Film Review: “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” (1971)

Since I’ve already written reviews of the first two Planet of the Apes films, I thought I would keep things going by jotting down some of my thoughts on the third installment, Escape from Planet of the Apes. In this film, Cornelius and Zira (Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter) have managed to escape the conflagration that consumed Earth in the previous film, along with the genius chimpanzee scientist Milo (Sal Mineo, in one of his final film roles). They crash land on the Earth of Taylor’s time, and once there they are taken into custody by the U.S. government, setting in motion a chain of events that will have tragic consequences for everyone involved.

For better or worse, Escape from the Planet of the Apes has always been my least favourite of the original Apes films. Part of this has to do with the very comedic element that suffuses the majority of the film. While this has always struck me as somewhat odd (given the somber, even bleak tone of the preceding films), it’s only fair to acknowledge that some of the film is actually quite funny. For example, in a tense scene in a courtroom in which the two apes are being interrogated, Cornelius is asked, obliquely, whether he can speak. With a delivery that could only come from McDowall, he says, “Only when she lets me.” It usefully breaks the tension, but it also sets the stage for the tragedy that gradually unfolds.

In keeping with its predecessors in the franchise, the film does ask some troubling philosophical questions. During a heated debate between Dr. Hasslein and the U.S. President,  the latter expresses the belief that perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all if apes displaced humans as the dominant species. After all, he points out, humans haven’t done such a great job as stewards of their own planet and besides, perhaps it is beyond the ability of humankind, even the (arguably) most powerful man in the world, to prevent the workings of fate. Hasslein, of course, remains unconvinced and it is his belief–which the film encourages us to understand as sincere–that leads to his unrelenting pursuit of the talking apes who represent, for him, the extinction of the human race and all it holds dear.

There are a number of other things that I always enjoy about this film. One is Armando, portrayed by the inimitable Ricardo Montalban, the owner of a circus that shields Cornelius and Zira from the avenging government agents out to sterilize them and abort their offspring. He also, it turns out, shelters their children, ensuring that the very future Hasslein fears with such panicked intensity will come to pass.

For me, though, the most powerful thing about this film is its tragic ending, in which both Zira and Cornelius are murdered by humans, the final shot of the film taken from overhead, capturing their last embrace. It’s a heart-wrenching end to the film, especially that we have been with these characters through two previous installments. It also serves as a brutal reminder of the cruelties of which man continues to prove himself utterly capable.

Though somewhat marred by its tendency toward silliness and comedy, the third installment in the venerable Apes franchise does, nevertheless, manage to set the stage for the struggle that will eventually lead to man’s self-immolation and his supplanting by the apes that he will ultimately seek to enslave and bend to his will. The irony, of course, is that Hasslein’s relentless pursuit of Zira and Cornelius is itself the manifestation of mankind’s relentless desire to dominate and control both his fellow creatures and his own future, two forces that always seem to find some way to confound those very desires.

Like the other Apes films, Escape suggests that human (and, I would say, ape) agency remains caught up in a double-bind of its own creation. In attempting to prevent the future from happening, the various humans and apes who try to forestall the day of their doom end up hastening its arrival. It’s a rather bleak understanding of the way the world works, but one entirely in keeping with the angsty nuclear age that produced it.

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