Part two: The end (and what came after): Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, Glen And Randa, Gas-s-s-s, The Omega Man
In “The Flood,” a sixth-season episode of Mad Men, Don Draper takes his son Bobby to the movies, in part to get him away from the horror of recent events, particularly the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Looking for escapism, he chooses poorly by taking Bobby to Planet Of The Apes, which serves more as a mirror of the world around them than a portal to one far away. One of the most beautiful moments comes as Bobby and Don watch the film’s famous ending, one contemporary viewers will probably already know before watching the film for the first time. As the surf hits the sand, the only sound that plays over the closing credits, the Draper boys appear unsure what to do. Maybe they even realize they’ve seen a perfect ending, one that brings the preceding film’s debate over the nature, potential, and self-destructive tendencies of humanity to a close without providing a final answer to any of the questions. Humanity, a sliver of it anyway, gets a second chance to redeem itself, but it isn’t much of a chance. There’s really nothing to left to say. How do you write past such a definitive “The End” moment? Why would anyone try?
The answer to the second question is simple, at least as far as Planet Of The Apes goes: It made a lot of money, ergo a sequel had a good chance of making even more money. However, that wisdom wasn’t as commonplace in 1970, when Beneath The Planet Of The Apes reached theaters. In many respects, the Planet Of The Apes series serves as a prototype of the franchise mentality that set in after Star Wars, a way of thinking whose grip on Hollywood seems to grow tighter every year. In 1970, a sequel wasn’t a given, much less a sequel followed by a sequel followed by a sequel, followed by a TV series and a cartoon, accompanied by toys and uncountable other types of merchandising. So the question changes: Given no choice but to write beyond the ending, what sort of story do you tell?
There’s a related question, one relevant to several early-1970s films, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes included: How do you write beyond the end of the world as we know it? That topic understandably seemed to be on many minds. Planet Of The Apes arrived at the beginning of a period of turmoil and dark times that made it easy to think the end was near. There’s a reason the longhaired kook appearing in Mad magazine during this era carried a sign reading just that: “The End Is Near.” Apocalyptic cults, and cults of all kinds, developed a foothold in the counterculture. Millenarianism wasn’t confined to the fringes, either. As Christian fundamentalism became a more powerful force in the American mainstream, the notion of preparing for the End Times became more common. Early Christian-rock star Larry Norman, a man with one foot in the counterculture and the other in fundamentalism, released a 1969 song titled “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” The message is right there in the title, but the song revels in the dark imagery of dead children and a period in which “a piece of bread could buy a bag of gold.” His mind was straining to imagine unthinkable horrors just around the corner, and to turn those horrors into entertainment carrying a warning.
He wasn’t alone. Even those who didn’t worry about God bringing down fire from above had plenty to worry about. If God didn’t end the world, the atomic bomb certainly could. Or maybe it would be something else, a plague or a deadly gas, that would creep into the world to pass judgment on us for our transgressions. Because if there’s one thing that unites the apocalyptic film fantasies of the early 1970s, it’s this: Whatever brings it all to an end, it’s going to be all our fault. (Also, Charlton Heston will probably be involved in some way.)
Heston only reluctantly reprised his Planet Of The Apes role for the sequel, and then only under the condition that he not be in the movie much. He appears as Taylor at the beginning, then disappears with the arrival of Brent (James Franciscus), another astronaut from the 20th century. Brent’s arrival at a moment so convenient to the story is a coincidence on which the film never comments. The fact that he’s more or less interchangeable with Taylor—though he doesn’t fully share Taylor’s relentlessly downbeat view of the world—is a coincidence no viewer could overlook.
That’s just one respect in which Beneath feels like a thrifty repackaging of its predecessor. Where the ape makeup never looked less than impressive in the first film, Beneath contains crowd scenes filled with apes wearing what look like Halloween masks. It’s as if a disease infected ape society, paralyzing the faces of any citizens without speaking roles. The element of surprise is gone as well. We’ve seen these apes and their planet, before, and seeing them again through Brent’s eyes doesn’t do much to restore the terror and wonder of the first film. But Beneath The Planet Of The Apes has another quality going for it that ultimately makes it a worthwhile film all its own: a creeping darkness that gradually overtakes the film and makes its predecessor look positively sunny.
Much of that sensibility can be laid at the feet of incoming screenwriter Paul Dehn, who stayed with the film series through Battle For The Planet Of The Apes in 1973. An English film critic turned spy during World War II—perhaps Quentin Tarantino had him in mind when creating Michael Fassbender’s character for Inglourious Basterds—Dehn was already a well-established screenwriter when he got the Apes assignment, thanks to his work on Goldfinger, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, and other films. But another item made him perfect for the job: Quake, Quake, Quake, a 1961 collection of poetry written in the style of children’s verse, illustrated by Edward Gorey and filled with scenes from a nuclear apocalypse. That sense of macabre played out throughout Dehn’s Apes scripts, but never more so than in Beneath.
The film ends with Brent and Nova, and then a contingent of angry apes, plunging into the Forbidden Zone, a realm whose name doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Kept off limits to apes and protected by images meant to keep them out—like a fiery field of crucified apes—it’s revealed to be both the ruins of New York and a home to Earth’s surviving humans. Radiation has gifted them with telepathy, but also, as seen in the film’s big, icky reveal, turned them into hideous mutants. In the finale, Brent, Nova, and Taylor, who’s been kept prisoner by the humans, tussle with their captors and the apes in what was once St. Patrick’s Cathedral, now home to an object the surviving humans have made into their god: a missile so phallic, it might look out of place in Dr. Strangelove.
In the inevitable confrontation, gunfire is exchanged and a wounded Taylor asks his old adversary Dr. Zaius (a returning Maurice Evans) for help. But Zaius’ views remain unchanged. “You ask me to help you?” he says. “Man is evil. Capable of nothing but destruction.” Then, as if to prove him right while spiting him, Taylor—a nihilist after all, it seems—detonates the bomb. A previously unheard voiceover—God?—then announces: “In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe lies a medium-sized star. And one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.” Roll credits.
It’s the bleakest possible ending for the movie—for any movie, really—and its daring was noted in the otherwise-dismissive reviews at the time. The New York Times’ response was typical, calling the film “derivative” while allowing that it had a few “amusing, unusual, creative scenes” and ended “with a bang, not a whimper.” Few fans of the series cite it as a favorite, but the finality of its climax is tough to shake, as is the ickiness of its portrayal of what passes for human life in the irradiated latter days of the planet. Yet not only did the series later ingeniously find a way to write beyond even that point (the subject of a future column), so did other films. Whether directly inspired by Beneath The Planet Of The Apes or not, a strand of early-’70s films asked what might happen if “The End” wasn’t the end.
Maybe the kids could take over. It certainly seemed like a possibility in the early ’70s, with young, vocal protestors speaking out against the war in Vietnam and a counterculture experimenting with new ways of living. But any optimism about the younger generation bringing in a host of sweeping changes tended to be undercut with dread. 1968’s Wild In The Streets—half speculative fiction, half black comedy—imagines a rock-star president cultivating a distrust of the older generation and turning that distrust to fascistic ends. The underlying question here is, what if the new ways turn out to be just as bad as the old? The dread in Glen And Randa comes from a different source, and asks a different question: What if the hippies had the right idea, but innocence and goodness aren’t enough?
Directed by Jim McBride, Glen And Randa played to small audiences but considerable acclaim in 1971, even getting named one of the year’s best films by Time’s Jay Cocks. McBride earned attention directing the era-capturing mockumentary David Holzman’s Diary, which he followed with a pair of personal essay films. With Glen And Randa he went in a different direction, while still drawing on the times. Though it was little-seen at the time, it’s easy to see the cultural impact of Glen And Randa, one of the first movies to imagine a truly grungy post-apocalypse. That’s partly a function of budget: Independently produced for not much money, McBride’s film creates an end of the world filled not with images of widespread destruction, but rather with piles of crap. In what passes for civilization in the movie’s post-atomic world, humans pick over the scraps of what came before, looking for anything usable: a dirty blender, a turntable that keeps threatening to stop, a megaphone.
Through this world wander Glen (Steven Curry) and Randa (Shelley Plimpton, mother of Martha), a wasteland Adam and Eve who don’t understand the world they’ve inherited. Randa talks little. Glen talks too much, and in an East Coast accent that sounds suspiciously pre-apocalyptic. As the film opens, they wander nude through the forest and make love in the back of a car, just like their ancestors. The old world exerts a grip on them, but it isn’t too tight. In a camp of survivors, a self-proclaimed magician (Garry Goodrow) launches into a con man’s routine of entertaining the crowd, but he has no game to run and no real reason to run it. He has a briefcase filled with bills, but so what? Left alone with the pliant Randa, he fondles her a bit, but doesn’t press the moment all that far. It’s as if the end of the world has removed any remaining appetite for taking advantage of others.
Instead, the couple finds other ways to fall apart. Taking an old Wonder Woman comic literally, Glen insists on setting out for the big city depicted in its pages. Traveling through what used to be Idaho, they find only ocean and an old hermit named Sidney (veteran character actor Woodrow Chambliss) who’s adapted well to solitude and desolation, even keeping a skeleton for company. Trouble is, Sidney seems like an exception.
In his review for the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote that the film is “concerned with the nature of man, his curiosity, his impulse towards knowledge, and his compulsion to impose his own order on the universe.” That isn’t necessarily a winning strategy: Glen philosophizes and figures using nothing but his instincts and innate sense of right and wrong, but gets most everything incorrect, and in the end, he suffers for it in a way that suggests humanity itself may not last much longer, if this is what its future looks like.
McBride went on to make films like the underrated, highly entertaining remake of Breathless. Glen And Randa isn’t highly entertaining; it’s a tediously executed tough-sit of a movie that’s somewhat understandably been forgotten. But it’s also a fascinating time capsule, one that looked at the starry-eyed optimism of an idealistic generation and suggested that idealism and optimism would undo it in the end. McBride co-wrote the film with Lorenzo Mans and Rudy Wurlitzer, the latter of whom saw another of his screenplays make its way to screens in 1971: Two-Lane Blacktop, another movie about open roads that double as dead ends.
Though 1970’s Gas-s-s-s was released a year before Glen And Randa, it could almost serve as an answer film. Directed by Roger Corman from a script by George Armitage—then a young screenwriter, later the director of too few terrific black comedies like Miami Blues and Grosse Point Blank—it imagines a world in which toxic gas, an experiment in chemical warfare gone awry, has killed off everyone over the age of 25. Shot on the cheap largely in Dallas, Gas-s-s-s strikes an antic, parodic tone from the start, and tries to sustain it even as the world falls apart. Where Glen And Randa suggests that a post-apocalyptic world left to innocent free spirits would lapse into ignorance and neglect, Gas-s-s-s carries a different sort of warning, up to the phony happy ending. Though an early scene features a peaceful concert headlined by Country Joe & The Fish, the film’s hippie heroes discover a balkanized America filled with football-playing thugs, would-be rapists, and Hell’s Angels who have taken over a golf course and started talking like establishment types.
Then there’s the hippies’ own potential for evil, which they’re warned about by a motorcycle-riding Edgar Allan Poe (or someone pretending to be Poe, it’s never clear). “The wicked find no solace,” he says, and when the hippies claim they aren’t wicked, he replies “Not as yet. But now that you are sole heir to our world, you will have every opportunity to achieve wickedness.” It’s a disjointed satire of early-’70s attitudes, when bitterness and cynicism had started to creep into the counterculture.
While Gas-s-s-s doesn’t really work as a movie, it’s a fascinating artifact, with an attitude suggesting that an apocalyptic mindset had already crept into the generation it was depicting. Early on in the film, a band of survivors take on some bad guys who stole their car, shouting the names of cowboy stars as they fire at one another. They can’t be their own sorts of heroes; they have to draw on pop-culture icons to get the job done. In another scene, a woman played by future Laverne & Shirley star Cindy Williams goes nuts when she finds a stack of “oldies but goodies” in an empty record store, naming off bands that were still active in the early ’70s as tokens of a past golden age. Maybe everything good that was going to happen had already happened?
There’s no doubt that most of everything good is in the past in 1971’s The Omega Man, another film haunted by the fast-fading spirit of the 1960s. A second adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (preceded by the Vincent Price-starring The Last Man On Earth in 1964, succeeded by the Will Smith-starring I Am Legend in 2007), the film casts Heston as Robert Neville, the last man on Earth. Or so it seems at first. In the film’s remarkable opening scenes, Neville drives a convertible around an abandoned downtown L.A., cruising through empty streets with an eight-track playing smooth jazz. He has to navigate past an occasional piece of rubble, but he appears relaxed as he makes his way from here to there, which appears to be nowhere in particular. Then, spotting some movement in a window, he pulls out a submachine gun and opens fire. Such is the life of the last Angeleno.
The film’s best scene comes early. The cool look on Neville’s face (and his Heston-ish tendency to indulge in dark quips) suggests he’s making rounds he’s made before. After stopping by a car dealership to pick up a new ride—during which we learn that the world fell apart in the not-so-far-away year of 1975—Neville pulls up to a movie theater advertising its current feature: Woodstock. “Great show,” he says. “Held over for a third straight year.” Firing up a generator, he flips the switch on the projector and watches— shades of Gas-s-s-s—Country Joe & The Fish perform to an Aquarian crowd. Then the film cuts to a hippie talking rapturously about how he’s learned “what’s really important” at the festival. “If we have can’t all live together and be happy—if you have to be afraid to walk down the street, if you have to be afraid to smile to smile at somebody, right?—what kind of way is that to go through this life?” Neville’s seen the show before. Through clenched teeth, he mouths along with every word, knowing the world the kid’s dreaming of will never come to be.
There’s a clear reason for this within the film: Thanks to some experiments with chemical warfare, most of the population has been wiped out by a toxic virus. Those left behind either cower in shelters—Neville eventually discovers he isn’t entirely alone—or have been turned into vampire-like creatures whose aversion to sunlight keeps them at bay during the day. At night, however, the world is theirs. But the film is also filled with a sense that those vampire creatures double as a manifestation of the impossibility of Woodstock’s utopian vision. The script, by the husband-and-wife team of John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington, fills the basic elements of Matheson’s story and with early-’70s worries—above all, that a new world was coming, but one far uglier than the stuff of that concertgoer’s dreams.
First, there are those emptied-out streets, which look like a more exaggerated version of the era’s urban decay. By day, they appear abandoned; by night, they become perilous. Then there are the antagonists, which seem less like vampires than cultists. Led by Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), they have a belief system and actively recruit new members. Those who fall under the sway of the virus seem brainwashed, not diseased. 1971 was just a couple of years out from Charles Manson and the Tate/LaBianca murders, but even without them, cults were very much part of the early-’70s conversation, with the ascent of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, Krishna Consciousness, Adidam, and other outside-the-mainstream belief systems. Some of that ascent was powered by the counterculture, which sought spiritual satisfaction outside the belief systems in which they were raised. Here, Matthias and his followers wear long robes and sunglasses. They refer to themselves as The Family and threaten Neville, but speak reassuringly to one another. Infected or not, they’ve figured out a new way of living. And for all his affection for Woodstock, Neville is played very much as a military man of the old world. He lives in a luxurious apartment surrounded by the recent past’s greatest hits: liquor, guns, books, leather furniture, and a giant TV.
Eventually, Neville finds allies, first in the form of Lisa (Rosalind Cash), whose towering Afro and militant demeanor bring to mind the era’s black radicalism. Race provides a subtext that runs beneath the entire film. Matthias’ right-hand-man Zachary (Lincoln Kilpatrick) refers to Neville’s hideout as a “honky paradise” before Matthias asks him to forget his old hatred. Lisa and Neville treat each other with suspicion, then become lovers. There’s a sense that the only way to create a future, whether it’s dominated by ghouls or humans, would be to learn to work together. The film is frank about this in ways that were edgy for 1971, giving Heston and Cash fairly explicit love scenes. It’s worth remembering that before Heston threw his political energy behind the NRA, he was known for his civil-rights efforts.
It’s a shame the film itself never lives up to the scenario it creates. Director Boris Sagal (father of Katey) worked largely in television, and apart from that bravura opening, the film has the flat look and feel of a TV movie. And as it becomes increasingly concerned with a plot involving a vaccine for the virus, the flat look and flat execution start matching, up to and including a finale in which Neville dies so that others might live.
A humbler actor might have balked at turning himself into an undisguised Christ figure, but then, no one paid Heston to play humble. He was as big as stars came in the early ’70s, but the roles Heston chose suggested that he realized he was on the verge of becoming outmoded. From Planet Of The Apes on, Heston chose parts that cast him as the last sane man in an insane world, a granite-physiqued, tough-talking hero who subscribed to values the world had started to discard. The film lets him down, but he’s perfect for the role. He’s also perfect for the times, a symbol of the old ways standing tall as long as possible, even as everything crumbles around him. Standing even in the wastelands of the early 1970s, when change had swept the world, but seemed to have left its promise of a better tomorrow unfulfilled. Instead, at least from the perspective of the times, it seemed to have sent the world hurtling toward a grim future, one where standing tall and staying sane might not make much difference.
Next: When The World Is Running Down: Soylent Green and other deprived dystopias.