ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES: Your Better Self

Escape from the Planet of the Apes Poster

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) – The 3rd of 5 Original Planet of the Apes Movies – Directed by Don Taylor – Starring Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, Bradford Dillman, Natalie Trundy, Eric Braeden, Sal Mineo, John Randolph, M. Emmet Walsh, and Ricardo Montalbán.

ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES is a devastatingly great movie.

Much like BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, ESCAPE pulls a bait and switch at the film’s midway point, but unlike the second film in the series, ESCAPE manages to deftly shift the focus to the second half by using the first half to set up what follows. The result is one of the most crushing endings to a motion picture you’ll experience, an ending that manages to trump both the shock of the original APES, and the despair of its sequel.

At the end of BENEATH, George Taylor (Charlton Heston) blows up the Earth, but as ESCAPE opens, we find that a spaceship has crash landed off the coast of contemporary (1973) California. It’s the same kind of ship that Taylor and Brent (James Franciscus) piloted on their missions that brought them to the future, and here we have one crashing in its own time. The military shows up in force, drags the craft to the beach, where three astronauts emerge. It’s neither Taylor nor Brent – it’s three chimpanzees from the future: Zira (Kim Hunter), Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), and Milo (Sal Mineo), who reveal themselves by pulling off their helmets to the stunned surprise of the United States military. It’s a nice idea that it’s the apes – specifically, the chimpanzees – who are the ones escaping from the planet of the apes.

It’s a fantastic opening sequence because it smartly and forcefully sets the tone for the early part of the film: the love of Cornelius and Zira, the shock of the humans, and the absurdity of apes in contemporary society.

There is a strength of convictions in ESCAPE that makes this the brilliant film that it is. Director Don Taylor and actors Hunter and McDowall never treat Cornelius and Zira as anything less than a smart, well-rounded, fully loving couple. Both Hunter and McDowall give fantastic performances that are smart, clever, and gutwrenchingly emotional. Their performances are made all the more impressive by the heavy prosthetics they have to wear to bring Zira and Cornelius to life. So much of their acting is done with their eyes, with their voices, and with their physical interactions with one another. When they are hauled before a Presidential Commission, they complain about having to be chained together in handcuffs, but all that does is make you look for that chain and when you do, you see how Zira and Cornelius are constantly reaching out to one another. They find strength in the physical confirmation of their emotional bond. It’s brilliant acting.

ESCAPE gets a lot of mileage out of inverting the dynamic of the original APES. Now, it’s Zira, Cornelius, and newcomer Milo in the cage instead of being the ones conducting the experiments, and the filmmakers use this, at first, for some good humor. The apes have decided not to talk in front of the humans, but Zira’s impatience at the simple tasks Dr. Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman) and Dr. Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trundy) set before her causes her to exasperatedly explain to the human scientists that she doesn’t reach for the banana they have tempted her with because she doesn’t like bananas. The early outing of their ability to talk allows the film to have a lighter tone than what Taylor went through in APES. Drs. Dixon and Branton take to the apes right away, and they take to their human counterparts, too. When a gorilla in a connected cage kills Milo, the relationship between apes and humans is tested, but comes out the stronger for it.

There is a lot of humor in the first half of the movie, much of it generated in a similar vein to Star Trek IV. It’s funny watching them integrate into human society but also hopeful because they’ve become celebrities, of a sort. Even if the film is quick to remind us that some humans still see them as pets, at worst, or unequals, at best, there’s still humor to be had in watching them get fitted for new clothes and be the star attraction at a party held in their honor after they’re moved from the Los Angeles Zoo to a swanky hotel. When Zira is given wine for the first time and the drink is described as “grape juice plus,” she immediately answers “grape” when asked what her favorite fruit is.

The front half of ESCAPE is screenwriting at its best because it’s amusing while still laying in a dark foundation. Zira’s affinity for wine comes back to haunt her when Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) gets her drunk in an attempt to get her to loosen up and reveal some truths he suspects she’s been hiding. Dr. Milo being killed by a caged gorilla and Cornelius and Zira testifying in chains are dark moments used to elevate the emotional connection internally between the characters in the film and externally for us to embrace these characters, but we also get scenes with Zira speaking to a Women’s Auxiliary Club that are amusing for the visual but grounded with Zira’s heartfelt, feminist appeal, and Cornelius being disturbed by the physical brutality a boxing match.

All of these moments work on multiple levels by themselves, but then inform later scenes, as well. Zira feels a connection with a “normal” ape at a circus who has also recently given birth, and Cornelius’ distaste for violence makes both his attack on an orderly and the firing of a gun hit with greater impact. I love it. I love when what seems like a singular moment comes back to inform a larger moment, and ESCAPE does this repeatedly.

The film also does an excellent job giving us complicated, diverse humans. Dixon and Branton are firmly on the chimp’s side and Dr. Hasslein (the doctor name-dropped in previous films) is firmly set against them, but there are plenty of people with emotions in between them. There’s condescending journalists, conflicted politicians, and an image-conscious President. It’s the latter character I wish we had seen more of, because William Windom does a superb job bring him to life. The President is concerned about his image, yes, and what history will think of him if he agrees to Hasslein’s wishes to kill the apes and their unborn baby, but his position isn’t solely about what people will think of him. The President and Hasslein have one of the best exchanges in the film when arguing this point, and the President (if a last name was given, I missed it) is insistent that whatever the future may hold, Cornelius and Zira are innocent. For Hasslein, the fact that the apes will eventually take over the world and become humanity’s enemy is reason enough to kill them now. The President counters with the question of when it becomes acceptable to kill someone you know will do evil; using Hitler as the test case, he wonders if it’s acceptable to kill Hitler as a kid, or in the womb, or to go back even further and kill his ancestors.

Hasslein is a firm believer that the future can be changed and sees killing them as the best chance to prevent this future, even if Cornelius and Zira tell him the apes rose to power for reasons that had nothing to do with them. Instead, they inform us that there was a plague that infected domesticated dogs and cats, and after these animals were wiped out, humans took apes as pets. Over time, the apes (who Zira reminds them are much smarter than dogs and cats) learned to talk and learned about the concept of slavery, and they rebelled.

There’s some wonderful complexity to all of this; as much as Cornelius passionately explains all of this to Hasslein, there is a darker truth that Zira dissected living humans in the future, treating them as Hasslein’s contemporaries treat animals in our time. Because Cornelius loves Zira, he purposely overlooks her past actions, and because Zira has a strong sense of morality, she doesn’t allow him to forget it.

Zira’s pregnancy complicates everything. She’s known of her pregnancy for a while; in fact, a strong case could be made that this is why she left her world to begin with. Cornelius and Zira decide to escape after he accidentally kills their orderly (the orderly called Zira a monkey, a term that Cornelius finds offensive), and Dixon and Branton help them escape, taking them to a circus run by Armando (Ricardo Montalbán) where Zira can have her baby in peace. They name the baby Milo, and it’s visually fitting that she gives birth as a free ape in the midst of caged animals. The plan is for them to stay with the circus until they get to Florida, where they will lose themselves in the Everglads, but the Hasslein-led authorities start putting the squeeze on zoos and circuses. Dixon and Branton help them escape again, pointing them in the direction of an abandoned shipyard.

It’s on an abandoned ship where the final showdown takes place, and it is a powerful one. Hasslein discovers the apes (Cornelius is not very good at staying hidden) and he comes aboard the vessel, eventually shooting and killing both Zira and her baby. Cornelius shoots Hasslein, but then a sniper takes out Cornelius, and falls to the deck. Zira tosses Milo into the water and then moves to Cornelius, laying on his chest so that they may die together.

It’s a depressing and powerful ending.

I won’t go so far as to say ESCAPE is a better movie than the original APES, but this is a damn fine film, featuring some of the best work of legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith’s career. ESCAPE is fun and absurd and laced with social commentary long before the powerful ending. In a scene that would almost certainly be a mid- or post-credits scene today, we are taken back to the circus to see that before they left, Mira exchanged her baby with that of the normal ape. On the one hand, this is a horrible thing for Zira to have done, as she puts her child into safety while putting another child into danger. It’s a demonstration of the same kind of thinking that plagues characters in the APES’ movies: I am better than you, so I can treat you as disposable.

Milo survives, but only at the cost of another child’s life. Milo’s repetitive chants of “Mama, mama” at the end of the film are both uplifting and chilling. It’s a fantastic swerve, and because I like Cornelius and Zira, I am happy to see their child survive, but it also jumps the timeline ahead. No longer do we have to wait for the domesticated Aldo to come along and tell his humans, “No” to hear an ape talk because we’ve got Milo doing it practically from birth.

That the ending creates a mix of emotions and possibilities, and works on multiple levels, is fitting, because that’s what ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES does from start to finish. This is a fantastic movie.

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