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Great Apes!: Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

In the third installment of Great Apes!, Witney will look at the future-apes-in-the-modern-day classic, Escape from the Planet of the Apes. We will also discover the further chronological messiness of the series here. 

One would think that if the previous installment in a film series feature the destruction of the Earth, things would pretty much be at an end. Thanks to some temporal trickery, however, we’re allowed to see things continue. Overall, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a limp entry in the series, lacking a lot of the sociopolitical underpinnings of the previous two chapters. It is, however, an excellent character showcase for the ape characters Dr. Cornelius (a returning Roddy McDowall) and Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter). This is their story. Oh yes, and Sal Mineo plays an ape named Milo. He dies quickly.

It’s with this chapter that our sympathies will shift from lost humans, trying to make sense of a mad world of intelligent apes, to the apes themselves, lost in a world of aggressive humans. Your enjoyment of Escape from the Planet of the Apes will likely be directly contingent on how much you sympathize with the ape characters. I think by now, Ape fever was grasping the world, though, and the apes had pretty much become the heroes. Think of the way Freddy Krueger went from being a scary monster into being the protagonist of his own series. That’s what happened to the ape character in the Apes series. It’s worth remembering that Planet of the Apes was one of the first films in American history to feature a product tie-in, and was certainly one of the first to feature a sanctioned toy product. Kids loved this movie, and they collected it. Mind you, this was six years before Star Wars broke down the dam of product toy tie-ins, and pretty much allowed all films to invade childhood.

Escape in a suit

The first Apes film was contingent on the theory of relativity, and how time moves differently depending on your speed. In the sequels, we learn that relativity had little to do with it, and that there is essentially a time hole in the cosmos that links modern-day Earth with distant future Ape-rules Earth. Which means, during the climax of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Cornelius and Zira packed up their bags, salvaged Taylor’s space craft, repaired it, and flew it into a time hole, leading them back to 1973 (two years in the future). This is a convenient reworking of the plot that I’m not entirely comfortable with.

Escape is largely about how the pacifist and largely agrarian ape characters react to the modern human world. Since the apes are instantly celebrities in this world, it turns out they are seduced by comfort, booze (they call wine “grape juice plus”), and posh living; The best I can figure it, Escape is a criticism of materialism. There is a bad guy in the proceedings in the form of smarmy government aide Otto Hasslien (Eric Braeden, a longtime actor on The Young and the Restless). Otto learns of Earth’s distant future and its eventual annihilation, and decides that the apes’ continued existence will ensure our destruction. One would think the sheer amount of time between now and then would ensure that we can change things (if you knew the Earth was going to blow up in 3950, would you take action?), but Otto is convinced. It will be he who will eventually come to hunt down and even kill our ape characters. As is tradition, the ending is a total downer.

Cornelius has a stirring monologue about the way apes come to dominate the Earth, and it runs thus: At some point in the future, a plague will kill Earth’s cats and dogs. Apes will become the the preferred pet. They will also eventually be used as servants and butlers, because who doesn’t want an ape butler? Over the next 500 years, apes will learn to speak English, and rise up against their masters. The first ape to resist will speak the word “no.” Remember that “no,” as it will come into play in both the fourth and the seventh Apes films. This monologue will also serve largely as a synopsis for the following film.

Escape monologue

Cornelius and Zira will be hunted down by Otto, but their young infant son will be rescued at the last minute. Ape children look exactly like modern-day chimps, so they switch him out. A benevolent circus owner played by the ultra-suave Ricardo Montalban takes care of the intelligent ape child. The last line of the film is the chimp saying “Mama.” The effect is achieved by looping the film back and forth, shaping the chimp’s mouth into the appropriate word. It’s a really weird effect. A note, Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall are hugely impressive as our lead ape characters. That they can convey so much character and emotion through the ape makeup is a triumph of acting and a testament to their talent.

Escape is watchable, but it’s kind of toothless. It’s infused with an affable levity that stands counter to the more playful intellectual posturing of the previous films. There is a wonderful sense of dreadful inevitability hanging over everything, but a lot of the series’ grandeur is absent this time around. The political allegories are pretty much gone. The films have become more about action and escapes.

Join me next time for Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972).

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