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Posts Tagged ‘Maurice Evans’

Way out somewhere in the distant reaches of movie obscurity there are lost worlds of films that have not just been totally forgotten, they were never noticed in the first place. Whole TV channels (usually the ones with the high numbers) exist just to give this sort of film a (marginal) justification for existence, the sort of thing their original creators can barely have dreamt of when they were originally being made – usually as cheap and cheerful programme filler. (Which is essentially what they still are.)

The real joy of cruising through the high number channels is that occasionally you come across something really special (I use the word in a non-standard sense) that you previously had no conception even existed. So it was with Gerry Levy’s 1969 offering The Body Stealers, produced by perennial genre-movie also-rans Tigon – lest I sound too harsh, I should of course remind you that Tigon had the odd flash of brilliance, releasing Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General, which in itself would be enough earn any company a mention in the history of British genre cinema.

The Body Stealers is not quite bad enough to get Tigon stricken from the record again, but some might say it was a close thing. In any case, this is a different sort of film to those two I just mentioned, being ostensibly set in present-day Britain, where a parachute drop is in progress. Watching it are top brass George Sanders and a parachute engineer played by ‘guest star’ Neil Connery (his little brother, who shamelessly used this connection to have a sort of vestigial film career for quite a few years). All is going well, until weird radiophonic noises trouble the soundtrack and… the parachutes descend to the ground, unoccupied! The parachutists have vanished into thin air (Thin Air being one of The Body Stealers’ various alternate titles).

Well, roll credits, and after that, roll stock footage of an air show, where another parachute display is in progress. There are more oooo-eeee-oooo noises, this time accompanied by primitive optical printing special effects, and the parachute display team have vanished too. An observer on the ground reports seeing them fade away into nonexistence, but their C.O. isn’t having any of it. ‘Whatever my men get up to, and they usually do, fading away isn’t it,’ he declares, the sort of line that makes you want to send everyone involved back to have another go.

Well, senior air force bod Allan Cuthbertson (probably best remembered as the twitching colonel from the Gourmet Night episode of Fawlty Towers) takes a break from letching over his secretarial staff to convene an inquiry, and decrees that an outside investigator be brought in. Connery suggests he knows the man for the job, but he could be difficult to find…

Thirty seconds later, they find him: he is Bob Megan, played by slab-faced B-movie lead and ubiquitous voice-over artist Patrick Allen. Whatever Bob’s professional qualifications (everyone just calls him Bob, just as everyone calls Connery’s character Jim, lending the film a peculiarly informal air), they end up being rather secondary to the fact he is basically a borderline sex pest, apparently incapable of meeting a young woman without macking on her in a horribly corny way.

Naturally, the plot ends up revolving around Bob’s mysterious ladykilling talents, as not only does he win (very easily) the affections of female boffin Hilary Dwyer, he also catches the eye of a mysterious blonde whom he meets lying on the beach one night and who has the odd talent of being able to vanish without a trace. Could she possibly be connected to the mystery of the vanishing parachutists – especially when, as senior boffin Maurice Evans suggests, the whole thing could have something to do with Outer Space?

Yes, it is that Maurice Evans. One minute you’re giving a brilliant performance in the original Planet of the Apes, one of the greatest SF films ever made, then before you know it you wind up in a pile of tosh like this. He must have had a really demanding mortgage, is the only explanation I can think of.

I should make it clear that The Body Stealers really is tosh, and it’s not even good tosh at that. This is the kind of film where you quickly learn to be pleasantly surprised when any element of it is not preposterous, clumsy, or just horribly inappropriate. One key plot twist, for example, comes when Jim reveals that Bob’s new mystery girlfriend doesn’t show up in photographs. Well, it’s a daft idea, but daft ideas fuel most of these British SF B-movies – the thing that makes you roll your eyes is the fact that in order to work this into the plot, Jim is revealed to be the kind of guy who goes out lurking on the beach of an evening, secretly taking photos of people without telling them.

I would say this is highly questionable behaviour, but it’s nothing compared to Bob’s relentless pursuit of any young woman who crosses his path – never mind the endless hopeless pick-up lines, he’s the kind of guy who goes for a snog within three minutes of meeting a woman. The worst thing is that the plot demands that they put up only a token resistance and all end up falling in love with him. Seriously, this is the kind of film that gave generations of young men entirely the wrong idea about how to talk to women: here they are almost all entirely decorative, recreational objects, whose response to being endlessly patronised is to fall jealously in love with whoever’s responsible.

The horrific gender politics of The Body Stealers really eclipse most of the rest of the plot, which I suppose has a certain sort of B-movie guile to it, in that it largely manages to dodge using expensive special effects – the one big prop, the alien spaceship, is a second-hand one bought from Milton Subotsky. But even here it’s all just corny, low-stakes stuff, mostly resolved by people standing around in rooms expositing at each other. (Hilary Dwyer is not too bad, I suppose, and does a good scream during the climax.) There is a half-decent cast here, but no-one makes much impression – Neil Connery, on the other hand, reveals again that whatever Sean’s limitations as an actor, he still got all the family’s allocation of talent.

On the other hand, I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy The Body Stealers at all: I was amused by the film’s attempts to economise, while desperately trying to hide the fact it was made for next to no money; I was rather tickled by the efforts of two blokes called Bob and Jim to tackle such a cosmic metaphysical enigma. The film does manage to take itself seriously, which is an impressive achievement all things consider – but, these days at least, I doubt it will manage to persuade even the most sympathetic audience to do the same. Tosh of the purest variety, but hard to entirely dislike.

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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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