Primate proximity - fear and popular culture from Barnum and Bostock to 'Planet of the Apes'
by Ian Trowell
Hans and Greta at the second Sheffield Jungle, November 1912.
2011 saw a strange coincidence with the simultaneous release of the films 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' and 'Project Nim'. Whilst the first of these films was a CGI-laden 'disaster' movie and the second a documentary (with some CGI) from an esteemed film maker, the obvious parallels resounded with the subject matter and the extended and imagined connotations: what qualifies as evolution, what qualifies as responsibility for those most evolved and - most importantly - how can we quantify and understand the proximity between non-human primates and the developed primate man? It was this fear, specifically its manipulation and exploitation, that allowed these films to form strange bedfellows. The confusion, and fear, of this 'proximity' can be traced back to Bostock's antics in the Sheffield Jungle, preceded by some of his 19th Century forebears such as PT Barnum - and can be traced through various films to recent times. Our discomfort with our proximity to the great apes has never receded.
(The rise of) The Planet of the Apes franchise - 1968-1973
The Planet of the Apes 'reboot' proved a strange choice for a movie, but also proved a success at the box office. It followed a somewhat confused and mixed reception 'remake' film by Tim Burton in 2001, and this seemed to damn the furthering potential of the movie. However, the luck of the coincidental release of Project Nim afforded the Planet of the Apes reboot with some deeper delving and dialogue that the original Planet of the Apes franchise had failed to maintain. The original franchise commenced with a 1968 film adapted from Pierre Boulle's 1963 novel. The start point of the franchise, simply called 'Planet of the Apes' was a box office success of the time, having one foot in the dystopian strand of narrative (aligned with films such as the 1973 Crighton adaptation 'Westworld') and at the same time drawing on primates populating various strands of popular culture and popular science: notably the Tarzan franchise, the chimpanzee space program, and various projects on examining links between non-human and human primates (of which Project Nim was a key example).
The original franchise extended to 5 films created between 1968 and 1973 and a short-run television series that saw a dozen episodes produced in 1974. The opening film saw some disagreements and re-writes as to the positioning of the context; that is the central theme of a future society where mute humans are subservient to apes who, in turn, have skills of language and technology akin to their brute strength. The wrangles over the film directorship were based on the proposed technology of the ape society - the final choice was for the dominant ape society to be relatively primitive, though this could well have been budget-based. The plot of the film is based upon an incident of time travel to 3978 AD where the survivors emerge to find a new society structured on a caste system of gorillas, orangs and chimps. At the bottom of the chain they discover (fellow) humans killed for sport, used for labour, entertainment, domestic pets or experimentation - presenting an almost direct reversal of primate roles to the 1960s cinema-going audience of the time.
The success of the first film led to a follow-up that started a strange narrative of explaining and developing the intricacies of the whole context, leading to some kind of dumbed-down and heavily extended parallel to Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' which shared a debut year with the original Apes film and touched upon similar evolutionary threads, cause, effect and unknown forces. The first sequel was 'Beneath the Planet of the Apes' (1970) which followed on from first film to introduce a societal sub-stratum of mutant, telepathic humans with an ancient nuclear bomb. The film narrates a new struggle that sees the surviving protagonist from the first film destroy all life on earth.
Seemingly with nowhere to go we then get a further sequel that starts to explain the complexities of time-travel: 'Escape from the Planet of the Apes' (1971) providing what is initially a contrived follow-on from the previous film as three apes escape the nuclear annihilation by rebuilding the astronauts original spaceship and travelling back (randomly) to 1973 to allow the film to play out in something resembling contemporary society. Thus, with the apes now subjected to the standard procedures of spectacle and scientific enquiry, we see them pass from zoo to media celebrities following their revelation of being able to talk. Following this they quickly become fugitives and seek sanctuary in a circus leading to a biblical parallel as new-born apes are ordered to be destroyed in all circuses. The time-travelling apes manage to switch babies to allow their talking offspring to be born and so achieve the 'jump' of evolution that would precipitate the plot for the first film. This ending proved satisfactory enough for the film to be considered as one of the best in the franchise.
On the back of this success we then quickly get 'Conquest of the Planet of the Apes' (1972) which fast-forwards to 1991 via a disease-event in 1983 that killed all cats and dogs. This pet-death outbreak results in apes and monkeys taken on and trained heavily first as pets and then as labour, facilitating their wide-spread integration into human society. Caesar, the surviving child from the previous film, takes the key role and is politicised when his circus-keeper is killed. He leads a rebellion with society on the brink at the conclusion of the film. The reboot film 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' is thus based loosely on 'Conquest...' showing the transformation of relationships to non-human primates in turn planting the seeds of a jarring re-organisation of society. 'Conquest...' however tried to create a perfect circularity with the time travel aspects of the two societies arranged as a kind of mobius strip of narrative.
Before examining the two 2011 films we need to include the final instalment of the original franchise - 'Battle for the Planet of the Apes' (1973). Told from a point in the future looking back across the post nuclear society in early 21st the film covers various struggles, betrayals and an archive revealing the future. There is a concluding coexistence between apes and humans set in 2670 AD, presumably shattered if the 3978 AD 'reality' comes to fruition - though with parallel futures and time-travel we are never quite sure. This uncertainty of parallel futures, the idea of the 'multiverse' and the implications of time-travel have tended to overwhelm the critical reception of Tim Burton's 2001 remake of the original 'Planet of the Apes' film. Cause and effect ran rife in this film with not only humans travelling to the future society but also a chimp from the space-program preceding the astronauts into the portal but arriving later as some kind of 'sign' from a higher authority authenticating the primate autocracy. Love scenes aside, this film achieved some degree of notoriety with an ending that saw the astronauts return to a different or displaced 'present' such that the ruling elite of the earth were non-human primates.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes hints at the start of a new franchise, something presumably determined by the box-office success of the film. It clearly does not entertain any attempts to intermingle aspects of time-travel and the multiverse dilemmas that Burton's 2001 remake, and instead runs as a pure dystopian style thriller, blending science and popular culture as the harbingers of our own downfall.
As explained above 'Rise...' is essentially a remake of the key film 'Conquest of the Planet of the Apes'. This is set in present day and gives a believable premise for the seeds of a switch to a new ordering of society. Both of these films have a similar keystone condition - the accelerating domination and (ab)use of non-human primates - and so play out on this fear of over-extending our 'right' to dominate a species that shares an uncanny proximity to our own. Medical events are also key in providing the impetus for the non-human primate rise: in 'Conquest...' we see a disease wipe out domestic pets such that apes and monkeys become a new standard in pets, whilst in 'Rise...' we see the chimpanzees used in a medical research centre looking to develop a cure or hold-off for Alzheimer's disease.
The plot of 'Rise...' can be summarised thus: a jungle scene shows the capture of chimpanzees, these are then shown in a laboratory being given neuro-genetic boosts to increase intelligence and fight the neural demise of Alzheimer's disease. A tried and test cinema scene of an experiment in crisis leads to the project being axed and the test specimens slaughtered. The project leader and good/bad protagonist of the film smuggles home a baby chimp, Caesar, to continue work with a semi-selfish reason in that his own father is slowly being crippled by Alzheimer's disease. A new strain of the drug is created in a shadow-project that gives the chimps a super-boost of intelligence but proves fatal to humans. During this time Caesar is incarcerated in a compound and becomes the alpha-chimp. He breaks out to steal some vials of the new super-drug and returns to give his fellow primates - a mix of apes cast off from all aspects of human use (circuses etc) - a boost of intelligence. As the non-human primates begin their rise the human population faces a potential extinction as a graphic indicates that the disease caused (to humans) from the super-drug can quickly go viral. The film ends with social order on the point of change - what qualifies as evolutionary rights and the 'survival of the fittest' becomes confused through the use and abuse of science and abuse of authority.
'Project Nim' is a strange film - part documentary and part 'Hollywood' fiction, it also seemed to (inadvertently) garner some divergent influence and interpretation from its coincidental release with 'Rise...'. It covers one of the experiments to see how feasible it is to bridge the gap between humans and animals - in terms of language acquisition - by assuming to work with the closest 'distance' - chimpanzees, but cleverly shifts its focus onto examining the ethics of the whole experiment. Test specimen 'Nim Chimpsky' - a pun on the name of the linguist Noam Chomsky who stated that language was common only to humans - was a chimpanzee and part of a 1970s experiment to raise him with a human family. As with 'Rise...' we get a similar overriding feel to the movie; that is neither film makes one proud to be human. In a further parallel, 'Project Nim' is ostensibly a reboot in the same vein as 'Rise...' with director James March using Frederick Wiseman's 1974 documentary 'Primate' as an influence. This film also casts humans in a poor light.
In researching the twin release of the films the Independent newspaper journalist Steve Connor spoke to various experts in the field (Independent newspaper 5/8/11). Inherent 'Intelligence' in any species can be measured on various levels, some of which come down favourably on the side of chimpanzees. For instance the ability to construct and use language, not essentially proved in the Project Nim experiment, needs to have deeper levels of analysis and relevance. Whilst Nim extended his vocabulary into a longest phrase as follows: "Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you" there needs to be an understanding of 'theory of mind' amongst other concepts. This concerns whether a species example can form an awareness of what others are thinking. Certainly chimpanzees have shown an awareness of future through forward planning (a zoo chimpanzee built a store of stones early in the day to give himself plenty of ammunition to throw at gawping human visitors) and they are also the only animal to recognise that a mirror offers a reflection of the physical self - leading to suggestions that there is an 'inner world' going on within the minds of members of the species.
Whilst both 'Rise...' and 'Project Nim' develop a similar moral undertone around the poor ethics of the dominant species (humans), there is also a nagging sense of parallel in their voyeuristic entertainment value - the fear of proximity. This proximity is not without foundations: common ancestry can be traced back to around 5-7 million years ago, and since then humans have developed a brain size approximately three times better on a relative scale. Meanwhile Pan troglodytes and Homo share over 98% DNA. However the gist of both of these films, and a thread that runs through earlier incarnations in popular culture, is that it is not necessarily a case of 'them' being like 'us' but more a danger of 'us' being like 'them'.
Bostock, Darwin and the missing links
Pre-Darwin showmanship - "The connecting link between man and brute creation"
Going even further back from Rise's reboot of 'Planet of the Apes' and Nim's influence drawn from 'Primate' it is possible to link both of these films with Solly Zuckermann's 1938 documentary / education film 'Monkey Into Man' - though here we have Darwinist uncertainty (ridicule and its questioning) as the central tenet of entertainment. This early film forms an axis point back to the longstanding 19th Century / early 20th Century play on Darwinist ideas that would form the basis of entertainment in Frank Bostock's time. Zuckermann's film represents a point when the debate moved from whether Darwin's ideas could be considered as feasible or nonsensical to the implications of accepting them and the consequences of over-exploiting our position as the dominant species over and above our 'distant cousins'. In many ways this echoes the argument suggested by Connor, fixing a point in time when the anxiety switched from them being like us to us being like them.
The aura of nonsensicality that surrounded Darwin's forcing works in the 19th Century proved fertile ground for Bostock and his forebears such as P.T. Barnum. It was very much in the interest of these showmen to prolong and delude the queasiness that such views tended to provoke. These early shows around the origin of the species - or indeed against the origin of the species - built upon nurturing views of science, gender and race that would form into some hard-standing prejudices in the 20th Century. Thus the subjects were attacked from multiple angles - the ethnographic show presenting the native as a midpoint between the civilised and the evolutionary retrograde or 'stuck in time' example, the singular freak representing the ruptures in the theory of evolution, and the primate as the focus for questioning the idea of proximity.
Jane Goodall's study of this period, 'Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin', covers much of the activity of P.T. Barnum who enjoyed an uncannily parallel rise to Darwin. Barnum, and his contemporaries in the exhibition field, used Darwin's ideas (and the huge interest in them) to somehow authenticate their shows whilst at the same time distorting and hybridising Darwin's initial theories. Darwin produced Origin of the Species to assert an authoritative understanding and explanation on the order of things amidst a time of uncertainty and speculation. The publication of this work allowed showmen to increase the exhibiting of freakish and unfamiliar animals, as these creatures provided a testing ground for Darwin's ideas, and forged an arena where opponents to his ideas could seemingly find a foothold for argument. 'Real' examples of curiosity such as the platypus and kangaroo were shown to test the limits of Darwin's theory and these had proved ripe for exploitation by showmen. However constructed irregularities soon came to the fore as the exotic 'reals' moved over to the realm of serious science. These new freakish animals were conceived as warps in the order of nature, with Barnum going one step further to market the 'nondescript' as a new genre that exemplified a point between two species or an example of a 'missing link'. Of course this ran counter to some of the arguments put forward carefully by Darwin who would suggest that evolution is a slow process making the continued existence of such nondescripts and missing links as impossible. Barnum however took on a tack of promoting his exhibits in relation to science rather than in denial of it.
Origin of the Species was then followed by the key work Descent of Man in 1871. This outlined the origins of man and linked us back to the primate genus, blowing open a minefield of controversy on many levels. As with the interest in Origin of the Species showmen were quick to monopolise. Initially the exhibitions around Descent of Man paralleled the earlier exhibitions of missing links, with a premium now being placed upon the missing link between animal and human. Barnum worked with ethnographic shows alongside constructing overt missing link exhibitions such as Krao.
Krao is a perfect example of showmen approaching the controversy of Darwin's Descent of Man from the angle of providing a missing link. Krao was a child brought from Laos in 1882 to the attention of G. Farini as a missing link exhibit, the female child suffering from hypertrichosis - a rare condition of profuse hair growth on the face and body. Combined with this condition Krao also exhibited various degrees of double-jointedness, and Farini proclaimed at every opportunity that he had studied Darwin to the fullest extent and that Krao provided living proof of Darwin's ideas in the Descent of Man. Thus Farini created a back-story that Krao was just a typical example from a lost tribe of hairy people dwelling deep inside the jungles of Laos, using this to offset medical and ethnological opinions that Krao was in fact a medical anomaly.
Them and Us
Bostock's orignal "almost man" Consul.
As the demand for quasi-scientific missing link exhibits and ethnographic shows declined the focus switched to exhibiting 'educated' or 'civilised' primates as a way of exploiting the interest in Darwin's works. These were branded as 'Almost Man' exhibits and showmen such as Frank Bostock traded heavily in these. We have seen with the first Sheffield Jungle that Bostock's construction of the 'Darwin Villa' allowed him to put a studious educational slant on his exhibition of primates, though Sheffielders never got to see much of Bostock's celebrity primates who were travelled and shown as examples of civilised specimens. One of the main primate attractions of the second Sheffield Jungle consisted of the orang 'Ginger' who was shown exemplifying primate skills rather than bridging the gap to the civilised or intelligent.
However, earlier in November 1912 the chimpanzees Hans and Greta had taken centre stage at the Sheffield Jungle and had also suffered competition with further chimpanzees 'Max and Moritz' performing at the Sheffield Hippodrome. The press of the time referred to these exhibits as the "finished scholar" in comparison to Bostock's Darwin Villa of the first Sheffield Jungle. As with the Darwin Villa, the residency of these two primate pairs in the city had contributed to various public lectures and debates, using the University's interest in primatology with Professor Patten as an authenticating stamp of approval. The emphasis now was dictated by Bostock's enterprises, switching the topic of discussion to the suggestion that these primates can be educated.
The Sheffield Independent of 1 November 1912 boasts that the late Mr Bostock is responsible for utilising the educated status of primates as a form of entertainment, thus trying to cement a bond between the serious study of primates and their exploitation by Bostock and his contemporaries. Interestingly, the article refers to Bostock starting his trade with a trained chimpanzee called Krao at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. Whether this is a misprint we are not sure - we know that Bostock entered the US via the 1893 exhibition but at the same time we know that the aforementioned Krao 'missing link' (human) exhibit would have been touring (she arrived around 1882 and toured for a few decades). The article then suggests that Bostock pioneered the "almost human" attraction with Little Mike, Ham Junior, Mrs Murphy, Esau, Pat and finally Consul. The success of Consul meant that Bostock then kept up the name as type of brand and travelled Consul the Great, Consul II, Consul Junior and Young Consul. This publicity blurb is repeated verbatim and without development or contest in the other two Sheffield newspaper of the time.
The coverage of the chimpanzees whilst in the Jungle leans less towards their 'almost human' characteristics and more towards their ability to be trained in various tricks including some aspects that make them mock human traits - thus we read that they ride bikes and perform acrobatics whilst at the same time we are told that they sit down to take a meal and smoke cigarettes. We also see a picture of them playing musical instruments but we have no mention of whether they have the ability to create or recreate musical pieces as opposed to 'simply' producing a noise from these instruments. One must assume that by there being no such mention of musicality that this indicator of human intelligence and creative skills did not surface. Max and Moritz, the chimpanzee pair appearing at the Hippodrome, are given a more intriguing coverage with the journalist suggesting that the sibling rivalry evident in their performances (sawing wood, hammering nails, etc) leans toward a human characteristic.
Hans and Greta appeared at the Grand Hotel on 12th November 1912 with Professor Patten. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the zoological position of the anthropoid ape, and the notion of a 'missing link' was dismissed in the briefing for the meeting. Harry Tudor concludes the meeting by promising the body of Hans to the University when the animal has "run his course". What this 'course' was is open to question, as it is clear that Tudor intends to get the most out of his animals in terms of newsworthy entertainment. We leave the confines of the lecture where science and spectacle collide and one week later we are back to pure spectacle as Hans and Greta are flown around Redmires in an aeroplane.
As stated, Consul (the original and subsequent variations) provided Bostock with his biggest money earner in the primate proximity spectacle. Entertainment historian Al Stencell writes the following on Consul: Consul's billing called him the Man Chimp for his uncanny display of human characteristics. He wore clothes and walked erect like a human being. He drank wine, smoked cigarettes, rode a bike and had better manners than many humans. Consul was first presented in Europe in 1903 as the pampered pet of a rich Chicago "pork" merchant. He arrived after travelling in first class boat accommodations and occupied a suite of rooms at the Paris Hotel Continental where his neighbours were other heads of States and rich adventurers. The press had a field day and Consul became Bostock's most sensational act. After the summer season at Coney Island Bostock sent Consul back on a round of European dates. In Berlin he got sick. After three days of illness with bronchitis he died. The London Billboard writer said: "He last saw Consul in December when he was dressed as a chauffeur and driving a car through Fleet Street London, England en-route to one of the newspaper offices to do some publicity work for the London Hippodrome where he was appearing. I thought they were taking chances with such a valuable animal having him out in the cold weather." He was valued at 25,000 British pounds and Bostock had him insured for 20,000 pounds. Consul's body was embalmed and placed in a coffin and he lay in state at the Bostock's Paris Hippodrome for a week. Claude Bostock later said that Consul has several fixations: "He hated candy butchers, carpenters, and doctors!"