Monkey status: Non-human primates are featured prominently in this movie
To celebrate the release of War for the Planet of the Apes, we here at Is there a monkey in it? decided to go way back to where it all began. Well, not quite – this monkey series really began with Pierre Boule’s 1963 novel, but this is a movie blog not a book one so we can’t talk about that. There are rules.
This is one of the famous depictions of primates in Hollywood. Everybody knows a shot or a line from this classic, from “Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!” to the iconic shot of the run-down Statue of Liberty.
As a result we all basically know the plot. A team of astronauts in far-off space crash-land on a mysterious planet that turns out to be run by a species of humanoid apes.
Watching this film makes you miss the physical effects of an earlier Hollywood. We are all erect and excited about the visual wizardry of Weta Digital, as soon in the newest series of film, but there is still something missing. Our brains know on some level that we are looking at nothing at all. In this film, the gorillas and the orangutans are real. You can basically smell them through the screen.
The film is a polemic largely on different groups dehumanizing each other. Taylor, our human hero, takes the role of a lab monkey and is prodded and probed and generally treated like a beast. The apes react to him with disgust and patronising comments:
Lucius: Why did you do that? Scrape off your hair?
Cornelius: It makes you look somehow … less intelligent.
At its most superficial level, the film puts us behind the eyes of the zoo animal. We experience Taylor’s losing end of the role reversal with him.
One thing interesting about the film is how they depict the ape civilisation. It is at anachronistic and varied levels of technological development and sometimes seems to have a heavy Greco-Roman classical influence. This hodge-podge creates a new and fresh vision o
f culture which asks the question – say monkeys do go on to take over from us as custodians of this soil, what does that look like? What is monkey culture? Monkey language? Monkey rock’n’roll? Monkey jazzercise? Monkey chia pets? Monkey improv?
In deleted scenes Charlton Heston went through all of these ordeals. Rumour has it that a scene of him appearing on a monkey talk show was left on the cutting room floor by director Franklin J Schaffner.
In the film it seems like everybody has a reason not to speak. Taylor has a throat injury that renders him mute through about half the film and his co-pilot Langdon is lobotomised by the apes, taking away his power of speech.
Nova, the woman that Taylor ‘befriends’ in the zoo, never says a word.
Well, her character is actually really problematic. All that she is given to do in the whole film is look sexy. Literally. Her character has no lines, no important actions, just follows Charlton Heston around like a pet. That element was kind of creepy, and with only one other speaking female character in the whole movie, it is safe to say that it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test. I guess that hadn’t even been invented yet.
But when it comes to the Monkey Bechdel Test (that is, the test of monkeys appearing in scenes with no humans and not talking about any humans), this film passes with flying colours. So for that, as well as the trippy desert cinematography and awesome kind of sun-drenched psychedelic gladiator set designs, this movie is a must-see.
And of course the film did give us this: The Planet of the Apes Musical, in which Phil Hartman actually does a really good Charlton Heston impression. I love you, Dr Zaius!