The Planet of the Apes (1968)

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.

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It seems that is is hot enough for the hairless humans to go around basically naked. Aren’t those apes boiling?

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.

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I hate every ape I see, from Chimpan-A to Chimpanzee

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.

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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!

 

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

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Caesar spends the film looking pretty chilly and pissed off about it

Monkey status: Non-human primates are featured prominently in this film

The third instalment of the new Planet of the Apes reboot series, we even get a bit of monkey quotient going in this film. There are no climbing monkeys with tails, but this film is chock full of ape characters. Of all named characters in the film, only three are human. The rest are gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans. Perfect.

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Remember that scene with the gorilla in Natural Born Killers?

This film was born out of the 1963 novel by Pierre Boule, La Planète des Singes, which detailed the adventures of a group of astronauts who land on a foreign planet where the roles of man and monkey have been switched.

The films deals with this idea, too, with humans suggesting to be regressing back into earlier pre-civilisation versions of themselves and the great apes rising up and taking their place on the planet as the dominant species.

War for the Planet of the Apes kind of glosses over the fact that these apes are from pretty radically different species and have really different social structures and lives in the wild. Some of them would never even come into contact with each other, like Maurice the Orangutan whose ancestors all hail from South-East Asia, and Luca, a Western Lowland Gorilla, who is therefore of African origin. The apes don’t even seem to be aware of some of their aesthetic differences, and just group themselves as one new species – ape.

This suggests that they aren’t even aware of these special differences. Maybe they just think Red the Gorilla is really buff. But then what are they to make of the swollen facial flaps Maurice carries his face between – its normal for an orangutan, but if they are considering him genetically identical to him they must think that he is tragically deformed. Well, they are still nice to him so that’s good.

As can be expected, this film is full to the brim with monkey references. Of course there are little nods to the original 1968 The Planet of the Apes, such as Caesar’s son being named Cornelius. It’s hard to say if the 1968 Cornelius and the 2017 Cornelius are meant to be the same ape – Charlton Heston’s voyage is meant to take place way in the future, right? Presumably questions like this will be answered in the next film, Around the Planet of the Apes in 80 Days.

Another reference are in the ‘Nam style army helmets we see the human soldiers wearing in the very first shot of the film as they stalk the apes through the Northern California woods. Like Full Metal Jacket, this movie features a lot of monkeys. Oh, no, wait, like Full Metal Jacket, the helmets are emblazoned with cute little messages like ‘Monkey Killer’ and ‘Bedtime for Bonzo’ – the latter being a film that starred a little-known actor named Roger Reagan starring alongside a chimpanzee.

The apes are also referred to as kongs by the soldiers. This is both another Vietnam War reference and a call-back to our King of all movie monkeys – King Kong.

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Steve Zahn in his role as Bad Ape

Special mention must be made to Steve Zahn in his role as Bad Ape, who shows up out of nowhere wearing a hoodie to be comic relief. Even a total monkey movie is best served with a side of monkey comic relief. And one point he holds binoculars up to his face the wrong way round and his reaction is hilarious.

So for the discerning ape connoisseur, this film is perfect. What other blockbuster film features apes in lead roles on screen for most of its run-time? OK, maybe Space Chimps. But we’ll get to that one soon.