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Optimus Primate



















One of the great things about having a child is that you can experiment on them. I don’t mean in some evil, mad scientist way (although if I have to tell him to tidy his room one more time...) but in a socio-cultural way. Things that we grew up with and have seen develop and grow, are presented en bloc to the next generation. They cannot help but view them in a different way. We had to wait three years between each Star Wars film; now our kids can be introduced to them in a single weekend. The socio-cultural experimentation starts when we wonder: what would it be like to watch all six films in timeline order, with the prequels first?

      We didn’t actually do that with young TF Simpson; we’re not that cruel. Nevertheless, he is experiencing our own cultural history of sci-fi and horror not only at an accelerated rate but also in a different order. One experiment I did try on Thomas a couple of years ago, when he was seven, was watching Planet of the Apes with its legendary ‘twist’ ending. We all know it’s Earth; the "Damn you all to hell!” scene is part of the cultural zeitgeist and has been parodied endless times. But I have always wondered: were audiences in 1968 genuinely surprised? Surely it’s completely obvious that they’re on Earth. And so, a little experimentation was in order...

      Let me state here and now that I love, love, love the Planet of the Apes films. It was one of the first DVD box sets that I ever bought, although it was just the box of the five movies. I didn’t shell out for the super-expensive ‘ape head’ set which also included the TV series, partly because I wasn’t bothered about watching the TV series but mostly because the head itself is really creepy and looks like a simian version of Ian Brown from the Stone Roses. Back in the 1990s when we were hiring a new Staff Writer on SFX, we developed a quiz to test applicants’ broad knowledge of the genre and I was adamant that one of the questions (possibly the only one) should be: name all five original Apes films in production order. I thought this was a good indicator of extensive, general sci-fi knowledge. If you ask a Star Trek question, Trekkies will know it off-hand. Ask a Doctor Who question, and the Whovians aren’t challenged. But the likelihood of any of the applicants being a hardcore Planet of the Apes fanboy was low (though such a beast does exist).

      It is easy to forget, in these modern times when cinematic Year Zero is 1977, quite how popular and ubiquitous the Apes films were in their day. The franchise ran from 1968 to 1973 and then continued a couple more years with the live-action TV series and an even less-remembered cartoon series. There were books and comics and toys and T-shirts. I vividly remember receiving the 1976 Planet of the Apes Annual for Christmas 1975 and I couldn’t have been happier. In pre-VHS days there were marathon screenings of all fiveApes films back to back. Before the farm-kid and his two dumb robots, Planet of the Apes was where it was at.

      The original is, of course, a classic. Those who haven’t actually seen it for a while are often surprised to spot Rod Serling’s name in the credits and there is no doubt that, in this atypical big screen foray, the Twilight Zone maven turned in a helluva screenplay. Director Franklin J Schaffner’s only other genre credit is Fuhrer-cloning thriller The Boys from Brazil. Serling’s co-writer Michael Wilson contributed to the scripts  of Lawrence of Arabia and It’s a Wonderful Life and may have got the Apes gig because of his work on the other famous Pierre Boulle adaptation, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans are terrific as chimpanzee scientists Cornelius and Zira and orangutan administrator Dr Zaius. But it was the make-up they wore which won an Honorary Oscar. Ape costumes had changed little since the days of the legendary Charlie Gemora, with stiff, inflexible masks but, in an age when most of today’s prosthetic materials and techniques were undreamt of, John Chambers created realistic make-up which not only differentiated the ape characters but allowed the actors to really emote. Without that, the film would have been risible. Chambers, incidentally, created another iconic sci-fi make-up a couple of years earlier when he found a way to put pointy bits onto Leonard Nimoy’s ears.

      All of the above notwithstanding, this is absolutely and utterly Charlton Heston’s film. Say what you like about Heston - he was, after all, a right-wing nutjob with a gun fetish - but he could deliver the goods on screen. I have never been afraid to tell people that my favourite period of genre cinema runs late ‘60s to mid-‘70s, within which, as it happens, sit all five Apes movies. Heston also made The Omega Man and Soylent Green during this period and that makes him a bona fide science fiction legend as far as I’m concerned. And if you disagree with me on any of this, you will have to prise my Planet of the Apes box set out of my cold, dead hands.

      Speaking of hands, has there ever been a better movie line written than "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape”? It’s not just a belter of a line, with fantastic metre to it, it also comes after one huge build-up. Those long, long scenes of Taylor and his companions trekking across the land are largely dialogue-free, then there’s the gorilla hunt during which Taylor is shot in the throat, so for the next, crucial part of the film Heston is forced to use what the Yanks call ‘pantomime’ (which doesn’t involve him dressing up as Widow Twanky, fortunately). We have all those scenes with the apes talking, we witness Taylor’s astonishment and confusion - then, just as he is being manhandled, he finds his larynx has healed enough to function. It’s an awesome scene.

      Creating a sequel was always going to be a big challenge and I must admit that Beneath the Planet of the Apes is my least favourite of the quintet. That said, rewatching it made me re-evaluate the film and I like it more now. I was disappointed as a child to find that there are in fact other humans in this world, albeit mutated ones, and that too much of the film concentrates on them rather than the primates we’ve paid to see. With the benefit of age and the perspicacity of historical awareness, I can see that Beneath is in fact a hippy mindfuck of a film and the reason I didn’t like it when I was ten is because I didn’t know what a hippy was, let alone a mindfuck. The film benefits from Heston’s reluctance to star in it, thereby preventing the series from becoming The Adventures of Taylor. Ted (Magnum Force) Post directed this one from a script by Paul (Goldfinger) Dehn, who also wrote the third and fourth films. With the whole planet blowing up at the end, there was clearly no chance of making this a trilogy.

      But the public demanded more, so Dehn and director Don Taylor (Hazel Court’s husband) brought us Escape from the Planet of the Apes which is a cleverly inverted remake of the original, even down to swiftly glossing over the utterly ridiculous science fiction premise that sets up the story. So now instead of a talking human among apes, we have talking apes among humans. The very-near-future setting (1973, two years hence) allows for a big helping of satire and Escape is definitely the most light-hearted of the series. Where Heston’s Taylor angrily condemned his captors for being stinking, dirty animals, Hunter’s Zira simply forgets herself and breaks her self-imposed vow of silence by angrily snapping "Because I loathe bananas!” McDowall (returning to the role of Cornelius after missing Beneath) gets an even bigger laugh later on: "Does the male speak?” asks a Congressman, to which the ape replies "Only when she lets me.”

      The satire isn’t just for giggles in Escape, it also makes a serious point. Initially we are invited to see the contrast between the 1968 and 1971 films in the different attitudes of the existing society to the startling new arrivals. Taylor and co were treated like, well, animals. Cornelius and Zira become celebrities, but as the story of what will happen to our world in the future leaks out, they become a danger and the audience is left in no doubt that contemporary human society is really no better than that of the apes. The final shoot-out scene is heart-breaking but Ricardo Montalban (KHAAAANNNN!!!) is there as circus owner Armando to provide continuity into the fourth film.

      Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is not only my favourite of the Apes films, it is one of my favourite films of all time, full stop. J Lee Thompson (Ice Cold in Alex) directed this and the final picture, having been originally considered for the 1968 film. Conquest is great because it does what science fiction does best: explores the real world through a fictional one. The Vietnam War was dragging to a close, the Black Panthers were patrolling the streets, discontent was in the air. The Civil Rights Act was passed the same year as the first Apes film but the racial subtext of Conquestis undeniable. The film makes serious points without ever descending into polemic, has one of the best opening sequences of any SF film as the apes are gathered, and culminates in socially relevant scenes of surprisingly violent action. Toy-line and cartoon spin-off notwithstanding, these are not kid-friendly films. Before 1977, SF didn’t rely on cute robots. Set in 1991, the film brings back Montalban and also McDowall as Caesar, an ape with a very different outlook to his mild, slightly henpecked father.

      Dehn and Thompson expected Conquest to be the last film but the suits at Fox wanted one more, bridging the narrative gap between the ape revolt and the established ape society. Battle for the Planet of the Apes had the lowest budget and has often been derided for its cheapness but actually it’s a good little film and is arguably the most influential chapter in the series. In 1981, the tropes of post-apocalypse cinema would be firmly established by the double whammy of Mad Max 2 and Escape from New York, but the iconography of those movies - customised vehicles and all - first appeared in Battle (and also in unjustifiably obscure 1975 Yul Brynner film The Ultimate Warrior). The fifth film’s vision of a future where apes and humans live together in a tense, fragile society is an important part of the circular narrative and a fine finale to the saga.

      I went to see Tim Burton’s ‘reimagining’ in 2001 and it was, let’s face it, utter shit. The idea of training chimps to fly spacecraft is stupid enough, but then you have to ask (as apparently no-one at all on the production did): where did the horses come from? The time-travel premise behind the original is paper-thin but it’s not based on the idea of keeping horses on a space-station. I didn’t see Rise of the Planet of the Apes though I’m told it’s better. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is due next year.

      And what did young TF make of the original film? He enjoyed it, but as soon as Taylor and co started yomping across the desert, he asked if they were on Earth. I hummed and hahhed, but as the English-speaking apes (on horses) appeared, he remained adamant that this must be a far-future Earth. So when the Statue of Liberty appeared, his only surprise was that anyone could ever have been surprised. Which is exactly what I always believed.







MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.