You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

What Brought Us to the Planet of the Apes?

The long and messy history of hominids in film

Illustration by Matthew Woodson

How long has this monkeying around been going on? Are we only now at the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes? It’s confusing, enough to make you feel more hominid than human. After all, in 1968, in Planet of the Apes, where the ape characters were Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall in monkey heads, still there was that knockout moment when the desperate astronaut stumbled upon the Statue of Liberty half buried in timeless sand. Yet forty years later, on the most recent outing, more sophisticated apes, lit up by the dark genius of Andy Serkis’s Caesar, were using the Golden Gate Bridge as a climbing frame and then retreating to the redwood forests to warn us not to mess with nature.

How do you construct a coherent family tree out of this haphazard history? Where do these modern upstarts stand in relation to the granddaddy of them all, the Kong who held Fay Wray in his hand and blew upon her frock, or Moon-watcher, the triumphant bone-beater in Kubrick’s 2001? Should we remind ourselves that the first people to use the “Monkey Business” title were the Marx Brothers? Did it occur to you that Groucho’s loose-kneed loping walk might be just a little simian?

That first Monkey Business was in 1931, a good year for movie monsters, with the sound versions of Dracula and Frankenstein as company. In 1932 a notable Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde arrived, for which Fredric March won the Oscar for the dread with which a modern mind became a beast, hunched, his knuckles dragging on the ground, hair growing on his hands and face. That Hyde was the id, man’s murderous instinct. In the same year, and also at Paramount, Josef von Sternberg did one of his strangest sequences. We are at a cabaret. A gorilla comes on stage, and the number “Hot Voodoo” begins. But then this wild creature takes off the gorilla head to reveal the platinum blonde wig worn by Marlene Dietrich, who is playing a devoted mother who works nightclubs to support her young son.

That film is Blonde Venus, and the gorilla sequence is not just startling and erotic—it hardly fits with the rest of the film. It’s as if von Sternberg had dreamed Dietrich’s bright head emerging from the gorilla suit and was so compelled to use it that he ignored any need to make sense of it. But in history’s hindsight we can’t stop dreaming: can you imagine Kong passing by, peeping through a window, and seeing that transformation? No, no one has made that film—not yet—but we don’t have to wait on dull film-makers. Sometimes a begging image transcends prosaic business history.

So there’s a moment in the 1976 remake of King Kong—an enjoyable film—in which Ann Darrow (this time she was called Dwan and took the wet adrenaline form of Jessica Lange) looks up at an affectionate Kong, sighs, and says that it’s never going to work, but in a spirit of curiosity that seems to have given the engineering real thought—Dwan is not simply human, but a prophet for the dawn of the pleasure of the apes.

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

That nexus from the early 1930s is crucial. Darwinism was still a struggle in the land of the free. In 1925, in Dayton, Tennessee, the Scopes monkey trial had been fought over a teacher who might have been talking evolution. The mocking cartoons that depicted Darwin himself as an anthropoid (he had a noble, thoughtful head and a pronounced brow) were still current. They are remembered to this day, of course, in parts of a saved nation where evolution requires “alternative” approaches. Moreover, the science of eugenics (actually launched by Francis Galton, a semi-cousin of Darwin) was active in many places—and would remain so until the Nazis began to push its scheme too hard. (Do you recall the girl in a monkey suit in Cabaret who turns out to be Jewish?)

The progress within movies was another evolution. As soon as sound arrived to revolutionize the staid empire of sentimental silence, Kong could roar and Ann Darrow could scream: her scream is a key plot element in the satire on the primitive attitudes of movie-makers. There had been Tarzan films since Elmo Lincoln in 1918, but he became an institution with the Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller and his calls to the apes, and the realization that he and Jane need not wear too much clothing in the steamy jungle.

Weissmuller’s debut, Tarzan the Ape Man, was in 1932, and it was supported by Irving Thalberg himself, the brain at the studio. It is still worth seeing, because Weissmuller and his Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan, Mia Farrow’s mother) are lovely in just the dappled light and a loin cloth. He is the ape man, but his closest anthropoid chum is the cackling chimpanzee who would become “Cheetah” in the series, and lasted long enough to see Johnny become middle-aged and pot-bellied.

King Kong came a year later, and it still seems modern. Its essential creators were Merian C. Cooper and Willis O’Brien. Cooper was a World War I flier who began to make documentary features with his partner, Ernest B. Schoedsack. They had traveled to the ends of the earth for nature footage that they then coaxed into story films. But Cooper had a dream—he said—of a great ape invading Manhattan. He put the thriller writer Edgar Wallace on it. When he died, the key writer became Ruth Rose, who was Schoedsack’s wife. She gave it the woman’s angle, with the idea that it might be Beauty who undermined the powerful Beast. But that was only half the battle. Willis O’Brien was called upon to deliver Kong on screen, and no one dared try a real gorilla. O’Brien created models that were then brought to life in elaborate stop-motion photography.

King Kong took its makers by surprise as much as the audience. Cooper had always had fear and suspense in mind: Kong was intended to be the greatest horror seen on screen. But something in Rose’s work, and in the charm of the herky-jerky ape, won through. Audiences liked Kong and felt sorry for him. The libido set free from Skull Island was more tender to Ann Darrow than her boyfriend (a rather doltish Bruce Cabot). It was the same pathos that had rescued Boris Karloff ’s monster in Frankenstein—and the same evolved application of sympathy that gave that monster his mate (Elsa Lanchester, jagged with electricity and surreal energy) in Bride of Frankenstein, the finest film in that franchise and one of the most moving appreciations of refined feelings in monstrous bodies.

Was there an element of race lurking within the skull? I don’t mean to accuse the makers of King Kong, but the American movie is dense with subterranean impulses hardly appreciated by the film-makers, and in Kong, Hollywood extras in blackface were accepted cheerfully as the natives of Skull. I raise this possibility just because the next notable incidence of movie monkey business coincides with the age of civil rights. And so the first Planet of the Apes manages to be a pedestrian picture but an aching metaphor.

It came from a novel by Pierre Boulle (who had previously written the original of The Bridge on the River Kwai). The novel was published in 1963, but it took time reaching the screen. When the first film opened, in 1968, it was the work of several hands, including Rod Serling, who had reckoned to make the ape society technologically sophisticated. But the producer, Arthur Jacobs, who had great difficulty finding a studio prepared to make the picture, was scared by the budget and decided to make the apes no more developed than the Apache in a Western. Michael Wilson did a new script, and the filming was set in desolate canyon country. It feels like a Western with Charlton Heston hunted by apes on horseback.

The other innovation in that Apes film was casting known actors as the apes in masks that did not obscure their faces or cheat their voices. The project was content with heavy-handed irony: lost astronauts came back to Earth to find apes in charge and men reduced to slavery. It was left to the audience to wonder how far this referred to the new status of blacks in America. Planet of the Apes is notably pessimistic. The astronauts do not win out. There is no reconciliation with the apes. And the “advanced” civilization that was New York seems geological. As directed by Franklin Schaffner, the film is downright plain, but it grossed $32 million for Twentieth Century Fox. There would be four sequels by 1973, even if Heston quit early.

Just six months before the picture opened, a book had been published in Britain called The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris, who had degrees in zoology and would become curator of mammals at the London Zoo. He was also a painter and a writer, and he turned The Naked Ape into one of the first best-selling books to popularize science. The book was based on Darwinian biology, but it was market-friendly in its assertion that man—the one hairless or naked ape—was the most eroticized of hominids. This was more than the movie of Planet of the Apes could tolerate.

Still, if men (and women) were just links in the evolutionary chain, then the prospect of miscegenation had been broached. It arrived in 2001, in Tim Burton’s remake of Planet and the start of the present franchise. Again it featured lost astronauts (with Mark Wahlberg instead of Charlton Heston). But then the hero meets Ari, the sexiest ape yet, as played by Helena Bonham Carter. She had a soft spot for humans and deplored the brutal ways in which apes treated them. You can think of her as the primate equivalent of Sigourney Weaver’s Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist (1988), an ecological lament in which Fossey derives more comfort from the apes than from people. 

Of course, you say, we can’t have a film where a human has sex with an ape, can we? The more recent apes films have not gone near that taboo. Instead they concentrate on the aggrieved philosophy of the apes, who stand up for nature in the face of human neglect, and who may defeat the humans in battle. In Burton’s Planet, Tim Roth was the most militaristic and fascistic ape since the newsreels of the 1930s.

Is it just that monkeys are cute and unquestioning? Be careful: in Wolfgang Peterson’s Outbreak, the lethal Motaba virus is carried by a small, chattering monkey. I can’t really expect Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to be as sexy as Dwan was in 1976. But I know some of the fascination with monkey business at the movies, and I would direct you to Max, Mon Amour, a neglected if not caged 1986 movie, written by Jean-Claude Carrière and directed by Nagisa Oshima, in which a diplomat’s bored wife takes a chimpanzee for a lover. This can’t be so, you say? The wife is played by Charlotte Rampling. Enough said.