The Herod Principle
Well, another weekend has rolled around without anything much in local theatres grabbing my attention, and so I thought I would continue the run-up to the impending tenth anniversary of the column by looking at another in the original Planet of the Apes series.
Watching Don Taylor's 1971 movie Escape from the Planet of the Apes now, I found myself becoming intellectually aware that to a young audience with a modern sensibility this movie might seem incredibly kitsch and almost impossible to take seriously. Personally I have no such problems – and for this I suppose I have the unusual scheduling policy of UK TV networks in the early 1980s to thank. This is a movie which ultimately goes into some very dark and thoughtful places, and concludes with violence sufficiently graphic to earn it a 12 rating under the modern system, and yet I first saw it in the early 80s as a Saturday tea-time movie. I found it interesting and affecting even then, while my sister was utterly traumatised and left in floods of tears at the ending – which, in an odd way, I would say was a sign the movie really worked.
Anyway. Following the literally earth-shattering conclusion of the previous movie, this second sequel opens with a neat visual joke – the first scene depicts a barren beach with the tide rolling in. This was how the first film ended and the second began, but the nature of this latest installment is instantly signposted when a contemporary helicopter flies into the frame.
For the ongoing story has, for reasons both narrative and budgetary, relocated to present-day California. A spacecraft has landed in the Pacific and is dragged ashore, and the assembled military are startled to find it is crewed by three chimpanzees. Two of them should be familiar to viewers of the previous films, as they are Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Zira (Kim Hunter), who befriended Charlton Heston's character, who have been thrown back in time by the catastrophe at the end of the second film. The third character is basically there as a plot device – a chimp genius (Sal Mineo) responsible for salvaging and relaunching Heston's spaceship despite the numerous and massive implausibilities involved – and, role completed, he is rapidly killed off.
The wider American public is startled when the intelligence and power of speech possessed by the apes becomes known, but their wit, warmth, and benevolence results in their soon becoming celebrities and feted as such. Elements in the government, however, are rather less well-disposed towards the time travellers. In particular, the President's scientific advisor, Hasslein (Eric Braeden), develops his own suspicions about the destiny of the planet and the nature and origins of the ape society they have come from. Becoming convinced that Cornelius and Zira's very existence poses a threat to the human race, Hasslein sets about removing that threat as rapidly and completely as possible...
Beneath the Planet of the Apes was a movie that finished very strongly but was, overall, rather uneven: to my mind, Escape from the Planet of the Apes surpasses it on every level except that of hyperbolic weirdness. Producer Arthur Jacobs' original plan for the Apes sequels was that they should be built around a succession of startling visual incongruities and innovations, but this movie really abandons that principle – beyond the moment near the beginning where astronauts remove their helmets to reveal they are actually apes, this movie is told in a very straightforward but nevertheless effective (and affecting way).
About the only thing it has in common with its immediate predecessor is the fact that it's almost impossible to tell from the first twenty minutes exactly how the climax will play out. The first half of the film is a combination of relatively thoughtful SF and gentle social satire, in some ways mirroring the original movie – we see the apes' responses to the human society which is as alien to them as the ape society was to Heston's character in the first movie. That said, Heston's stoic philosophising is entirely absent, replaced by something milder and more engaging.
As the film goes on the tone grows much darker, with the stakes both personal and epic, and the movie becomes more of an action thriller. All the indignities the apes inflicted on Heston are repaid in full and the protagonists are forced to go on the run from the government. (Ricardo Montalban pops up briefly in this section and turns in a rather operatic performance as a circus owner.) The climax is neither so uncompromising or so bleak as in the previous film but somehow just as unsettling.
(I suppose you could argue that Escape does share one other thing with Beneath, namely dodgy continuity. Once again we are told that Taylor's craft was lost in space due to some kind of accident, which certainly doesn't tally with the original film. Also, in the first two episodes the origins of the ape civilisation are a mystery to the majority of the population, but here we are told that the anniversary of the overthrow of the human race by their ape slaves is a public holiday for the ape civilisation. Sigh.)
While Beneath the Planet of the Apes these days appears to be a fairly obvious anti-war jeremiad, Escape is a story which functions on a more personal level and is perhaps more involving as a result. That said, it's arguably just as much a film of its time, with a deeply ambivalent attitude towards the establishment – and given the repeated significance to the plot of various tape recordings, one has to keep reminding oneself this is a pre-Watergate movie.
If the movie does have a wider theme, it's about destiny and the perils of trying to influence it. Mostly this is articulated through the heavy of the piece, Hasslein, who's brought to life via a very good performance by Eric Braeden (in his pre-soap opera days). One of the things which raises this film well above the level of a routine runaround is Braeden as Hasslein: he's clearly the bad guy, inasmuch as he wants to kill Cornelius and Zira, but Braeden (aided by Paul Dehn's excellent script) brings enough grace notes of thoughtfulness and intelligence to the character to make his motivations entirely understandable. Hasslein is clearly motivated by deeply humane concerns; it's just that he acts on them with a detachment and dispassion that crosses the line into outright ruthlessness (the novelisation of the film goes even further to make him sympathetic, making him the father of a disabled child). When I watch the film now, I always find myself wondering what I would do if I were in Hasslein's position: from a certain point of view, he is very clearly in the right throughout.
There are so many good things about Escape from the Planet of the Apes – I haven't even touched upon Jerry Goldsmith's funky and groovy score – that I was not surprised, a few years ago, to discover a review somewhere online which rated it more highly than the original film. It doesn't have the visual ambition or quite the narrative or intellectual strength of the first film, but where it does score heavily is in its breadth and depth of emotional content, and in the strength of the performances throughout. Nothing else bearing the Planet of the Apes name since has come anywhere close to the quality of this film.