Last year Dawn of the Planet of the Apes navigated its change of cast and director to match the critical acclaim and exceed the box office of its predecessor. Already raking in more than the original five film cycle, Fox’s key apocalyptic franchise is clearly back to stay. And Hollywood is richer for it.
In the first of four simian long reads, Jokerside looks to the far future of Pierre Boulle’s original novel and the two Charlton Heston starring adaptations that kicked off one of Hollywood’s major franchises by ending the world…
THE APES ARE BACK. IN SO MANY WAYS THE ARCHETYPAL ACTION FRANCHISE, PLANET OF THE APES IS ALSO ONE OF THE STRANGEST. It’s the first two scenes of 2001 all wrapped up, when it wants to be. It’s humanoids versus humanoids, but not one of them is an invader from outer space. These aren’t machines from the future, but ambassadors from hummanity’s past. Man’s destruction may lie in his own hands, but the winners aren’t built by them; it’s anti-robot to the point of schadenfreude. Not only are apes waiting for man at the end of time, but against all odds, technology in the thrall of the cosmic joker, serves up a man of our contemporary to witness it. It’s one thing that man is destined to destroy himself, but quite another that he’s forced into subjugation, robbed of almost everything, even language, only for a cynical, desperate forefather visit the future to witness it. That just rubs salt in the wounds of our mute, enslaved, distant ancestors. There’s no simple extinction to offer man an easy way out of this universe. The apes are coming and it’s a good thing that Creationists will have stopped reading by now…
Post-apocalyptic action-fiction has never waned since its inception – around about the publication of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man in 1826. And she was no one hit wonder. 189 years later, this year has seen George Miller’s Mad Max bring the genre resoundingly back to the cinema. But a few years ago, Fox’s greatest franchise found a less bombastic way to drag its own brand of dystopian horror back to the big screen. That’s proved a great success. In creating two superb, intelligent and brilliantly produced films during this ‘reboot’ Fox has somehow managed to gross over a billion dollars. It elevates a franchise that burned so brightly through the late 1960s and early 1970s before floundering for three decades – and just about disguising the fact that the Apes films were never riddled with quality as much as they were ambition. Still, on their celluloid attack, the real strength still comes from dipping into the marvellously broad canvas painted by a trinket of a book published in 1963.
Pierre Boulle’s La Planète des Singes is a quite extraordinary book. Looking at it from the distance of eight films it’s easy to see where the franchise’s many splintering points came from. In its pages are laid out the full range of issues, plots and general potential that the series would pick up on at various points, forming the foundation of many sequels that could take markedly different slants. And thanks to various scriptwriters, and particularly the legendary Paul Dehn, different points of time too. Boulle is arguably better known for penning The Bridge over the River Kwai, but between that and the Apes legacy that he stamped an impressive and lasting footprint on Hollywood. And the late writer still lays claim to the shortest Oscar acceptance speech in history (“Merci”).
Boulle’s academic approach to Singes helped to build its compelling potential, although that’s not an especially rare quality. Verne, Wells and many other writers who have touched such ‘science fiction’ have had subsequent adaptations spill out with remarkably varied IQs. There really isn’t anything that can’t be dumbed down. But what’s impressive about the Apes films is that, even at their weakest, they ooze ambition, talent and potential. And the colossus film franchise that is fast approaching its fiftieth anniversary still hasn’t touched on all the intriguing parts of Boulle’s fable.
La Planète des Singes (Novel, 1963)
“A chilling and observational work”
That book was published five years before the first film adaptation. It’s not alone in examining such themes or presenting a future where humanity has succumbed to the animals it takes for granted. But it’s not quite what an avid film watcher may expect.
If you listed the key themes of Planet of the Apes, chances are that ontological paradox would pop up somewhere near the top. But that element wasn’t opened up until the third film of the original film cycle. The early films, as with Boulle’s novel, find far more interest in the inherent self-destruction and controlling power of destiny in man. Sure it’s time travel that allows us that realisation, but that’s more a general by-product of inter-stellar travel. Any hint of temporal paradox or the disturbance created by man’s arrival falls ambiguously at the end of the novel, with the conclusion of the main protagonist Ulysses’ trip and the framing narrative of two not-so-mysterious space travellers.
Singes is a chilling and observational work, gamely written and moving skillfully from pathos to humour. Boulle takes time to present many a dead-end to fuel his dedication to rejection and futility. Yes, destiny is most certainly in play – culminating in an ending that set the template for the desolation that the films iconically seized on.
“A clash of atavism”
The narrative shortening of the first film, made in 1968, makes for a punchy pace, but loses much of Boulle’s compelling commentary. Ulysse Mérou the book’s journalist hailing from the year 2,500 becomes Taylor, the broken space commander of the 20th century (talk of the Class of ’72 places it very near future from the 1960s). The wealthy explorer Professor Antelle morphs from visionary scientist into the far more idealistic crew member Landon, soon captured by the apes. While the film has Landon suffer a lobotomy at the hands of the orang-utangs, for admittedly slightly ambiguous reasons, in the novel the great scientist Antelle slips into a regressive animal state to match the future humans. That’s never explained, but in its way it’s captivatingly explicable.
The novel presents the history of the rise of the apes through a chilling and lengthy last act exposition, while the adaptation presents those outstanding questions as the cynical Taylor’s fuel. In the book, humankind were overthrown by apes. That kind of demise, falling as it does on human apathy, doesn’t make for the strongest film material but the films have stuck by it, albeit adding their own flourishes. Boulle’s presentation remains the most visceral, despite its heightened science. It’s stark and horrific, particularly when that exposition is transmitted through the race memory of a captive human – a clash of atavism, torture through science.
“Alas, I did not yet know the blindness of orang-utans!”
Boulle’s tome is also dominated by the application of science and philosophy. Much of it provided by Ulysse’s need to convince the apes of their close links to humanity. That flashback to the fall of man runs very similarly to the origin of the Matrix, as laid down by the brothers Wachowski three decades later. But while that science fiction franchise questioned reality, vast swathes of Singes are devoted to a clash of sciences. Once Ulysse uses it to prove himself to the apes he further uses it to argue his position. We’re told about the Pavlovian techniques that Ulysse recognises when he is first captured and see the stroke of luck that has him remember AJ Kinnaman’s work on observational learning from the early 20th century. Then there’s Ulysses’ astonishingly good grasp of evolutionary theory and his ability to communicate his intelligence through the rules of Pythagoras and Euclid. Remembering that he’s a journalist, he grows into a personification of human learning and discovery.
Rightly, there is no shared language between man and ape as there is in the convenience of the film universe. On screen, the apes inherited their language from the American population who came before them, in the book there’s very little reason to think this isn’t Soror (although the translation of this Latin into English as “sister” is a sly wink) One of the film’s major though effective pieces of narrative shortening is the larynx injury that stops Taylor communicating with the English speaking apes for some time. In Singes, rather wonderfully, the apes have a far greater ability for language learning and it is Zira who learns French to initially communicate with Ulysse. While that’s symptomatic of the deeper differences between animal and human that Boulle examines at length, one of the most interesting facet of this divided Ape society doesn’t make it off the page.
“The scientific spirit ignores all self-esteem”
The fixed state of Ape civilisation, held static between linked science and religion where guns and cameras have mixed with horse transport and crude dwellings for centuries, is most satisfyingly represented in the book. There, comes more than a suggestion that Ape society is not stagnant thanks to the vast weight of religion and fear, but because they are innately limited by their skills of mimicry. Their education system, purely based on imitation leads every ape to repeat the mistakes of his ancestors and had ensured almost two thousand years of minimal progress since ape society astonishingly sprung up some 10,000 years before. This is not a society built by standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s a realisation that dawns in Ulysse’s mind as he observes the slow experimentation and mimicry tests that the apes run on thousands of humans. It’s a brilliant conceit, but again it’s one that can’t carry through to film, even though science does. On the big screen, the missing knowledge of man’s fate becomes a more pressing consideration than the apes’ restricted development. And those questions come to sustain the whole series. Having reached the 21st century reboot, where science is even more tightly woven into the fabric, these themes are still waiting to be seized.
An iconic representation of that same futility.
At the end of the novel, having successfully proved himself, Ulysse’s fate is assured by the son he bears with contemporary female Nova: Sirius, the precocious tot who can walk and talk at three months. His son’s name, not simply thefrom the greek or “glowing”, but the brightest star visible on Earth. This is of course the reverse of the plot point that the franchise would pick up alongside paradox in its third film. When the family make their escape to Ulysses’ orbiting ship, thanks to the apes’ inability to tell one human apart from another, the human family finds themselves returning to an Earth strangely contemporary to our own. Except for the fact that it’s over-run with Apes. Could this really be the Earth of the far future where humans have also inevitably succumbed to the apes?
When the adaptation came out five years later its ending would take that lead, but provide a shortened, wrenchingly definitive and iconic shorthand for that same futility. The ending of Tim Burton’s later reboot would have more In in common with Boulle’s. On the page, he heven provides a further kick as the civilised apes who’d discovered Ulysse’s manuscript dismiss the lost journalist’s tale out of paw.
Planet of the Apes (Film, 1968)
“Somewhere in the Universe, there must be something better than man!” – Tagline
What a miserable git. Unlike the questioning journalist of the book, Charlton Heston’s Taylor is a defeatist – unbelievably compelled to search out something better than man because it simply has to exist. It’s more filmic shorthand of course, energetically brought to life by Heston, an inspired cast and confident film-making. The adaptation provides plenty of outlets for the science of the story, but wisely prefers to dwell on the tangible savagery of this bleak future. Like Boulle’s novel, the film starts with a space flight, even showing the universe through multiple galaxies, dispensing with the spacefaring ape couple Boulle had framing his tale.
One way ticket
“The men who sent us on our journey are well and truly dead”
It’s Dr Hassleins’s theory that propels the crew in on Antelle’s Quatermain like quest. Hasslein would come to figure prominently in the film franchise, but here it’s part of a stirring and observational speech of speculation as Taylor chomps on a cigar, waxing about an Earth already 700 years beyond his time. He ponders whether man has changed for the better as he brushes off the mundanity of time dilation. It’s a great opening, as Taylor then falls to his cryo-sleep as the titles boldy announce where he’s heading. Along with the creepy discordant score, it’s all very compelling… And bluntly followed by a marvellous crashing scene that montages landscapes brightly and crisply. There’s no doubt that this is a suicide mission. And that’s spelled out by the horror of crew member Stewart’s fate, a freak accident that seemingly condemns mankind. A functional kind of man, Taylor later sinisterly recalls her as their intended new Eve.
From the very start there’s that futility, something Taylor relishes when he sees they’ve arrived in 3978AD… Before he almost loses it at the sight of a planted American flag. “It’s a fact Landon, buy it. You’ll sleep better”. Taylor is deeply unhinged to begin with. He describes himself as “negative but not prepared to die”, a strange self-analysis but one that sets him up for a singular quest in this story. A story devoted to destiny, his survival can’t be a coincidence – it may even be the product of his rather fractured of cryo-infused mind were it not for the sequels. His conviction that there just has to be something better than man all points to that iconic conclusion. As it turns out, his crew mates are lucky enough to escape the true reality.
“Okay, we’re here to stay”
320 light years away, in the constellation of Orion we’re told the sun is too red to be Bellatrix. Just like the book, this planet is clearly labelled as not being Earth. An similar to Boulle’s text (which never suggests the planet as Earth), this is the only sleight of hand in a narrative that puts most of its store in the vicarious travails of Ulysse and Taylor. The film replaces many of the novel’s neat precursor’s – like the unfortunate demise of the astronaut’s chimpanzee Hector at the hands of mute humans – with prescient quips and jokes. There’s Taylor’s dissection of Landon’s character (“But never let it be said we forget our heroes”) that looks to the film’s ending. There’s the meta joke about how any future humans may see them – as if they’d “jumped out of a tree”.
Enter the Apes
“Blessed are the vegetarians”
Taylor’s crew don’t land on an immediately lush world. It’s all prehistoric wasteland until they discover an oasis of a waterfall, like in the book, that dispels any hydrophobia they may have developed when their ship crashed in a lake. After discovering footprints and the loss of their clothes, these naked men find circumstance robs them of both their future and their façade. By making semi-clothes from the rags they come across, they reach packs of humans in full gatherer mode, having almost slipped into native character without realising it.
Again, fuelling destiny as well as narrative convenience, Taylor almost immediately locks eyes with mute human Nova. A moment of calm before the storm, when the horse-riding gorillas track, capture and kill humans in an evocative scene. Director Franklin J. Schaffner brings great scope to the film throughout, in part thanks to his strong decision that the apes society would be primitive, and after some stunning vistas here’s the real deal. First we hear them, then see the rise of the obscured beaters behind the long grass, then the horse legs, then the guns… Murder.
And then the faces.
As the Gorillas spring traps, Dodge is shot, Landon injured and captured and even Taylor caught with a convenient neck injury. A long scene, all score and gun fire that’s savage and effective. Captured and alone, there’s a good opportunity for Taylor to look at this ape culture, from their photo shoots next to their captive trophies to their medical units of their behavioural psychologists. As the humans are hosed down, Taylor’s bewilderment quickly turns to horror. Apes treat the humans as they treat apes. It’s a mad house as Taylor rather condescendingly points out, neatly skirting the need for too much advanced scientific reasoning.
Reason and Control
“Man has no understanding… You are a menace, a walking pestilence”
Orang-utang Zaius makes an early appearance, Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith, he’s in favour of experimental brain surgery but not Zira’s behavioural work. And all in all he’s the darkest character in the piece. His role, one he’s happy to state is not contradictory, is a fascinating one in the apes’ mono-theistic religion. It crucially rejects the concept of evolution, and Zaius is an ape who knows when not to let facts get in the way of the status-quo. In fact it’s very much his job description, and we find out that his hypocrisy is well thought out and well implemented. As Taylor points out, Zaius can see the danger of a single talking man in spite of ape supremacy. This reason holds until the end when, in the forbidden Eastern Desert that’s described as deadly by the Apes’ ancient lawgiver, the man who desperately needs an explanation finds out why ape society refuses to accept it.
“Sustain all objections, but face the truth!”
Zira’s fiancé Cornelius is an archaeologist with the same ideas as his literary counterpart, but far more in the thrall of the imposing council, of which Zaius is a key member. Again, it’s a sign of narrative shortening, but one that had no ill effect on the career of the actor behind the mask, Roddy McDowall. It does serve to make Zira’s affection for Taylor a little stranger, but in a film where the abuse and maltreatment are pared down the other side must follow suit. Kim Hunter’s Zira is left to fill the key emotional role and the simplicity of her later throwaway line that does wonders (“you’re so damned ugly”).
“It’s a mad house! A mad house!”
What’s crucial is the film’s strict adherence to the societal breakdown of the book. Gorillas take roles as hunters, workers and soldiers while chimpanzee are intellectuals and scientists. In-between, holding it all together, are the political and religious administrator orang-utangs. And never the twain shall meet. Quite what happened to lower apes we’ll never know. We see most of their society during Taylor’s justly famous escape. Scaring apes small and large as he runs past a memorial gorilla service, into a museum and the human section where he finds his fellow crew member Dodge – now a taxidermied exhibit. Heston’s never better than when, trapped by group hatred leads, he’s captured and finds his voice just in time for that famous line.
“Take your stinking paws off me you dirty damn ape”
Taylor’s returning voice lets the film gear up considerably. Nova gets her name as their “partnership” flowers, while not exploring the same depths of human and animal sexuality as the book. But the revolutionary Taylor doesn’t get the publicity or acceptance of his literary counterpart. His one-sided trial is the equivalent of Ulysse’s scientific lecture, only this time the protagonist is guaranteed to fail – a fact later spelled out by Zaius. It’s fairly remarkable how quickly this staid system can arrange exhibits, but it all works to the moment when Landon’s lobotomy is revealed. It’s chilling. There’s none of mystery of old Antelle’s fall in the book, there is little conjecture left to the viewer – although Zaius’ explanation doesn’t contradict what we saw earlier.
“You cut his brain you bloody baboon”
Oddly, Taylor’s escape with the help of his chimpanzees friends carries less danger than Ulysses’, although that would be picked up two films down the line. Rather than escape for survival, Taylor’s journey is mainly propelled by the question of ape supremacy. Cornelius’ cave holds a number of clues – the evidence that the planet once had a human population, the quartz arrow heads and gorilla bones from 1,300 years before, a hundred years before the completion of the apes’ sacred scrolls. It’s a great scientific conceit and faithful to the book – the questions around the disappeared civilisation, of the society that becomes less advanced in that time. The glasses, false teeth, pace maker. And particularly the speaking human doll, a narrative masterstroke and all the more chilling when it’s cast back down into the cave. Disproving the society may be an odd hook for the close of a film, but it’s what wrenches this story firmly out of pulp.
“If man was superior, why didn’t he survive?”
There’s the suggestion that man was wiped out by plague that the franchise would return to some 40 years later, another of the alternate timelines. But really, the cause means little in the face of Zaius’ knowing fear, the inevitability of every time line and the words of the Lawgiver:
“Beware the beast man, for he is the devil’s pawn… 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”
As sacred as this may be, it’s not quite as chilling as Zaius’ knowing signoff: “Don’t look for it Taylor. You may not like what you find”
It’s a quite extraordinary moment when we and Taylor realise we’re on the north eastern coast of America. It almost defies a twist; it’s so well captured it couldn’t help but achieve immediate fame. With that shot of the Statue of Liberty and Taylor’s seaside breakdown, the question may remain unanswered but it leaves no doubt that man had run out of time. To answer Taylor’s film-long question, is there something better than man? No. Taylor’s one hope is utterly crushed. Seeing such hate against his own race is an extraordinary way to close a film, but it’s undeniably iconic. And as it’s utterly finite it could only lead to a franchise in Hollywood, although that final shot would set both a high-bar and a trap for the films that followed.
“Oh my God, I’m back. I’m home. All the time it was. We finally really did it. You maniacs.”
But it wasn’t quite the end.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
“The bizarre world you met in ‘Planet of the Apes’ was only the beginning… What lies beneath may be the end!” – tagline
Two years after the apes success at the box office came the strangest of sequels – an immediate retooling of the first, working with and against expectations. From the beginning, the first film brought doom in spades. That ramped up futility is even more chilling as Beneath’s titles roll over a repeat of the first film’s climax, from the crashing waves of a sea that endures, to Cornelius’ re-reading of the Lawgiver’s judgement on men… And then Taylor’s soul-crushing discovery.
Beneath is obsessed with man’s self-destruction and nuclear annihilation; while men have survived their earlier apocalypse, there is a worse fate to come. Thanks to its ‘even more finite ending’, it’s tempting to label the second instalment the most nihilistic of the Apes films. But with another six and counting films to follow it’s not unique in its despair. Watching Taylor’s glorious few moments of optimism snatched away again it’s easy to forget that at least the first film started with a few minutes of hope ….
The plot thickens
“My God, it’s a city of Apes”
Beneath confronts its sequel status head-on. Now carrying the fleeting possibility of beating humanity’s future, Taylor and Nova ride into the Forbidden Zone – before he promptly disappears for the majority of the film and, as Heston intended, the script. Incredibly, the consistency with the first film was limited. Boulle’s story concept was rejected. McDowell, director Schaffner and Jerry Goldsmith were all taken up on other productions and Heston was only persuaded to undertake eight days filming on the understanding that his fee would go to charity and crucially, Taylor was killed off. So thanks to Heston, the Apes story took a turn for the even more finite. Fortunately another crashed flight brings us the Taylor-like Brent to carry the plot, played by James Franciscus. The concept of a search mission is a narrative misstep, considering how futile Taylor’s flight was in the first place. And particularly odd considering, time anomalies aside, how quickly it arrives after the first crash. But otherwise, Brent and our knowledge, as well as his luck at coming across the abandoned Nova, propels us into familiar territory. We can only presume that the ship dating of 3955, 23 years prior to Taylor’s departure, was a malfunction. It’s the same year, and refreshingly Brent isn’t cut from the same defeatist cloth as Taylor.
Small screen distraction
“Only good human is a dead one”
Lighting would strike three times when, ten years later, Virdon and Burke’s crashed on the same planet in the Planet of the Apes television series. While Taylor’s arrival is referenced as occurring a decade before that show, those astronauts crew is identified as having travelled through a time-warp and chronologically it has to take place in an alternate future created by the events that take place just after this film. In the present however, we are undoubtedly witnessing the very end of man.
And there’s no hanging around at the end of the world. Franciscus’ Brent spies a meeting in the same amphitheatre where Taylor discovered Landon’s fate. And now, possibly thanks to Taylor’s appearance, the military Gorillas are in the ascendance. Their rise, as we will come to see is a recurring theme in ape society, but fortunately Zaius is there too, still played by the peerless Maurice Evans – even on form in an unexpected ape sauna scene.
“Did we finally really do it?”
The twist of the first film is also brought forward to 40 minutes in when Brent discovers he’s in Queenboro Plaza subway, undeniably New York. And that’s when he goes a little bit Taylor. Despite some earlier chances to explore other parts of Ape society like Gorilla boot camp, and some incredibly unsettling horse stunts, the danger of this sequel is its far lighter plot and little chance that it can overcome the answers set by its predecessor. For much of the film a far more linear script has Brent and Nova jumping from chase to chase. Brent can’t rise above being a Taylor clone, adding an odd sort of tension when they meet at the end. When forced to fight, it’s a strange Superman versus Batman scrap – impossible to root for either, all the way up to Nova symbolically (re)discovering her voice. “Talylah”. In her way, unwittingly echoing the first talking she-ape (as we will see in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes). As much as this strange love triangle was brought about by events on the other side of the camera, it’s rather fitting at the end of the world. That space program sure bred its astronauts similar.
But fate is not merely concerning itself with man here. As ape society faces famine, the Forbidden Zone is presents sudden walls of flame, random electric storms and splitting canyons. Along with Taylor’s disappearance, there’s far more out there than the secrets of man’s disappearance.
“Get out of my head!”
Sure enough, after Brent and Nova are guided into a trap that compel them to try and murder the other we meet the ornately dressed and apparently mute humans of the beneath. The opening one-sided conversation is satisfyingly freaky, and a stand out of the film. Of course, these humans turn out not to be mute, but they have been ravaged by the city’s radiation and developed considerable telepathic powers to match their mutated bodies. And incredibly, they worship what they call the Holy Weapon of Peace – not just an atomic bomb but a doomsday bomb – letting the film ramp up a gross distortion of Christianity around this “Mighty and everlasting” weapon. When the masks later slip and their hideous mutated faces are revealed we’re treated to a surreal corruption of All Things Bright and Beautiful.
The Keepers of the Divine Bomb
“Oddly making Brent kiss Nova near to death…”
Even minutes before the end, there is yet more misery for humanity. Cursed and diseased by the world their ancestors created, these humans are still trying to understand if the apes want war or peace. With little fight left, all this last vestige of humanity has to offer are telepathic deterrents, affecting the minds of all who come near. Weapons of Peace. Mere illusions. They are a people so peaceful that they refuse to kill; they compel their enemies to kill each other for them.
Still, this subterranean humanity of the future is ruthless, and odd; they make Brent kiss Nova near to death to get the behind the twosome’s appearance. Above, the bizarre march of the Gorillas to the wasteland, with the ever present Zaius (the only one other than Taylor to beat the illusions), adds to the extraordinary inevitability. On their march, the apes encountering the ruined city of the New York is another highlight.
“What a lovely souvenir from the 21st century”
Nova’s demise robs the film of another slice of hope, painting Taylor into a proto- Mad Max role as the Gorilla hordes spill into the church. While they seek to pull the bomb down against Zaius’ advice, first Taylor is shot, then the general taken down. Brent, slain like a martyr, rightly leaves the only man qualified to have his hand on the global off switch in exactly that position. And so it’s Taylor who detonates the Doomsday weapon and ends it all.
“A green and insignificant planet… Is now dead” runs the looming narration.
In just over three hours of film humanity had been through the wringer, with any remaining hope dashed at every turn as we powerlessly proceeded to witness the end of the world. And in the end it had to be Taylor who “finally did it”.
“It’s doomsday, the end of the world…”
But just as everything had to finish, they were just about to begin.