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Posts Tagged ‘Charlton Heston’

Sometimes you sit down to watch a movie in the fairly certain knowledge that it is not going to be – how can I put it? – entertaining in the intended sense. (I write this as someone who often enjoys really bad movies much more than reasonably competent ones.) Something about the opening titles of Mark Robson’s 1974 film Earthquake started sending subliminal messages that this was going to be one of those occasions, practically from the word go. Ominous music plays over various scenes of Los Angeles and its inhabitants, all enjoying another day of sun, and there’s nothing immediately grisly about how it’s put together, beyond the fact that it all somehow looks a bit TV-movie-ish.

Various plots start to unfurl. We are, of course, in disaster movie territory here, and the conventions of the genre require a lengthy period of introduction, establishing all the various characters and their concerns before we get to the good stuff (i.e. the wide-screen death and destruction). Is the appearance of Charlton Heston as Stewart Graff, top American footballer turned ace civil engineer, the moment at which Earthquake crosses the Rubicon into bad movie territory? I would say not, but then I like Charlton Heston and generally cut him some slack.

Graff is the main character and the film dwells on his situation at some length.  It seems he is working for his father-in-law’s construction company. Said father-in-law, Royce, is played by Lorne Greene, who is a familiar face from TV rather than an actual bona fide movie star, but whatever. Royce’s daughter and Graff’s wife is Remy, who is played by Ava Gardner, another of those grand old Golden Age of Hollywood stars who was still roaming the landscape in the middle 1970s.

Sadly, however, Graff and Remy have found themselves trapped in a loveless marriage (mainly, it must be said, because the plot appears to demand it). Graff is pondering some extramarital whoa-ho-ho with young widow Denise (Genevieve Bujold), and it is the tension in this love triangle, and Graff’s personal dilemma with respect to it, which is the central dramatic pillar of the movie.

Still, you can’t have a properly spectacular earthquake with only one pillar about the place, and so it is with Earthquake the movie: various other plotlines are being painted in at the same time (with the kind of broad brush that will be familiar to aficionados of the disaster movie genre). These include the various travails of tough cop Lou Slade (George Kennedy), who’s suspended after punching out a colleague over a jurisdictional matter; the tale of tightly-wound supermarket worker Jody (Marjoe Gortner), who seems to have an awful lot of personal issues to process; and the problems of aspiring motorbike daredevil Miles (Richard Rowntree), who’s looking to hit the big time. (It was the mid-1970s, there was a motorcycle daredevil on every corner in the USA.)

Also present (in the first part of the movie, at least) is a subplot about a group of seismologists, in particular one played by Kip Niven. Niven thinks he has figured out a method of earthquake prediction, which is good; what’s not so good is that the numbers suggest a massive, city-levelling quake is imminent. Should they warn people and risk a panic? The head of the university suggests they ask Niven’s supervisor, who is off on a field trip. But there is no answer, for the supervisor has found himself up close and personal with a quake in a pretty terminal way. As methods of generating tension and foreboding go, this is just about competent, but the seismologists are notably absent from the post-quake section of the film, the implication apparently being that they all died (which is sort of ironic). (At least forty minutes was cut from the film before its release, including all the post-quake scenes with the academics.)

Well, as you’ve probably surmised, the massive, city-levelling quake duly turns up and the rest of the movie deals with the aftermath and various problems that arise as a result of it. In simple terms of plot carpentry it’s all fairly sound, although there is inevitably a touch of melodramatic soap opera about how it is actually implemented.

Front and centre in this, once again, is the ongoing entanglement involving Heston, Gardner and Bujold. It’s really something about this which prevents me from taking Earthquake at all seriously as a piece of drama, and my grounds are, I admit, entirely superficial and probably quite reprehensible: Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner were both about fifty when they made this film and – how shall we put it? – the aging process has worked upon them in different ways. Heston has retained that intensely stolid virility which is an essential part of his screen persona. Gardner’s career, on the other hand, was largely defined by her femininity and sensuality, and the fact she was (let’s be honest) a very beautiful woman.

She never feels entirely at home in this movie. Her role is a thankless one: she plays a needy, manipulative woman, almost a shrew, the assassin of Graff’s happiness. Regardless of the facts, she looks significantly older than him – more like Lorne Greene’s wife than his daughter – to the point where the marriage doesn’t really convince, at least not as it’s presented here. And yet the relationship is central to the drama of Earthquake, particularly its climax. Graff is forced, in the starkest and most melodramatic terms, to choose between the obligations of his joyless marriage and the possibility of a new happiness with Denise. The choice he eventually makes is rooted in a rigid and inflexible morality that feels very anachronistic, given the 1970s setting: there’s something very Old Hollywood about this film, so perhaps Ava Gardner does belong here after all.

And yet in other ways one gets a sense of a more modern kind of film-making on the verge of being born: this was 1974, after all, and Jaws and the birth of the modern blockbuster was less than a year away. Earthquake may be sprawling and hokey and melodramatic, but it’s also a high-concept movie dependent on extensive special effects for its success (or otherwise). It even has a score by John Williams. But it’s not quite there yet. If Earthquake feels old-fashioned and clumsy to the modern viewer, that shouldn’t really be a surprise: it probably had more than a whiff of that about it when it was brand new.

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Quite a few years ago now, being inquisitive and of a methodical mindset, I got my hands on one of those magazines of the 100 Best…/1000 X You Must Y variety. I seem to recall it was called The Fifty Greatest Science-Fiction Films Ever Made or something similar. Now, most of it was made up of the usual suspects – Jurassic Park, The Terminator, 2001, and so on, but I was a little surprised to find Boris Sagal’s 1971 film The Omega Man included – a fun and funky piece of camp, perhaps, but a genuinely great movie? Well…

THE-OMEGA-MAN

The Omega Man begins with Charlton Heston cruising around a strangely quiet downtown Los Angeles in his convertible, chilling out to the car stereo. Suddenly he spots a flicker of movement at the window of one of the skyscrapers, slams on the brakes and opens up at the spot with a submachinegun which he happens to be carrying. It’s definitely an arresting opening for a film, and to some extent what follows lives up to its promise.

The year is 1977, two years after the use of bacteriological weapons destroyed civilisation as we know it. Heston plays Robert Neville, formerly an army doctor whose work on a vaccine has left him the only man immune to the plague and – he believes – the sole real survivor of the apocalypse. He spends his days fending off loneliness and encroaching insanity and his nights fending off packs of albino mutants – plague victims who are still active and have formed a cult-like ‘Family’ (led by Anthony Zerbe) intent on destroying Neville, believing him to be the last remnant of a corrupt society destroyed by divine tribulation.

The uneasy impasse between Neville and the mutants is upset, however, when Neville discovers the existence of a group of young people still in the early stages of infection. Using his own antibodies, he can cure them, and they quickly cook up a plan to abandon the city for a rustic idyll (Heston pauses for a little slightly-provocative whoa-ho-ho with Rosalind Cash along the way). But, as every Sunday School teacher knows, you can’t save the world without the odd sacrifice…

‘This is the man – and I mean, The Man – but he’s cool,’ says Cash of Heston at one point, and there is a sense in which this has become the quintessential Heston vehicle for modern audiences. For many young people now he’s not really Moses or Ben-Hur or El Cid as much as that conservative, inflexible, inflammatory figure who in the last years of his life was given to popping up in the mass media in the wake of school shootings to make ill-judged pronouncements about the Second Amendment. He’s the embodiment of Rugged Individualism in this film, seldom without a gun about his person, and fiercely protective of his property rights if nothing else – despite the fact he’s nightly under siege from mobs of torch-wielding mutants, he refuses to leave his apartment, simply because it’s his home and he’s not about to let anyone push him out of it. It is, really, Heston as you imagine him being in real life.

This is fair enough, but some of the subtext of this film pushes it more towards absurd camp when it comes to its central character. Every time the mutants capture Heston, they set about symbolically crucifying him, while the revelation that his blood possesses miraculous curative properties prompts one character to cry ‘Christ, you could save the world!’ The culmination of this comes when a sweet little girl is introduced to Neville and innocently asks ‘Are you God?’ – Heston modestly declines to answer.

Heston’s presence and charisma are so potent and so central to the success of this film that you can’t really be too hard on it for the Heston-as-Christ metaphor, and unsubtle though the script is, it could be worse. The same writers, John and Joyce Corrington, also perpetrated the final script for Battle for the Planet of the Apes, and its interesting to note the parallels between the two – in addition to the post-apocalyptic setting, both films feature belligerent mutant hordes and the unexpected death of a child character.

The Omega Man is a far superior piece of work, being more than just an action melodrama or too blatant a star vehicle (a trap the remake of this film, I Am Legend, really fell into – and agreeable a presence as Will Smith is, when it comes to star quality he’s not in the same league as Charlton Heston). The early stages of the film in particular have a certain wistfulness and pathos to them, not least through the impressive staging of the dead Los Angeles (Ron Grainer’s marvellous score contributes a lot to this). A key early scene has Neville going to the cinema for a private viewing of the documentary Woodstock, the big man lip-synching with the optimistic hippies on screen. It seems to me that on one level The Omega Man is about the death of 60s idealism and the end of the hippy dream – the ‘Family’ of mutants seems to me to directly recall the Manson Family of murderous hippies, and the mutants’ obsessive desire to destroy the remains of modern civilisation is surely a dark exaggeration of the counter-culture’s desire to drop out of it.

Heston, of course, stands up for traditional, material values – he wears a uniform, eats and drinks well, lives in a nice apartment with all modern conveniences. The great triumph of the mutants comes when they are able to penetrate his sanctuary and smash all his stuff. The mutants are unambiguously presented as evil and misguided, and so the film is clearly standing up for the status quo – the catastrophe that has overtaken the world may be the result of global war, but the central conflict of the film is between traditional American values and those of a younger, more restless generation, with Heston firmly in place as defender of the former. (Those prepared to dismiss Heston as a conservative stereotype should remember his romance with Rosalind Cash in this film – this kind of inter-ethnic conjugation is rare enough these days, let alone back in 1971.)

In the end, though, whether it’s as an NRA poster boy, a Jesus-proxy, or the embodiment of the American spirit, The Omega Man is all about Charlton Heston. This isn’t an especially deep or subtle film, but it’s well-mounted and played with conviction, and for every roll-your-eyes moment of silliness or dated nonsense there’s one of genuine wit or invention. Is this really one of the fifty greatest SF movies ever? Well, maybe not… but if we’re talking about post-apocalyptic movies as a subgenre within SF, this is definitely close to the top of the heap.

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The lovely old tradition of the classic cinema revival is in danger of being thoroughly smeared for the basest of motives. Seeing older movies back on the big screen has brought me some of my best moviegoing experiences, from watching Seven Samurai, The Wicker Man and Taxi Driver during my student days, to catching Star Trek II in rep just last summer. These days, alas, the revival is as often as not another mechanism used to attempt to prop up the tottering 3D edifice – last year saw The Lion King 3D, with Titanic 3D and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 3D already on the horizon (not that I’m absolutely ruling out the possibility of seeing one of those…).

Nevertheless, proper, sensible, non-stereoscoped revivals continue to take place, which is how I was able to watch the restored version of Orson Welles’ 1958 movie Touch of Evil. Given that the director also plays a major acting role, it may, of course, simply be the case that the 3D technology does not yet exist which is capable of handling Welles’ – er – heroic physique, but the reason is insignificant compared to the result.

The plot runs thusly: night in a small town on the US-Mexican border is shattered when a car bomb kills a local American businessman and his girlfriend. On the scene coincidentally is Mexican government agent Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston, Hispanicked up for the part) and his new bride (Janet Leigh). Worried about the diplomatic implications should a Mexican have murdered an American, Vargas involves himself in the case, despite the fact he’s already mixed up in the prosecution of a local crime family.

This puts Vargas in the path of the local law, personified by Hank Quinlan (Welles), something with severe consequences for both men. Vargas quickly realises that Quinlan will go to any lengths to punish the guilty – and if this extends to roughing up suspects and planting evidence, so be it. The Mexican resolves to expose Quinlan’s methods, not realising that an alliance between his target and his own enemies may put not just him but also his wife in danger…

A summary of the plot does little to explain quite why Touch of Evil has become such a revered movie, and one of the two or three cornerstones on which Orson Welles’ legend rests. The story itself is not that special, but then if this film is remarkable it is not for the tale but the manner of its telling. Welles makes his ambitions clear from the very beginning of the film, with its justly famous, insanely complex three minute shot, in which the camera travels the length of the town as it tracks the progress of the car carrying the bomb. It’s an ostentatiously brilliant flourish – nothing else in the movie quite matches it for sheer verve, but it makes it clear that this is not going to be a run-of-the-mill production.

The camerawork in this movie is almost absurdly accomplished simply on a technical level, but what really makes an impact is the atmosphere that Welles conjures up – the film takes place in a filthy, sweaty, half-lit world of guilty compromises and dirty secrets, with the purity of classic noir becoming stained by the outriders of a new and more frantic culture – biker gangs, rock ‘n’ roll and marijuana are beginning to supplant hoodlums, jazz and cheap booze.

Quinlan is one of cinema’s great monsters: a shabby, obese, brutal racist – but never an inhuman one. Hints of a backstory suggest how this man came to be as he is, and while never sympathetic he is not quite without virtue – if he has abused his power it is not for personal ends, but in the pursuit of what he sees as his duty. If there is any real evil in Quinlan, then it is only a minor element of who he is – a touch of evil, but no more.

As both director and actor, Orson Welles dominates this movie whether on the screen or off it – his arrival as Quinlan may not be as iconic as his first appearance as Harry Lime in The Third Man, but at the screening I attended it was greeted by soft chuckling throughout the audience: this was the man we had come to see. Of course, he does not disappoint, even if his performance at times borders on being a little too mannered. As ever, one is left infuriated by both the quixotic nature of his vast talents and the shortsightedness of Hollywood in making so little use of them.

It has become something of a running joke that Charlton Heston makes an unlikely Mexican, but, oddly, this suits the movie rather well. The star is incongruous in the part, but then again everything that Heston always embodied – a kind of muscular conviction and self-assurance – is equally out of place in the world of the movie. Some of the film’s most electric moments come from the clash between Heston’s monolithic certitude and the intangible ambiguities that always seem to swirl around Welles in his greatest moments.

Elsewhere in the cast, Janet Leigh starts well but after a while simply has very little to do beyond lie around in a stupor – she has virtually nothing to do following a sequence where she checks into a remote motel with a twitchy weirdo in charge (Leigh’s career in the late 50s involved quite a lot of this sort of thing). The performances of the rest of the cast, with the exception of a luminous Marlene Dietrich as Quinlan’s old flame, are really presenting grotesques of various kinds. The only performance which really oversteps the mark is that of Dennis Weaver as the motel nightman: he really is a bit too OTT by modern standards and unintentionally funny as a result.

But, then again, Touch of Evil is really all about presenting a tale of a clash between moral idealism and corruption in an irresistibly exaggerated style – and while Heston may be victorious at the conclusion of the story, one gets no sense that he and Leigh have done anything to amend the wider world in which they live; they are the aberrations, not Quinlan. Even then, the film is too extravagantly stylish and too magisterially made to really feel downbeat. Welles’ great achievement in Touch of Evil is to transform the crime melodrama into the cinematic equivalent of grand opera – but then again, one would surely expect no less of a man who was larger-than-life himself in almost every respect.

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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 autocrat 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, and Brent comes across as a bit of a doofus.

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, directing a movie in Scotland 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 don’t get this kind of thing in Pirates of the Caribbean.

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.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 21st October 2004:

‘Somewhere in the universe, there has to be something better than man.’

Two science fiction movies came out in 1968 that both, in their own way, had a huge effect on the genre. The received wisdom appears to be that Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey gave the genre brains and artistic integrity, and that Franklin J Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes gave it box-office clout and mainstream appeal – with the obvious addendum that 2001 is by far the superior and more significant picture.

Well, I’m not so sure about that, and so I would like to take this opportunity to say a few words in praise of Planet of the Apes, a film whose image has inevitably suffered from association with the far from dazzling later sequels and remake it ultimately spawned. Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, this was in some ways a highly significant movie, simply because it was the first big-budget SF production for over a decade, and arguably the first ever to feature a major star in the lead role.

The star of Planet of the Apes is, of course, Charlton Heston, at very near the apogee of his fame and abilities. He plays Taylor, the cynical and pessimistic commander of a deep space mission. After a long period of travel at near-lightspeed velocities, Taylor and his companions crash-land on an apparently barren world. They are cut off from home by millions of miles and two thousand years (a side-effect of travel at such enormous velocities), and start searching for food and water.

They find them, along with primitive, feral humans. But there is another civilisation here as well. The humans are raiding the crops of this world’s masters, several species of intelligent apes, and they respond by ruthlessly hunting down and killing these pests (as this is only two thousand years in the future, the government’s ban on hunting has still not quite come into effect). Taylor finds himself captured, and about to be treated like an experimental specimen by the ape scientists…

Taylor eventually manages to convince two of his captors, veterinarian chimpanzee Zira (Kim Hunter) and her fiance, archaeologist Cornelius (Roddy McDowell), that he is an intelligent being – but this only serves to worsen his predicament. The Minister for Science, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) seems to have a pathological terror and hatred of even the idea of an intelligent human, and an equal determination to destroy Taylor and the threat he represents. It seems the ape civilisation has a dark secret at its heart…

The most impressive thing about Planet of the Apes is not its production values and make-up effects, striking though they both are, but the way in which it succeeds in operating on many different levels. First and foremost, you can watch it as an adventure-thriller, with Heston put into personal jeopardy on a regular basis and a number of big set piece action sequences along the way. The story’s various revelations are skilfully handled, as are the grisly revelations of the diverse but uniformly horrible fates met by the other members of Taylor’s crew. The eerie score by Jerry Goldsmith is another significant asset.

But beyond this, and setting the movie apart from nearly all modern SF movies, is the way in which it quite casually touches upon a large number of different ideas and issues. To be sure, it doesn’t explore most of them in any great depth, but at least they’re there for the perceptive viewer to pick up on. And most of them are topics which mainstream non-SF movies would probably shy away from – most obviously is the film’s commentary on animal rights, achieved through a simple reversal of the status quo. But equally central to the story is a startlingly incisive critique of religious fundamentalism: the ape ruling caste sneer at the theory of evolution which some of the younger chimps are proposing. By implication, the villains of the film are creationists: something you almost certainly won’t find in many mainstream films these days. Admittedly some of the satire in the film is clumsy and obvious, but this is limited to minor elements of the script.

Even so, what gives Planet of the Apes its’ memorably grim quality is the fact that, at its heart, this is a very simple story about one man’s journey. It’s somehow blackly comic that Taylor begins the film by turning his back on human civilisation, convinced that there must be something superior out there – but as the film goes on he finds himself an advocate for his own species, determined to prove man can be more than just the destructive animal Zaius insists is the case. This is what gives the movie’s famous ending its power: Taylor, having rediscovered his belief in the worth of his own kind, suddenly has it snatched away from him again, and is left a howling wreck in the surf.

Heston’s performance is equal to the task, both physically (one suspects he found the shoot every bit as demanding as his more heavily made-up co-stars) and emotionally – he even manages to make some of scriptwriter Rod Serling’s more peculiar dialogue sound quite natural. But the rest of the principle cast are equally impressive, even if Hunter and McDowell wouldn’t really get a chance to shine until a couple of sequels later.

And I do think that in its own way this is every bit as impressive a movie as 2001. Admittedly, it is frequently clumsy and unsubtle, some of the humour is laboured, and in places it’s rather implausible. But it’s involving in a way the Kubrick movie rarely is and, while not wholly immune to portentousness, neither is it overwhelmed by its own profundity. The first three sequels are really rather good, too. I think this is a genuine classic of the cinema, and a landmark movie of the SF genre.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 15th 2003:

For pure exhilarating joy, few things in cinema so far this year have thrilled me as much as Michael Moore’s acceptance speech at the Academy Awards. Eschewing the bland, vague platitudes from actors and producers desperate to look committed while not actually taking a stand, Moore treated the Bush administration to a broadside that was passionate, genuine, and darkly funny.

But then, as I said at the time, it would have been stranger if Moore had won and not caused some sort of furore – political grandstanding and black comedy have been his stock-in-trade for a decade now, in films, on TV, and in a series of best-selling books. Moore’s attitude and gutsiness have always impressed me but the huge success of some of his work in the UK – especially the Bush-bashing Stupid White Men – has always made me a little nervous. It’s clear that Moore loves America, and writes in a spirit more of sorrow than anger – but I suspect many of his readers do not share this concern and instead simply subscribe to lazy anti-American prejudice, and would be rather less enamoured of some of what Moore has written, in a similar vein, about our own sceptred isle1.

Certainly Moore provides Yankophobes with plenty of ammunition, whether he means to or not. A case in point is the film he won the Oscar for, Bowling for Columbine, which I was lucky enough to catch recently. The audience for the screening I attended seemed even more art-housey than usual – young-ish, liberal-ish, diverse in all manner of ways, no-one who would have looked out of place at a Stop the War rally. So it was rather bleakly funny that a film about the problem of gun violence should be preceded by the trailers for Terminator 3 (Arnie goes ape with a chain-gun and rocket launcher) and Hulk (a similar amount of hardware on display, plus of course the world’s most famous living WMD).

Bowling for Columbine is a documentary exploring one issue in a number of different ways – namely, that America and Canada are racially, culturally, economically and historically quite similar. Yet the USA’s gun murder rate is literally hundreds of times greater than that of its immediate neighbour. Why should this be? Moore sets out in search of answers, interviewing along the way individuals as diverse as members of the Michigan Militia (whose members include a real-estate negotiator who feels it’s his duty to keep a loaded M16 in his house), Trey Parker (co-creator of South Park), Marilyn Manson and the big one himself, Charlton Heston. I was expecting his conclusion to be that the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) is arcane and allows too many guns to be out there in private hands. Startlingly, this isn’t the approach he takes – going so far as to point out that 70% of Canadian families own guns too.

The documentary’s ultimate conclusion is a surprising and thought-provoking one – well, surprising to anyone totally unfamiliar with the Michael Moore canon, as our hero inevitably returns to his usual betes noir: Corporate America, the military-industrial complex, and privately owned media.

Not that this film is overly heavy or didactic. Indeed, in a grim and disturbing sort of way this is one of the funniest black comedies I’ve seen in many months. Moore seems quite happy to let most of his interviewees make fools of themselves, which they do with a minimum of prompting from him. He meets the brother of one of the men responsible for the Oklahoma bombing, as rabid a libertarian as one could conceive of, whose pro-gun rhetoric ceases when Moore suggests the Second Amendment could be interpreted to include home-owned nuclear weapons. That’d be wrong, he’s told, because ‘there’s wackos out there’ – this said, straight-faced, by a man who keeps a loaded handgun under his pillow. An animated history of the USA, cheerfully mismatching its jokey style with detailed accounts of social injustice, is another highlight.

But, as you’d expect, it’s not all laughs along the way. There is a scathing indictment of American foreign policy – including a breathtaking montage of horrific footage that concludes with film of the Twin Towers attacks, set to Louis Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’ – and a serious exploration of how the USA’s trigger-happy foreign policy may relate to the behaviour of some of its more trigger-happy citizenry. And some of the film’s most powerful moments are when it abandons its slightly glib tone in favour of simply presenting facts – footage from the closed-circuit TV cameras within Columbine High School is run together with tapes of emergency calls from the day, to spellbinding effect.

The closing segment of the film is perhaps the least successful, as Moore attempts to act on his conclusions. Here the film seems contrivedly melodramatic and somehow just doesn’t ring true – particularly Moore’s encounter with Charlton Heston. Quite why Moore is ambushing an obviously frail 78-year-old is unclear, especially since the film is at pains to point out the NRA is not the root cause of the problem (Moore himself is a member). It seems sanctimonious, glibly sentimental and unworthy of what has gone before.

But the end aside, Bowling for Columbine is a coherent, thought-provoking, and impressive documentary, as well as being highly entertaining (in a depressing, ‘there’s no way I’m ever moving to the States’ kind of way). On this evidence, Moore is a better documentarian than he is a writer. His next project promises to tackle the rather inflammatory topic of the long history of financial dealings between the families of George W Bush and Osama bin Laden. I can hardly wait.

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