I have watched the original Planet of the Apes films, and there are three things of which I am certain. One, that I’m a little bit more wary of apes now than I was before.
Two? That Doctor Zira is probably one of my favorite characters in film.
The Planet of the Apes, the original film, is something that just about every English-speaking person is dimly aware of. It’s a film about a man stranded on a planet where apes are the intelligent ones, and humans are mute, terrified chattel. The twist, that this planet is a future version of Earth, is probably more iconic than the rest of the film; the half-sunken Statue of Liberty on the beach, Charlton Heston screaming at the sky. (Rod Serling, the host of The Twilight Zone, actually created that twist.) It’s so iconic that destroying the Statue of Liberty in some fashion seems to be a hallmark for disaster or dystopia films: see The Day after Tomorrow, Cloverfield, and the posters for Escape from New York –Lady Liberty survives that film, but they still used her decapitated head to advertise it. Since the ending has become more famous than much of the movie, watching the original film as a modern viewer can offer a lot of surprises. The film is actually very tense; it’s in part a political thriller, exploring themes of oppression, religion, science, and the dysfunction of a government that is interested in keeping the enslaved in their chains. The film delves into the revolutionary nature of truth, both the truth of history and the truths inherent in science, and these truths have voice in Doctors Cornelius and Zira.
Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), Zira (Kim Hunter), and Colonel Taylor (Charlton Heston).
Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) are academics, engaged to be married in the first film. Cornelius is an archaeologist with some crazy theories about the past–he believes that humans were once domesticated by apes. (He’s a little off the mark.) Doctor Zira is a bright-eyed scientist with a fairly grim job; she runs a scientific facility where humans are penned up, studied, and often dissected at Zira’s hands, in order to advance ape knowledge. After his spaceship lands on the planet of the apes, Colonel Taylor (Charlton Heston) is captured and taken to Zira’s lab. She becomes fascinated with him; despite the overwhelming belief that humans are too dumb to speak, he seems to believe he can. When Taylor proves that he can speak and write intelligently, she undergoes a rapid revelation; despite her own prejudices, Doctor Zira can accept the evidence in front of her eyes. She smuggles Taylor out of her laboratory and the rest of the film comes from the conflict of other apes fighting against the idea that Taylor may, in fact, be intelligent, and what that might mean.
It is easy to like Doctors Cornelius and Zira; they play complex, interesting characters, scientists in a world where science and orthodoxy, war and pacificism, are in an eternal struggle. While Charlton Heston was seen as the star of the first film, the franchise has a focus on Roddy McDowall; he’s in four of the five films, and his characters appear in five out of the five. (Not to underplay McDowall’s talents, but you can’t really tell it’s another actor playing Cornelius in Beneath the Planet of the Apes.)
While Zira is often portrayed as Cornelius’ equal, it’s perhaps not surprising that the films chose to focus their saga on McDowall, since the franchise overall doesn’t have a very good track record with women. There are few female characters in the films, and overall they sort of seem to exist simply to be looked at–not to breathe or speak or feel. In the first and second films, there is Nova (Linda Harrison), a beautiful, mute human woman who’s mostly there for Charlton Heston to grasp manfully. In the third film, there was Dr. Branton, a veterinarian who mostly grasps the real scientist hero, Dr. Dixon. In the fourth film, there’s actually more than one woman with a speaking role–a first for the franchise–but the grand majority of them are human oppressors, who are not speaking so much as yelling at apes they have enslaved. In the fifth film, there are a few speaking women, who mostly help pass along plot information.
Zira is active in her story. Nova is kind of just there.
In the past few years, the comic book writer Kelly Sue Deconnick suggested the Sexy Lamp Test as something along the lines of the Bechdel Test in terms of testing whether women are being written properly. A piece of media fails the test if a given woman in a film can be replaced by an especially sexy lamp, with some key dialogue taped to the lampshade–in other words, it fails because the female character does not actually do anything in the story and is comparable to a piece of erotic furniture. The original franchise almost universally fails this test.
Except for Dr. Zira.
Watching these films, I found my heart lighting up whenever Dr. Zira came on screen. Dr. Zira is not an accessory to anybody in the films; she is her own person, and she will tell you so. She’s a firecracker, honest to a fault, and vivacious. She’s incredibly stubborn; whenever other people irritate her, she blows out her cheeks in irritation, and proceeds to do whatever the hell she wants to. In an ape society that is stratified into a hierarchy of orangutan leaders, gorilla soldiers, and chimpanzees at the bottom, Zira is a dedicated scientist who has worked her way up to a position of importance, and fully believes in her right to a place at the table. She supports her fiance’s unpopular, heretical historical theories, even at the cost of her own career, simply because she believes they’re right, and when she recognizes that Taylor is intelligent, she advocates fiercely for his freedom. And she’s not even perfect, on top of this–she does eventually recognize that experimenting on humans is wrong, but she’s never ashamed that it was her job. After all, she’s a scientist; she did what she did with the information she had on hand, and changed her mind when new information came to light.
I don’t know what conspired to make her character so blatantly interesting, well-drawn, and vital when the other women in the franchise fall so flat; at least part of the responsibility must fall on Kim Hunter, the actress behind the makeup. Her eyes are magnetic, and in the first film she leads the way in making her character come through the prosthetics; she also pioneers certain ape quirks, like the cheek-blowing, that other actors imitate in the rest of the franchise. Hunter establishes very clear character type and motives; Zira doesn’t say that she’s morally opposed to lies until the third film, but it’s clear from the first film on that she is. This is not to say that the other actresses in the franchise weren’t equally committed to playing good characters; only that Kim Hunter’s character was the only one that got to pass through the Sexy Lamp gauntlet, and she clearly chose to run with it, creating a stubborn, independent firecracker of a character who is a joy to watch.
Kurt Russell: very cute and, in this film, very, very creepy.
I like old movies. I know old movies can be hard to watch if you weren’t part of that generation; there’s an ongoing debate as to whether films can be forgiven for being a “product of their era” when it comes to things like sexism, or if forgiveness isn’t possible. It certainly seems to depend on the individual. I do like old movies, but there’s certain ones I can’t watch; I tried so, so hard to like the Kurt Russell feature Overboard, because young Kurt is unspeakably hunky, but I found the whole concept just way too creepy. I also recently watched Highlander for the first time, and was super creeped out by the ostensible good guy, the Highlander, mostly because he spends the film expressing attraction to women by handling them roughly. I don’t think we have to forgive past films for anything; but we can enjoy them, and I think it’s worth dissecting what older films do well that has since been lost, and what they do that no longer works. And it’s okay to like an old movie, because they can be well-crafted even if they are no longer totally comfortable to watch.
I don’t know if I can definitively decide if Zira’s vitality is something that was purposeful, or a side effect, or something Kim Hunter forced into being with the power of her performance. It’s probably some confused combination of the three, like it is for many female characters that accidentally become iconic. (See the “Final Girl” trope in horror films, which is too complicated to explain in a parenthetical.) The only thing I can really explain, I suppose, is the effect she had on me. I loved Dr. Zira in these films. I related to her struggle for the truth, her struggle to expose it. I found her liveliness inspiring; Zira is never anything less than herself, even when it could cost her everything. It seems so weird and inexplicable that this film, with its mostly silent, simpering women, would have a female character that I love so much, when many modern films actively try, and actively fail, to create engaging women. It seems weird to point to a female chimpanzee in a classic sci-fi pulp movie, and go, “Her. She’s perfect.”
But I do. And I will. And I’m going to be thinking about that for a while.
Talk to me about Dr. Zira’s perfection, the Planet of the Apes series, or anything else in the comments or on Twitter.