August 9, 2001
Apes as Allegory
Escape from the "Planet of the Apes?" Not this summer.
Tim Burton's take on the beloved classic opened July 27 and won the box-office battle with a weekend conquest of $68.5 million. (The original 1968 "Planet of the Apes," which spawned four sequels, a TV show, cartoons, comics and merchandise, was one of the most successful sci-fi franchises in cinema history.)
So why our continuing fascination with the world overrun by fascist apes?
The series' nuanced monkey hierarchy is a "satire and critique of a racially divided society," says "Apes" academic Eric Greene, who deconstructs the simian saga's mythology in his book "Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics and Popular Culture" (Wesleyan University Press, 1996).
"'Apes' is the reason I pursued civil rights," said Greene, an ACLU special policy assistant in Los Angeles.
If Greene, 33, seems more sensitive to the series' socio-political subtexts than the next guy, it's because he is the product of an interracial background: part Ashkenazi, part African American/Native American. As an adopted child, Greene identified with messianic chimp Caesar who, in the third sequel, "is adopted by the ruling class and leads his enslaved people to freedom. Very much a Moses model," Greene told The Journal.
Other biblical allusions, Greene says, include the final sequel's Garden of Eden concept, and the simian spin on the Ten Commandments, with edicts such as "Ape Shall Not Kill Ape."
Greene believes that each species of ape represents different ethnic groups, and the chimpanzee class embodies a liberal Jewish perspective, such as the original series' thinly veiled pro-Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam sentiments.
The original movie's screenwriters Michael Wilson ("A Place in the Sun") and Rod Serling ("The Twilight Zone"), were both adept at tackling tales of prejudice and persecution. Serling's drive to comment on such injustice was based on his own anti-Semitic exclusion from a college fraternity, Greene writes in his book.
Comparisons between the new blockbuster and the old film are inevitable. So how does Burton's Marky Mark and the Monkey Bunch version stack up with Franklin J. Schaffner's original? Greene acknowledged great moments in "Apes" 2001. But missing is the political-racial tension of the day and "the sense of nuclear dread" that informed the old series.
"We're not as soul-searching in 2001, and the new movie reflects that," Greene said. "There's a scene [in Burton's film] where [evil chimp] Thade forces Wahlberg's mouth open and asks, 'Is there a soul in there?' That's a question we can ask of the film itself."
An extended version of the 1998 documentary "Behind The Planet of the Apes" (Image Entertainment), hosted by Roddy McDowall and featuring Eric Greene's commentary, was released on DVD this week. Greene will appear at the Fangoria Convention at the Pasadena Center on Aug. 12. For more information call (626) 449-7360 or visit www.creationent.com.