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This contains spoilers for BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES.
Of all the bummer finales of all the PLANET OF THE APES films, none match the sheer breathtaking nihilism of the end of BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES. Watching that film again this week – I had the pleasure of showing it to a friend who had never seen it, and who didn’t know the ending in advance – I was struck by how profoundly this dark, hopeless movie reflects this shitty, hot summer in Trumplandia. This 1970 movie speaks directly to 2018 audiences, saying everything is terrible, everyone is awful and maybe it’s best to just wrap up this whole ‘planet Earth’ thing, once and for all.
Even the experience of watching the movie reflects our current era. The first half of the film is a retread of PLANET OF THE APES, with James Franciscus in place of Charlton Heston. It’s the 2016 election all over, a contest that seemed to be a fait accompli – we’d get Hillary Clinton, the status quo would continue, yadda yadda yadda. Here we expect Brent the astronaut to make his discoveries about the planet of the apes – a world where apes evolved from men! It was Earth all along! They did it, they blew it all up! – and maybe kill General Ursus or something, some small victory, but to essentially do all the stuff we had already seen Taylor do. Second verse, same as the first verse.
But like 2016, no one could see the sheer insanity to come. I’ve sat through BENEATH many, many times – once I had the honor of hosting a screening marathon of all five films in a row – and this time I spent a lot of the movie watching my friend’s increasingly shocked and horrified reactions to the escalating weirdness on screen. The mutants! The church service! Their faces! Their psychic powers! The crucified apes! Nova’s death! The massacre of the mutants! Each turn of the screwy screw elicited gasps of surprise and disbelief (I occasionally offered the reminder that the film is G rated). By the end what had begun as an uninspired retread had morphed into something absolutely bizarre and unknowable.
That Paul Dehn’s script should feature such escalating weirdness and a descent to savagery is no surprise considering when he wrote it. He was brought on to write the sequel to PLANET OF THE APES after Rod Serling’s idea – PLANET OF THE MEN, which would feature a human uprising – was deemed not spectacular enough. Dehn, who is the mastermind of the greatest entries in the series, was writing this film in 1969, a year when American society seemed reasonably headed towards revolution and collapse. While humanity made it to the Moon that year, the Vietnam War escalated and the US instituted its first draft lottery since 1942. Woodstock celebrated peace and love while Altamont ended in murder. Richard Nixon was sworn in and the Manson Family terrorized Los Angeles. Protest around the world turned increasingly violent, and in the United States the Black Panther Fred Hampton is murdered by the police. 1967’s Summer of Love had become 1968’s Year of the Assassin, and by 1969 the very structure of society seemed to be shaking apart. As human feet touched the Moon, napalm rained on Asian jungles. The dichotomy was too much.
Against it all was the spectre of the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis was as recent to people in 1969 as the release of the final HARRY POTTER movie is to us. The idea that all of humanity could die in a nuclear conflagration wasn’t out of bounds – it actually seemed reasonable that the missiles would eventually fly. This is the world in which Dehn conceived of BENEATH.