Friday, January 29, 2016

Year of the Monkey Pt 1

Monday, Feb 8, is the start of the Chinese New Year.  For those of you not acquainted with the Chinese New Year,  it follows a lunar calendar and has a 12 year cycle with each of the 12 years named after an animal.  Ex: 2005 was The Year of the Rooster, so next year the cycle will start all over again with the Rooster.  It cycles through from Rooster to Monkey (or any variation depending on which year you start counting), and includes, among others, the Year of the Dog, Ox, Tiger, Dragon etc.

2016 is the Year of the Monkey.  By strange coincidence, 1968 was also the Year of the Monkey. I say "strange coicidence" because 1968 was also the year that the first Planet of the Apes appeared in theaters.  Yes, the start of a franchise that included 5 original movies, a short-lived live action TV series, and a cartoon show, also short-lived, indeed began in the Year of the Monkey.  I think that it's just kismet, therefore, that , having just bought the DVD set of the TV series, and, already having the original 5 movies, that I should celebrate the new Chinese New Year with a series of blog postings on that incredible franchise.  So over the next week, I will review the franchise from beginning to end.  (Not the reboot, just the originals).

It's a madhouse!  A madhouse!
The origin of the idea for the first movie came from a book by French author Pierre Boulle, Le Planète des Singes, printed in English as Planet of the Apes and Monkey Planet.  Many people had their hands in the pie over the years, but initially studio execs thought it was not feasible because the apes would look to ridiculous, thus turning a serious film into a comedy.  A screen test was made with some early attempts at ape makeup, including one with Edward G. Robinson, who was to have played Dr. Zaius.

Although the makeup was primitive by the standards eventually used in the movie, it convinced execs that it could be done seriously.  The green light was given and filming began in 1967.  As to why Maurice Evans, as opposed to Robinson, eventually played Dr. Zaius, there are two stories.  The traditional story, one that Heston told, was that Robinson felt he was too sick to go through the rigors the makeup would have required.  Another source I read said he was booted out because he refused to shave off his beard, and the beard was interfering with a good makeup.

As stated earlier, the first movie eventually premiered on February 8, 1968, and the rest is history.

The Planet of the Apes (1968)

The movie begins with astronauts Taylor (Charlton Heston), Landon (Robert Gunner), Dodge (Jeff Burton) and Stewart (Dianne Stanley) in deep space, having been in suspended hibernation after 18 months.  The spaceship, due to some unseen problem, crash lands in a lake in the middle of a desert-like area.  A malfunction in the life-support system kills Stewart, but Taylor Landon and Dodge escape, just before the spaceship sinks into the lake.

L-R: Charlton Heston, Robert Gunner, Jeff Burton

The three wander across the desert, and eventually find greenery, and some very primitive humans.  They barely have time to digest this event before apes on horses attack the humans, shooting some and capturing others alive.  Dodge is killed, and Taylor is shot in the neck and captured.  He is taken to the ape city where he encounters Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter).  He tries to communicate with her, but at first she is only intrigued by the uniqueness of his actions.  See, in this world, humans are mute and caveman-like, so an intelligent human is not something with which the apes have any experience.  She eventually discovers he can write and brings it to the attention of her colleague and boyfriend, Dr. Cornelius (Roddy McDowell).  Both are chimpanzees, who are the scientists of the ape world.

Roddy McDowell as Cornelius and Kim Hunter as Zira
Cornelius and Zira have a nemesis of sorts in their superior, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans).  Zaius has the position of both head of the scientific community as well as keeper of the faith.  Ape scriptures, paralleling those of the Catholic church in the Renaissance, state that apes were created by a superior being, not evolved.  Despite evidence to the contrary that Cornelius, who is an archaeologist, has discovered of an ancient civilization that predates the scriptures, Zaius insists that there is no such thing as an intelligent man. Zaius is an orangutan.  The orangutans are the political and social leaders in the ape community.

Maurice Evans as Zaius
Taylor escapes from captivity and runs amuck in the city, scaring the bejesus out of women and children apes, and being chased by gorillas, who are the military force of this ape world.  But he is eventually caught.  By this time, his throat has healed, and one of the most iconic lines in a movie is spoken...

"Get your stinking paws off me. you damned dirty ape!"
The rest of the movie deals with how the ape community will deal with this threat to their treasured beliefs and experiences, that there could be such a thing as an intelligent speaking man.  Eventually things come to a head, and Taylor finds himself, along with his doctor friends (of which, by now Zira and Cornelius are), in the Forbidden Zone where Cornelius found his evidence of a pre-ape civilization.

Spoiler Alert!!!  If you are one of the ½ dozen people in the world who don't know how this movie ends, stop reading now.

Cornelius shows Zaius the artifacts he found which prove his theory, but Zaius refuses to believe the evidence.   After a brief skirmish with Zaius and his gorilla entourage, who had come to the site to  recapture the three, Taylor eventually is free.  He rides along the beach with his female friend Nova (Linda Harrison) and rounds a bend to discover the truth of how this planet came to be.

Damning them all to Hell
Politically speaking all of the POTA movies had some underlying, or even overt political messages within the context of the films.  In the case of the first one, it was clearly an allegory directed at the racial prejudice prevalent at the time in the southern United States.  This was, after all, the era of the Civil Rights movement and the resistance by the authorities in the government there to desegregation.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

The movie picks up where the original left off, with Taylor riding off into the unknown.  After seeing the destroyed Statue of Liberty, he continues on with Nova, and encounters some strange phenomena that are revealed to be illusions.  He disappears in front of Nova, and the scene cuts to a crashed spaceship which only has two survivors.  The captain dies, but Brent (James Franciscus) survives.  He encounters Nova, who of course, is still mute, but she is wearing Taylor's dogtags.  Brent  convinces Nova to take him to Taylor.  She takes him to the outskirts of Ape City.

Brent sees monkeys
They manage to sneak into the city and find Zira and Cornelius (now being played by David Watson , in the absence of Roddy McDowell).  They mistake Brent for Taylor, but he reveals that he is another astronaut sent in search of Taylor.  They tell him he went to the Forbidden Zone, and give him some help to get him along.  They also warn him not to speak, because he will be identified as a threat, since all humans are mute.

Cornelius, Brent and Zira

There is, at this same time, a war fomenting.  General Ursus (James Gregory) is spouting vicious war propaganda, identifying some threat that exists in the Forbidden Zone.  He has, as a witness, one soldier (out of a dozen) who has returned with outstanding stories of what he saw in the Forbidden Zone.

Ursus urges WAR!

Brent leaves the city but is caught along with some other humans and brought back to Ape City.  He and Nova are identified as being designated for "target practice" and taken to a cage being carted to a different site.  I'm not sure why they had to be transported to a different area, but at least as far as the plot is concerned, it gives them an avenue to escape, which they do.  They ride the horses that were pulling the cart, chased by gorillas who have spotted them.  They hide in an underground cavern.

They eventually find an underground human civilization that has developed post nuclear war.  The humans have developed psychic abilities, and worship a nuclear bomb as a god.

They know of the impending war from the apes above ground and are preparing for it.  But they claim to be peaceful.  Instead of killing their enemies, they use their psychic abilities to get their enemies to kill each other.  But this doesn't seem to work on the apes.  The ensuing battle seems to be going the apes way until Taylor releases the god from his captive shell.

It should be obvious at this point what the underlying political message was in Beneath.  The anti-war Vietnam protests were raging at the time.  There is even a parallel scene within the movie of some young chimpanzees protesting the war as the gorillas march out to war.  There is also a rather overt message against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Well that's it for today, kiddies.  Be sure to come back later for more exciting monkey stuff. Drive safely.



  1. Happy year of the Monkey...great way to begin it with this classic film collection. I just bought all the original Apes films on Blu-Ray and they look fantastic.

    The 1968 original is of course, a masterpiece, and the best of the series--brilliant production design, script by Rod Serling and outstanding performances by Hunter, McDowall, Evans and Heston. (And they really perfected that ape makeup, as you note!)

    The first sequel is fun though a bit over-the-top, and James Franciscus is easy on the eyes! Glad that Heston did a cameo for story continuity. The actor playing Cornelius does such an exact imitation of McDowall that you even forget that it's not him, and it's a very small role. The mutant-scarred weirdos Beneath ape city are unforgettable, as they take off their masks. The movie is fun, but outlandish.

    Thank you for your wonderful double-feature recommendations--great for cinema binge-watchers like me!

    1. If you thought Beneath was "over-the-top" wait 'til you see my comments on Conquest... (coming soon to a theater near you....)

  2. I'm really happy you're covering the entire original series. I haven't seen some of these films since I was a kid.

    With the first sequel, I always find those ground-dwelling people so cheeky. Even as an adult they give me the creeps!

  3. Even weirder are the plague survivors in The Omega Man (an upcoming review) Thanks for the comments.


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