1950s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Epic, War

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Director: David Lean
Screenwriters: Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson, David Lean (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

My father once told me the story of how when he was a child, he and my grandfather, who had been a professional soldier in the British Army since before World War II and remained one for a time after, went to see The Bridge on the River Kwai. They saw it in a grandiose Piccadilly movie theatre during the film’s first release, a movie experience they had to skirt one of Bertrand Russell’s ban-the-bomb marches to attend. My grandfather, who had fought in North Africa, Malta, and Burma, and survived being struck by a mortar bomb, the shrapnel from which he carried until the day he died, was normally rather disdainful of war movies, but nonetheless he emerged from The Bridge on the River Kwai extremely impressed, particularly by the climax’s realism in capturing an injury he had suffered. He wasn’t alone: the film was granted colossal success, capturing multiple Oscars and proving one of the biggest hits of the 1950s, and fatefully catapulting director David Lean into new and lasting fame as a maker of epic tales. And yet, The Bridge on the River Kwai was and is a strange kind of popular hit, a movie that mediated a crested and now waning surge of nostalgia for the war’s certainties and manifold heroic tales, and the onset of something new, more doubtful and questioning, and did so through a bleak, semi-satirical storyline wielding a edge of barbed cynicism aimed at several key mythologies of the war.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was adapted from a novel by French writer Pierre Boulle, whose peculiar, acerbic imagination would also produce a very different popular tale nonetheless sharing preoccupation with culture clashes and reversals of dominance, Planet of the Apes. Boulle, an engineer who worked in rubber plantations in what was then called French Indochina, became a spy when war with Japan broke out, only be eventually captured by Vichy collaborators and thrown into a Japanese POW camp, where he was forced to take part in the construction of the infamous Burma-Thailand Railway, where his observations of collaborating French officers would inform his eventual novel’s acidic portrayals. Boulle tried his hand at writing after he returned to France and fell on hard times, scoring an enormous breakthrough success with Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï, his third published work. In his novel, perhaps to avoid controversy with a French readership but also certainly to deploy his sardonic perspective on different forms of national and imperial arrogance contending, Boulle focused on British POWs and amalgamated the officers he remembered in the figure of an imaginary British Lieutenant-Colonel named Nicholson. The novel was brought to the screen by the entrepreneurial, Anglophiliac Polish-American producer Sam Spiegel, but the project owed its inception to writer Carl Foreman, who had left the US after writing High Noon (1952) because of blacklisting, and bought the movie rights to Boulle’s novel.

Spiegel, after considering an array of major directors including Orson Welles, eventually settled on David Lean, who then had a clash of vision of Foreman, who pulled out of the project and suggested fellow blacklisted émigré Michael Wilson to take over, whilst Lean also later said he contributed much to the script. In a stinging but fairly familiar irony in the annals of 1950s moviemaking, none of them gained screen credit, and the film’s screenwriting Oscar was instead given to Boulle, who didn’t speak English. Lean was already a respected and successful director, although he had not quite been able to recapture the acclaim garnered by his early collaborations with Noel Coward, including In Which We Serve (1942) and Brief Encounter (1945), and his diptych of Charles Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), films where Lean’s rigorous filmmaking and illustrative verve were perfectly suited to his preoccupation with half-stifled, half-rampant quixotic urges. The films Lean made after that legendary run have only slowly gained the respect they deserve, particularly The Passionate Friends (1949) and Madeleine (1950), Lean’s most intimate and agonised portrayals of romantic frustration shading into acts of violence against self and others. The Sound Barrier (1952), Hobson’s Choice (1954), and Summertime (1955) all tackled characters pushing themselves to shatter boundaries that repress and stymie their capacities, with the latter film offering a mediation between the personal, domestic focus of Lean’s early films in depicting a spinster finding love during a holiday in Venice, and a fantastic liberation in a foreign clime realised in splendid colour that presaged Lean’s own emergence into the glare of international spectacle cinema.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was certainly never intended to be a documentary or true account any more than the book had been, although Boulle, working from his own hazy memory of the region where he set the book, wilfully crossed paths with some agonising events. As with the rather more populist The Great Escape (1962), based more directly on a real incident, the fame of the fictional version made the real history invoked all the more stinging for those involved in it, including the real commander of British troops who had built a bridge over the Kwae Hai river in Thailand, Lt-Col. Philip Toosey, and the Japanese commander, who Toosey defended as a relatively humane man amidst the general cynicism and degradation that marked the railway’s construction, the building of which cost upwards of 100,000 lives, mostly South Asian slave labourers but also including 12,000 POWs. The Bridge on the River Kwai’s take on imperialism, and militarism aggravated members of its cast, including Alec Guinness and James Donald, whose fretting about the alleged anti-British streak in the material contributed to the general tension that grew between Lean and his actors on set during the film’s lengthy shoot in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. This almost caused a permanent falling-out between Lean and Guinness who was cast as Nicholson, whose movie career Lean had vitally boosted by casting him in his Dickens films, especially when Lean kept reminding Guinness he originally wanted Charles Laughton in the role. The film’s success, and Guinness’ Oscar win, nonetheless proved irrevocably that they were a winning team.

Today some of The Bridge on the River Kwai’s original stature has been reassigned to another great antiwar film about an obsessed military leader released the same year, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Whilst feeling both are very great films, I think The Bridge on the River Kwai is the superior work in large part because it’s more ambivalent: Kubrick’s film all but screams its humanist principles from the rooftop, where Lean’s sustains the opposing tensions between its many perspectives. The Bridge on the River Kwai’s famous early scene of the column of British POWs under Nicholson marching into the POW camp run by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) whilst whistling the march “Colonel Bogey,” is more than just a jaunty interlude in an otherwise cruel and concerted drama: it’s an act of calculated showmanship, the first of Nicholson’s many attempts to hold his men together as a coherent team despite captivity and privation, obliging them to mark time march on the spot as they whistle. The sight is at once inspiring and more than a little sadomasochistic. The scene is also an evergreen example of Lean’s technique, his ground in editing and sense of cinema as a rhythmic thing that could stand being stretched or curtailed to any degree in service of a point. The scene has no particular dramatic necessity, and yet it illustrates everything about what we’re about to see, expostulating the essence of the drama entirely through cinematic gesture. The tune’s ear-invading catchiness officially invokes regimented yet waggish defiance. Nicholson’s stiff-necked pride and force of command over his men who play along, despite sceptical glances to one-another, is plain, as the men march in past the graves of their predecessors in this fetid little hell. Survival is the name of the game, survival must be communal, and Nicholson feels fully the lot given to him as commander to lead. Composer Malcolm’s Arnold’s counterpoint arrangement rises up to give accompaniment to the whistling, interlacing it with a sarcastically carnivalesque quality that resurges in the film’s very last scene.

Circularity is also staked out by the opening and closing shots of eagles reeling in the sky above the jungle, before Lean and his cinematographer Jack Hildyard offer sweeping helicopter shots descending into and retreating out of the greenery, the viewpoint of gods and carnivorous birds aligned in considering the mean human drama about to unfold. The opening credits unfurl over shots of Nicholson and his men, deposited at the end of the completed line by train in the middle of the jungle where desperately thin and exhausted men are working on digging cuttings, before marching through the jungle and looking down upon what is to be their new home, the River Kwai, which they’re to build a bridge across as part of the railway. Nicholson’s solution seems to be to pretend nothing is wrong, that he and his men are still on the parade ground back in old Blighty, under the comforting sway of the Union Jack rather than the Rising Sun. But Nicholson’s choice to bring his men into the camp with a show of discipline and spirit is really the first shot in a different kind of war, one where one side seems to have all the cards. Saito looks on, perhaps sensing the oncoming battle of wills and grasping the soldiers’ defiance of his particular, very different sense of honour.

The last gang of POWs kept in the camp, including the hardy, wily American Navy man Shears (William Holden), are a mostly shattered and withered remnant, many resident in the camp hospital: Shears himself has stayed strong through his talents as a scrounger and the nourishing nectar of his own cynicism. He’s introduced bribing a guard to get put on the sick list with a lighter purloined from a soldier he and another captive have just buried. Holden was plainly cast as Shears as an extension of his Oscar-winning role as J.J. Sefton in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), although where Sefton was a misanthropist, Shears is decent, but sceptical about warfare in general, representing an articulate everyman’s perspective: Shears, who has been accepted as a Commander but is actually, secretly a ranking sailor, having put on an officer’s uniform in the hope of getting better treatment from his captors only to suffer Saito’s utter indifference to such things, presents the polar opposite to Nicholson’s governing philosophy and outlook. “I don’t mock the grave or the man,” Shears assures his comrade as he knocks a crude crucifix grave marker into the ground over the new grave, after he delivers an acerbic eulogy, just as he surely means nonetheless to mock the forces that put the man in the grave.

The first half of The Bridge on the River Kwai depicts Nicholson seeming to prove himself right as he stands up to Saito’s harshest punishments and humiliations. Nicholson determines to insist he and his men be treated according to the Geneva Convention, which in particular means resisting Saito’s insistence that the officers work with the men, because as Nicholson formulates it, “our men must always feel they are still commanded by us and not by the Japanese – so long as they have that idea to cling to they’ll be soldiers and not slaves.” The degree to which Nicholson is directed as much by snooty pride as by gallant motives is left ambiguous, although perhaps such things can never entirely be separated. Saito responds furiously to Nicholson’s defiance, smacking him on the parade ground and leaving him and his officers standing at attention through a broiling hot day. Saito tries to threaten Nicholson with shooting him and the officers, but Nicholson’s medical officer Clipton (James Donald) intervenes, warning Saito that he can’t kill all the potential witnesses in the sick bay, a move Shears has already, sullenly anticipated. But Clipton’s intervention, which uses Saito’s own invocation of his bushido against him – “Is this your soldier’s code? Murdering unarmed men?” – works.

Saito instead has Nicholson beaten and flung alone into a corrugated iron box to swelter away, whilst the other officers are similarly imprisoned. Saito doesn’t realise the moment he reveals there are limits to his methods he loses the fight. Hayakawa, who forty years earlier had been Hollywood’s most popular male actor with a niche playing cruel and destructive “exotic” lovers, made a sudden resurgence thanks to his performance as Saito. Hayakawa, who unlike Guinness got along famously with Lean, proved his charisma hadn’t entirely deserted him even though he was pushing 70 at the time, as well as his tendency to get typecast as Asiatic brutes. Hayakawa nonetheless is quite brilliant at portraying weakness hiding within apparent strength, apparent in Saito’s frantic, incompetent reaction to being challenged, and his desperately smarmy attempts to save face even whilst trying to get Nicholson to let him off the hook, before he again erupts in a quivering harangue: “I hate the British. You are defeated, but you have no shame. You are stubborn but have no pride. You endure but you have no courage.” Nicholson remains steadfast: even when Clipton eventually talks Saito into letting him attend to him in the hot box, he finds Nicholson retains all his strength of purpose as if he’s the one being perfectly reasonable, commenting with exasperation, “That man is the worst commanding officer I’ve ever come across – actually I think he’s mad,” a judgement Saito in turn passes on Nicholson. “Without law, Commander, there is no civilisation,” Nicholson tells Shears, who ripostes that here there is no civilisation: “Then we have the opportunity to introduce it.”

Nicholson’s approach to his new and his men’s new situation emerges as he resolves that, with escape more or less impossible and his legal situation strange – he explains that he was ordered to surrender when Singapore fell, which might mean escape attempts might well constitute a breach of those orders – he resolves instead that “here is where we must win through,” particularly after Shears and some other men seem to all be killed attempting an escape. Nicholson’s defiance stokes his men’s resistance, singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow” as he’s put in the hot box, and they sabotage and generally foul up the bridge-building attempts, causing the project to fall far behind schedule. Saito’s anger falls heavily on his chief engineer, eventually taking over the construction himself, but to no avail. Eventually Saito makes overtures to Nicholson, first trying to win him over by offering to let him remain exempt from working, but Nicholson refuses. Finally, under the cover of a magnanimous deed in celebrating the anniversary of the Battle of Tsushima, Saito agrees to Nicholson’s demands. Soon, Nicholson sets his engineering officers to the task of building a better bridge, to give his men something to labour on and take pride in, and leave something to posterity even in their defeat.

Lean’s films hinged on crucial identification with his heroes as mediators of his intense but divided personal nature, his creative and emotional passion clashing with his firmly instilled personal morality stemming from his Quaker upbringing, with his unique talents for animating landscape, either through the careful studio stylisation of his Dickens films or the dynamic sense of landscape exhibited in his epics, offering elemental contrast to the human irony of his stories. And yet Lean resisted identifying too overtly with Nicholson for both himself and the audience, reportedly insisting that Nicholson needed to be a bit of a bore, despite Guinness’s desire to make him more appealing. I think I know why. The first time I ever watched The Bridge on the River Kwai as a child, I burst into tears at the climax, for I had granted Nicholson all my sympathy in the story, identifying with his pride in creation without quite understanding the depth of his breach of duty. Lean understood this, and guarded against it: the story’s rich irony demands both sympathy with Nicholson but also some distance from him. But it’s also plain Lean knew Nicholson was the avatar for his creative-romantic streak. Hayakawa, in an interview given to Films and Filming, recalled one of the crew complaining that Lean “shot 30 seconds of film a day and then sat on a rock and stared at his goddamn bridge!” It’s impossible not to see Lean and Nicholson almost fusing there in their near-religious sense of craft, just as it also offers pertinent context to the scenes Lean’s next hero, T.E. Lawrence, dreaming up his attack on Aqaba in a similarly contemplative position.

By contrast, Clipton offers a constant counterpart also constant in Lean’s films, the figure of moral authority and adamant perspective, a figure that would splinter across various protagonists in Doctor Zhivago (1965) but reconfigure as the priest in Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and Fielding in A Passage To India (1984). Clipton’s business is saving lives, a service he performs for Nicholson, but later prods him with questions as to whether he’s now collaborating with the enemy, and the end refuses to be involved in the christening of the bridge, a choice that accidentally saves his own life. Nicholson’s arguments in riposte make sense to a degree: assuming the bridge will be built somehow and either by his men or atop their graves, Nicholson determines to make it suit his purpose. Trouble is, Nicholson’s sense of the camp and bridge as their existential amphitheatre forgets there’s still a world beyond. Foreman’s attraction to the story seems fairly obvious: like High Noon it’s a story of a man suffering to stand up for principle, and culminates with the whistle of a train announcing an imminent battle.

But that film’s moral certainty and elemental approach to violence-as-justice have been scattered all to hell. Nicholson’s rigid stance against Saito is at once heroic and unnerving, a matador provoking the bull’s horns, in part because Nicholson knows as well as Saito that killing him would be, in a strange way, to lose the game. Saito in turn, although he seems clearly tempted to kill Nicholson at several points including by stabbing him after Nicholson refuses his peace offering meal, nonetheless holds off. Saito’s restraint matches Nicholson’s, as if proving the British officer’s stance by responding to his show of fortitude with his own. Saito, however, is in a radically different position, knowing he’ll be expected to commit seppuku if the bridge isn’t completed on schedule, and his vehement, shuddering displays of anger and disdain for his British counterpart register the overtones of fear lurking behind his own cruelty. Nicholson and Saito represent, at their broadest, symbolic conceptions of the respective British and Japanese armies, the former defined by a mysterious high-tensile ability to be rigid and flexible at once in hyper-courteous browbeating, the latter by the maniacal severity of its concepts of honour and purpose.

But the narrative plays some intricate games with these presumptions. The Bridge on the River Kwai glances back at Lean’s films with Coward, in their mythological engagement with the wartime ethos of the stiff upper lip, particularly In Which We Serve, where Coward’s idealised Captain hero figure coaches his men through disaster. Here the fortitude is laced with irony and delusion, the adamantine strength of purpose questioned and eventually found confused and self-defeating. Saito is the official representative of the barbaric treatment meted out by the Imperial Army on just about they considered their inferiors, but as the story unfolds he becomes a faintly comic figure, outmanoeuvred by Nicholson. Lean and Hayakawa oblige sympathy for Saito for glimpsing his deep, weeping humiliation after caving in to Nicholson. This vignette proves one Saito never truly seems to recover from, spending much of the rest of the film in a near-silent, almost zombified state, gazing on silently and beggared as Nicholson and his men set about feverishly doing his work for him, whilst also aware that Nicholson’s purpose, to triumph in the face of shame, is one he cannot encompass. Nicholson earns the love of his men as the seeming exemplar of his creed, and yet collaborates actively with the enemy to fulfil his own ends, however self-justifying those ends are. Saito, a prisoner of his own values, can’t do that, and it’s made plain late in the film that he intends to commit seppuku upon the passing of the first train down the railway line, even though he and Nicholson eventually seem to work up an odd kind of camaraderie.

That militarism eventually consumes all its children, British or Japanese or anyone else, is made abundantly clear in the climax, particularly when Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) mortar bombs some of his own people to prevent their capture, and the possibility of any kind of private achievement or separate peace eventually, literally goes up in flames. The stand-off between Nicholson and Saito consumes most of the film’s first half, and whilst in many ways it presents the inverse situation to the first half of Lawrence of Arabia with its sweeping portrait of Lawrence’s desert-spanning, myth-making raid on Aqaba, in concentrating on a tiny microcosm that gets even smaller when Nicholson is jammed in the hot box, it nonetheless has the same rolling, compulsive power and sense of punishing physical straits. Lean shoots extremely low-angle shots of the sweltering, at-attention soldiers with the glaring sun above, and makes maximum use of the widescreen frame’s expanse and depth of field in moments like when Shears comments balefully on Nicholson’s actions as he and other men in the sick bay watch the officers on the parade ground, one man fainting dead away as they speak in the distance of the centre frame. One moment of sublime accord for Lean’s direction and Guinness’ performance, one indeed Guinness himself felt was his best screen moment ever, sees Nicholson, exhausted, bedraggled, and barely able to stand, nonetheless forcing himself to walk unaided from the hot box to Saito’s office with an automaton-like gait (which Guinness said he based on his son, who was recovering from polio), watched with deadpan patience by the camera in a tracking shot with his men saluting as he passes.

Something of Boulle’s more sarcastic, quasi-satirical sensibility filters to the surface in the scene where Nicholson and his officers take over Saito’s conference on how to proceed with building the bridge, Saito now the one acting mechanically with his repetitions of “I have already given the order” in response to Nicholson’s utterly reasoned and quietly irresistible logic. The same streak returns later on as Shears, softly blackmailed into joining a commando raid on the bridge, is repeatedly acclaimed with the arch old-boyism, “Good show!” Shears’ story, pushed off to one side during Nicholson’s resistance except for a brief depiction of his and his companions’ escape attempt, which seems to end brutally when Shears is shot and plunges into the river. But Shears, only lightly wounded, crawls out of the river and stumbles desperately through the jungle, where, in perhaps the film’s oddest and most misjudged touch, he mistakes a kite for a buzzard swooping to pick his carcass: the kite proves to be flown by some kids from a nearby village. The villagers happily give Shears a boat so he can continue downriver, but when he runs out of water he makes the mistake of drinking the river water, and drifts out of his mind with fever down to the ocean, where he’s eventually spotted and rescued by a plane and taken to Ceylon. Cue another unfortunate moment, this time the result of Columbia’s insistence at least one white woman be added to the cast, adding a romantic scene for Shears cavorting with a nurse (Ann Sears) from the hospital where he recovers on the beach.

This scene nonetheless serves as the moment Shears meets Warden, a former Cambridge teacher of Oriental Languages turned demolitions expert and commando (“We’re trying to discourage the use of that words, it’s come to have such a melodramatic air about it”) with a group called Force 316. The Bridge on the River Kwai is in essence two separate stories, and Foreman put that down to it having two writers who never quite reconciled things. But the stories are also deeply entwined, one commenting on the other and coinciding in the finale. Shears’ story is a more traditional kind of adventure story than Nicholson’s, but no less barbed a story of people who prove avatars for incoherent values. Warden, who keeps alive a sort of happy amateur ideal of the English gentleman of war as he playfully shows off the new wonder of plastic explosive, invites Shears to join the group. They want him to guide them from the village he visited back up to the Kwai bridge, so they can sabotage it. Shears, who’s been maintaining his pose as an officer in the hospital, confesses his deception in the course of vehemently refusing to go back, but Warden reveals that he and his superiors had already learned about this and the US Navy, to avoid embarrassment, has handed Shears over to them.

Shears sourly volunteers, and at least gets the rank of “simulated Major” out of it. Asked by the commander of 316, Colonel Green (Andre Morell), for his impressions of the prospective team, Shears is less anxious about the young, unblooded accountant-turned-warrior Lt Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) elected to the unit than by Warden, who strikes him as playing a game of war. Green starts telling him about Warden’s combat experience, including of being captured by the enemy, an anecdote left crucially unfinished. When they are eventually parachuted into the jungle, one member of the team is killed in the drop. The rest reach the village Shears visited before, and the village chief, Khun Yai (M.R.B. Chakrabandhu), and six of their young women volunteer to help their mission. They begin a trek through the jungle. Joyce’s hesitation in stabbing a Japanese soldier they encounter obliges Warden to do it for him, but injures his ankle in the process: Warden insists on continuing with the team, limping along in agonising fashion.

Lean’s emergence as the doyen of “epic” filmmakers entailed a new way of filming, some of it engaged with the changing nature of cinema itself. Widescreen formats had been introduced in 1953 to counter television with a new expanse and vividness of visual experience. Despite Fritz Lang’s infamous comment that it was only good for snakes and funerals, many major filmmakers immediately began experimenting with what could be achieved in widescreen, but most of the movies made in the format were very brightly lit and glossily colourful. Lean, seeing the widescreen style was punishing on any sort of artifice, completely eschewed any shooting shortcuts like rear projection or sets, helping imbue a monumental, tactile quality that immediately changed the way other filmmakers would approach such things, where just a year before epic cinema had meant the total artifice of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. The Bridge on the River Kwai has a palette of muddy greens and browns and shaded, shadowy frame reaches. In its way, Lean’s film might well have done the most of any movie up until that time to demonstrate that colour cinema could be as compellingly immersive and realistic, just as black-and-white had become the accepted language for realism as opposed to the usually decorative effect colour was put to. Lean had filmed stark figures amidst bleak, near-animate landscapes in the opening scenes of his Dickens films, creating backdrops that seethe and overwhelm in a manner harking back to J.M.W. Turner, an artist Lean had vital traits in common with. He expanded on this motif in The Bridge on the River Kwai, which is now part of the basic lexicon of large-scale moviemaking, in the sequences depicting the demolition team’s march through the jungle, bestriding cliff faces and marching up the flanks of hills, humans dwarfed by natural forms, in a reversal of the deadly intimacy of the first half.

Unlike filmmakers who would absorb his influence and transmute it into a more rarefied thing, including Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, Lean’s approach to the natural world doesn’t regard it as sublimely indifferent but rather as a stage humans can’t escape from, nor it from them. The narrative is on one level a straightforward adventure movie, with the heroes braving the wilderness to achieve a difficult, noble objective. But as Lean would reiterate more completely in Lawrence of Arabia, the punishing drive of his heroes, Tennyson’s Ulysses-like, to cross and conquer the earth feels more like neurotic compulsion than straightforward intrepidity, as if identity can only be gained by risking its negation, becoming part of the landscape – death, in short. The jungle trek is defined by its objective, one where the characters are searching for an answer to a question, sometimes asked aloud, sometimes not. Whether Joyce can kill a man. Whether Shears can escape hell twice, and whether there’s something he would actually consider worth dying for. Whether Warden can prove he’s the man he wants to be, the great war commander. They counterpoint Nicholson, who finds the last chance for identity in the project of building the bridge, something to leave to the age. And of course the commandos want to destroy his brainchild, meaning that inevitably the men will destroy each-other in their pursuit of identity. Nicholson’s first fight with Saito is at its heart that same quest, as Nicholson knows being reduced to chattel will destroy him and his men as men. Nicholson’s quasi-messianic sense of mission eventually sees him leading out the sick and lame men from the hospital to work, and Nicholson’s strange genius is his ability to make it all seem utterly reasonable.

The trek culminates when Shears, Joyce, and Warden gain a vista over the Kwai, camera tilting down vast horizon until the bridge comes into view, seen for the first time in its complete state. That the bridge proves to be an all-wood pastiche of the Forth Bridge, that signal monument to the emergence of the industrial age’s height in Britain, is both a mordant underlining of Nicholson’s desire to make British genius bloom in the desert, and an entirely earnest nod to it, the last stand of imperialist export. Nicholson is right in one regard: here is where the stand must be made, but civilisation isn’t just righteousness and tea. It’s also rivalry for resources and tests of strength and will — in short, war. So inevitably Nicholson’s desire to build civilisation must meet the determination to destroy it. Lean’s roots in editing are equally crucial in his then-unusual approach to building scenes, most indefinably yet vitally in the rhythmic unfolding of Nicholson’s resistance, and sometimes more overtly. The scene where the commando team are surprised by a unit of Japanese soldiers whilst swimming at a cascade is a fine example, in the way Lean circles around standard action staging to instead present quick, vivid tableaux and symbolic force. The scene starts playfully, the soldiers and the women taking a last chance to enjoy themselves, before the enemy arrive: they, seeing only the women, seem to have the same end on their mind. Lean cuts from Warden throwing a grenade and the commandos firing down on the enemy to shots of teeming fruit bats scared out of the trees and flocking madly in the sky, their screeching panic mimicking the violence. When Lean returns to the Japanese soldiers they’re now dead, blood pooling in the water. Life and death, human and inhuman, natural and unnatural, all stirred into a state of flux, thesis and antithesis.

The march through the jungle, whilst describing human smallness and mutability, is punctuated with personal vignettes noting the growing bond between the men and the village women. This skirts potentially risible romantic interest but instead registers an extra, finite emotional texture that rubs salt in during the climax, where the women, each with their own preferred potential warrior-mate, have to watch as they die, as much unwitting priestesses in a death cult as lovers. One of the film’s notable descendants, Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), would provide the peyote-soaked take on all this; Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) would strip it down to maniacal-visonary essentials. When the raiders finally arrive at the Kwai, Nicholson is at the same time inspecting his construction, indulging pride, and he muses on his career and disappointments to a quietly receptive if bewildered Saito, and it becomes clear why all that’s happened on the Kwai has happened, a last stage for Nicholson to make his life matter. Guinness was aggravated by Lean choice to shoot the scene from behind, but why is very clear when viewed, Nicholson allowed a degree of privacy even as he confesses something poignant about himself, the weight of emotion carried by Guinness’ lilt.

Nicholson then attends a celebratory performance his men put on, including drag acts and dubious song numbers, intercut with Shears, Yai, and Joyce silently and methodically stealing up on the bridge and laying explosive charges on its stanchions, in a sequence that suggests the influence of the quiet robbery scene in Rififi (1955) as the men do their best to not make noise and attract the attention of guards above nor ruffle the moonlit water. The attention to the saboteurs’ method and the deadly seriousness of their endeavour sharply offsets the festivities echoing from above and the placidity of Nicholson’s musings on life and the glorious sunset, tension slowly building all the while. Finally, with all their preparations deployed with nerveless patience, Shears leaves Joyce to his job to set off the explosives, which has been deigned will go off as the first train crosses the bridge and must be detonated from the only good cover within reach, located on the other side of the river from where his fellows take up position. When dawn breaks, the commandos realise to their cringing horror that the water level has dropped and the wire to the charges is visible at points. Joyce does his best to conceal the length closest to him, whilst Shears gives a smile of something like pride when Nicholson’s men march out over the bridge, again whistling “Colonel Bogey.” Whatever else he’s done, Nicholson certainly helped his men survive.

The climax of The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the greatest in narrative cinema, charged with dizzying, bone-jarring physical force and tragicomic wildness, the long and patient build-up justified as the many threads of story and character collide in a spasm of apocalyptic violence. Nicholson spots the explosives wire as he again bestrides his precious bridge, and he and Saito descend to puzzle it out. As Warden and Shears both from their positions cringe in agony as they near Joyce and realise their own man is about to foil the operation, Joyce works up the nerve to spring out of cover and knife Saito, but it’s Nicholson’s panicked reaction to Joyce’s explanation about what’s happening, grabbing the young man and trying to hold him down, that attracts the guards’ lethal attention, and bullets start flying. Shears, screaming out for Joyce to kill Nicholson, leaps into the river and swims across to aide his pupil, only to be wounded by bullets, whilst Joyce is also shot by the advancing guards. Nicholson’s look of pure shock upon recognising Shears as he crawls out of the river, knife in hand, face twisted in warlike grimace even as he dies, completes the circuit.

Meanwhile Warden rains mortar bombs down on the area, through his own, traumatised conviction they’re all better off dead than captured and tortured, at the cost of having the village women retreat from him in fear. Lean’s control over the eruption of frantic action and the dovetailing of so many narrative and thematic strands into a singular sequence remains quite remarkable, utilising the widescreen expanse to encompass multiple planes of action with a blend of ferocity and grace, ironic distance and immediate furore, building to the epic close-ups that ram home the drama – Nicholson’s look of profound surprise at recognising the wounded Shears as he stumbles ashore, his exclamation of “You!” answered by Shear’s own, enraged, agonised utterance of the same word before collapsing. Boulle pointedly did not have the bridge blown up in his book, leaving it as an ironic monument to war’s madness. The film needs the bridge destroyed, both for the sake of climactic showmanship, of course, but also because the story of the film as opposed to the book demands it, particular in Lean’s private moral scheme, which emerges in harkening back to Great Expectations where Miss Havisham murmured “What have I done?” when she realises she’s destroyed people’s lives.

Lean again (and if he did actually contribute anything to the script, it’s hard to doubt this was it) puts this question in Nicholson’s mouth as he experiences a moment of devastating clarity even as all hell breaks loose about him, the proof of his own blinkered convictions littered about him and bleeding out. Nicholson sets his sights on the plunger and moves for it, only for one of the mortars to land behind him, killing Shears and Joyce and leaving Nicholson with a gouge wound in the back of his head. Nicholson stands and once more makes a controlled effort at recovering his soldierly bearing before resuming his advance, only for him to collapse dead. Fortunately, he falls on the plunger, and the bridge blows apart in a thunderous calamity, train plummeting into the river. Lean was apparently bothered until he died that he didn’t make it clear enough that Nicholson intended to destroy the bridge and the explosion wasn’t just dumb luck. I’ve never doubted it, as Lean’s careful scene grammar plus that crucial line makes Nicholson’s chain of thinking very clear, but I can see why some didn’t. The fact that Nicholson doesn’t quite set of the blast with his last breath, but instead stumbles towards his final, redemptive act of refutation, is nonetheless just as important, taking the moment out of the realm of melodrama and placing it rather in the absurd.

The destruction of the bridge that takes the train with it provides the orgasmic moment of destructive carnage and spectacle, amplified immeasurably by the undeniable reality of the staging, the wonderful bridge, a real, strong thing, and the train crashing into the river, huge logs and rigid iron crashing and breaking, waves of smoke and steam wafting. Cinema staging had scarcely been so immediate, so wantonly mighty and reckless, since the silent era. The visuals underline the descent of all art and pretence into pure chaos, but the final gestures retain meaning. Warden hurls his mortar away into impotent frustration before retreating, successful yet chagrined, back into the forest. He has succeeded in the letter of his mission, but what he stood for has gone bust, failed to reclaim his creed as the locus of stability and sanity in the world, and now the village women are afraid of him, the first flutters of the post-war, post-colonial wind. Meanwhile Clipton’s immortal, stunned, cringing cries of “Madness! Madness!” as he surveys the scene of carnage became the essential viewpoint of an entire generation still children watching the film but soon to be all too aware of the knife-edge that was the post-war, atomic-age world. And that last shot, sailing endlessly up into the sky, leaving the follies of humanity in splinters on the ground, the ghost army still marching.

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1960s, Action-Adventure, Comedy, Scifi

Planet of the Apes (1968)

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Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Screenwriters: Rod Serling, Michael Wilson

By Roderick Heath

Although overshadowed in appreciation amongst high cinephiles by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2018 brings the fiftieth anniversary of another hugely popular and influential science fiction film: Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes. 1968 was a pivotal year for sci-fi cinema, as the success of the two films coincided with Ralph Nelson’s Oscar-winning Charly, helping to make a genre which had known a vogue in the 1950s, but remained generally regarded as trashy and negligible, suddenly gain a level of respect. These films also helped inaugurate a new phase in the genre, and Planet of the Apes arguably had the greatest impact on the following decade or so of sci-fi films. Thanks to its heavy emphasis on satirically tinted speculation about where the human race had come from and where it was going, the film helped provoke an age of allegoric, often dystopian sci-fi that was to a certain extent drowned out by the arrival of Star Wars (1977) but which has never really gone away. The Apollonian, transcendental fantasia that was 2001: A Space Odyssey gained its shaggy, cynical sibling in Planet of the Apes, a more overtly popular approach to genre that nonetheless squarely struck the zeitgeist and proved a huge hit, spawning four immediate sequels, a 2001 remake helmed by Tim Burton, and then a new series of acclaimed variations on the original film’s string of sequels, inaugurated by Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011).

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Planet of the Apes owes its status in turn to the peculiar battery of creative hands who made it, and the way it remixed some familiar genre modes into something new. Author Pierre Boulle was best-known outside France in the 1960s for penning the novel Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï, a book based loosely on true events and inspired by Boulle’s own time as a prisoner of the Japanese military during the war. The novel provided the basis for David Lean’s 1957 epic film The Bridge on the River Kwai, for which Boulle himself was awarded an Oscar for its screenplay, although the script had actually been penned by blacklisted writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. In spite of the seemingly wide conceptual gulf between that novel’s recent, worldly concerns and the fantastical territory annexed by Boulle’s 1963 book La Planète des singes, the similarities are telling in the emphasis on captivity, mutually uncomprehending cultures, and shoe-on-the-other foot reversals of imperialist domain and dominance. Boulle took on a basic sci-fi what-if conceit, in this case, the notion that the relative place on the power scale of homo sapiens and other great apes was reversed.

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Rod Serling, who had gained rare standing as a TV dramatist even before he created and hosted the weird fiction anthology show The Twilight Zone, loved those kinds of inverted familiarities, and his famous show is still a by-word for ironic, sting-in-the-tail narrative punch-lines. Arthur P. Jacobs, an up-and-coming producing talent at Twentieth Century Fox, had seen potential in Boulle’s novel and hired Serling to adapt it. Serling’s unique ideas were retained although Wilson was later hired to revise the script, in part because Serling’s script reproduced Boulle’s concept of a sophisticated ape society, which would have been too expensive to film. Wilson’s revisions strengthened the project overall, however, in part because he found clever ways to dovetail the mercenary needs of budget with the conceptual grafts Serling had made to Boulle’s basis. Charlton Heston, looking to escape the treadmill of outsized historical epics he had become synonymous with, became interested in the project, and he recommended Schaffner to helm it, as he had directed Heston in the sober, dramatically intimate medieval tale The War Lord (1965). Schaffner had served in World War II and was an unlikely filmmaker to appeal to the counterculture-inflected pop culture of the era. But his fascination and affinity with characters violently at odds with a greater society was another factor that allowed him to put Planet of the Apes across to the crowd. Most of his subsequent films revolve around prickly protagonists who have become detached from civilisation around them due to a blend of both exterior hostility and interior rebellion, and who are left trying to knit together their identity and sense of meaning in the face of ruination.

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In Planet of the Apes, Taylor (Heston) perfectly exemplifies this figure, a misanthrope who ponders at the outset whether “Man still makes war upon his brother” and who ventures into space in search of “something better than Man.” A prologue strikes a meditative, even dreamy note, as Taylor prepares for his great trip, that is, about to enter cryogenic stasis to sleep away his craft’s long voyage through space, along with three other astronauts, Landon (Robert Gunner), Dodge (Jeff Burton), and Stewart (Dianne Stanley). “Time bends,” Taylor notes: “Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely.” Taylor, as we learn in good time, is a man both at odds with his world, his species, his nature, and an apt representative of such; his reaction against a universe that weighs upon identity and a rival species that denies it is to kick back with ripe arrogance, all the traits he condemned coming out with instinctive readiness. The space voyage, unfolding behind credits in pulses of energy and colour, betrays an impulse identical to that shared by 1968 brethren 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barbarella, in conflating space travel with psychedelic voyaging. Here it’s most explicitly treated as a trip into the self, to emerge in what Taylor will eventually call a madhouse. The astronauts have been sent out to colonise the stars with their mobile, in-the-name-of-science orgy: “She was to be the new Eve,” Taylor later states, “With our hot and eager help of course.”

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Awakening is rude indeed. The spaceship plunges into the atmosphere of whatever planet it’s stumbled upon in its wanderings, and crash-lands in a lake, in the heart of a desolately beautiful landscape. Stewart is dead, a withered corpse thanks to a crack in her cryogenic capsule: the sight of her ghastly remains is accompanied with a weird screeching sound, and for a split second we’re in one of Roger Corman’s Poe films, the encased body of the departed feminine emitting a creepy memento mori. But the sound proves to actually be a different malediction, as seals fail and the lake water comes pouring in: the oneiric is invoked only to be displaced by the palpable. The three men paddle ashore after watching their last link to the world they’ve left sink, and begin a trek across lifeless and barren surrounds. Taylor is quietly exultant to be at loose in the great unknown and teases the all-American Landon, whilst Dodge “would walk naked into a live volcano if thought he could learn something no other man knew.” Eventually the men encounter a beautiful totem, a single growing plant, close to where menacing scarecrow-like figures have been set up, confirming something intelligent lives on the planet and wants to defend it domain. The astronauts enter the fringe of a verdant tropical area that might as well be Eden. Eden has its inhabitants, wild, harmless-seeming, mute humans who steal the astronauts’ clothes as they bathe. “If this is the best they’ve got around here, in six months we’ll be running this planet,” Taylor announces.

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Famous last words. The humans stand still and listen as if alerted with some preternatural instinct. A strange and terrible sound echoes out of the underbrush. A wild and violent hunt begins. The hunt sequence is a masterful bit of cinema, tying together the graphic clarity of Leon Shamroy’s photography, Hugh S. Fowler’s editing, Jerry Goldsmith’s percussive, jangling scoring, and Schaffner’s shaping. The first half-hour’s general air of ambling mystery and punch-drunk discovery, where the framing of the three survivors often sees them threatening to ossify into the landscape of jagged stone like Tolkien’s trolls, gives way to a sudden assault of precise violence and surging threat: the shock of fight-or-flight necessity gives new, ironic potency to the question of survival where before the trio of discoveries barely knew whether it was worthwhile staying alive. The sequence builds to its big reveal, the sight of an anthropomorphic gorilla riding on horseback, armed with a gun, captured in a zoom shot reproducing Taylor’s viewpoint with both a sense of conveyed shock as well as iconic exactitude. Dodge is shot dead, Landon hauled away in a net, and Taylor shot in the neck. “Smile!” one of the gorillas tells his fellows in the hunt as they pose for a photo, provoking ironic laughter as the inversion is complete, the dead humans trophies for smugly triumphant hunters. Taylor’s bedraggled shorts, made of strange material, attracts assessing eyes, saving him from the usual fate of captive human specimens: gruff, workaday doctor Galen (Wright King) saves his life by giving him a transfusion from a human female, at the request of inquisitive scientist Zira (Kim Hunter).

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Part of the success of Planet of the Apes, in terms of audience appeal, lies in its familiar aspects. High-minded notions and stinging satirical ideas are grafted on a narrative that has obvious affinities with any number of exotic adventure tales by the likes of H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. A heroic explorer is plunged into a strange land and tormented, and must survive with his wits and forge alliances to survive. Many such stories already had a faint through-a-glass-darkly qualities as they zeroed in on fantastically framed metaphors for social structures, with heroes who encounter fanatical high priests or swaggering warmongers, often in a way that caricatured “primitive” civilisations being encountered by imperial colonisers but which also attempted to comprehend the similarities and often arbitrary differentiations between different societies’ ways of knowing. Planet of the Apes satisfies on the basic level even as it tries to be more rigorous and overt in presenting the ape society as a mocking mirror of familiar things. This is partly justified by the way the ape society is defined on a most fundamental level entirely by reaction.

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Planet of the Apes has an evident basis in a very European style of satirical comedy, one that revels in perversions of social practices and expectations: there is, for instance, a certain similarity in effect to Luis Bunuel’s surrealist comedies where a bourgeois family might invert habits of eating and defecating, or the tradition of Rabelais where priestly orders could be founded to explore sin in all its most delightfully vulgar dimensions. Serling and Wilson’s revisions and Schaffner’s visualisations didn’t just make the tale more cinematic and popular, however, but also repositioned it in a more distinctly American tradition. Indeed, they helped create perhaps the best-known and popular version of a theme that had been explored in Thomas Cole’s “Course of Empire” series of paintings which depicted the rise of a society from aboriginal hut dwellers to high civilisation to decaying, shattered ruins. Cole helped defined a peculiar brand of morbidly ecstatic fascination with the notion that national greatness was a finite thing, a state of mind that dogs the American political imagination (tellingly, the film’s sequels extended the Americanisation by rendering them more and clearly as parables for race). Planet of the Apes hit upon a narrative structure that allowed all stages to be seen at once: the prelapsarian simplicity of the humans, the inquisitive, Aristotelian minds of Zira and her husband Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), the hypocritical self-righteousness and stolidity of most of the mature ape society, and the mocking, burned-out husk of the old world Taylor stumbles upon, that singular, crystallising image which makes sense of everything that has come before.

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The ape society is explored in quick, deft strokes, but solidifies to the point where it quickly begins to feel intimately familiar, in its prejudices, its outlook, its wilful blind spots and its sophistications. The apes are defined by a general blend of accomplishment and strange lacks – the apes are superlative at surgery and ballistics but believe flight impossible and maintain intense taboos, like their avoidance of the wasteland the astronauts landed in, which the apes call the Forbidden Zone, ostensibly because of its desolateness but also because the bones of the past poke out of the ground there. Their chief scientist, Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans), is also their “Defender of the Faith,” a priestly enforcer of orthodoxy. The apes’ stature as cruel masters of the apparently simple and harmlessly devolved humans is not just reflexive arrogance but an official aspect of their communal identity, defined by their legendary Lawgiver who handed down his Sacred Scrolls, filled with imprecations against man and unhealthy forms of knowledge. Cornelius, an archaeologist, is already flirting with blasphemy when he’s confronted with Taylor, as his ventures into the Forbidden Zone to make exploratory digs have turned up the remains of an advanced civilisation filled with to obscure relics. When Taylor finally sees these, he recognises the craftsmanship of his own species, defined by both its arts and its weaknesses. One of the film’s longest, drollest sequences sees Taylor, Zira, and Cornelius hauled before a panel of officials, all staffed by pompously mandarin orang-utans including Zaius and a chairman (James Whitmore) who orders Taylor gagged when he tries to explain himself.

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Sequences in which the apes use both overt physical brutality and a battery of cultural and linguistic cudgels, like the extended use of circular logic from a state prosecutor, to keep Taylor silent reveal the film as still razor-sharp in analysing and depicting the manner in which hegemonies are enforced over subaltern voices, and closed loops of pseudo-logic wielded to dismiss disturbances to them. The scene’s punch-line, improvised by Schaffner on set, sees the orang-utan adjudicators reproducing the proverbial figuration of the three monkeys who hear, speak, and see no evil. Taylor suffers for some time before he can even compel his captors to that degree, as his injury leaves him mute for a time, trying to communicate with Zira, who dubs him “Bright Eyes” for his eager, communicative expressions. Taylor’s efforts to establish contact include writing his name in the sand when he’s jammed into an exterior pen, only for his fellow humans to foil him in their clueless mimicry and ready violence. Zaius completes the act by erasing a remaining portion of Taylor’s words, a clear signal that he knows a lot more about Taylor and what he represents than he’s letting on. Zaius, nimbly played by Evans, plays Grand Inquisitor protecting his kind from transgressing in the same ways that humans have, when they progressed out of what Cole called the “Arcadian or Pastoral State” stage of civilisation, the one considered ideal by many Enlightenment thinkers. The Lawgiver stands as a Moses figure wielding stern and intractable laws, although the film’s sequels would eventually circle around to a point where Cornelius and Zira’s son Caesar would emerge first as a Maccabee and then as a Christ figure, embodying the chance of reconciliation and evolution, and also the eternal pain of the idealist before the persistence of base instinct.

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Cornelius and Zira are two of the best-realised characters in sci-fi cinema and one of the most appealing couples in movies in general, with McDowall and Hunter ingeniously projecting enough intelligence, humour, and foibles onto their characters to render them more human than human. Many kids who love this film, like myself back when, perhaps did so because they’re almost a perfect concept of what you hope your parents might be like – open, eternally curious, loving and, whilst hardly unafraid of the expectations of the world beyond, nonetheless finally sufficient unto themselves in their convictions and will. They appeal through their curiosity, their openness to where thought and experience lead them, their familiarity as a loving couple – constantly bickering and yet gripping each-other’s hands in moments of fate – and as individuals facing severe crises in facing breaks with their society. Zira is the more intransigent of the pair, the bolder, the one whose outspokenness Cornelius is compelled to try and dampen down: they’re conceived as a pair of young campus academicians where the wife’s attraction to radical causes is counterbalanced by the husband’s circumspection. His very reasonable anxiety gains political inferences as they’re both faced with punishment for taking their mutual discoveries to logical conclusions, evoking both the bygone days of religious heresy tribunals and the much more recent phenomena of McCarthyism. Cornelius is both a bold and visionary being in his field but also one with a notably timorous anxiety, an awareness of how one wrong word or gesture could trash his and Zira’s future together.

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Speech is a afforded status as a weapon of power and identity with singular force in the film: Taylor’s famously outraged cry as he dangles in a net, “Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”, are his first since being taken prisoner. The cry shocks and astounds his captors and rocks the very presumptions their world is based on to their foundations, and similar moments resounded through the follow-ups, like Nova crying out Taylor’s name, suggesting when it’s already too late that humans can rise again from their waned and pathetic state, and Cornelius recounting the fateful moment when an ape slave emitted the word “No” to his human masters. Taylor forms an attachment with the human woman whose blood he received when Galen saved his life, dubbing her Nova (Linda Harrison). Nova is a mute and uncomprehending yet expressive being, fluidic in her in reactive empathy. Confronted by the unexpected annoyance of a man of her species speaking, she presses her fingers to his lips. Of course, power is measured by more direct scales too. Taylor is beaten, netted, shackled, stripped. His understandable response is nonetheless tinged with aspects of hypocrisy, as he takes Zaius captive and painfully binds him, stoking protest from Zira and Cornelius, on the grounds that Taylor was assumed to be inferior whereas Taylor knows well Zaius is a very intelligent being. Then again, real hate and real contempt can only be evinced between the intelligent, and Taylor knows something Cornelius and Zira do not, that Zaius knew well what he was, and did not care.

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When he manages to stage a breakout from the holding pens, Schaffner uses the ensuing chase scene not just to give the film’s long middle act a jolt of action, but also to give further insight into the ape society, as Taylor crashes a funeral for “an ape to remember” and eludes pursuers in the halls of a museum where stuffed humans are set up in illustrative dioramas, and Dodge’s body is now one of the exhibits. The style of the ape city conflates Mediterranean city-state acropolis and adobe architecture, suggesting a sophisticated, intimate society that has remained purposefully close to roots in natural forms, and Schaffner’s camera explores it with dynamism, dollying and weaving its way along with his actors through columned spaces and striking vertiginous angles in observing the frantic tussles of bodies, human and ape. Part of the success of Planet of the Apes, of course, stemmed from the groundbreaking prosthetic makeup created by John Chambers. Where Kubrick’s labours on 2001: A Space Odyssey invented a newly convincing argot for portraying space travel, Chambers managed something similar on a far more intimate scale, creating a convincing non-human set of characters that nonetheless allowed the actors to mediate and transform their performances: although today the media has advanced to the point where the makeup looks a bit rubbery in blu-ray prints, it’s still invaluable in creating the context of this illusion, the feeling that Zira, Cornelius, Zaius and the rest are real and palpable beings.

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Schaffner’s work on Planet of the Apes vaulted him into Hollywood’s upper echelons. After making the interesting if facile political study The Best Man (1964), a film that might have earmarked Schaffner for a career similar to John Frankenheimer’s, Schaffner revealed here a great eye and talent for evoking space and scale on the cinema screen that soon earned him comparisons to David Lean, although his approach to dramatic essentials remained rather more conventional. His 1970 Best Picture champ Patton (1970) is dotted with moments of raw visual power achieved with fearlessly wielded big movie infrastructure, but more often feels like the kind of TV play Schaffner had begun his career making, greatly inflated. Soon he was helming big-budget epics like the unwieldy Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and Papillon (1973), which rivals Planet of the Apes as his best film. Schaffner’s stature as a maker of big-budget epics and studio flagship films during an unsettled, rambunctiously creative era in Hollywood earned him a critical lethargy that’s never really dispelled, and it is true he settled into making entertaining but heavy-footed prestige pictures like his academic take on Islands in the Stream (1976) and the fun but lumpy thrillers The Boys From Brazil (1978) and Sphinx (1980).

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And yet Schaffner earned his stature marrying the lightest edge of New Wave-era and pop art-influenced optical inventiveness to the familiar, architectural solidity and straightforwardness of big-budget Hollywood film on Planet of the Apes. This is evident in its opening scenes, with visions of deep space and time travel expostulated through vaguely trippy light and colour effects, a crash-landing that’s depicted in a series of dizzying, spiralling, point-of-view shots, and of course the very last shot, an encapsulating visual ideogram that functions as a perfect pop-art emblem. Something of the same spirit is also visible in Patton’s famous opening with its hero presented as a free-floating placard before a colossal American flag. Schaffner’s energetic camerawork here is another plus, like the spectacular helicopter shots that punctuate the crash scene, wheeling away from the downed spaceship as it sinks into the lake, its metal hull a glistening obelisk of manufactured beauty in the midst of a red, rugged landscape of great rock forms, an image that locates the nexus between the western, as Schaffner evokes John Ford’s vistas, and sci-fi. The film’s connection with the western genre, just beginning to wane at the time precisely because the revisionist urge taking hold of academia and culture creators was starting to press some uncomfortable points in the genre’s basic appeal, is an aspect of Planet of the Apes signalled in Schaffner’s annexation of Ford’s landscapes. In keeping with the film’s cinematic translation of Cole into genre film terms, Planet of the Apes portrays what could be called a radical decolonisation of the American landscape, delivering it up to the apes who, as the series continued, became a catch-all metaphoric emblem, ranging from Catholic dogmatists to black power militants.

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The casting of Heston as Taylor was one of the film’s great coups, and not just because as a big, strong, intelligent actor he could retain bristling force even when his character is voiceless and unclothed. Heston brought with him a strong association with a squarer genre of film he was trying to get out of. By this time in his career every step he took carried with it the memory of Moses and Judah Ben-Hur and El Cid, titanic protagonists who stood as interlocutors between the human and divine and the individual and the historic. Heston had been trying to work his way around this image, playing a very ordinary man caught up in big events in 55 Days in Peking (1963) and crumbling he-man in Major Dundee (1965). But none of those roles quite played on it as deftly and cruelly as Planet of the Apes, where Taylor is eventually compelled to see his own powerless triviality in the face of biblical-scale evidence of Armageddon and reapportioning of Creation. Taylor’s swaggering arrogance at the outset stems not from certainty that he’s a fit representative of a noble race but rather his status as self-appointed rebel and critic. It requires being treated like chattel to move him to defend his species: “He was here before you – and he was better than you!” he accosts Zaius as they explore the relics of the old civilisation – only then to be forced to behold just how right he was at first, victim of a cosmic-scale joke. Taylor’s various eruptions of rage, including his climactic bellow of “Damn you all to hell!”, hinge upon Heston’s ability to play great twisted masses of muscle and emotion right out of a Michelangelo painting. Heston had just played Michelangelo, in Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1966), and several scenes here almost play as parodies of that film and Ben-Hur (1959). Where the great artist travelled out alone into the landscape in Reed’s film and saw the elements of his great artistic parable etched out in the sky, communicating divine will to a translator Genesis, here Taylor beholds rather the wreckage of his own civilisation, the rescinded will and proof of his own, perfect impotence.

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The Planet of the Apes series stands out as perhaps the most pointedly and thoroughly misanthropic major sci-fi property proffered by a major Hollywood film studio. The series was driven along by the conviction that humankind is doomed not merely to destroy itself but then repeat its mistakes when given the chance to avoid them, whilst the apes are our possibly, morally superior inheritors, but still evince the same grim traits even after all efforts to suppress and retard them. Although the series eventually circled around to a point of ambiguous optimism, the problems of will to power are diagnosed as the true original sin, something generations and species try to claw out of their makeup without sure success. The series leavened the bitterness by several means. The apes are usually attractive in their ability to seem both rather cute and nobly charismatic even when they’re being obnoxious or destructive, whilst the first film in particular offers a lot of humour. The more self-conscious comedy injected into the script, with dialogue like “Human see, human do,” and introducing Zira’s hippie nephew Lucius (Lou Wagner), who throws out lines like, “You can’t trust the older generation!” and “Beards? I don’t go in for fads,” was reportedly provided by uncredited writer John T. Kelley. These supply the film with a self-lampooning edge, and although it nudges it towards flippancy now and then, it might well have helped to sell it to a mass audience in taking care of the humour value inherent in the storyline on the film’s own terms, as well as giving the film extra appeal to the young audience of 1968. Superior jots of humour come more from the fruitful coincidence of character and situation, as with Zira’s admission that Taylor is “so damn ugly” before allowing him to kiss her in gratitude – and the hiss of jealousy Cornelius gives as they do. Or my favourite off-hand moment, the ape priest officiating at the funeral Taylor crashes, left staggering in bewilderment as all hell breaks loose in the midst of a solemn ceremony.

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The darker aspects of the tale are hardly obscured. Humans are ruthlessly slaughtered, vivisected, and grotesquely maimed by the apes. Even kindly Zira makes a living cutting up specimens, her humanitarian interests placed nonetheless at the service of a genocide-minded, theologically-justified state program. Taylor is appalled when he finds Landon has been rendered an idiot by Zaius’ brain surgery, a deft move by the Chief Scientist and Defender of the Faith to get rid of a troubling specimen after another makes himself known to the whole city. Taylor himself is aware his attraction to Nova could be considered something close to bestiality as he tries to puzzle out just how awareness is left in his species (“Do you love, I wonder? Can you love?”), whilst his caging and separation from Nova, the closest thing he has nonetheless to a companion, wickedly reproduces the state of general alienation (“Lots of lovemaking, no love.”) that is his recollection of his own world. Zaius is at once aggravating in his stiff-necked self-righteousness and magnetic in his assured authority, thanks in large part to Evans’ canny performance. The upshot of the entire storyline eventually demonstrates that he is, if not right, then operating from a very reasonable point of view: there really is good cause for the apes to fear humans, to maintain a regime of wilfully repressed knowledge in the fear that one day apes will follow in their footsteps, like a medieval theocrat frightened of what new fields of horror new worlds and new ideas will open up.

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Taylor helps Cornelius and Zira prove their notion that the planet was inhabited by a human civilisation before apes as they flee authority and enter the Forbidden Zone’s wastes, pursued by Zaius and his gun-wielding fellows. He even manages to outwit Zaius and use him as leverage to ensure his own escape. But Zaius calmly reclaims authority and condemns his young colleagues to trial and disgrace anyway, in the belief that he might just be saving their future. Meanwhile Taylor rides away with Nova into the sunset, only to be confronted a great, rusted, blasted hunk of metal that mocks everything he’s done: the Statue of Liberty jutting from the beach sand. This was hardly the first time such an image had been deployed, but it still wields incredible power thanks to the way Schaffner deploys it, leaving it until the very last shot until just what has humiliated Taylor so vividly is seen, and seen, tellingly, through Nova’s blank, estranged gaze, before the fade-out comes with only the sound of breaking waves playing on the soundtrack, evoking one of those counterculture-era albums where the band mockingly remains silent “on the anniversary of World War III.” It’s one of those rare twists that makes perfect sense of what has been seen before – really, Taylor was pretty thick not to realise it before – and also an improvement on Boulle’s ending, an ending which Burton restored to his remake only to be met with dim stares of bemusement.

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In the days before franchising became so common in moviemaking, Planet of the Apes spawned a string of sequels fuelled by a fervent fan base. The first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), takes up where the first film ends. Although entirely watchable, the whole project has a rushed and clumsy feel, as if the film was shot before anyone thought it out properly, whilst Ted Post’s direction lacked personality. The episode’s best aspect was its most novel, offering a society of terribly scarred, psychic human mutants who live in the ruins of old New York and whose literal worship of the atomic bomb presented a clever tweak on the apes’ abhorring theology. Heston’s limited involvement saw James Franciscus cast as Brent, a bland fill-in for much of the running time, and Cornelius and Zira only feature briefly (with David Watson filling in for the absent McDowall). The nihilistic climax has a certain aptness in taking the series’ themes to their grimmest possible consummation, whilst restaging the end of Bridge on the River Kwai on an apocalyptic scale, as Taylor avenges the murdered Nova and Brent and dies cursing Zaius by igniting the mutants’ cherished doomsday bomb. This conclusion also took to a limit the apocalyptic note found in immediate precursor films of the age like The Wild Bunch and Castle Keep (both 1969). But it all plays out in a rushed, impatient manner, like the production ran out of time and money, and the filmmakers just decided to kill everyone, whilst the ban-the-bomb motif swallowed up all dramatic and satiric nuances.

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The third episode, Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971), was faced with the unenviable task of giving the series new life. The British screenwriter Paul Dehn, who had written Beneath…, brought something of the British sci-fi tradition with its distinctive fascination for social dynamics to the series, and he managed to extend it through the clever ruse of having Cornelius (played again by McDowall) and Zira revealed to have escaped the Earth’s destruction thanks to a fellow savant, Milo (Sal Mineo), who found and repaired Taylor’s spaceship, and accidentally travel back in time to the human age. Competently directed by former actor Don Taylor, Escape… is good fun as it observes the impact of the two simian harbingers upon 1970s Earth society, with great jokes like Zira finding accord with feminists, and Eric Braeden’s villain mirrors Zaius in his conscientious but covertly hysterical choice to perform monstrous acts. The film turns tragic as the beloved couple are murdered in the name of heading off ape dominance, although the impact is blunted by the rather predictable way it all plays out, in an entry that fails to wield anything like the conceptual breadth of the first two entries. The final reveal that their infant son Milo has found haven with a kindly circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) opened the door for a fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), which saw hardy old pro J. Lee Thompson take over as director and bring some real muscularity to proceedings, and Dehn filled out a scenario sketched out in the previous film describing how apes came to be first domesticated, enslaved, and then quickly evolve into thinking beings and begin revolting.

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Although lacking the furtive wit of the earlier movies, Conquest… proves perhaps the ballsiest and the most urgent: Thompson’s energetic direction subversively recreated news footage of urban riot and revolt and links it justified rage over the legacy of slavery and oppression. The now-grown Milo (also played by McDowall) rechristens himself Caesar and leads his fellows in insurrection after Armando is killed by an increasingly fascistic state. A reshot finale took some of the edge off, but did again allow a fifth episode to be made. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) is set after war has devastated the old human cities: now Caesar oversees an uneasy cooperative commune peopled by both apes and put-upon humans. As thuggish gorilla warrior Aldo (Claude Akins) stirs up prejudice and conflict, a gang of armed, radiation-scarred human survivors attacks the commune, sparking a fight that feels, very appropriately, like an attempt to portray the last war of history as looking a lot like the first, a tribal squabble fought with any weapon at hand. This under-budgeted entry tries to ply an okay script in the face of a scrappy production, with a rushed climax. The grand narrative ends on a note of tentative optimism, as Aldo’s carnage convinces Caesar that apes share the same dark heart as humans, denying any species’ exceptionalism. Centuries later, the Lawgiver (John Huston) is seen speaking to an audience of both species, suggesting that the timeline has been successfully deviated. But the ultimate weapon still lies in the hands of the mutants (as shown in an initially excised, later restored scene), and the last shot depicts Caesar’s venerated bust releasing a solitary tear, in fear the warlike impulse will never be entirely extinguished. This very capstone to the series is a bit corny, but does finally annex the metaphysical zone the series had long evoked. Whilst the individual entries were certainly uneven, as a whole the Planet of the Apes series still stands as near-unique in mainstream sci-fi cinema, as a cycle that stood assured on very human foundations whilst following its ideas through with weirdness, toughness, and intelligence.

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