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Planet of the Apes: An American Myth

One of the films that I found most enjoyable growing up was Planet of the Apes (1968). So many things stand out in this film, from the great musical score by Jerry Goldsmith, to the cutting-edge makeup of the time by John Chambers, to the great screenplay and twist ending by Michael Wilson and with no small contribution by his co-writer Rod Serling. I recall being caught up in the popularity of all of this in the 1970s, from getting my parents to buy my brother and I t-shirts with our favorite apes on them (as one might imagine we did stand out in school), to having the action figures, and our viewing of all the subsequent films and the television series.

As a related aside, I must state that while I have the greatest love for Tim Burton and most of his films, especially his ability as an artist, filmmaker, and fairytale crafter, and his love for stop motion animation as the medium for two of his films, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Corpse Bride (2005), he missed the mark with his version of Planet of the Apes (2001). Rick Baker’s makeup was wonderful, and I am not necessarily opposed to new takes on great stories (although a director takes a huge risk when taking on cinematic icons), in my opinion Mark Wahlberg was appalling in the lead role, the screenplay was no where near as intriguing as the original, and the ending just plain made no sense no matter how many times I watched it over and over again.

As an adult I’ve had a chance to reflect on my continued appreciation for the original film. My reflection and appreciation for it was assisted by the viewing of the commentary on the 35th anniversary edition release DVDs. My thrill as a child with this mythology has been complimented by a new sense of appreciation for its depth as an adult. While I did not pick up on this aspect as a child, it is now well known that the film and the subsequent series engaged in a lot of serious social and cultural critique, picking up on issues of racism, the Vietnam War, religion, and origins controversies. The racial and political aspects are explored in a book that just recently came to my attention, Planet of the Apes: An American Myth by Eric Greene (McFarland Publishing, 2006). It has been added to my Amazon.com wish list.

As with my reflections in a previous post on the Sci-Fi Boys program where I noted the deep impact of certain horror and fantasy influences on young adolescent boys from the 1950s through 1970s, myself included, I also wonder what it is sociologically, culturally, and perhaps religiously that made the Planet of the Apes film(s) so intriguing and powerful for many young people as well. I laughed out loud when I read of the experience of my fellow fantasy loving friend, Lint Hatcher, as he described an experience that he and his brother had as a result of the impact of this film on their lives as he recounts this in his wonderful book on Halloween, The Magic Eightball Test. As he tells it, Lint and his brother secured a Dick Smith makeup kit:

My younger yet larger brother, Chris, decided to be a walking, talking gorilla. I decided to be a Roddy McDowall-style, intellectual chimp. And we decided that if we got all the molds made, practiced a bit, set everything out on the bathroom counter in an orderly fashion, and woke up early enough — we could go to school dressed as apes.

Whenever I tell someone this story, they always ask me what my mother thought of all this. Truly, that question never occurred to me. She actually helped us! She gave us our school lunchboxes as we hurried out the door! She waved like Donna Reed as we shambled with an apelike gait across the front yard! She shut the door and went about our business as the school-bus rolled down Virginia Circle and as the kids inside blinked and stared and wondered why a couple of apes were standing there wearing long-sleeve shirts and blue jeans, apparently waiting to get on the next stop.

It didn’t take long for Chris and me to discover that, in th hearts and minds of most folks, the make-believe magic of Halloween did not extend to the other days of the year. The night before, we had enjoyed putting our costumes together, practicing how to hunch our shoulders and dangle our arms, twisting our faces around in the mirror to see what emotions came through the latex moldwork and greasepaint. Shouting, “The only good human — is a dead human!” That sort of thing. The next morning, on the way to school, we discovered that Earth truly was a plant where apes evolved from men.

Lint and Chris experienced a wonder and fascination from this mythology, as have many others. Perhaps our common experience is worthy of further reflection, and maybe even a little creative expression in monster make ups as adults!

I was recently in a video store and secured some discount copies of most of Val Lewton’s great horror films. As I was at the counter paying for my new gems to add to my collection a large box on the counter caught my attention with the face of Roddy McDowall as Cornelius staring at me. Upon further investigation it was the Planet of the Apes Legacy Collection which includes all the films on 14 DVDs and a limited edition ape bust of Roddy McDowall as Cornelius completely painted and with hair. If only this sci fi geek had the disposable income to purchase it.

I hope others will reflect on the legacy and impact of the Planet of the Apes with me as we not only walk down memory lane, but also look more deeply at the significance of this mythology on our lives.

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