This article contains SPOILERS for the forthcoming “War for the Planet of the Apes.” You can’t read this article then come fling poo at me later. You have been warned.
Let my people go… ape?
The “Planet of the Apes” films have always been about surprises. With a title that sounded like Samuel Z. Arkoff-level schlock, the first “Apes” picture from 1968 threw audiences for a curve as a richer-than-expected parable on racial prejudice. Then, that shocking moment — shirtless Charlton Heston realizing it was Earth all along, and cursing his own species. “Damn you all to hell!” the one-time Moses shouted in the surf, one of the greatest “aha!” moments in cinema.
Now, four sequels, a few TV series, some cartoons, untold comic books, a film reboot, a second film reboot and two sequels later, this new series wraps up with a different Moses in mind — in a very literal way. The new “Apes,” starting with the clever “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011) and the quite enthralling “Dawn of the Plane of the Apes” (2014) has made a monkey out of us, the Jewish People.
This isn’t a pejorative, though. There’s always been nuance in these stories, but in this latest iteration the apes are unequivocally the good guys, particularly the ones following the chimpanzee named (ironically enough) Caesar. But as the apes (and the story) have evolved, this newest chapter codes our persecuted recurring characters as Jews. This isn’t just me seeing Semitic simians where none exist, it is very much in the text.
One can drop into this newest film without having seen the others. All you need to know is that “smart apes” were created by an act of hubris, it led to a virus that decimated much of mankind and the surviving humans along with the growing number of apes became distrustful until war broke out. Armed humans now hunt apes, hoping to eradicate them from the planet, even as their own society is falling apart.
The ape leader (Caesar, a chimp respected not just by his own kind, but by the more sensualist orangutans and bellicose gorillas) is something of an ape Zionist yearning for peace through separation. He and his family talk of a promised land in the desert.
With the added Jewish texture of this latest film, one can read Caesar’s battle against the militant Koba in “Dawn” as apekind’s own Altalena Affair. Menachem Begin later reflected on the incident under the rubric “Civil War? Never.” This film has a similarly curt expression: “Ape not kill ape.”
But there’s trouble on the way to the land of bananas and honey. Our forward guard, on a mission of revenge, stumbles upon a great simian concentration camp. The establishing shots deliberately mimic every Holocaust movie’s first view of Auschwitz. Children and adults are separated, and the able-bodied are put to work. Woody Harrelson plays the maniacal Colonel, modeled somewhat on “Apocalypse Now”’s Colonel Kurtz (and that movie certainly exists in this world, as someone has scrawled Apepocalypse Now! in the compound), but images of Harrelson looming over the camp are reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Göth.
As the apes toil we get a good view at the camp’s Sonnderkommandos, the gorillas collaborating with the humans on the promise of food and good treatment. (They are called “donkeys” which is probably a reference to the video game “Donkey Kong,” a good example of how these movies feel very “lived-in.”)
After much scheming our good guys finally get out (alternate title “The Great Apescape”) and that’s when the film shifts from Holocaust parable to Bible tale. The apes get the biggest natural deus ex machina this side of the parting of the Red Sea. The effect is the same: the enslavers are buried beneath righteousness’ wrath and our people have been released.
After much schlepping, the apes arrive in their fertile rift. But Caesar, the Deliverer, can not enter. He has been mortally wounded, and as he sits on a hill watching his children at play, he dies knowing that his life’s work will be remembered.
Here’s where writers Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves start double-fisting. Their Moses character is also bleeding from his sides and is cradled in a Pietà pose by his nurturing orangutan pal. Can someone be a symbol for two of humankind’s most famous Jews? I guess when you are a talking chimpanzee you can do anything.
And that’s what’s so remarkable about this film and the “Apes” stories in general. These are movies about gorillas who ride horses that feel, at first blush, like kiddie fare. And yet, once you take the step to suspend your disbelief, this is one of the sharpest franchises about the human condition. (FYI: 1972’s “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” has long been read as a story about Malcolm X.)
By echoing “Exodus” (both the Torah’s and Leon Uris’) we’ve got an insightful look into the Jewish experience lurking beneath all that fur.