The inevitable question that lurks in the subtext (OK, deep in the subtext) of the new “War for the Planet of The Apes” blockbuster is this: “What kind of movies would apes make?”
Curious, George? Bear with me.
In the entirely canonical 2001 Tim Burton remake of “Planet of the Apes,” Mark Wahlberg’s character returns through time to arrive at the Lincoln Memorial to discover (spoiler!), not Lincoln, but an ape on that monumental chair. This suggests, as the planet dawns and rises and is warred over, the franchise is headed for a pretty fully fleshed-out ape culture, with statues, cities, firefighters, that sort of thing. And any culture worth its salt expresses itself in works of art. And apes, of course, love movies.
There are the noted popular favorites: the “Apefather” trilogy. The indelible “wherever there’s a cop beating up a hylobate, I’ll be there” speech from “The Apes of Wrath”; the Wicked Witch’s flying babies in “The Wizard of Oz” (“Fly, babies, fly!”). “Any Gibbon Sunday.” “Ape-ocalypse Now.” “Harambasic Instinct.”
But what tops the Ape Film Institute’s all-time list of simian cinema? Let’s take a look:
A group of chimpanzee scientists, led by Mutatis Mutandis, venture to a remote island in the South Pacific, where they find a tribe of primitive bonobos worshipping a mysterious idol. When a huge, 50-foot-tall bald human emerges from the island’s interior, the scientists capture him and bring him back to civilization. The giant is somehow smuggled unnoticed into a theater in the middle of a major city, where it breaks lose and climbs to the top of the Grape Ape Building before falling to its death.
“Tarzan Of The Humans”
After a plane crashes in the Forbidden Zone, an orphaned chimpanzee is raised by a tribe of wild humans in their primitive, savage ways. Years later, explorer Julia Portus discovers an adult Tarzan during a foray into the zone and brings him back to rejoin ape society. The film contrasts how merest survival in small groups clarifies certain moral instincts while the constraints of civilization and government compel compromise and can lead to corruption.
“Gorillas in the Mist”
Known for its haunting eponymous theme song — “Gorillas in the mist / that is what we are / mist is in between / who can see at all” — this period film set in the very early days of ape civilization explores the burgeoning love affair between two youthful gorillas prior (Rhesus Witherspoon, Leonard Nims) to their conscription into the ape army. The love affair is facilitated by a curious, eavesdropping feral human named Siggy, whose tragic, mysterious death leads to the discovery of the affair, which is broken up by the gorillas’ families. The film’s conclusion, told in short epistolary interludes, reveals that both lovers die during the War for the Planet of the Apes without ever seeing one another again.
A trippy, off-kilter comedy about Naruto, a naive macaque, who wants to pursue a career as a photographer, but who winds up trapped between an exploitative fashion industry and a bevy of obtuse bureaucrats who refuse to acknowledge the authorship of his works. As the plot unwinds, Naruto begins to question his own selfhood, and the story slowly dissolves into an impressionistic, navel-gazing meditation on identity, self-expression and one’s place in an increasingly legalistic society.
“Every Which Way But Loose”
An unconventional buddy picture in which Clyde (Mel Gibbon), a hard-living, street-fighting orangutan, and his pet human Woody take a wild road trip across the Forbidden Zone in search of love and adventure. Woody’s constant shenanigans — talking to furniture, squinting into the sun, slipping inconspicuously out of rooms — result in barroom brawls, pursuit by a gang of gorillas on horseback and an intense 20-minute gun battle that was innovative for its special effects at the time. Features the classic dialogue, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you — monkey?”
“Inherit the Wind”
The seminal courtroom drama that explores the limits of the Lawgiver. When a chimpanzee teacher begins teaching his small-town students that they are living on a “planet where apes evolved from men,” as a consequence of genetic experiments by human scientists, he sets off a ideological firestorm. This new “experimentation” theory flies in the face of older beliefs that a great war among the humans cleared a path that allowed ape species to come to pre-eminence. Starring silverback-screen greats Joe Young, Bonzo Bitburg and Grod, “Inherit the Wind” dramatizes an important moment in ape intellectual history.
“Dunston Checks In”
A human tries to run a hotel! A human person! A hotel! “Dunston” singlehandedly defined the genre of “human tries to do X” comedies for generations. Iconic films like “Clan of the Cave Bear,” “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” and “We Bought A Zoo” all owe a debt to its trailblazing conceit.
Illustrations by Damon Dahlen and Andy McDonald