Saturday, August 19, 2017
Circuses Are Past History
Like the man says, the past is a foreign country. My own past in Los Angeles is of little interest and the more time goes on, the less any of it matters except in the most insignificant way imaginable. Way back in the 90s I always enjoyed going to the mall in Century City, partly for the movies and the bookstore, partly for the food but also because of the vibe of the place. I certainly got more than a few celebrity sightings there (Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis together was one of the best) and maybe to me the design of it seemed like what I had always imagined Los Angeles, or maybe just that generic southern California vibe, to be. The mall has been totally redone now so it doesn’t look like that anymore and by a certain point I stopped going to that part of town anyway. I miss it but that’s the way it goes.
One particular point of interest that was always attached to my fondness for the place is that it’s also where much of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was filmed, the location meant to represent the future world of the film’s “North America 1991” as the opening title put it, an indication that the country may not even be the United States anymore. Presumably they knew something about the future even if the years were slightly off.
The Twentieth Century Fox studio is right nearby—just up the street is where Fox Plaza aka “the DIE HARD building” would later be built—and the mall actually sits on what used to be part of the backlot so they didn’t have to travel far to use that location. Because of the extensive redesign of what’s now called “Westfield Century City” there’s not much left that’s recognizable, the mid-century modernistic feel to the place scrubbed away in favor of a certain plastic Kardashian vibe which somehow feels even more oppressive. The bridge that goes over Avenue of the Stars is still there of course even though the ramp leading up to it is new and though the staircase where Roddy McDowall’s Caesar makes his speech at the end is gone the building directly behind him is actually still there—I knew it as a Bank of America back in the 90s, now it’s something else. And there’s not even a plaque or a signpost or a statue there to indicate that this is the spot where the apes took over. But I guess it doesn’t matter. As far as CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is concerned, the future is now the past which in some ways means that the present is now the future, which is all it ever becomes.
North America, 1991 – Roughly twenty years after he acquired the baby chimpanzee offspring of Cornelius and Zira, the apes from the future, circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) travels to the city with the now-grown ape Caesar (Roddy McDowall) at his side to advertise his upcoming show. But what Caesar encounters is a fascistic world where apes were turned into pets after the deaths of all cats and dogs but are now servants, essentially slaves to humans with Governor Breck (Don Murray) in charge of Ape Management which is designed to condition all simians so they will do the jobs they are trained for. Though Caesar is well aware he needs to not speak for fear of being discovered the treatment he witnesses soon causes him to shout out. In the melee of people convinced they have just heard an ape talk he is soon separated from Armando, who tries to take responsibility for what was heard, and Caesar is forced to blend in with the servant apes, soon even finding himself a slave under the command of Breck himself. But when the truth of what has happened to Armando is revealed, Caesar soon realizes that he has no choice but to take action and plot revolution.
The previous two films in the APES series, BENEATH THE… and ESCAPE FROM…, climaxed with the violent deaths of its main characters which in the first sequel was immediately followed by the total destruction of the entire planet. This apparently qualified each of them for a G rating but, hey, it was the 70s. CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, released in June 1972 and the fourth film in the series out of five, not only went beyond what even the MPAA was willing to hand over a G rating to it had to undergo considerable alterations during post-production to make it palatable for even a PG. After all, it depicts what is essentially a successful armed slave revolt that brings down the human race, which even in the 70s may have been considered a little much for kids. But it’s clearly a low budget armed slave revolt and considering that there are only a handful of locations actually used in the film we sort of have to take its success on faith, through dialogue telling us what will happen after the credits roll. Even after countless viewings I’m still a little unsure about the about the exact geography of the film’s primary location as depicted, presumably to make the area seem bigger than it is but it’s to the film’s credit how much it sidesteps issues of technology for this film set in the future such as how there’s not even a single automobile seen in the entire film. But science fiction or not, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES isn’t about detailing a futuristic world or even presenting an ape revolt as it is detailing its own subtext, something which may have been in the air when the film was made and in some ways still is.
There’s surprisingly little in the way of plot with the three acts of the screenplay by Paul Dehn (who had also worked on the previous two films) serving as essentially capture, slavery and revolt. And that’s it. Most of the exposition is packed into what Ricardo Montalban’s Armando has to tell Caesar the film’s start (really, you’d think he’d have told him all this ahead of time) so we don’t ask too many questions about how much it remains consistent with the other films. It doesn’t match up exactly anyway, forced from a continuing storyline that backed into what it became by the destruction of the world in the far off future as seen at the end of BENEATH, creating a time loop that never made any sense even on a science fiction level but we just go with it. It’s one of those things that make the flawed storytelling of all the films put together so compelling that certain elements meant to connect can never be fully reconciled. The future of 1991 as presented is clearly a cold world as if without their pets any shred of kindness or even humanity has been wiped away from these people, almost in a very early CHILDREN OF MEN sort of way. It turns out no children are even seen in this film anyway but it feels like a safe bet that if there were they’d be just as bad as their parents. The recurring imagery of waves crashing up to the surf from earlier films are nowhere to be found and in its place is a world of metal and concrete, no joy, nothing but business.
“Circuses are past history,” a guard awkwardly states early on which in the context of the actual 2017 has turned out to be close to true with Ringling Bros. closing down this year. Of course, in our real world that’s a reminder of increased attention paid to animal rights and how people don’t like clowns very much anymore. In this film’s future the very concept of a circus is almost a symbol of all things pure, of art, joy and knowledge having been done away with. Which, looking at it again in the context of the real 2017, doesn’t seem so far off either. Even the concept of space travel, that symbol of optimism where the entire APES series began, is now little more than a place that astronauts have brought viruses back from. The slave outfits given to the simians are somewhat obviously meant to foreshadow the color schemes they would evolve into by the time of the original film far off in the future while most of the humans are all dressed in oppressive black as if they have no color in their lives to lose. The pleasures they now have are totally sterile with even cigarettes apparently having been made too safe to ever enjoy again. Everyone, every human, seems either angry, unpleasant or simply arrogant. The few we see out and about in this futuristic shopping plaza are clearly part of whatever the upper class is, living in paranoia as if they know the revolution is inevitable, the less fortunate ones tossed further down by their service jobs being taken over by the ape slaves.
It’s difficult to tell if things would be such a police state even if the apes weren’t around and Governor Breck is concerned with little other than maintaining his power, barking out orders to underlings. Even one command to “simplify that last paragraph” in a speech makes clear than anti-intellectualism is now the order of the day. Thought doesn’t matter anymore. Only adherence does. Only loyalty. In his paranoia Breck serves the function of Dr. Zaius from the original film only without the intellect, which makes him a perfect human leader. For a film that has to present a future on a tight budget (reportedly $1.6 million; by this point the budgets for each sequel were getting progressively smaller) it’s clear enough to be understood immediately. It’s a fascist world and it deserves to have a revolt by the apes. Plain and simple. With much of it shot on location (in addition to Century City, a few scenes filmed at UC Irvine) there are only a few sets that seem to have been built, the masks on many of the background apes are worse than ever and even if global ramifications of what happens are bigger than ever the plot is the slimmest of the five films, fitting nicely into the 87 minute running time. But it’s so effective in its stripped down way that very little of that matters.
Director J. Lee Thompson was a workhorse of a filmmaker, with a career going from the 50s to the 80s that included THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and the original CAPE FEAR but also a lot of sludge. Whether he responded here to the themes or even took the production limitations as a challenge there’s more ferociousness and energy felt here than in a number of his big budget prestige pictures. Along with DP Bruce Surtees (whose work during this period included DIRTY HARRY and NIGHT MOVES) brings to every scene an immediacy that the earlier films in the series never had, whether handheld cameras to make the ape riots resemble newsreel footage or shots which accentuate the coldness of the architecture. They seem energized by how to shoot Century City with the austerity of every sharp angle lending itself to the minimal plotting, looking for the hardness in the angles everywhere and makes the world seem that much more foreboding; it’s the only APES film after the original which feels like it contains a genuine point of view to how it’s shot with the total darkness during night scenes handled particularly well. One imagines John Carpenter seeing the film in ’72 and ideas forming in his head for how he could expand on these themes and visuals but the film is still no slouch.
It’s a film with not just blunt power but full on anger that goes beyond the satire of the concept into pure documentation of the horror, knowing there is only one side and this is the way it’s supposed to be. While the ham-handed protests meant to reflect Vietnam demonstrations in BENEATH felt hackneyed, in this film the imagery emerges perfectly out of where the story has gone. And with the somewhat liberal African-American MacDonald is the only character in the movie who seems to put actual thought into his actions and opinions but while he may be in a position of power he still hasn’t achieved any form of respect. “What’s he, like apes or something?” “Yeah, don’t it figure?” goes an exchange between two guards talking about him, a clear sign that apes may have been moved over to the bottom of the human food chain but old-fashioned racism among humans is still there. There’s no longer any one clear voice of reason with any authority whether the calm, collected president played by William Windom in ESCAPE or even a scientist like Eric Braeden’s Dr. Hasslein in that film who even as the bad guy had a point of view, ugly as it was. Even Caesar is without any real guidance whether Armando or the absent Cornelius and Zira so there’s no longer wisdom to pass down to the younger generation. Guards dressed like Nazi Stormtroopers patrolling the apes combined with the subpar masks of the background apes somehow add to that nightmarish quality. Even on its own level I still have a few plot questions but it doesn’t really matter since having it all match up with the correct timeline isn’t important. Just as the repeated sounds of ‘No!’ are used to mollify the apes from their conditioning and gets repeated when Armando eventually uses the same word to plea for his life, it’s a movie about imagery and sound connecting to the ideas of which the only real answer reached is this is a world that deserves toppling. And since no one else is going to rise up, it may as well be Caesar, the one already named for a king.
The minimalism gives the film an objective and a total sense of focus, helping the movie age well although what it is makes it sometimes more compelling than what it does; even at 87 minutes you can tell there’s not much story so all the sneaking around Caesar does can’t always hide how listless it is, the electrocution sequence feels muddled in a way that hurts what follows and the disobedience section gets short shrift maybe because the film just wants to get to the revolt by that point. But the appearance of a special unrated version on Blu-ray a few years back makes some of these flaws seem minor considering what it turns the film into, dispensing with the original conciliatory speech that had to be cobbled together in post to soften the ending along with some of undeniably shocking violence during the revolt and even a few additional music cues that feel like they were dropped for just sheer intensity almost as if the film itself is shouting at you to understand the message. The overall feel of the last half-hour, not just that final speech, is much harsher and bloodier almost to the point of genuinely wanting the audience to rise up. In just about the most shocking newly added moment to this version Governor Breck takes a gun from a guard (hey, at least he’s willing to do things himself) and shoots a gorilla right in the face, firing directly at the camera, in effect firing it at us. The message is clear. We are the apes. It’s the real monsters, whether they’re the fascists, the Nazis, the republicans, who all need to be taken down. And there should be no sympathy for them.
That jangly score by Tom Scott which, based on the Film Score Monthly soundtrack release, had a fair amount unused which may have been for the best although while the silence in certain scenes adds to the minimalism, a few parts are still too dry as a result. There’s more of it in the unrated version and in both is transformed from atonal bombast into an instantly recognizable Jerry Goldsmith track from the original (part of “The Search Continues” on that soundtrack album) at the very end to signify that the new world is born. I wish there was more information out there on this version—was it basically just sitting in a vault at Fox since the early 70s? Did the studio really make them take out music cues that were too upsetting? Is this really Thompson’s preferred version of the film? But it does manage to make the film feel as complete as it ever will, much more than the 4:30 movie that it’s always been in my memory. Thompson confirmed in Eric Greene’s book “Planet of the Apes as American Myth” that the film was based on the Watts riots and there had certainly been other forms of civil unrest during the years in between. Watching it now, I can’t help but view it with a whiff of Stonewall as well. The revised ending which was once all that was known pulls back and so does BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, the next and last in the series also directed by Thompson, which is pretty kid oriented as well as more hopeful but it is a sequel to this film’s theatrical cut after all. But that’s another story. Considering other films that were made in the early 70s—DELIVERANCE, for one, opened a month later—what they changed it to it passed for a happy ending. Of course, maybe we’re living in a world where an ape did take over after all, just not an intelligent one. After all, as this film and recent times reminds us some people were not born human.
Clearly reveling in the chance to play a new character in the series, so much of Roddy McDowall’s performance is in his movement and eyes, letting the silences play out as if he’s just waiting for his character’s explosion at the very end. It’s one of McDowall’s finest moments but even the small touches stand out particularly when he and Don Murray take a moment to just stare at each other as Caesar chooses his name, everything imaginable stated in that silence. I can’t help but imagine the two actors finding that bit of business on the set and suddenly not caring about anything else in the scene going on around them. Murray, once opposite Marilyn Monroe in BUS STOP and currently on TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN as the boss of Dougie Jones, has stated that he deliberately rehearsed his dialogue in German to give it the proper cadence when he translated it back and it provides the right tone for his performance which gives each moment he plays the exact amount of contempt for all necessary. Even at the very end Breck’s arrogance won’t let him break eye contact with the ones about to do him in, making him seem somewhat braver than certain real life versions do these days. Returning as Armando, Ricardo Montalban dives right into the insane amount of exposition he has to spit out in the opening minutes with a passion which would defeat other actors, proving how good he was at dealing with preposterous dialogue and the character’s own true passion of what he believes in the midst of pure hatred is always evident. Hari Rhodes, also in Sam Fuller’s SHOCK CORRIDOR, provides a weighty middle ground of humanity in the film between the emotion and cold, calculated hatred bringing unshakable moral authority even when he knows there’s only so much he can do to change things, Natalie Trundy, wife of producer Arthur P. Jacobs who played several roles in the APES franchise, is the female ape Lisa and the icy oddness of Severn Darden, who returned in BATTLE as did Trundy, coming off as the most vicious kind of simple, pragmatic evil.
My own past doesn’t matter. Only the present does and what sort of actual future we’re really going to get, who can say. As far as the recent reboot/prequels go, I liked RISE, thought DAWN was pretty terrible and I’m moderately sort of ok on WAR even though it’s little more than empty spectacle. There’s not very much in the new film to discuss since aside from the effects there’s nothing there, as empty and hollow as you’d expect from an effects extravaganza made in North America 2017. But to this day I’ll still occasionally watch one of the sequels from the original five-film cycle, even the ones I never think are any good, maybe for some twisted nostalgia of how daring movies like this were sometimes allowed to be. CONQUEST feels compromised in some ways and it’s clearly aimed at kids but the film has a danger to it which in some ways makes it more appropriate for kids than any of them. They need to learn who the bad guys are, after all, and why such a revolt happens. It’s never too soon to be aware of such things, especially these days.