Thursday, February 13, 2014

Top 10 Films #2

Planet of the Apes
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (1968)

The following essay was orignally published in Cinema Futura, edited by Mark Morris.

Rod Serling’s extraordinary and philosophical screenplay for Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (adapted from French novelist Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel La plan├Ęte des singes – perhaps better known as  Monkey Planet) contains many a memorable quote, but mine appears about half an hour into the film, when Charlton Heston’s astronaut George Taylor is outlining his character-defining misanthropy:

“I'm a seeker too. But my dreams aren't like yours. I can't help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be.”

To me that resonant piece of dialogue encapsulates the entire theme of the film, and supplies an additional element of pathos to everything that follows. You could almost say that it’s quintessential Serling. Those words have haunted me since I first saw the film on television as a child, and they will remain as ghosts inside my head until the day I die.

Watching the film all over again, after a gap of several years I was struck immediately by certain aspects: Jerry Goldsmith’s superb pounding score, the intensity of every scene, the fact that the film is actually quite terrifying, even now after over 40 years. I’d originally planned this to be a light-hearted essay, but the gravitas of the film wouldn’t allow it. It would be lazy of me to make light of such a serious and intelligent piece of filmmaking.

Planet of the Apes is a film that could never be made now – there aren’t enough pointless action scenes, the lead character of Taylor is far too cynical, the themes are well handled yet up-front, and there’s a real sense of menace in every frame. Tim Burton’s weak remake surely proves that the original was a film of its time; a flawless piece of art whose power will never diminish, no matter how much it’s diluted through imitation or silly piss-takes.

The opening scenes are as good as anything I have seen in film: the sedate prologue with Heston recording his final ship’s log before going into hyper-sleep; the crash landing of the astronaut’s ship into the water; the discovery of the only female onboard withered and ancient because of a crack in the protective glass of her sleep chamber.

A subsequent trek through “The Forbidden Zone”, which contains my aforementioned favourite quote, is bleak and imbued with a gradual accumulation of genuine dread, particularly when the astronauts encounter giant furry scarecrows perched on the high rocks.

The first confrontation with the apes is perfectly orchestrated. It’s a brilliant composition of camera angles – static shots, crane shots; sweeping aerial shots as the human prey flee through a cornfield in total silence, pursued by “beaters” who are only recognised by the sight of their long thrashing sticks above the tall stalks of corn. Afterwards, we are shown a succession of brutal images: a gorilla carrying a boy on his shoulders, walking past half-naked men strung up by their feet like slaughtered wild stock; a shallow pit filled with corpses; the captured Taylor as he is carried strapped by hands and feet to a long pole held between two apes. A brief moment where gorillas pause to have their photo taken beside a pile of bodies puts the viewer in mind of real-life war atrocities: Native American Indians massacred by the U.S. Cavalry, whole villages wiped out in Vietnam, the tribal genocide in Rwanda. For me, it’s one of the strongest scenes in any science fiction film, and remains relevant to each passing generation.

When finally we get to see the apes’ habitat, the set design is a joy to behold. It’s difficult to remember how powerful and unusual this vision must have been back in 1968. The costumes and make-up look great even by today’s standards; I’d even go as far as to say that the ape make-up is among the finest in the history of cinema. You forget that you are watching actors, and begin to see only simians. The performances, of course, add weight to this illusion – the way the actors walk and move and carry themselves is simply masterful, and I feel a much underappreciated aspect of the overall effectiveness of the film. Roddy McDowall was never better as Cornelius and it is impossible to take your eyes off Kim Hunter’s feisty female chimp Zira, but the stand-out for me is Maurice Evans’ subtle and nuanced turn as the single-minded Dr. Zaius.

Once it’s established that, unlike the indigenous humans he was discovered among, Taylor is capable of speech and independent thought, the film shakes off the overt horror of its barnstorming first act and enters more familiar science fiction territory – which isn’t to say it’s in any way predictable. Themes of social and racial prejudice, science-versus-religion, medical experimentation and good old-fashioned repression are examined while a stream of ideas (the very building blocks of the genre) pours from the screen. We even have a massive conspiracy theory thrown into the mix, which leads eventually to the justifiably legendary shock ending.

But along the way the film expands upon its themes and is allowed to find its own pace.

The action set-pieces are few and evenly placed throughout the running time, (unlike the empty “onslaught approach” of modern SF cinema) and those ideas I mentioned are given time and room enough to develop and resonate. Room to breathe. We see a social hierarchy among the apes – a distinct caste system which places the war-like gorillas as soldiers, the peace-loving chimpanzees as scientists and the regal orang-utans (or Jimmy-Savile-Apes, as I’ve always called them) as the philosophers and religious gatekeepers of the entire ape civilisation.

Much like human society, the world of the apes has its draconian rules and punishments, and this serves to hold up a mirror to our own lives and the way we treat those around us.

Despite my somewhat po-faced focus on the serious nature of the film, there are a few moments of humour – the three wise monkeys in the kangaroo court Taylor is forced to stand before, some of the interplay between Taylor and Zira, which is quite racy for the time and context – but none of these laughs is cheap and the overall feeling one is left with is that this is a film of great integrity. In my opinion at least it’s all the better for such a purposeful approach.

I will end as I began, with a quote from the film:

“I never met an ape I didn’t like.”

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