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The Forbidden Zone: A ‘Planet of the Apes’ Retrospective Part 2

Read Part 1 here.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

While not as critically acclaimed as its predecessor, Beneath nevertheless earned healthy coin at the box office in 1970. Even though the story ended on a rather unequivocal note, what with the entire planet exploding, an opportunity to make more money off of a popular property is an extraordinarily difficult temptation to assuage. Paul Dehn, who certainly brought some radical ideas to the sequel, was hired once again to pen a possible storyline. With the budgets getting smaller (from the first film’s $5 million to the third’s $2.1 million) and Beneath’s conclusion not offering many avenues to continue the story, it was time to get really creative.

Escape, directed by Don Taylor, opens on Earth present day circa the early 1970s. The army is called to a Californian beach where a space shuttle eerily similar to the one from the first film has crashed landed. In fact, the craft is the very one seen carrying Taylor at the start of the original, only this time, much to the amazement of the army men present, it is revealed that three chimpanzees were piloting it and have survived the landing. Cornelius (McDowall, making his return), Zira, and Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo) recovered Taylor’s ship, brought it back to a level of functionality, and fled their home world just as it erupted, somehow travelled back in time to present day Earth. While at first viewed with suspicious eyes, the apes make quick friends with their human equivalents, Dr. Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman) and Dr. Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trundy), becoming public celebrities in the process. Their charms fail to seduce the President’s Science Advisor, Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Breaden), who, after carefully reading into their answers during an official commission hearing, can only deduce one conclusion: their presence will result, in some capacity, in the destruction of mankind.

Escape’s set-up comes across as the dumbest, most asinine excuse for a moneymaking sequel in the history of Hollywood, akin to the Ellen Ripley clone in Alien: Resurrection (ironically enough, also a 20th Century Fox property). It is utterly preposterous. How could Cornelius, Zira, and Milo understand the technology of a space shuttle in so short a period when they could nary believe Taylor when he told them that Man had made machines that enable humans to soar in the air? Just plain dumb.

Oh, but what a film we get out of that most idiotic of set-ups! Truth be told, Escape is one of the more engaging, charming, and even comical films in the entire series. It is, for all intents and purposes, the original film’s template turned on its head, which itself is bitingly ironic because the first film’s template was Earth’s real world turned on its head. Now humans must reckon with the presence of intelligent, sophisticated, talking apes. Director Taylor’s efforts result in a story that carefully and smartly juggles disparate tones whilst tackling hefty science-fiction concepts worthy of praise.

A surface level reading has Escape as an amusing ‘fish out of water’ tale. The apes try to acclimatize themselves to Earth’s past, which turns out to be more technologically advanced than its future, sometimes stumbling, other times pulling off very human habits with great panache. While Dr. Milo is unfortunately not around for long, suffering a horrible death at the hands of a gorilla while in captivity near the start of the picture, Cornelius and Zira are the reasons to watch Escape. Actors McDowall and Hunter were strong in the first film, but their true talents as thespians capable of bringing ape costumes to life is in full effect here. Graceful, witty, compassionate yet protective of their kind and o their privacy, the duo make for a terrific pairing.

Better still, the script is quite astute in its handling of how people might react under such bewildering circumstances. The apes appear as kind and warm individuals, therefore most people welcome them into society. The reality of the matter is that their very existence and the information they provide as to Earth’s future can only mean that human kind is in some way doomed, hence the presence of Dr. Hasslein. It would be lazy to categorize him as a simple villain who wants to destroy the chimpanzees because he despises them. Nay, he is completely fascinated by them, yet terrified of what they represent, or what they might represent. Is it possible to change the course of the future? If so, how? Does killing Cornelius, Zira, and her unborn child automatically guarantee the survival of human race as we know it?

Yes, the sheer stupidity of why Escape exists is thankfully washed away by a legitimately clever, captivating story and its themes. In fact, things take a dramatic turn the final third, when Dr. Hasslein almost achieves his objective of dispatching the young ape family. Sadly, Cornelius and Zira bite the dust, but with the help of a benevolent circus trainer named Armando (Ricardo Montalban), their youngling survives.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Although the box office earnings continued to shrink ($12.1 million in the case of Escape compared to $33.4 million for POTA), the fact of the matter was that they were still earning a profit. Along the same lines, given that the budgets for each successive film also dwindled, why not try to squeeze as much juice as possible out of a trippy, politically charged concept? Writer Paul Dehn, having contributed some interesting ideas to Beneath and Escape, was hired yet again for Conquest. Arthur P. Jacobs, still serving as series producer, chose Lee. J. Thompson to direct. He had in fact tried to hire Thompson way back in 1967 when the first film was in pre-production.

The story jumps a couple of decades to the (then) future of 1991. As described by Cornelius and Zira in the commission hearings witnessed in Escape, a global plague has killed off all dogs and cats, encouraging humans to adopt apes as pets for a while. Friendly, domestic bonds has since morphed into slavery, as gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans serve humans in restaurants, stores and at home. Baby Milo (Roddy McDowall, still holding the franchise’s torch despite Cornelius’ demise) has grown under the kind auspices of Armando. Together they try desperately to keep Milo’s intelligence and ability to speak a secret, shielded from a dystopian society’s paranoia. Said paranoia is personified by Governor Breck (Don Murray), who firmly believes that the child of the talking apes still lives. His right hand man, MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), is more level headed, even somewhat repulsed by the treatment the apes receive on an daily basis. When witnessing yet another brutal police intervention against a fellow ape, Milo, unable to contain himself, lets slip a furious insult. This results in an incredible chain reaction of events: the detention and eventual death of Armando, Milo’s auctioning off to Governor Breck, clandestine meetings with fellow apes to prepare a revolt, and his selection of a new name: Caesar!

If POTA flirted with notions of racism and how mankind treats its own brothers and sisters, Conquest embraces the opportunity to swing for the fences and tackle the subject head on, a reflection of the timely Civil Rights movements that rocked the United States. To point out the obvious, most of the Caucasian characters are nefarious, paranoid, ill-tempered folk that take every opportunity to bemoan their ape property. The apes themselves are de facto slaves in this society, and, apart from Armando who unfortunately dies early on, the lone human to sympathize with the ape cause is MacDonald, the only Black character in the film. Conquest is, for many reasons, very obvious in its commentary. Subtlety is not on the menu. In certain respects this hurts the picture. It has been argued that Escape’s antagonist, Dr. Hasslein, had a logical reason for his villainy and was played with a level maturity and subtlety. In contrast, Conquest’s chief baddie, Governor Breck, is just a mean fellow. Yes, the fear of an apes uprising is what guides his demeanour, but absent is any semblance of tact. Scenes depicting apes being beaten and conditioned are effectively brutal, but also terribly on the nose.

This isn’t to say that Conquest isn’t a good film. Subtlety is no guarantee of quality, however much certain cinephiles bristle at the notion of melodrama or obvious allegories. Rather, Conquest is a solid, reasonably engaging picture that could have used a smidgen of nuance. Among its stronger points is, unsurprisingly, Roddy McDowall, who continues to prove his excellence and gravitas despite being buried under heaps of latex. What’s more, he’s interpreting a completely different character, an ape that has never known the world of Cornelius or Zira save through stories told to him by Armando, who himself only heard them through Caesar’s parents. Caesar dreams of a world that ‘was’ in his father’s case and that ‘might be’ in his case. He is, for all intents and purposes, a revolutionary, a being dedicated to freeing his fellow apes from the shackles of slavery. McDowall gives a rousing, inspiring performance. Lest he be overlooked, Hari Rhodes is very good too as MacDonald, a man who is well aware of his own race’s unfortunate past and whose humanity emerges via his misgivings towards what he witnesses from his high perch.  

In a finale whose daring rivals that of Beneath, Caesar and his followers put their revolutionary plans into effect. The humans are desperately outnumbered. An impressive death toll mounts, and although some apes lose their lives in the process, mostly humans that suffer morbid fates. When the dust settles, it is Caesar who stands tallest before everyone amongst the flames that ignite a new dawn, his fellow simians ready and willing to build a new world…a planet of the apes.

Of note is the existence of two different versions of Conquest, a theatrical and an unrated. While the plot and overall story of each are identical, their climaxes stand in stark contrast to one another. The unrated does not shy from graphic violence, showing countless, bloodied human corpses piling up. Furthermore, the tone of the speech Caesar gives his legion at the very end of the picture differs depending on which version one watches. In the theatrical cut, after shouting some rather passionate rhetoric, MacDonald reasons with Caesar to show an inkling of mercy, which the latter acquiesces to, thus softening the conclusion’s blow. The unrated version of Caesar’s speech essentially amounts to “We apes are going to f*cking destroy human society and rule them like dictators on a constant power trip.” Yikes.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes

For the fourth successive year there would be an Apes picture gracing the silver screen. Preparations for Battle proved somewhat more arduous than for the previous few films, with screenwriter Paul Dehn pulling out due to health concerns (replaced by John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington), and the budget not increasing from that of Conquest despite the filmmakers aiming to create a larger scale story. Director Lee J. Thompson was welcomed back by producer Arthur Jacobs.

Set further still into the future after civilized human society has effectively crumbled, viewers are at first greeted by the Lawgiver (John Huston. Yes, legendary director and actor John Huston), an orangutan that dramatically narrates Earth’s past and the rise of the apes. Cut to a proto Ape City where simians are the rulers and the humans function menial tasks. There appears to be a form of respect between the two races, but the homo sapiens clearly do not benefit from the same level of comfort as their rulers. Caesar strives to be as benevolent a leader as he can, with some assistance from MacDonald (Austin Stoker, who is actually playing the brother of the MacDonald seen in Conquest). That said, not all apes view the humans charitably. General Aldo (Claude Atkins), a gorilla, lusts for power, absolute control over Ape City and domination over the humans. Through fortuitous circumstances, MacDonald suggests to Caesar, looking for additional guidance, and philosopher orangutan Virgil (Paul Williams), to return to the city where Conquest ended and locate tapes depicting Caesar’s parents. The trip inadvertently sparks a renewed rivalry between apes and surviving humans that still dwell in the urban environment, much to General Aldo’s delight.

Director Thompson’s hands seem tied throughout much of Battle, with the aforementioned budgetary constraints coming into full effect in the latter stages. It is obvious early on that the filmmakers have high hopes for their project and want to make something that’s really impressive, but simply lack the means. The ape costumes themselves lack the polish of those worn by actors in previous installments, so much so that there are bits of dialogue that, while still comprehensible, do not sound as clear. It’s only mildly distracting, yet goes some lengths to show that the studio was unwilling to award Battle the resources it certainly required to strut its stuff as an A(pe)-picture. Limitations become all the more apparent when the humans and simians engage in what should be an epic battle to end all battles. Slow and dull are two words that immediately come to mind to describe what unfolds. Funnily enough, the costumes and gear the scavenging humans equip themselves with makes their force resemble something out of a Mad Max film, although George Miller’s iconic film was still a few year away.

As for the story, there is a tedious inevitability to it all. Paul Dehn had a knack for providing clever spins to familiar concepts and, to his credit, managed to create some form of dramatically rich shock value in three successive films. The Corrington duo lack the panache to deliver on such a promise, to say nothing of the fact they admitted to having never seen an Apes film when hired to work on the project. The plot is very perfunctory, missing some of the vim and verve, however unsubtle, previous chapters could bank on.

Battle ends the original series on a whimper. The final grace note is peculiar to say the least, with a tracking shot of the Lawgiver instructing ape and human children on the importance of living together, the camera panning up to a statue of Caesar that sheds a single tear. Tear of joy or of sorrow? Who knows.

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