Signifying Monkeys

Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race and Politics in the Films and Television Series

McFarland & Company

OBVIOUSLY, A MOVIE in which a virile white guy becomes enslaved by a race of Others represents more than a cool sci-fi gimmick, right? Well, maybe not so obviously. It's a sign of our docile relationship to entertainment that even an academic study like Eric Greene's Planet of the Apes as American Myth has to spend several pages defending its right to analyze. "Some may be inclined to object that movies should not be taken so seriously," Greene writes, "that they are just fiction with little or no social pertinence."

This isn't Greene's view. He defines as political those films dealing with issues of power--which, when you think about it, would have to include just about every studio movie ever made, and few more deservedly than the topsy-turvy Planet of the Apes (1968) and its four sequels. Like popular political movies from The Birth of a Nation to Forrest Gump, the Apes series is at once infinitely interpretable and seemingly slight, examining the ugly details of racism and war-mongering within the muddy terrain of matinee exploitation.

Appropriately, the author is comfortable on both high and low grounds. A twentysomething Wesleyan grad of "mixed racial background," Greene recalls being blown away by an opening-day screening of the final Apes movie when he was 5 years old; his work here explicates that primal scene by drawing on close readings of the films, a few well-chosen quotations from James Baldwin ("The question of identity is a question involving the most profound panic..."), and evidence of the persistent racist ideology likening African Americans to apes. Products of their tumultuous time, the Apes movies couldn't literally depict what Greene calls "the sense that the racial violence abroad and at home... had shaken the security of white racial hegemony," and so they disguised the threat under heavy makeup.

Essentially, Greene reads the first two entries as timely critiques of doomed white male imperialism, with Charlton Heston's Colonel Taylor as the antihero; he sees Escape as a meditation on the death of liberalism, and Conquest and Battle as attempts to justify '60s-era race riots and expose fears of a black planet. Thankfully, Greene doesn't try to explain the series so much as interrogate it--he recognizes that heavily metaphoric films like these don't lend to any one viewpoint. Thus, Conquest might be down with organized revolution, although it could also be interpreted as a cautionary tale about the horrors of failing to keep Others in their place. Regardless, this is probably the most incendiary race film ever made in the studio system. Released in 1972 (at the dawn of blaxploitation) and set in 1991, Conquest presents a band of urban ape slaves who, aided by a sympathetic African American man, collect knives and guns with which to fight the power; it ends amidst the fiery red glow of the "ape mob"'s global revolt.

For those who require proof of intent, Greene reports director J. Lee Thompson's assertion that Conquest was "absolutely based on the Watts riots." Mostly, though, intentionality doesn't get much play here. Which is as it should be, since the films' racial metaphors aren't in all cases conscious, coherent, or tied to simple value judgments: Power and identification shift repeatedly throughout a series that signifies differently to different audiences. For instance, do Planet's repeated scenes of Taylor being beaten, shot, gagged, and doused with spray-hoses turn his suffering into the viewer's illicit pleasure? Or do they serve to argue that, as in recent pseudo-remakes like White Man's Burden and Falling Down, this white guy is the real victim of racism? Hard to say, although the films' critiques are enhanced by their brutally genocidal endings. Beneath concludes with Taylor solving the race problem by destroying the planet--an act which, because of the series's circular time structure, is fated to occur again and again.

As Greene mentions, the Apes films were unique for avoiding tidy resolutions. So it's ironic that the book's only flaw is the author's occasionally strained attempts to recuperate the series: His positive reading of the stereotypical skin-color caste system among the apes (gorillas are violent, chimps intelligent) doesn't wash, nor do such hyperbolic platitudes as, "We must in our political realities and in our popular fictions reject the bottom line of [Thomas] Jefferson and the Apes series." At times, Greene seems less a historian than a moralist, and as much a fan as an academic. Still, given the movies' bleak prescription of racial apocalypse, you can't blame the author for his faith that history doesn't have to repeat itself. CP

Planet of the Apes will be screened as part of the "Fast Forward" movies and music series in Stevens Square Park on Wednesday, July 3 at dusk.

 
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