Success is a bittersweet occurrence for any film. I’m looking at you, Pirates of the Caribbean.
Continuance is a probability we must all face, whether the continuation of breathing or the continuation of a story we thought had ended. the 1968 film Planet of the Apes sparked a phenomenon, and 20th Century Fox smelled money. Production fraught with casting issues, budget cuts, and some wild conceptual choices made for a difficult film that many viewers rejected. I first saw this on the Disney Channel, sneaking out after my parents went to sleep and devouring any television I could. It’s perhaps a foregone absolution that many would hate this film, but it’s my personal favorite of the series.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes continues the story of Colonel Taylor (Charleton Heston)right where it left off. Something exists beyond the melted Statue of Liberty, and he intends to find it. What follows is a series of hallucinatory images, weird weather, and ultimately loss. Nova (Linda Harrison) meets up with Brent (James Franciscus), an American astronaut sent to find Taylor’s crew. The two enlist Cornelius (Roddy McDowell and David Watson) and Zira (Kim Hunter) to help them escape from Ape City and discover the fate of Colonel Taylor.
This sounds fairly standard for a film of this type. Charleton Heston wanted nothing to do with a sequel, insisting that if he returned they use him minimally and end everything so he’d be free of obligation. The studio had James Franciscus cast, given that he bore a great resemblance to Heston, and hoped that the man’s charisma would carry enough weight. Lines of reasoning that led to this are something I understand, but they’re a mere weird appetizer to what the rest of the film offers.
Brent, Taylor, and Nova are up against mutant humans that worship a doomsday bomb. This sequel dropped smack in the middle of the Cold War, a time drenched in fear of nuclear holocaust and one ripe for this kind of story. Increased shock value is common in bigger franchises, with precedents set in these early ones that still carry on today. What’s scarier than a slavery allegory? Devastating war and human mutation. I went in search of a fun time, but what I got was a deep respect of nuclear power and the devastation it can cause if not properly handled. Alongside the mutation is a deeply religious attitude towards high-powered weaponry. Devastating if improperly handled, deadly in the wrong hands, the idea of the bomb worked its way into American culture and stayed there. The fear of it has lessened since the Apes graced the screen, but it remains a powerful message of the self-destructive nature of our species.
Without that metaphor the story falls apart. The first film posits that mankind and his inability to be satisfied will ultimately lead to extinction, but Beneath the Planet of the Apes argues that the mere existence of consciousness leads to annihilation. I grow giddy at the return of Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), the head scientist and chief defender of the faith. Those two concepts are utilized as a catalyst of hypocrisy, an individual that knows he’s wrong but is desperately hiding information that might lead to destruction. The mutant humans are able to project thoughts and images, non-lethal deterrents that Zaius sees through. Whether or not you agree with his stance (and from what I’ve seen a lot of modern viewers would still be unable to see his role as a villain), Zaius remains an oddly heroic individual throughout the series. He’s a scared, frightened man that doesn’t want to acknowledge reality. No matter how we look at his circumstances, his actions are meant as beneficial for his community. That’s the danger, and when he sides with the xenophobic gorilla military it literally blows up the Earth.
That gorilla military was originally meant to be led by Orson Welles. There are many instances in Hollywood history of this kind of issue, with performers turning down roles due to time in the makeup chair. Perhaps the most famous is Bela Lugosi, who refused the role of Frankenstein because he wouldn’t be a sexy lead. Welles had the same issue, but his refusal took what would have been a character elevated by his efforts and left us with James Gregory instead. Orson Welles wasn’t the only refusal, as Charleton Heston fought to stay out of this and only returned on the condition that the series end. His character is killed in the most excessive way possible, but thankfully the franchise continued.
And how do they get out of this? Apes and mutant humans blew up Earth with the Alpha and Omega bomb, but there are three more films. We’ll get to the first of them next time. For now, just rest peacefully in the knowledge that one of the Apes movies features a jihad between bomb-worshiping mutants and religiously motivated Apes that results in the destruction of the entire planet.