The original Planet of the Apes sequels may have had lower budgets and far fetched premises (even moreso than the first installment) but they became more imaginative and at times the line between hero and villain became somewhat blurred, leaving speciest (human) audiences conflicted about whom to root for. One example of this is Dr. Otto Hasslein, the villain (or is he?) from Escape From the Planet of the Apes who reluctantly sets out to kill Cornelius and Zira, when he realizes doing so may prevent intelligent apes from overtaking humanity in the far future. However, I will deal with the subject of Hasslein another day. Instead, I want to focus on the archetypal fascist character, Governor Breck, from the 4th installment of the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972).
Governor Breck is the authoritarian leader of Central City, a futuristic totalitarian city featuring some aesthetic uniforms and awesome 1960s brutalist architecture (the film was shot in Century City in Los Angeles.) Breck is the main antagonist of the film and is mostly depicted as a rather cruel villain. Yet while he seemingly rules with an iron fist, it becomes easier for the human viewer to empathize with Breck’s methods and actions over the course of film, as events unfold and the apes revolt, rioting and burning the city to the ground. While the audience is sympathetic to the plight of Caesar (the protagonist ape and surviving child of Zira and Cornelius in the previous film) in the first half of the movie, one begins to understand the motivations of Breck toward the end of the film. Having been warned at some previous time about the possible future where apes rule over humans, Breck realizes the existential threat the apes pose to human civilization if they are allowed to become dominant, and therefore his actions seem less harsh within the context of what he is trying to prevent. While Breck is largely presented as a kind of cold hearted, fascist strawman….near the end of the film, when he is captured by Caesar and the apes, he gives a brief, yet powerfully humanizing speech:
“Because your kind were once our ancestors. Man was born of the ape. There’s still an ape curled up inside of every man, the beast that must be whipped into submission, the savage that has to be shackled in chains. You are that beast, Caesar. You taint us. You…you poison our guts. When we hate you, we’re hating the dark side of ourselves.” – Governor Breck
These unexpectedly cogent remarks serve as an important insight into our “hateful” attitudes towards those we dislike or deem to be uncivilized. It requires a great degree of self control, emotional discipline and empathy for humans to moderate ourselves and keep our base impulses in check. Yet this is required to sustain and build upon our civilization. Each of us maintains some variable capacity to behave bestial and savage-like. So when we observe people that lack impulse control, are prone to random violence and seem unable to behave civilized in a public setting, it registers with us a visceral disgust. We recognize these tendencies within ourselves as the savage genies we successfully manage to keep bottled up everyday, “genies” we’ve gone great lengths to resist unleashing upon our fellow man (as well as our furry little friends.) Those individuals or groups we observe as failing to control these negative impulses, we see as the physical manifestations of our own primal desires and the violent thoughts we don’t dare act upon, the manifestations of such that need to be dutifully kept in check by any means necessary, in order for the civilization we love and ultimately our species to survive.