The Big Bang Theory
It hardly ever happens, folks, but I find myself not wanting to see anything that's on at any of the local cinemas this weekend (nothing I haven't already seen before, anyway). Nevertheless the great brains of the Post were still keen to have something new from me, but what was it to be? Well, this August marks ten years since both the clumsy remake of Planet of the Apes and the initial appearance of 24 Lies A Second (which it provoked). The anniversary of the first is being marked by the release of a new Apes movie, while that of the second will no doubt be commemorated by a review of it. So I suggested I do something which vaguely looked ahead to this epoch-making double-event. The editors said yes, and so I would like to share with you some thoughts on one of the movies in the original Apes series.
You know, I've thought for a long time that Charlton Heston has taken a lot of stick he didn't really deserve. Most of this revolves around his personal politics, in particular a few unwise comments he made while in charge of the NRA. People who are quick to dismiss Heston as a gun-toting libertine are invariably unaware that much earlier in his life he was a supporter of the Civil Rights movement, openly coming out in favour of Dr King at a time when it could have been extremely damaging to his career. It's a bit like dismissing Francis Ford Coppola as a talentless hack because he directed Tonight For Sure, One from the Heart and Jack, while choosing to overlook the fact that he made The Godfathers and Apocalypse Now.
Well, anyway. Proof that Heston had his head screwed on is surely provided by his terms of engagement with Ted Post's Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The original movie was a smash hit and a sequel was duly commissioned - but, according to his memoirs, Heston was reluctant to sign on. The story had been told, he thought: with the big reveal at the end of the movie done, all that was left in terms of story options were simplistic comic-book adventures amongst the apes.
They couldn't make the movie without him, though, and so Heston made them an offer: he'd do the new movie, but make only a cameo appearance at the very beginning: 'Kill me off in the first scene.' The producers made a counter-offer: how about if he was only in the end of the movie, which concluded with… spoiler ahoy … the end of the world. Charlton Heston signed up, enabling the creation of one of the strangest studio movies ever made.
Beneath opens with a brisk recap of the climax of the previous movie, before moving equally sharply on to stranded astronaut Taylor (Heston) being swallowed alive by some slightly variable special effects, leaving his mute girlfriend Nova (Linda Harrison, the highly talented and well-qualified girlfriend of the producer) at a loose end. As luck would have it (and this is a pretty big ask to make of the audience so early into the picture) she comes across another crashed spaceship from the 1970s.
Here we are introduced to Brent (James Franciscus) and the dodgy continuity which plagues the Apes movies. The first film made it quite clear that Heston knew he'd be shooting off to the distant future and an unknown world - that his was a Mission of No Return. And yet Brent seems convinced that he ended up here by accident, and has, in fact, been sent to rescue him.
Hmm. Franciscus does a very decent job of standing in for Heston, but his problem is that this is literally what he is doing. It's an hour before Heston reappears and there's a strong sense of the movie marking time while awaiting this, to begin with anyway. Things aren't helped by the fact that the audience is, by now, well ahead of Brent in virtually every way. We know that the Planet is ruled by Apes, and we know that it's actually post-apocalyptic Earth. Watching Brent find all this stuff out for himself involves a rehash of the previous film, squeezed into thirty minutes or so and with no ideas or novelty to it this time around: there's lots of chasing and capturing and escaping but it's all curiously bland and uninvolving.
That said, this section does feature Kim Hunter reprising her role as friendly chimp Zira, and she does a very good job of hiding the fact she has nothing to do but exposit to Franciscus. (Roddy McDowell for once does not appear, being in a play in England at the time.) Also prominent is Maurice Evans as Zaius, the Minister of Science. Some of the scenes with Hunter and Evans have a bizarre, sitcom-ish quality (and there's one scene set in an ape sauna, which just seems silly), but he is mostly involved in setting up the new plot that will power the second half of the film.
Now, for a long time I thought this was just fairly broad Vietnam-era satire, but the idea of a holy war being launched on the pretext of the need to secure vital resources obviously has much wider applicability (I first saw this movie at the height of the first Gulf War and can't believe I didn't pick up on it at the time). The militaristic gorilla faction in the ape government is set upon invading the Forbidden Zone, an area holding the last relics of the old human civilisation (and where Heston disappeared at the start of the movie). Driven ahead of the advancing ape army, Brent and Nova are forced to take refuge there, and soon discover a colony of intelligent human mutants possessed of incredible psychic powers.
It's taken a while, but at this point the movie stops seeming quite so silly and turgid and hokey and slams into gear. That's not to say that the pace picks up, as such, but suddenly it's very clear that Paul Dehn's script is about something, and that something is the extreme danger of putting religious zealots in charge of anything. The apes have set out on a holy war to purge the humans in accordance with the teachings of their Lawgiver, while the mutants all belong to a cult which worships a doomsday bomb, left over from the good old days.
The first time I saw this movie I didn't know what to make of it and was tremendously repelled by all things that now make it seem to me so striking and unusual. I got the idea that the mutants worshipping the bomb was a metaphor for the lunacy of life during the cold war, but I didn't appreciate the surrounding stuff: both sides are driven into conflict by their religion, and both sides are led by disingenuous hypocrites and sophists.
It's an incredibly dark vision for a film to have and I can only assume that with the end of the world required at the end of the movie, Post and Dehn felt themselves free to go a little crazy and not worry about usual things like taste and restraint and giving the audience a cheery time. I can think of no other way to explain the relentless nihilistic strangeness of the final third of the film. The two protagonists are psychically impelled to fight to the death. Visions of giant ape statues appear, afflicted with bloody stigmata. There's an extraordinary scene where a congregation apparently made up of people who've been flayed alive sing tuneless hymns to a nuclear missile. You just don't get this kind of thing in Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
In the end the story develops something of the oppressive atmosphere of an unfolding nightmare, as one by one the protagonists are shot down by the marauding apes. Taylor finally cracks and decides that everyone would be better off dead, triggering the doomsday warhead. And then, after an arrestingly impassive voiceover announcing the death of the entire planet, the credits roll in silence.
For a long time I dismissed this movie as a lazy rehash of the original with some interestingly weird stuff nailed onto the end, but now I'm not so sure. For the sheer intensity, bleakness, and hallucinatory quality of its closing sections, there's nothing else in the series to match it - and indeed, very little else in mainstream cinema anywhere. Certainly none of the other films would ever be quite so dark and strange again.
Because, of course, the final irony is that there were other films. Beneath the Planet of the Apes was another substantial moneymaker, and Dehn famously received a telegram informing him 'Apes survive. Sequel required.' A sequel, of course, without Charlton Heston, but that turned out not to be the end of the world. Then again, as this film teaches us, sometimes even the end of the world isn't the end of the world.