The Great Apes

With the release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes last week, I decided to mark the occasion by watching three ‘ape’ movies from my DVD collection.

Gorillas in the Mist (1988)

I haven’t seen this since I caught it at the cinema on release. Based on a true story, Sigourney Weaver excels in the role of Dian Fossey, who abandons her life back in the USA to go and live up a mountain in Rwanda and keep track of the local gorilla population. It’s a decision that costs her both love and eventually her life, but if the depiction here is correct not one that caused her much regret.

The scenery is beautifully shot, so that you can see why Fossey might fall in love with Africa despite the lack of home comforts, while the depiction of the gorillas, a blend of live action and actors in gorilla costumes, was magnificently done. Fossey is fearless in dealing with gorillas, getting close enough for them to touch and becoming one of the tribe in all but species. She comes to care deeply about them, with her original stay of six months becoming an open ended one, and the desire to protect them bringing her into conflict with native poachers and sometimes the local authorities. A romantic interlude with photographer Bryan Brown shows a soft side to the character and reminds us that she is still human, but this is not an entirely flattering portrayal with scenes that hint at an obsessive, tunnel vision type of personality, whose actions can hurt others as a result of ‘the end justifies the means’ style convictions, and with a strong suggestion that her mental health was not of the best. My only scruple is that the film didn’t really give us her initial motivation – why does a woman with marriage and a promising academic career ahead of her, suddenly abandon all that to go and live with gorillas? I’m sure she had good reasons, but this film didn’t pin them down for me.

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)

Before Ms Fossey made cohabiting with apes fashionable, there was of course the iconic figure of Tarzan, whose adventures as chronicled by Edgar Rice Burroughs and depicted onscreen by the likes of Johnny Weissmuller and Ron Eli were a staple of my childhood.

This film makes a valiant effort to be faithful to the source material, with its account of how the child John Clayton, the descendant of a Scottish Earl, ended up in Africa and came to be raised by apes. It is the quintessential depiction of the feral child, with John at first on the lowest rung of the ladder and then, through his human ingenuity, coming to dominate the ape tribe (there’s most definitely a species one-upmanship vibe going on here). However, he doesn’t fare quite so well upon return to human society, where the rules are somewhat more complex.

Again, this is a beautifully shot film, though in this case I’d say that the Scottish landscape is every bit as appealing if not more so than that of Africa (and one or two scenes on the Dark Continent appear slightly artificial). Christopher Lambert is compelling in the role of Tarzan, the epitome of the noble savage prototype. He prospers among the apes, where the rules are simple and he knows what is expected of him, but back ‘home’ he is the proverbial square peg in a round hole. Human values are different to those he has known, and John can’t adjust, his dilemma personified in the plight of the ape he regards as a father, imprisoned in a cage and shot when he escapes because humans are scared of him (compare this to the genuine feelings of regret and circumstantial pomp that surrounds the demise of Clayton’s human grandfather). The film compares life in the wild with life in society, and the latter is found wanting in terms of common sympathy and compassion, of simple honesty, even if the argument is somewhat skewed to get this result. Clayton judges us and finds us wanting, returning to the jungle where he can truly be himself, the self that Africa and the apes have made him.

King Kong (2005)

Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the greatest ape story of them all, and you could make a case for this being the anti-Tarzan story, with an ape brought back to civilisation and it finding him wanting. On Skull Island Kong is lord of all he surveys, but taken out of his natural environment he’s just another way for the shysters to make a quick buck, and the only freedom open to him is that of the grave. Beauty may have killed the beast, but the real monster here is Jack Black’s Carl Denham, who sees the wonder of the world only in terms of what it can do to forward his career and increase his fortune (putting him on equal footing with the corporate suits he claims to despise).

All but a minute off three hours, the film is far too long. Some of the opening scenes could have been cut with no loss to the film’s sense, and there is too much faffing about once we reach Skull Island, as if everybody on the sfx team had to do a cameo. I could have done without the instant love affair between Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow and Adrien Brody’s Jack Driscoll, even if it was nice to see the writer get the girl for once, albeit only when his strong, dark and not so silent rival is done away with. And the whole thing is shamelessly awash in sentimentality.

For all that though, the film has an undeniable power. As visual spectacle it succeeds superbly, but more importantly it taps into archetypal imagery and mythic story forms to tell us something about the world and our need to drag things down to our level. Images of Kong looking bemused by Darrow’s song and dance routine, of Kong fighting the dinosaurs to save her, of Kong brought low and put in chains by human treachery, of Kong on top of the world and swatting the planes that annoy him as if they were no more than gnats, of dead Kong in a New York street like so much garbage, will linger in the mind long after the sentimentality is forgotten. Ultimately Kong is the modern world’s equivalent of the Harvest King, a young god sacrificed on the altar of commerce so that the profit margins continue to rise, and being cynical I could just as easily be talking here about Hollywood’s urge to scrape another buck by endlessly recycling old material.

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