Reimagining Escape from the Planet of the Apes as a Warner Brothers gangster picture

Escape from the Planet of the Apes

If you grew up, as I did, in the Seventies and came of age with 20th Century Fox’s PLANET OF THE APES films then it is likely that you have struggled over the past forty years to make a case for the third film in the series, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971). The franchise entry stands alone for being the only one set in the present time — not in the distant future of PLANET OF THE APES (1968) and BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970) nor in the near future of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972) and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973) — but in today (AKA 1971). ESCAPE drops the only three characters to survive the Apocalyptic blowout of BENEATH into contemporary Los Angeles, where they must conceal from modern man his destiny while enjoying the attention that comes with celebrity and suffering the realities of being branded public enemies. It took me many years to appreciate how thought-provoking ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES really is; as a 10-year-old, I was annoyed that there was no element of fantasy to it (well, apart from intelligent apes with British accents)… no ape army, no nuclear bomb-loving mutants, no wilted Statue of Liberty, no melted Metropolitan Transit System. It was just the LA Zoo, Rodeo Drive, and apes wearing street clothes. And yet… as I grew older and enjoyed many other kinds of movies I began to see reflections in ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES in them… and nowhere more prominently than in the crime genre. Escape foreign poster

In the United States, posters for ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES  emphasized a plot point that dominates the third act — the birth of a chimpanzee baby who is destined (after a fashion) to inherit the earth (an earth upon which apes walk tall, and speak the King’s English, while humans exist in a dumb, semi-feral state) and whose presence on it drives protagonists and antagonists alike towards a grim finish. The birth of their child and their flight from the figures of authority makes of protagonists Cornelius (Roddy McDowall, returning to the series after having sat out BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES) and Zira (Kim Hunter) fugitives and the foreign art work emphasized their flight, their doomed lovers-on-the-run scramble for sanctuary.

Dark Passage

We’ve seen these archetypes many times before in films, as we have that particular psychological marriage of fear and desperation manifested in hunched shoulders, furrowed brows, and bodies bent towards the horizon, towards the vanishing point, towards to the promise of freedom that is fueled by love and passion and the dream — however naive — of a happily ever after. In ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, Cornelius and Zira (and, joining them briefly, a chimp scientist played by Sal Mineo, the third wheel from REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) are almost perpetually in flight. At the top, they have fled the literal Planet of the Apes just before it blinked out in the halo of a bomb blast and escaped to the Planet of Man, which then becomes, by virtue of them stepping foot upon it (and ultimately giving birth to an ape child on it), the Planet of the Apes, their point of origin and point of no return. There’s a fate-driven sense of circularity and futility hardwired to ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES that is very much in sympathy with Hollywood crime films made in the first half of the 20th Century. Warner Brothers gangster pictures, which turned the crime genre in American moviemaking into a proper industry, were often rise and fall stories (LITTLE CAESAR, PUBLIC ENEMY, SCARFACE) about the evolution of a feral individual into a self-made man, an American success story, a rags to riches antihero, who is brought down ultimately by the dead weight of his ambition and by society’s repugnance of him for revealing a side of humanity it would rather forget.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes 01

ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES begins in the salty surge of the Southern California coastline, as the spacecraft retrofitted by Cornelius, Zira and Dr. Milo splashes down, drawing the attention of the US military. It’s a cheap, efficient, cut-to-the-chase curtain warmer typical of the APES sequels, lacking the majesty and wonder that Franklin J. Schaffner brought to the opening frames of the original; nonetheless, director Don Taylor particularizes these early scenes with a clinical detachment that makes them slightly creepy, a feeling of unease buoyed and extended by his surgical employment of Jerry Goldsmith’s quietly unsettling score, whose throbbing baseline and searing strings seem to have been written for an edgy suspense thriller. In retrospect, this opening makes perfect sense, as it frames the protagonists as immigrants, newly arrived to American shores, their hearts full of hope… a hope that will be cruelly dashed as they are…

Prison walk

… sent to prison. Not really, of course. Not literally. But effectively. Quarantined by the army, the apes are brought to a military base, paraded past the enlisted men whose olive drab fatigues bring to mind the convict uniforms of old prison movies…

Cellblock01

… as the utilitarian design of the military base evokes the cold efficiency of the penitentiary.

Cell02

Once placed in their cell, the conversation triangulates between the characters, who keep their power of speech and native intelligence hidden from their captors, much like the inmates in old Hollywood prison movies speak in hushed tones…

Cell01

… to conceal their scheming from the screws.

IQ02

At a later point, the authorities become interested in testing the IQ of the inmates…

IQ01

… in a scene that seems a direct lift from Warners’ 20,000 YEARS IN SING-SING (1932), right down to the square pegs and the round holes.

Courtroom02

Eventually, Cornelius and Zira are brought to court. Again, not literally a criminal court, but the setting is all too familiar…

Courtroom03

… from crime films of every stripe out of Hollywood, and not only from Warner Brothers. Able to make a case for themselves, they are permitted a measure of freedom and a life out from behind bars. It is here that ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES comes closest to aping (sorry) the formula for a WB gangster picture.

Tailor02

With the apes’ uplift in status comes the need…

Tailor01

… for new clothes. Bespoke!

Suit02

Cornelius’ new-found fame and stylish threads make him a magnet for hangers-on and the paparazzi…

Suit01

… who thrill to being this close to someone so clearly human but so unmistakeably bestial.

Robe02

A gaudy dressing gown makes the man, as someone once said…

Robe01

… perhaps it was Tony Camonte.

Fight03

Cornelius even makes it to a prize fight…

Fight04

… as movie gangsters have done since the subgenre was initiated, though his reaction…

Fight02

… does not quite match the enthusiasm…

Fight01

… of his Pre-Code predecessors. Eventually, though, fate and favor turn against Cornelius and Zira and they become once more the targets of authoritarian scrutiny, whose methods…

Grilling02

… of interrogation evoke the third degree…

Grilling01

… of the classic Hollywood crime film.

Lam02

Pushed past the breaking point, Cornelius and Zira bust out and lam as lovers in crime films have done at least as far back as Fritz Lang’s YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (1937) and afterwards in such essential titles as THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948), GUN CRAZY (1950), THE PROWLER (1951), ROADBLOCK (1951), and SHOCKPROOF (1948), which made similar use of a field of oil derricks as a symbol of relentless, heartless progress set against complex but heart-driven humanity.

Lam

And if you know how most of those movies end, you will have a fair idea of where ESCAPE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is pointed.

Lam03

For its conclusion, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES goes back to water. Rather than the pristine shores of El Matador, however, we find ourselves in the brackish backwater of San Pedro, amid the mothballed battleships of the World War II era — a setting (if not necessarily the same location) for such later crime films as THE KILLER ELITE (1975) and THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995). To this rusting, reeking hideout, Cornelius, Zira, and their infant have been tracked with Javert-like relentlessness by Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braden)…

Hasslein

… a scientific adviser to the President of the United States who was the first to recognize in the ape child the first step towards mankind’s fated downfall. It is Hasslein’s aim at this point, his mission from God, his idée fixe, to kill the baby and sever the ape bloodline. Despite the fact that Hasslein is 100% on-message (think of him as a less kind, less gentle Johnny Smith in THE DEAD ZONE), there’s a note of sadness leavened with one of German efficiency in Braden’s performance, which makes him more complex than the garden variety teeth-gnashing villain — he believes he is doing what’s right for humanity but his hollow point mercilessness and his TERMINATOR-style dedication (Talk about your Teutonic efficiency! Contents of Hasslein’s briefcase: a .38 and a map of Long Beach. He didn’t even pack a sandwich!) make us hate his guts.

Hasslein02

After a brief cat-and-mouse game with Zira, he does pump several slugs into her…

Bogart01

… with the faultless aim of a natural born killer.

Zira01

Zira drops, mortally wounded. But of course…

Robinson

… no Warner Brothers gangster hero ever dies instantly.

Hasslein03

Hasslein gets his comeuppance, though…

Bogart02

… the fitting end every bastard deserves. All of which leaves Cornelius to the mercy of the cops.

Cornelius

Isolated at the top of the ship, Cornelius crouches, his body habitus evoking the trapped rat pathos of Cody Jarrett in WHITE HEAT (1948)…

Cagney

… whose climactic refinery shootout was also filmed in San Pedro…

Bogart03

… and of Duke Mantee in his faceoff with the Arizona State Police at the end of THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936). The exception here is that Cornelius really doesn’t have it coming to him. Nonetheless, his shooting of Hasslein brings down the full weight of the law and a hail of bullets…

Dying02

… and Cornelius’ final moments of horrible consciousness as he struggles in vain to remain standing bring to mind another Cagney character…

Dying01

… whose rise and fall was unforgivingly literal.

Final embrace

Death provides the martyred Cornelius and Zira a final embrace…

Gun Crazy final embrace

… and a peace denied them in life. And of their child, the source of their greatest happiness and the cause of their violent end. He survives — switched out during a lam-over with a traveling circus for a present day chimpanzee baby — the one slaughtered by Hasslein. The offspring of our protagonists is last seen heading out on the road with the circus, distinguishing itself from the other animals by vocalizing its first words. The moment can’t help but recall Edward G. Robinson’s dying “Mother of mercy… is this the end of Rico?” and Cagney’s suicidally triumphant “Made it, Ma! Top of the World!” as Zira’s baby says “Ma-ma… ma-ma…”

Stance01

So I’ve cheated a little bit here, of course. Not all of these films are gangster pictures, nor are they exclusively from Warner Brothers… but nonetheless Warners set the pace back in the pre-Code days and even crime films made today bear the DNA. You get the idea, though, don’t you? How these images and forms are stored in our cultural consciousness and wind up informing art made decades, eras, epochs, generations, and (as it will come to pass eventually) centuries later? Do I think ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES was made specifically to mirror the Warner Brothers gangster films of the pre-Code era? No. But does it carry forward that bloodline? Absolutely. One of the great gangster pictures out of the WB stable was THE PETRIFIED FOREST. Fourth-billed Humphrey Bogart (in a star grade but sadly not star-making performance) always seemed a bit simian to me as the Dillingeresque Duke Mantee, in the way that he held his hands in front of him and his stooped posture, which is how Roddy McDowell held Cornelius and, later, his son Milo/Caesar in the last two APES sequels. And it is from THE PETRIFIED FOREST that I draw my concluding remarks… or rather, I’ll let Leslie Howard speak for me:

Apes01

Apes02

What goes around comes around, I guess.

22 Responses Reimagining Escape from the Planet of the Apes as a Warner Brothers gangster picture
Posted By Rob : February 15, 2013 6:23 pm

I’ve been a “lurker” on this site for a long time and have enjoyed all the post. Wow – this one is brilliant! I have a special place in my movie heart for this apes outing and will never look at it the same way again.
thanks

Posted By Rob : February 15, 2013 6:23 pm

I’ve been a “lurker” on this site for a long time and have enjoyed all the post. Wow – this one is brilliant! I have a special place in my movie heart for this apes outing and will never look at it the same way again.
thanks

Posted By DevlinCarnate : February 15, 2013 8:56 pm

i always enjoy these juxtapositions,but i can’t help but feel they’re just as much a product of formulaic film making that plagued sequels when they first reared their ugly heads…the Planet of the Apes sequels pretty much went from top to bottom billing after the original,and you could substitute any blaxploitation (ugh!) gangster film from the same era in the same context…and the ugh! was added because of the label,not the films themselves

Posted By DevlinCarnate : February 15, 2013 8:56 pm

i always enjoy these juxtapositions,but i can’t help but feel they’re just as much a product of formulaic film making that plagued sequels when they first reared their ugly heads…the Planet of the Apes sequels pretty much went from top to bottom billing after the original,and you could substitute any blaxploitation (ugh!) gangster film from the same era in the same context…and the ugh! was added because of the label,not the films themselves

Posted By johnwmorehead : February 15, 2013 9:26 pm

This is a great reading of this film. I have long been a fan of the Apes franchise, and this was not one of my favorites, but you have given me and other viewers pause for reassessing it in light of other genre considerations.

Posted By johnwmorehead : February 15, 2013 9:26 pm

This is a great reading of this film. I have long been a fan of the Apes franchise, and this was not one of my favorites, but you have given me and other viewers pause for reassessing it in light of other genre considerations.

Posted By Richard B : February 15, 2013 9:57 pm

I wish I had something cleverer to say than, wow, Rob’s right to pop up and say this is brilliant. I suppose a tale of fugitive lovers on the lam was bound to harken back to certain touchstones. (I wish I were better attuned to this sort of thing. Why, I was nearly at the end of THE LOVE-INS before I realized it was a remake of ALL THE KING’S MEN if the former had been about Timothy Leary instead of Huey Long…)

Posted By Richard B : February 15, 2013 9:57 pm

I wish I had something cleverer to say than, wow, Rob’s right to pop up and say this is brilliant. I suppose a tale of fugitive lovers on the lam was bound to harken back to certain touchstones. (I wish I were better attuned to this sort of thing. Why, I was nearly at the end of THE LOVE-INS before I realized it was a remake of ALL THE KING’S MEN if the former had been about Timothy Leary instead of Huey Long…)

Posted By epclassicmovienight : February 16, 2013 1:20 am

Reblogged this on classicmovienight.

Posted By epclassicmovienight : February 16, 2013 1:20 am

Reblogged this on classicmovienight.

Posted By Doug : February 16, 2013 10:02 am

RHS, another great post!
“And of their child, the source of their greatest happiness and the cause of their violent end. He survives — switched out during a lam-over with a traveling circus for a present day chimpanzee baby — the one slaughtered by Hasslein.”
Doomed parents who make a safe getaway for their son? Sounds like Superman to me!

Posted By Doug : February 16, 2013 10:02 am

RHS, another great post!
“And of their child, the source of their greatest happiness and the cause of their violent end. He survives — switched out during a lam-over with a traveling circus for a present day chimpanzee baby — the one slaughtered by Hasslein.”
Doomed parents who make a safe getaway for their son? Sounds like Superman to me!

Posted By Anonymous : February 16, 2013 11:18 am

Doomed parents who make a safe getaway for their son? Sounds like Superman to me!

Great Caesar’s ghost!

Posted By Anonymous : February 16, 2013 11:18 am

Doomed parents who make a safe getaway for their son? Sounds like Superman to me!

Great Caesar’s ghost!

Posted By Rick “The Hat” Bman : February 16, 2013 1:18 pm

I am a huge fan of the Planet of the Apes and this is a great reading of Escape from the Planet of the Apes. I’m going to have to go back and give it a rewatch along with some of the movies you mentioned.

Posted By Rick “The Hat” Bman : February 16, 2013 1:18 pm

I am a huge fan of the Planet of the Apes and this is a great reading of Escape from the Planet of the Apes. I’m going to have to go back and give it a rewatch along with some of the movies you mentioned.

Posted By Christine in GA : February 17, 2013 1:52 am

Interesting points. This is off subject a little bit and most of the Morlock readers probably know this, but Eric Braeden has been on the soap The Young & the Restless for over 25 years. He was also the lead in The Forbin Project, a movie about an evil computer made around the same time as Escape From the Planet of the Apes.

Posted By Christine in GA : February 17, 2013 1:52 am

Interesting points. This is off subject a little bit and most of the Morlock readers probably know this, but Eric Braeden has been on the soap The Young & the Restless for over 25 years. He was also the lead in The Forbin Project, a movie about an evil computer made around the same time as Escape From the Planet of the Apes.

Posted By robbushblog : February 17, 2013 1:57 pm

Thanks for pointing out these similarities, RHS. I will now notice them when I eventually see it. I was unable to see the sequels after months of them being in the top ten of my Netflix queue, so I pushed them down the line.

Posted By robbushblog : February 17, 2013 1:57 pm

Thanks for pointing out these similarities, RHS. I will now notice them when I eventually see it. I was unable to see the sequels after months of them being in the top ten of my Netflix queue, so I pushed them down the line.

Posted By Aping Popular Movies – Tombs of the Blind Dead aka Revenge From Planet Ape (1971) « Durnmoose Movie Musings : March 6, 2013 2:14 pm

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Posted By Aping Popular Movies – Tombs of the Blind Dead aka Revenge From Planet Ape (1971) « Durnmoose Movie Musings : March 6, 2013 2:14 pm

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