Originally published in the Planet of the Apes issue of the Birth.Movies.Death magazine in 2017.
“Does the other one talk?”
“Only when she lets me.”
If you’re looking for a throughline to the temporally fractured original Planet of the Apes series, Cornelius and Zira are it. Charlton Heston might be the big “name” star, but he’s little more than a catalyst in the grand, time-looping scheme of the franchise. Only Cornelius and Zira, scientist chimpanzees and lovebirds, appear in all the first three movies – and, via their offspring, the fourth and fifth. They’re the backbone and the beating heart of Apes: smart, courageous, and simian.
We’re first introduced to Cornelius and Zira – archaeologist and animal psychologist, respectively – as the only apes willing to listen to crash-landed astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston). Both hold beliefs considered heresy by the ape ruling class. Cornelius has his doubts about the Sacred Scrolls’ account of creation and history, while Zira proudly proclaims her unpopular theories about humankind – that they are capable of intelligent thought, and may be related biologically to apes. Driven by scientific curiosity and empathy alike, they assist the comparatively cynical Taylor in escaping into the Forbidden Zone, as much to help their friend as to make an anthropological breakthrough.
In Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the pair have survived a heresy trial together and been married offscreen – a story significantly more interesting than the first half of the actual movie. They stand more or less alone against a gorilla-led coup, assisting newly-crashed astronaut Brent much as they did Taylor, and for even less personal reward.
It’s when they emerge from their time-travelling space capsule in Escape that Cornelius and Zira’s true showcase begins. Fish out of water comedy proves the perfect way to illustrate and develop their relationship. Isolated in a world that doesn’t understand them, they only really have each other – putting their new marriage in a pressure cooker, for better and worse, as does their pregnancy. Though they’re treated as celebrities, getting dressed up, drunk, and shown off at events, they still face distrust from (who else?) the military. It is the military that brings about their tragic ends (not, as originally planned, a pack of angry Dobermans), a blameless couple struck down with plenty more love to give.
The couple’s ultimate gift to the time-twisting Apes mythos is, of course, their offspring. Born Milo and rechristened Caesar, their son grows up a performing circus chimp, before igniting an ape rebellion in Conquest and eventually ruling Ape City in Battle. McDowall took on the role of his own character’s son, with the character also coming full circle to create the society his father would eventually grow up in. It is for Caesar that Cornelius and Zira give their lives, and it is for his father that Caesar later names his own child. While it’s reductive to define Cornelius and Zira as merely Caesar’s parents, those roles make them the Apes timeline’s centre of gravity – and rightly so.
As much as the Apes narrative revolves around Cornelius and Zira, they’re far more interesting to examine as a romantic couple. Cornelius and Zira are the very picture of the modern, professional couple: two characters who love and respect each other, communicate with empathy even through disagreements, and always work for the common good.
Cornelius and Zira’s relationship is a rare one, mixing their professional and personal lives without clouding either. Although their beliefs mostly align, they don’t quite have the same convictions: Zira is outspoken and rebellious, while Cornelius is more hesitant to challenge the status quo. When the gorillas take over in Beneath, Cornelius supports Zira’s refusal to applaud them, despite his own cautiousness – because protesting is the right thing to do, certainly, but likely more because it’s important to her. He’s a sweetie at heart. Likewise, when they first arrive in the 1970s, it’s Zira who reveals her ability to speak first, making a brazen point of her loathing for bananas.
But their professional relationship is nothing on their personal one. You’ll rarely find the kind of loving looks as when these two apes see each other posing gleefully in their new human clothes for the first time. Their terms of endearment are as casual as they are earnest. Their honest equitability is unimpeachable – Cornelius happily takes on a non-traditionally submissive role, and loves it. Importantly, Cornelius and Zira are capable of working through obstacles. They know their foibles intimately, trusting each other to call them out, yet understanding that they’re not always their “best selves,” as Cornelius puts it. Self-aware enough to recognise issues, they can defuse tension with a joke or a tender moment. As someone whose parents didn’t have that kind of relationship, and thus lacked for role models in real life, seeing such a functioning romance in these silly monkey movies meant a lot to me.
These beloved characters would be nothing without the actors who played them. Rock Hudson and Ingrid Bergman were considered for the roles, but it’s hard to imagine anyone behind the masks other than Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter. Even David Watson, who took over from McDowall in Beneath due to scheduling issues, plays Cornelius almost as an impersonation.
Roddy McDowall owns the role of Cornelius much as Andy Serkis owns the motion-captured rule of Caesar. Nobody worked the ape makeup like McDowall, who developed a library of facial gestures and tics to bring the (by modern standards) unresponsive makeup appliances to life. His performance is one of constant curiosity; of calm righteousness; of quiet adoration for Zira. Kim Hunter fared less well with her makeup, only suffering through the hours-long application process with the aid of Valium. Medicated or not, Hunter commands the screen as her fiery, headstrong ape alter ego. Manipulating her simian lower jaw like a champ, she gets some of the films’ best dialogue, displaying a range of comedic and dramatic chops any actor would envy. And through all that makeup, too.
Planet of the Apes is probably best known for its special effects, or its down-note endings, or its surprising longevity. But there’s a human side to its sci-fi weirdness: a human side communicated more through apes than through people. Cornelius and Zira are emblematic of that. Even more than to comparatively hairless movie star Charlton Heston, we can relate to Cornelius and Zira, largely thanks to their own bottomless wells of empathy. They love each other as much as we love them – and it’s safe to say they’d probably love us, too.