertainingly bizarre, but ultimately too unwieldly to deal with anything in more than a cursory fashion.

By 2001 (in our world) the apes have become a genuine pop culture staple. Ape conventions kept the franchise alive throughout the '70s and '80s. Japanese clothing lines feature apes, "The Simpsons" make jokes about them, and Jenkins takes something of a been-there-done-that attitude toward the late '90s ape explosion. "When we were really pushing it, everyone was on the 'Star Wars' tip; there was no love for the apes, " he says.

And Jenkins doesn't hold out much hope for Burton's new movie, preferring the original's charmingly fly-by-night production values. "I dunno, those new apes . . . if you look at the crowd scenes from the old movies, the apes in the background look like they're wearing a cut-up baseball mitt. These new apes just look like something straight off of Broadway. Those background apes didn't look good, but they had heart."

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