In a society as free as ours, only artists are allowed to speak honestly. Today it’s the comics who are arguably the most honest, if not the most truthful, though they’re still required to couch their social criticism in punchlines. (“In risu veritas,” as Joyce put it.) Movies, on the other hand, have always been understood as disguised commentaries on life, often contemporary life; the same goes for the theater, fountainhead of screens both silver and small.
Ancient Athenians saw their leading figures as well as themselves in the satirical plays of Aristophanes, just as theatergoers attending the premiere of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in 1953 couldn’t help but notice Judge John Hathorne’s resemblance to a certain junior senator from Wisconsin. Audiences in 1936 knew what Charlie Chaplin was saying when he had The Tramp run through the gears of a massive machine in Modern Times. Likewise, moviegoers in 2012 detected an anti-Occupy message in the final installment of the Dark Knight trilogy, forcing director Christopher Nolan to deny any veiled political message.
To this day it’s widely believed, though largely unsubstantiated, that Dr. King’s assassin had watched the original Planet of the Apes, which premiered the day before James Earl Ray shot the civil rights leader down in 1968 — a theory reaffirmed as recently as Chris Rock’s 2014 comedy Top Five. A movie about a future Earth where the human race has been conquered by evolved apes struck a chord amidst the racial turmoil of late-sixties America for obvious reasons. “Planet of the Apes debuted during the most turbulent year of the postwar period,” writes Robert Fleegler in a review of 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
The  film is replete with allusions to major events of the 1960s and the period’s race relations in particular. After the ruling apes take Taylor [the protagonist] prisoner, a gorilla uses a fire hose on him much the way Bull Connor and the Birmingham police used fire hoses against civil rights protesters in the spring of 1963.
The new millennium has witnessed a shift in the Apes morality play. As the first in a new era in race relations, Tim Burton’s 2001 remake presents the apes as much more morally ambiguous than they were in the original, with Helena Bonham Carter playing the role of a chimp human-rights advocate who opposes the hawkishness of the chimp leadership and aids the human rebellion. By the time we get to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 stab at the story, now it’s the humans who are morally ambiguous while the apes are depicted as mostly good and innocent.
In War for the Planet of the Apes, which premiered over the weekend, the shift is complete and the allegory heightened. Maybe I read too much history and too many newspapers, but I kept seeing parallels between the apes’ planet and our own. The movie starts with an overt nod to the Vietnam War and the films it produced, namely Platoon and Apocalypse Now. (“Ape-pocalypse Now” is spray-painted on a wall later in the film.) The collective way of life in which Caesar and the other chimps live, and the way they ride into battle on horseback wearing warpaint and throwing spears with an archer’s precision, brings to mind the Japanese samurai and the Comanche of the Great Plains, both of whom were outgunned by a highly industrialized, genocidal foe.
The idea of the “noble savage” — that human beings are naturally good and it’s only something in advanced society that makes them behave otherwise — traces its roots back to the early years of European colonization in the Americas and would reappear again and again across the centuries, in the works of Dryden, Rousseau and others, receding only with the rise of social-darwinist beliefs in the late nineteenth century (just as Latin American artists and scholars began to exalt their indigenous roots). Given the ravages of late capitalism — political corruption, economic disparity, environmental distraction, social alienation and, thus, strife — it’s little wonder that the image of the noble savage has experienced a resurgence in recent years as many citizens of the Western world, fearing more bad news from the future, yearn for a halt to the “progress” which they blame for the downward spiral of civilization. Today’s Luddite liberals seek a return to a simpler, more noble way of life — typified by Caesar and his troop.
Collectivism is another major theme, ever-present throughout the most recent Apes trilogy. Caesar and the apes live by a code founded on twin commandments: “Ape no kill ape” and “Apes together strong.” The apes aren’t socialists of course, something which even most of today’s moderately evolved humans still find difficult to define, much less be. Still, since War for the Planet of the Apes paints such a stark contrast between the society of the ape’s forest village and that of the human’s military base, the humans, having reverted nearly to a state of nature due to a global pandemic, can generally be considered the ur-capitalists to Caesar’s proto-Proudhon. The apes share what little they have with one another — and even other humans — whereas the humans, namely The Colonel (masterfully played by Woody Harrelson), are as rapacious as conquistadors, killing anyone or anything that jeopardizes their mission. That the apes are first enslaved and provide free labor for the The Colonel before they’re killed is yet another similarity shared between the soldiers in War and the European colonizers, whose own use of slavery acted as a midwife for early capitalism.
Then, again, there’s the racial aspect, which seems destined to loom over any return to the Planet of the Apes story. The United States is too racist a society for a sequel not to carry that underlying symbolism. Africans and their American descendants have been compared to chimps and gorillas since time immemorial, a comparison which served as a rationale for their enslavement. In his 1785 stidy on his home state, Thomas Jefferson maintains that the black man’s preference for white women is as consistent as an orangutan’s preference for black women. The belief that black men lusted after white women became a deep-seated fear among white men, with the same theme rearing its snarling head in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915 and the original King Kong in 1933. (And the Kong story will always bear the brand of racism for that reason.)
Lest we think such racist imagery is a matter of black and white, it must pointed out that the comparison to apes has been applied against all people of color and even some whites, namely Irish Catholics. (The Irish were even believed to be descended from Africa, though not by themselves.) In this racial context, ape is merely a stand-in for an “uncivilized” person, itself a euphemism for anyone who isn’t Northern European.
That Caesar and the apes are definitely the good guys in War, despite the racist history of simian depictions, shows how far and how little the United States has come in addressing the nagging problem of the color line. Though still forced to deal in the racist imagery intrinsic to the Apes story, director Matt Reeves eulogizes the apes and their close social bonds and coexistence with nature — in sum, their rudimentary ecosocialism — while denigrating the greedy, bloodthirsty humans who seek to use the planet as an ATM and destroy anyone (or anything) who tries to stop them. The words Ape Lives Matter scrawled on another wall would’ve hardly come as a surprise. Now we’re not only rooting for Caesar and the apes; we even identify with them. We want them to win, even if that means seeing our fellow humans buried by the effects of their own war machine.
There has long been a creeping desire amongst us Homo sapiens to be less human, at least in the way humanity manifests itself around the world: always warring, always exploiting, always destroying the environment. By chance it is Caesar, whose name we’ve already been programmed to revere and equate with leadership, who now offers humanity a model for personal conduct and moral-political authority, embodying Plato’s philosopher-king more than The Colonel ever could. It’s the chimp chief, not any of the humans, who represents the future of civilization on planet Earth.
I’ll end on a detour by nominating Andy Serkis for Best Actor at next year’s Oscars. For those unaware, Serkis is the English actor behind — and inside — not only Caesar but also 2005’s Kong and Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. As with Kong and Gollum, Caesar is brought to life through computer animation and the use of sophisticated motion-capture cameras whitch allows a new cohort of CGI actors like Serkis to give brilliant performances instead of merely supplying the voices. “One never knows exactly where the human ends and the effects begin,” the late Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Rise, “but Serkis and/or Caesar gives the best performance in the movie.” I entirely and shamelessly agree with Ebert, and I’ll even go so far as to vouch for his appraisal of Serkis’s acting across all three films in the trilogy. When the critics look back a decade or so from now, if they can’t affirm it already, they’ll realize Serkis is to CGI performances what Marlon Brando was to the Method — and, funny enough, what Caesar is to ape civilization. If audiences are drawn to Caesar because he feels human to them, it’s because, thanks to Serkis, Caesar is human.
In other words, Caesar lives. Long live Caesar!
Featured image: Ares Ryo/Flickr