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Posts Tagged ‘Kim Hunter’

Watching Don Taylor’s 1971 movie Escape from the Planet of the Apes these days, I find 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 a trio of 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, and 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 the 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 result 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 another rather operatic performance as a circus owner.) The climax is neither so uncompromising nor 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 raise 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.

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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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