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Those Damn Dirty Apes: Our Guide to 40 Years of “Planet of the Apes,” Part 2

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By Matt Singer

[Check out Part 1.]

When we last left our intrepid heroes, they were dead. Along with the entire planet Earth. The end!

But not so fast — Fox wanted more sequels. With no way to pull a mulligan on the whole “You maniacs! You blew it up!” thing, screenwriter Paul Dehn came up with a clever way to have his Armageddon and avert it too.

Please note: Most “Planet of the Apes” films have a “shocking” twist that everyone at this point already knows. However, if you have somehow extricated yourself from forty years of pop culture references, by all means be wary of SPOILERS ahead.


“Escape from the Planet of the Apes” (1971)
Directed by Don Taylor

Synopsis: The spaceship formerly piloted by Taylor crash lands on the Pacific coast in the United States circa 1973 (the near future, as far as the film is concerned). Its three passengers are Cornelius (Roddy McDowall, back after a one film break) and Zira (Kim Hunter, in her last “Apes” movie) from the first two “Apes” along with a new character, Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo, of all people, for a paltry 10 minutes before his character is offed by an ornery gorilla). They’ve bounced back through time by the shockwave left after the earth’s destruction in the previous film. Once the apes let it slip that they can speak, they become media darlings; once they let it slip that they’re from a future where apes subjugate humans, they become pariahs, particularly after Zira divulges the fact that she’s also pregnant. Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) targets the apes for death, tracks them across Southern California, and eventually kills them and their baby in cold blood on an abandoned oil tanker, eliminating the threat they pose to humanity…

Until! … we discover that Cornelius and Zira secretly swapped their
baby with that of a circus chimp. Their incredibly brilliant offspring
lives on in the care of the benevolent Armando (Ricardo Montalban),
guaranteeing he will lead the ape race into a bright future full of
many sequels. No one but me seems upset that some poor innocent baby
chimp died as part of a ruse to further their talking ape bloodline.

Metaphors of the Apes: Cornelius and Zira’s rise and fall is a rather prescient take on the chew-you-up-spit-you-out world of modern celebrity culture. Their brief flirtation with fame is filled with hilarious scenes that
exist only to make fun of dumb rich people — at the apex of their
popularity, the apes throw a party at their suite at the Beverly
Wilshire Hotel, where they get bombed on wine (or “grape juice plus,” as
its described to Zira) and watch as two adults bounce around on an
enormous seesaw. Also, Zira’s Rodeo Drive outfit makes her resemble
Little Red Riding Hood, which suggests the fact that her seemingly
friendly exterior masks the danger she poses to the human race.

People Forget: That this movie is actually kind of smart. Even the villain, Dr. Hasslein, doesn’t take his actions lightly — when debating what to
do about Cornelius and Zira, he has a series of conversations with the
president of the United States (William Windom) about the morality of
taking a life not on the basis of what it has done in the past, but
what it might do in the future. Most of the “Apes” movies are dominated
by dogmatic antagonists, which gives the filmmakers the chance to rail
against their fundamentalism and fanaticism. Hasslein, in contrast, is
wracked by doubt and his actions, if heinous, are also logical. “How
many futures are there?” he asks. “Which future has God, if there is a
God, chosen for man’s destiny? If I urge the destruction of these two
Apes, am I defying God’s will or obeying it? Am I his enemy of his
instrument?” Pretty heady stuff for a movie about talking chimps that’s
supposedly aimed at children.

Work Within Your Means: After having to deploy so many cheap looking ape masks in the crowd scenes of “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” the producers wised up. There were hundreds of apes in each of the last two movies, “Escape” contains exactly three, and one of them doesn’t even make it out of the first act. Setting the film in the near future had to be a budget-conscious
decision, too — by placing the movie just two years after its release,
they explained away the fact that NASA was a ways off from making a
spaceship that resembled Taylor’s without having to make Los Angeles
look futuristic in any way.

The Charles Bronson Memorial “Death Wish” Award Goes To: Montalban’s Armando, who shields the two apes and later hides their baby out of what could only be described as a fetishistic love for simians. By way of explaining his actions (which, again, will either directly or indirectly result in millions of deaths, including his own) he says to Zira, “I did it because I like
chimpanzees… I did it because I hate those who try to alter
destiny, which is the unalterable will of God. And if it is man’s
destiny to one day be dominated, then oh, please God, let him be
dominated by one such as you.” Methinks Armando’s been dipping into the
grape juice plus.

Continuity Boo-Boos: The entire story sets up
one of those “Terminator” paradoxes where the future creates itself by
venturing into the past and jumpstarting the events that lead to
apocalypse. Cornelius and Zira’s child, Milo, who becomes the
protagonist of the next two movies, eventually frees the apes from
their slavery and later leads them in a war against the mutated remains
of humanity. In short, he gives birth to the planet of the apes that,
in turn, gives birth to him. But if Cornelius and Zira create the
talking apes, how did the talking apes appear before Cornelius and Zira
traveled back through time to create them? File all of this under
“Things You’re Really Not Supposed to Think About While Watching
‘Escape From the Planet of the Apes.'”

02212008_conquestoftheplanetoftheapes.jpg“Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972)
Directed by J. Lee Thompson

Synopsis: In 1983, a virus brought back from space by astronauts (who are always
causing trouble in this series) kills every dog and cat on Earth. Apes
become the pets of choice, but they prove themselves so smart and
adaptable they’re soon turned into slaves instead. Now, 18 years after
the events of “Escape,” America has turned into a fascist state and
apes are trained for their servitude (i.e. tortured) at a facility
called “Ape Management.” Armando is arrested, so Cornelius and Zira’s
son Caesar (McDowall) bunks up with the ape slaves. After seeing the
cruel conditions for himself, he teaches his brothers the art of
guerilla warfare (yo ho!) and leads them in a bloody rebellion that
threatens to destroy civilization…

Until! … Fox ordered a reshoot to provide a happier ending after test audiences were understandably unsettled by an finale that glorifies the violent subjugation of humanity. Suddenly, Caesar takes pity on his former
masters and promises (in a speech eerily reminiscent of Armando’s ape
pickup lines from “Escape”) that “if it is man’s destiny to be
dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion and
understanding!” And here I thought apes were agnostic.

Metaphors of the Apes: After a couple movies pussyfooting around its staple imagery, “Conquest” plays the race card for all its worth. The sequence
where the apes are processed evokes shades of the Royal African Company
and throughout the film, the emphasis is on reminding audiences that it
is never smart to treat others inhumanely because you never know when
the shoe will be on the other paw. The ending is made particularly
poignant by the presence of a black actor (Hari Rhodes) in the role of
MacDonald, the kind human sympathetic to the apes’ plight who tries to
negotiate a truce. “You, above everyone else, should understand,”
Caesar tells MacDonald when he explains his plans for a revolution.

Work Within Your Means: With budgets sinking lower than ever before, the filmmakers faced an uphill battle creating the world of 1991. Their
solution? Shoot the entire movie on the “futuristic” campus of
University of California, Irvine and never venture outside it. So we
don’t get a look at what a car or an airplane might look like in 1991,
but the art department provide a few tantalizing glimpses of the shape
of things to come. To wit:

In 1991… telephones have NO cords!

In 1991… cigarettes are green!!

In 1991… people wear white socks with dress shoes!!!

In 1991… all restaurants cook their food hibachi-style!!!!

In 1991… escalators will continue to work much as they do in 1972!!!!!

People Forget: How insane the movie’s ending is, even with the studio-mandated softening. It’s one thing root for the subjugated apes — that’s easy, since all the humans except MacDonald or Armando are bottomless
assholes — and it’s quite another to cheer as Los Angeles burns to the
ground. My favorite moment comes when the dean of UC Irvine (also known
as Governor Breck), played by Don Murray, gives an overwrought speech
designed to give the uprising a sense of scope that the budget cannot
provide. As if to justify why he’s so freaked out about one group of
monkeys with Molotov cocktails, he bellows, “If we lose this battle
it’ll be the end of the world AS WE KNOW IT! We will have PROVEN
ourselves INFERIOR! THIS will be the END of human civiliZATION and the
world will belong to a PLANET of APES!” Damn, man. It’s just a couple
hundred apes with knives. Unclench.

The Charles Bronson Memorial
“Death Wish” Award Goes To:
MacDonald, who goes way beyond compassion
for an oppressed race (or species) into cuckoo territory with his
repeated attempts to help destroy society. He goes from fighting for
the humane treatment of apes to helping them bash his boss’s head in.
Then again, maybe he doesn’t have a death wish; maybe he just wants a
new job.

Continuity Boo-Boos: In “Escape from Planet of the
Apes,” Cornelius and Zira name their baby Milo. Armando is fully aware
of this. He’s there when they name the kid; it’s right before he tries
to get in Zira’s housedress. Yet at the start of “Conquest,” Milo’s no
longer Milo; he’s Caesar. Did Armando just ignore the ape’s decision
and name the thing what he preferred? Hardly the way to honor the
memory of the ape love of your life, Armie!

Next week, it’s the
shocking conclusion of: Looking Back at The Planet of the Apes! With
special appearances by Tim Burton and John Huston!!!

[Photos: “Escape From the Planet of the Apes,” 20th Century Fox, 1971; “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” 20th Century Fox, 1972]

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Lane 69: Filthy Cars

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