After a screening of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (opening Aug. 5), my husband, Ron Magid, and I, were discussing Rupert Wyatt’s new film as Jewish parable – specifically a retelling of the biblical story of Moses—with Eric Greene, the Southern California regional director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice.
It might seem incongruous at first – a top Los Angeles civil rights activist (previously with the ACLU) who is also an internationally renowned “Apes” expert. But Eric is the author of “Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics and Popular Culture,” and has widely lectured on how the original five films of the 1960s and ’70s served as an allegory of racial politics too taboo to directly address at the time.
Before you accuse us of geeking out, note that Entertainment Weekly, in its laudatory review of Eric’s book, advised readers to “Feel free to harrumph like Dr. Zaius, but Greene supports his arguments in interviews with the creators … after 187 well-considered pages, you’ll be scratching your head in humbled agreement.”
The post-screening discussion on the Fox lot was more tribal, since I asked Eric what Jewish values, if any, he perceived in the new film starring James Franco, Freida Pinto and Andy Serkis (“Lord of the Rings”), who portrays Caesar, a chimpanzee born hyper-intelligent—the result of laboratory testing of a new Alzheimer’s drug—who embarks on an epic journey.
Eric opined that “Rise” could be perceived as a retelling of the Moses story, with Serkis as a stand-in for the prophet. Like Moshe, Caesar is raised as a kind of pampered slave (in this case, by the scientist Will Rodman [Franco], who frequently leashes him), and is isolated from his own kind. He is horrified and enraged when he first witnesses the brutality with which humans treat apes (think Moses killing the Egyptian), and ultimately chooses to remain with his brethren rather than return to his previously comfortable life.
Story continues after the jump.
There’s a moment in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” in which Caesar actually turns his back on Franco: “It’s like Charlton Heston in the movie version of ‘The Ten Commandments,’ saying, ‘My place is with my people,’ ” Eric said, quipping that “as a Jewish community professional, I should note that the Book version is better.” (Heston, incidentally, played Taylor, the captured astronaut in the original 1968 film.)
“Caesar as a Moses figure is also a direct parallel to the character of the chimpanzee, also named Caesar, in ‘Conquest of the Planet of the Apes’ , ” Eric continued, referring to the fourth of the five original films. “The filmmakers clearly studied that movie well, because the action mirrors a lot of what goes on in the new movie.”
“Caesar in ‘Conquest’ is basically a pampered slave who lives with a human. When he sees the condition of his fellow apes as slaves he has to make a choice: whether to return to his former life or to stay with his enslaved brothers and sisters. He chooses to turn his back on privilege and throw in his lot with them, becoming a liberator and eventually leads a revolution. The character embodies Moses’ story, and ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ depicts the same evolution of the character.”
“Conquest” and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” may appear cheesy to non-“Apes” fans, but as EW said, “In [Eric’s] eyes, those violent, militaristic flicks symbolize the rise of the black-liberation movement and the resultant anxieties of white liberals. How’s them bananas?”
As we were walking out of the Zanuck Theater, one reviewer was loudly dissing the first “Apes” film as campier than Charlton Heston shouting, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned, dirty Ape!” I pointed this out to Eric, who shrugged, and said, “Some people vote Republican.”
Stay tuned to The Ticket for a video interview with Eric on “Apes” in the popular culture. You can purchase “Planet of the Apes as American Myth” at http://www.upne.com/0-8195-6329-3.html.