Monday, 13 October 2014

The Ape General


Through the various versions of the Planet of the Apes (POTA), the figure of the Ape General is a reoccurring archetype. Although a central figure in many of the various version and sequels, the figure of the Ape General is no where to be found in the original novel, Planete De Singe (1963) by Pierre Boulle.  In the original novel, the main gorillas of note were Zoram and Zanam.  These two kindly lab assistance treat the books hero, Ulysse Merou, well while he is in captivity after landing on the distant planet Soror with his fellow space faring Frenchmen. In the film version of the novel, Planet of the Apes (1968), these two characters are replaced by a single gorilla called Julius, who takes great joy in tormenting the astronaut Taylor when Zira, the chimpanzee psychologist, is absent. Although there are various gorilla soldiers, a military leader is no where to be seen.

Ironically, although never appearing in the original novel, the figure of the Ape General was actually first created by Boulle in The Planet of the Men (1969), a proposed script he wrote for the second ape film. In his script he created the character Field Marshall Urus, a bumbling gorilla who fumbles an attack on Taylor and his humans which alters the fate of ape and human kind. Urus is a military incompetent who charges the human forces in broad daylight with no real strategy and finds his army out maneuvered and routed. It is this that leads to the final downfall of ape civilization.

When the final film version, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) appeared several rewrites later, Field Marshall Urus emerged as the war monger General Ursus, the leader of the ape military who leads the gorilla army into the nuclear wasteland of the Forbidden Zone. Not as buffoonish as Field Marshall Urus, Ursus is a more serious character who believes that there is a threat dwelling in the Forbidden Zone that needs to be eradicated if Apedom is to reclaim the area for itself. Soon they stage an invasion of the Forbidden Zone and find themselves face to face with a race of mutant humans who still live in the ruins of New York. Unfortunately they possess a global killing nuclear missile that, during the slaughter of the pacifist mutants, is activated by the fugitive astronaut Colonel George Taylor. Suffice to say the earth doesn't survive. In many ways Ursus is the figure of the crazy general, the one who insanely only sees military solutions to problems and will happily start a war that will end with disastrous results.

The Battle for Earth's Future
The next appearance of the Ape General is in Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). He appears here in the form of General Aldo (Claude Atkins), an ape still bitter about the treatment of his kind before the revolution and who longs to see all humans in servitude or dead. This is at odds with the vision of the revolutions leader, Caesar (Roddy McDowell), who sees a positive place for humanity in the new social order.  Not surprisingly, Aldo is the Brutus to Caesar’s Caesar, the traitor who desires to over throw the king to create a different path for ape society. This new path would be one human free and naturally guided by him and his gorilla army. Fortunately for ape society, this potential usurper is finally revealed and dispatched by Caesar during one final confrontation leaving the future in more benevolent hands.

The General Comes to TV
After the movie series finished, the POTA  franchise moved to the small screen. It was here that the figure of the Ape General took on its most well known form, that of General Urko. On the face of it, the name Urko seems to be an amalgamation of the names Ursus and Aldo. It is as though he was intended as a composite character that would be reminiscent of the two general figures from the cinematic cycle. It appears that in early draft versions of the series the character was called Ursus and eventually altered to Urso. When actor Mark Lenard tried to pronounce his characters name through his ape make up, he found that he had difficulty in pronouncing it, the resulting word sounding more like a term of abuse that the name of an ape general. And so the name became General Urko and would become a character that received more screen time than Ursus and Aldo combined.

Set in the year 3085, over 800 years before the original film, the TV show tells the story of two astronauts who have found themselves lost in the future and being hunted down by the orang-utan politician Councillor Zaius and his chief of security, General Urko. The role of Urko in this series is different from that of previous ape generals. If the astronauts, Burke and Virdon are the archetypal noble outlaws, then Urko is the hard nosed sheriff who doggedly hunts them down, while they travel about making the world a better place for human and ape alike.  He is a character who is able to have ongoing adventures and character development in the Planet of the Apes scenario, not one that must face death at the stories conclusion. We get to see Urko in a range of situations. We find out that his wife’s name is Elta (The Trap), we watch him have to work together with a fugitive astronaut (The Trap), and we see him try and fix a horse race (The Horse Race). Followers of the POTA series were able to form a stronger attachment to the character and because of this he has come to be the most well known of the Ape General figures. A good example of this is the fact that he often appears alongside exclusively POTA movie characters in POTA action figure sets.

The General Gets Animated
This popularity was also strengthened when another version of General Urko (Henri Corden) appeared in the animated series, Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975). What is interesting about this incarnation is that it incorporates many elements of previous Ape Generals in the one character. Set in an alternate version of the original POTA story, Urko works along side Doctor Zaius in the 38th century, as Ursus did in Beneath. Like Ursus, he stages various military incursions into the Forbidden Zone as he seeks to eradicate the human/mutant threat. Like the original Urko, this version is continually hunting for the fugitive astronauts and like Aldo, he longs to usurp the government and seize power for himself. This scheming eventually leads to him being suspended from duty for three months for fraudulent activity. During this time he is replaced by another gorilla, Colonel Rotok, who is actually secretly taking orders from Urko. It’s at this point in the franchise that the figure of the Ape General has fully crystallised. Now all the facets of previous versions find a place with in the one character. However this would be the last Gorilla incarnation of the Ape General on screen. In POTA comics, other incarnations would appear, such as General Ollo, General Ignatius, General Gorodon and Peace Officer Brutus. However on screen the future of the Ape General lay in the hands of another simian species.

Rise of the Chimps
In the years between POTA movies, the gorilla had lost its position as the killer ape to its African cousin, the chimpanzee. Genetically closer to humans, the chimpanzee is known to hunt small animals for food and murderously go to war against rival tribes over territory. In many ways they are the most like us of all the great apes and this realization has caused the role of the Ape General to be recast. In 2001 Tim Burton directed Planet of the Apes, a re-imaging of the original story that mixed elements from both the book and the original movie with new characters and scenarios. In this film gorilla soldiers, such as Colonel Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan), are subservient to the chimpanzee General Thade (Tim Roth). The story revolves around an astronaut, Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg), who leaves the space station Oberon in the year 2029 to search for a lost research chimp. The chimp, Pericles, was sent out in a space pod to investigate a nearby electro-magnetic space storm and never returned. While searching for the chimp, Leo enters the storm and finds himself sent forward in time to the year 5021 crashing on an alien planet. While on the planet he finds that it’s occupied by apes and humans, the later existing as a slave class and treated like animals. Soon Leo is introduced with General Thade, a murderous chimpanzee descended from the ape messiah Semos with a vicious hatred of humans. Thade knows from family tradition that once humans ruled over the apes and that as long as they existed they would be a threat. Little does he realise that he, and all others on the planet, were actually descendants of the apes and crew of the Oberon that had passed through the same space/time storm that Leo had passed through. Due to a strange time dilation effect, the space station had crashed many centuries before, it’s survivors populating the planet before Leo's arrival.

Despite being a chimp, Thade is in some ways similar to the General Urko character of the cartoon series. He chases political power and seeks to see the subjugation or destruction of all things human. He understands that humans pose a real threat to ape domination and he will go to lethal lengths, even against fellow apes, to make sure their legacy stays intact. Unlike previous Ape Generals, Thade also wants to assert his sexual dominance and claim Ari, the main female chimp, as his mate. Ari is a human sympathizer and seemingly infatuated with the very human Leo. This love of his most hated species seems to fire Thade's lust to posses Ari, who makes a very public display of rejecting his advances. When Ari escapes with Leo and a band of humans into the Forbidden Zone, Thade announces that she has been kidnapped and uses it as an excuse to declare marshal law. The final outcome of this movie sees Leo escaping in Pericles' space pod back to earth, only to find that Thade had preceded him, seemingly having escaped to Earth in Leo's original craft, passing through the same space/time storm. The final scene shows a newly landed Leo standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, now wearing the face of General Thade and surrounded by ape police. 

The General Breaks the Glass Ceiling
One lone female version of the Ape General is found in the Dark Horses comics series, The Planet of the Apes: Human War (2001). Although not technically a general, this story features, Minister Shiva, a chimpanzee descendant of General Thade. The armour wearing Shiva carries the same narrative function as her anti-human military predecessors. In the years following the human revolution lead by Leo Davidson, Minister Shiva and her army continue the fight against the remnants of the up rising, seeking the near extinction of humanity and supreme political power. Despite the change of species and gender, the characteristics of the Ape General character type cease to change.

The New Series
To date, the new POTA movies haven't featured an Ape General. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) do feature Koba, a bonobo, who functions as Caesar's right hand ape. In many ways he is a Brutus, a re-imagining of the Aldo figure from the original series. Despite not having a rank, Koba has a similar function to Ape Generals in other movies. He is the human hating zealot who seeks to over throw the more moderate leadership of the status quo in order to institute a policy of human enslavement or extermination.


Through out much of the POTA saga, the figure of the Ape General has been present. They represents the desire for military might and xenophobia to over throw moderate government and institute marshal law. They are the symbol of armed opposition to human liberation and of ape supremacy. As with many character types in the POTA series, they are a reflection of some of the darker elements of human kind, showing us ourselves through a simian reflection.