Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Movies I Like (Redux): Planet of the Apes

"Overall theme leads to characters then on to plot"
-- Rod Serling

This post is a kind of “re-run” of a previous post, but I thought that with the new Planet of the Apes film about to open, it was worth posting again. The original post was about the erroneous, in my opinion, comparison of M. Night Shyamalan to Rod Serling, I have altered this version just a bit to speak only of the original Planet of the Apes.

It would take only a casual glance at my writings to deduce that I’m a huge Rod Serling fan. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if people are tired of reading about it.  

When I was a very young boy (this would have been 1969 or ‘70), I remember my father speaking with wonder and excitement about a film he’d seen called Planet of the Apes. He spoke with such joy it is possible that my love of film started at that moment.

My Dog Trixie and I in 1970
When I saw the film I was just as impressed as my father had been. It wasn’t until years later that I would know that the film was co-written by Rod Serling—or even who Rod Serling was.

Serling was the creator of an early television classic called The Twilight Zone, a show known for strange happenings and twist endings. But for me what shines through his work is his love of humanity coupled with his profound disappointment that we can be a cruel, self-destructive and greedy species. 

This can be seen even in his work which precedes The Twilight Zone, when he was writing for the live television dramas of the early 1950s. His work spills over with humanity. But for better or worse, because of The Twilight Zone, he has become known as the twist-ending guy.

People who are not practitioners of something are often impressed with the obvious. People who don’t act, for instance, think that crying on demand is good acting. Or that being able to do accents or memorize lines is good acting. Trained actors know different. A lot of work that people don’t notice as easily goes into great acting.

In writing, the twist ending is one of the obvious things that people are very impressed with. But what is often overlooked is that Serling’s endings were linked to the story’s theme—the reason to tell the story.

Serling winning Emmy number four.

Back to his screenplay for the original Planet of the Apes, which is very much like a feature-length Twilight Zone. (By the way, I used to tell people that Planet of the Apes was just a long Twilight Zone, that it had all the same structure, but people said that I was crazy. Then some guy cut a short version of the film and made it into a Twilight Zone and people were surprised how well it worked.)

Okay, back to the monkey movie.
Planet of the Apes was a film where the twist blew people away.

In the opening of the film an astronaut on a starship tapes a log. In it he talks about how long he’s been away from Earth and how even more time would have passed on Earth because he and his fellow astronaut have been traveling at light speed. Then he says:

“I wonder if Man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who has sent me to the unknown...still makes war against his brother, and lets his neighbor's children starve.”

This is the theme that the entire film explores—are human beings essentially war-like, self-destructive creatures? The story never loses track of this.

So, Taylor, the astronaut, and his fellow travelers crash land on an unknown planet. At one point, as they walk through a desert looking for food and such, they have this exchange:

LANDON (heatedly): You thought life on Earth was meaningless. You despised people. So what did you do? You ran away.

TAYLOR: No, not quite, Landon. I'm a bit of a seeker myself. But my dreams are a lot emptier than yours. (pause) I can't get rid of the idea that somewhere in the Universe there must be a creature superior to man.

There it is again. Human beings are not so great.

Later, intelligent apes with the power of speech capture Taylor. On this planet, human beings are primitive brutes that cannot speak (Taylor was injured during his capture and cannot talk). One of the apes, Dr. Zaius, talks to another in front of Taylor’s cage:

ZAIUS: Men are a nuisance. They outgrow their own food supply in the forest and migrate to our green belts and ravage our crops. The sooner they're exterminated, the better.

Here it is again. Humans are self-destructive. But this time out of the mouth of someone other than Taylor. Now Taylor finds himself trying to argue on the side of humanity.

This point of view is consistently stated throughout the film.

At the end of the film, Taylor escapes the apes and this strange planet only to discover the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand. He has been on Earth the entire time. Humans have destroyed the Earth. This “twist” is right in line with what the film has been saying the whole time. We brought about our own destruction by way of a nuclear war.

If the three acts can be defined as Proposal, Argument, and Conclusion, then we can look at the tape log at the beginning of the film as a proposal. And the second act as the argument when the opening statement or proposal debated. So the conclusion of the film is proof positive of what the film has been saying all along.

This is not just a trick—it is storycraft.

Serling’s stories are timeless and they matter. In the ‘60s, when he wrote the film, the cold war was raging and people felt like any minute the world might end by our own hand.

Today, although it is still a possibility, we are slightly less worried about the nuclear threat and more an environmental one. But it doesn’t matter what the method of possible destruction is, only that we may be the ones ultimately responsible.

 Great stories are never just timely, they are timeless.

Rod Serling was so much more than a writer of twist endings. He was an artist and a craftsman. His writing was so good that it still inspires filmmakers today. I wonder if this new film Rise of the Planet of the Apes will employ as much storycraft. Will there be a strong underlying theme that can be seen, and felt, throughout...or will it be an excuse to show cool-looking CGI apes?


Cole Higgins said...

Great post, thank you. I imagine "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" will focus on how cool it will be to show the first monkey becoming conscious and breaking free. It probably wont say anything too shocking about human beings. Wouldn't want to upset the audience. When you go to see this movie are you going to attempt to have little or no expectations?

Brian McD said...

Hello Cole,

When I go to the movies I do hope for the best. I really do wish I liked more films made nowadays but, in my opinion, there is a lack of basic story-craft in most things made today. Story principles that were once common knowledge are no longer known. It makes me kinda' sad.

Cole Higgins said...

Its true, but at least you are out there reminding us or showing us for the first time what good story and craft is all about. Its awesome!

Jamie Baker said...

A great movie. And I can say from personal experience that the story works even when the famous TWIST ending doesn't.

As a kid, I thought they were on EARTH the whole time simply because everyone CHESTON meets understood ENGLISH (what can I say; I was a literal minded kid!) but the ending still had a profound effect on me, simply because of the stuff you mention here; the argument that the film made about human frailty.

Sorry to have missed you in SD. Everyone I know who saw your talk said it was one of the highlights of being in SD this year.

Brian McD said...

Thank you, Cole.

Brian McD said...

Hey Jamie,

I was hoping that I'd get to see you at Tr!ckster, man. Another time, I guess. Hope things went well for you in SD.

Thanks for passing in that people liked my talk. That's good to know.

Anonymous said...

The twist ending only resonates the way it does because it ties into the message of the whole story which was stated at the story's open. Twist endings don't just pop up out of nowhere. As soon as you pointed it out, it made sense. And now twist endings will never feel random, like something clever to grope in the dark for.

Kochise said...

In this day and age I'd be impressed if they even had "cool looking apes", but from the trailer they look about as realistic as curious george.

Jamie Baker said...

hey BRIAN, have you ever seen THIS:

Brian McD said...

Hey Jamie,

Yeah, I think I had seen that. I know I've seen the live-action part. But I'm glad that you sent the link.

Have you seen this doc about the Planet of the Apes:

Jamie Baker said...

wow! No, I had not seen that. Thanks for posting it. I will watch it now while I work!

imyjimmy said...

Thanks for that youtube documentary. It's funny how the studios really wanted a sequel when they almost killed the first one!

Anson Jew said...

Sadly, much of today's audience don't like stories that address the predicament of being part of an imperfect human species. They look at it as "stories trying to make me feel guilty" .

Brian McD said...

Hey Anson,

I just think it just means that one must be a better dramatist. These methods have work for thousands of years there are going to stop working now.

If people are invested in the story and characters they will by okay with your theme.

Jamie Baker said...

That documentary series was great. I watched while working.

Two parts i was curious about where trying to figure out how much of the screenplay was by SERLING and how much by the other guy?

And the other part that interested me was studio-head ZANUCK saying that they had no intention of making a film with any message to it. Clearly he was pulled into the project for that very reason and yet he seemed to be unaware of it himself.

Brian McD said...

Michael Wilson was the other writer. Good writer. He wrote the screenplay for The Bridge on the River Kwai. That script is very well focused.

Serling wrote the first few drafts of the film. In Serling’s version, as in the book, The Apes lived in a modern world with modern technology like cars and planes.

I forget now why that was changed, I think for budget reasons. Wilson made those changes.

Also, Taylor dies at the end of Serling’s versions. Heston wanted his character to die because he did not want there to be a sequel to the film.

But if you want to know just how much remains of Rod Serling survives in the finished movie watch the film then watch these Twilight Zone episodes:

I Shot an Arrow into the Air

People Are Alike All Over

The Little People

These films are like rough drafts for Planet of the Apes. Knowing Serling’s work so well leads me to believe that the structure is very much in his style – very his sensibility. In fact, in I Shot An Arrow you will find three astronauts crash-landed on a planet. It even looks like Planet of the Apes.

When some fan cut Apes down to half and hour and made it black and white to appear like a Twilight Zone they used Rod’s voice over from I shot an Arrow to into the film.

Watch those Zones and see how close they are. You could even throw in The Monster are due on Maple Street episode for theme.

As for Zanuk, if you don’t want a strong theme (message) you do not hire Rob Serling. The man is all about theme. Like a lot of producer Zanuk is a smart guy who doesn’t understand how a story works. He knows a good one when he sees it – but he doesn’t know what makes it good.

Brian McD said...

Hey Jamie,

This is a link to I Shot An Arrow:

Here's People Are Alike All Over:

Here's The Little People:

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