Monkey business, or simian cinema strikes back
This column is dedicated to Albert the rhesus macaque, the first simian astronaut, launched towards space on an American version of the V2 rocket on June 11, 1948. Albert suffocated during the flight. He didn’t even reach the height where ‘space’ begins, at 100km. Vale Albert.
In flying monkey history, the name Albert holds a special place. Albert II became the first monkey to reach space in 1949, but he died in the return impact. Albert III died at 35,000 feet when his rocket exploded. Alberts IV and V died in the return impact, like II, because their parachutes failed. Albert VI became the first monkey to survive a space flight in September 1951. He died two hours after landing.
Monkeys were just as busy at the time in Hollywood. Ronald Reagan was playing daddy to a chimp in Bedtime for Bonzo (1951) and Cary Grant was trying to discover the fountain of youth with a chimp called Esther, dressed in a child’s dungarees and plimsolls (the chimp, not Cary Grant).
These are part of a long line of movies in which our closest living relatives are used and abused for mostly comic effect. Each of them, in their way, descends from the controversy unleashed by Charles Darwin in On The Origin of Species, in 1859. He didn’t know that chimps and human shared 98% of their DNA. Nor could he have foreseen that an Orangutan called Clyde falling on its arse in Every Which Way But Loose could be so dang funny. Or not.
Given the history, is it any wonder there are many movies where the apes want to kill us all? The latest, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (opening this week) is the second of the rebooted franchise that began in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In that movie, James Franco is a scientist who develops a cure for Alzheimer’s. He adopts an orphaned chimp he calls Caesar, after his research is shut down. His vaccine works, but it also makes the chimps super-intelligent. The new movie starts ten years after most of the world’s population has died because of a simian virus. Caesar and his band of super-chimps are drawn into a war against the last surviving humans, led by Gary Oldman.
I haven’t seen the new movie yet, but the first reboot was excellent: an intelligent rethink of the famous series that began in 1968 with Charlton Heston in a loincloth and Roddy McDowall in a prosthetic monkey face and a hairstyle borrowed (it seemed) from the Ronettes. That film spawned seven sequels, two TV series and various novels and comic books for 20th Century Fox. Not bad given that studio head Richard Zanuck didn’t want to make it.
The 2011 reboot serves as a prequel to the original source, Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel. Boulle was surely aware of all the monkeys blasted into space. All he had to imagine was that some of them took root on a different planet and came to dominate humans. It worked beautifully as a metaphor for slavery.
That idea carries through all the later versions, even the not-quite-serious 2001 remake by Tim Burton, in which Tim Roth chews scenery as a psychopathic ape trying to kill Mark Wahlberg, as the astronaut stranded on a planet run by monkeys. Correction, apes. Burton’s film has quite a few jokes, starting with the tinny sets. In one scene, an ape takes exception to Wahlberg calling his kind ‘monkeys’. He grinds Wahlberg’s face into the dirt and says: ‘Apes! Monkeys are further down the evolutionary ladder. Just above humans’.
Planet of the Apes represents one of the two great streams in simian cinema. The other is older and darker, in every sense. King Kong (1933) has sometimes been interpreted as a metaphor for the Great Depression, and it works as that. Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) goes with people she doesn’t know, on a ship going she knows not where, to shoot a film that doesn’t have a script – all because she’s out of work and desperate. But the story’s real power is in the way it reshapes American racial panic about sex. What is Kong but a big, black hairy monster captured in the jungle and transported against his will to America, where he is made to appear in a New York theatre in chains? He is huge, powerful and a fearful threat.
Everything about him is priapic, including his love for the blonde white woman, so of course, Kong must die. The difference between the attitudes of 1916, when D W Griffith made Birth of a Nation, glorifying the Klan, and the 1933 King Kong is that Kong’s love for Ann is taken seriously. The monster has feelings and his death plays out as tragedy, rather than justice. That idea is even stronger in Peter Jackson’s 2005 version, where Naomi Watts falls in love with the big gorilla. She doesn’t scream half as much as Fay Wray did when he takes her in the palm of his big, leathery hand. Love across the species is possible after all, in Jackson’s under-rated film.
I always try to imagine what an audience of monkeys might think when I’m watching one of these movies. Then I remember: we are monkeys. If the relatives ever do take over, we have to hope they have a sense of humour.