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Posts Tagged ‘Ricardo Montalban’

Constant readers may recall the fulsome praise I recently lavished upon the 1971 movie Escape from the Planet of the Apes, but unfortunately I cannot be so generous about J Lee Thompson’s follow up from the very next year, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. However, it is a film not without numerous points of interest: permit me to explain.

In defiance of ever-dwindling budgets, this film finds the ongoing story jumping forward to the ominously near-future year of 1991, and an America transformed. Viral plague in the year 1983 has wiped out most household pets and the monkeys originally used as substitutes have in turn been replaced by full-sized apes – chimps, gorillas and orang-utans. The apes occupy the lowest position in a society basically dependent on slave labour to function. The slave apes are horribly mistreated and kept in line by brutal police in jackboots – hell, the police are basically wearing Gestapo uniforms. Whatever virtues this film has, subtlety is not amongst them.

Arriving in a grey and impersonal Los Angeles are circus owner Armando and his ape ward Caesar, played by Ricardo Montalban and Roddy McDowell respectively. They have a dreadful secret, which they nevertheless share with the audience with unseemly haste and via some painfully obvious expository dialogue – alone amongst apes, Caesar has the power of speech, the result of his parents being time-travellers from the ape-dominated 40th century. This faculty would lead to his death were the authorities to learn of it, but just so he understands how awful everything has become Armando has decided to show him a city for the first time. Good plan, Armando. That’s what I’d do. Yeah.

Caesar inevitably loses his cool after being confronted by endless scenes of his brethren being exploited and abused, and draws the attention of the police. Armando surrenders to the cops to cover for Caesar, who infiltrates a shipment of apes arriving for slave conditioning and finds himself the property of the tyrannical governor Breck (Don Murray). Although some of the other humans are sympathetic to the plight of the apes, most notably Breck’s aide MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), the news of Armando’s death in police custody causes Caesar to vow a terrible revenge against the human civilisation, and he sets about fomenting revolution amongst the apes…

Well, where does one start with this movie? In many ways this is a turning point for the whole franchise, most obviously in that the three previous movies were all genuinely good and possibly even great, while this movie and (to date) everything that’s followed it have all been to some degree disappointing. But it’s also the case that this film is the first to be based solely around writer Paul Dehn’s own characters and ideas rather than those of Pierre Boulle or Rod Serling. Given that Dehn also wrote the previous two movies, you wouldn’t really expect this to be a problem, but where they were interesting because of their scripts, this one is somehow interesting in spite of it.

Possibly it was just Dehn’s misfortune to be writing this, arguably the key movie in the sequence, at a time when the budget cuts were really starting to bite – down to less than $2 million, only a third of that of the original movie. The film has to introduce and sell to the audience a radically-transformed version of American society, a new set of characters, the politicisation of the protagonist, and then an apocalyptic rebellion with epic scenes of violent struggle – and do it all very cheaply and within an 88 minute running time.

As a result the film does seem very rushed and struggles to make all of its ideas really convincing. All the structures of control and slavery we see in this movie have supposedly evolved within only eight years? Hmm. Caesar also only spends about five minutes setting up his revolt (which involves such terrifying acts of sedition as spreading shoe polish on unsuspecting people’s socks) before the secret police track him down (rather easily). Most seriously of all, this is a corny and melodramatic film where nearly every character in the film is a cipher, with but a single trait which they endlessly exhibit, and their behaviour is dictated by the demands of the plot rather than their personalities. The main villain here, Breck, is a cartoon, with nothing like the depth or borderline-sympathy of Hasslein in the previous film. To be fair, Roddy McDowell does his very best with a part that requires him to be mute for large sections of the film, and Caesar’s personal journey is not entirely unconvincing. Hari Rhodes, as the sympathetic human, has to project ‘decency’ a lot and actually does it rather well.

That said, if we’re going to talk about Rhodes’ character, then we have to talk about the politics of this film, which takes us into some odd and slightly uneasy territory. At this point when talking about Conquest I usually mention the South Africa episode of The Goodies. You what? I hear you ask. Well, in South Africa three well-meaning and intelligent guys set out to express their abhorrence of racial prejudice and the apartheid system, which is fair enough, but do so by putting on blackface make-up and affecting ‘yassuh boss’ accents, which to a modern viewer surely seems incredibly racist in its own right.

In the same way, it’s very clear that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is in some way trying to say things about America’s own history and the Civil Rights movement. It’s surely not a coincidence that Caesar’s only human ally at the end of the film is black – at one point another character suggests it’s only to be expected that MacDonald be sympathetic to the apes – and parallels are made more than once between the ape struggle for freedom and that of African Americans in the past.

So the film is pro-civil rights, which is great, but at the same time it’s an allegory in which the role of black Americans is played by apes. Something about that just makes me extremely uncomfortable – although this may just be my own liberal oversensitiveness, as this film was apparently a huge hit with coloured audiences, many of whom apparently saw it as a fictionalised retelling of some of the race riots which plagued America in the late 1960s.

By the end, of course, one is in the uniquely science-fictional position of rooting for a protagonist whose goal is to bring about the end of civilisation, more-or-less as we know it. The climax sees Caesar addressing MacDonald in the heart of a burning city, with Breck in shackles and at the mercy of a mob of club-wielding apes. Caesar, in the grip of a strangely triumphant rage, prophesies the day when the dominion of man will end and the apes will dominate the Earth, concluding ‘…and that day is upon you now!’ The apes set about beating Breck to death, the film cuts back to a striking wideshot of apes silhouetted in the fires of rebellion, Jerry Goldsmith’s original score crashes in, and one is left in no doubt as to how this will all end: with the twisted world into which Charlton Heston will crashland in the original movie.

However – and this may be the single most glaring problem with this movie – this probably isn’t the climax you’ll have seen. It tested very negatively with the young audience who were the main fans of the franchise at this point and so a horribly obvious and mealy-mouthed alternative was contrived, where Breck is spared and Roddy McDowell provides a new dialogue-track (dubbed over the original closeup, reframed to exclude his mouth) where he declares the apes will be humane and compassionate towards the humans they are violently overthrowing. Er, what? At which point we’re back to the wide-shot of the burning city and Goldsmith’s music, which both now seem rather incongruous. While this version does conclude with the killer line ‘Tonight we have seen the birth of the planet of the apes!’ on the whole I really prefer the uncompromising, unreleased ending.

(I suppose I could also grumble about the way the film fudges the issue of what ultimately causes the collapse of the human civilisation – is it an ape uprising, as the previous film and most of this one has led us to believe? Or is it a nuclear war, as the first two films and some dialogue in the climax here strongly implies? Does the former cause the latter? As I say, it’s a fudge, but then the continuity between these films is almost always ropey.)

It was all downhill from here, anyway, with Paul Dehn’s ideas for the fifth and final movie judged too dark and uncompromising and the assignment being given to other writers. Hamstrung by budgetary and narrative concerns it may be, but Conquest of the Planet of the Apes still has got just enough going on to make it interesting to watch – it’s much more obviously an example of unfulfilled potential than any of the other films in the series. In fact, if I were going to remake a Planet of the Apes film with a blockbuster budget and modern special effects, then… oh, hang on a minute…

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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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The circumstances of what I laughingly refer to as my career currently dictate my living in London for a month or so. This is the first time I’ve been based in the great city for an extended period and so obviously I intend to make full use of the opportunity to explore the full depth and breadth of the London cinemagoing experience. For obvious reasons, I decided to begin my odyssey by enjoying a hugely popular summer SF movie, continuing a successful franchise and featuring Leonard Nimoy in a key role (he dies at the end).

The movie in question is, of course, Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which I discovered playing in grindhouse rep just off Leicester Square. (I hope no-one was expecting another film fitting roughly the same description.) Yes, I know, you wait nearly ten years for a George Takei movie review and then two come along in a row…

Anyway. The year 2285 finds Admiral James T Kirk (William Shatner, obviously) overseeing a Starfleet training program run by his best friend Spock (Nimoy). But Kirk is uneasy, struggling to come to terms with his advancing age and uncertain of his place in the universe.

Luckily, something comes along to take his mind off this when a starship involved with an advanced terraforming project stumbles upon a lost colony of genetically-augmented supermen on a hellish wasteland planet. They are led by Khan (Ricardo Montalban, who isn’t afraid to put pedal to the metal performance-wise), who has something he wants to get off his (non-prosthetic) chest. He blames Kirk for stranding them here fifteen years earlier. Seizing control of the research ship, the vengeful Khan sets about luring Kirk and the Enterprise into a trap…

I believe this was the fourth time I’ve seen The Wrath of Khan on the big screen (the last was at the legendary Hull Trek-a-thon in 1995) but I have to say it’s still as enjoyable as ever – winningly played and tautly written (legend has it Meyer had to write the script in only nine days to meet ILM’s deadlines), and tense, thrilling, funny and moving in all the right places (even if some parts seem ever so slightly camp nowadays). The screening I attended was practically singalong cinema (there was a lot of sniggering in the wrong places and William Shatner’s famous cry of ‘KHAAAAAANNNNN!’ was accompanied by virtually the entire back three rows of the theatre) but, tellingly, the beautifully written and performed scene in which Spock dies was met with hushed silence – right up until Scotty starts playing the bagpipes.

It became very fashionable (and understandably so) to mock the Star Trek movies of the 80s and early 90s as basically being Geriatrics in Space, with tales of an ever-more-elderly crew resolutely refusing to even acknowledge they were ageing. What makes this particular movie more than just a terrific adventure is that it doesn’t fall into this trap. The fact that they’re getting older and moving on with their careers is central to the story.

Most crucially, this is at the heart of the film’s story, which revolves around the mid-life crisis of James T Kirk. Kirk being who he is, this crisis is a little more histrionic than most (few of us are likely to find ourselves hounded by maniacal supermen fond of rewriting Melville and under the delusion they’re the Demon King of Space), but it still concerns coming to terms with growing old, facing the facts of mortality, and accepting the consequences of past decisions.

One can’t really imagine anything comparable happening in this kind of movie today, and one suspects it only happened here because there were no plans to continue Star Trek beyond this film. Following an underpowered final TV season and a disappointing (though financially successful) initial movie, The Wrath of Khan was essentially intended as one last milking of the concept – hence the decision to kill off Spock, probably the most popular character.

(Spock’s death was intended as a way to lure an ambivalent Nimoy back on board, and was originally intended to occur much earlier in the movie. Nimoy found himself regretting his decision to sever his ties with the series and agreed to leave the door open for a possible return. Nicholas Meyer, on the other hand, was unhappy about the material setting this up, which was inserted into the film without his involvement, feeling it spoilt the tone of the ending. One can see his point – it is a little too obvious.)

The irony is, of course, that Star Trek II‘s massive and deserved success led to a string of further sequels, and then new TV series, which in turn spawned their own movies, and so on (with the character reset button always to hand, of course). Not for the first time, a willingness to embrace the end proved to be a new beginning – a message entirely fitting for this particular movie.

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