Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

When apes speak

This summer’s release of Tim Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes gives me an opportunity to get a gripe off my chest.

Well, it’s not really a gripe so much as an annoyance about a longstanding movie convention. There are actually a number of such conventions that annoy me and, apparently, others. I know this because I have spent a lot of time between screenings at film festivals swapping movie pet peeves with friends. Everyone seems to have their own particular gripe about things that regularly happen in movies but never in real life. Given the richness of this topic, I will happily provide my comprehensive list of personal film pet peeves next time, but for now I will focus on one in particular.

Maybe it’s because I have been a student of languages practically my whole life, but am I the only one in the audience who gets jarred when an astronaut from earth gets marooned on a previously unknown planet that may exist in a completely different time period or perhaps a different dimension—and the inhabitants of that planet speak English?

Okay, maybe they’re not really speaking English. Maybe they are supposed to be speaking some alien ape language and the filmmakers are merely translating their dialog into English for the benefit of us filmgoers. This is certainly a longstanding movie convention. Lots of movies set in non-English-speaking countries but made primarily for English-speaking audiences have the characters speak in English. A recent example of this is Enemy at the Gates which takes place in the Soviet Union during World War II and in which most of the characters are presumably meant to be speaking Russian, even though the actors are all speaking English. I suppose we could take it literally and hypothesize that for some reason everyone in Stalingrad happened to decide to practice his or her English skills during the time frame covered by the film, but this seems unlikely. No, I think it’s safe to say that they were supposed to be speaking Russian and through the magic of cinema we were able to understand Russian because it has been magically translated into English. For a language purist like myself, it’s still a bit jarring, but I can live with that.

A big tip-off that the characters are supposed to be speaking some language other than English (even though they are actually speaking English) is they are speaking with British accents. For some reason, movies that are pretending to be in a language other than English rarely have the actors speaking with American accents. Sometimes the actors affect an accent of the country where the movie is set, but often these films convey the idea of a foreign language by speaking in British accents. This is actually very handy because you know immediately which characters are aristocratic and which ones are peasants, since British English makes it very easy to recognize a person’s social class. This is a handy rule of thumb, but it is important that sometimes movies with characters speaking with British accents are actually set in Britain and the characters are actually speaking English.

This argues that perhaps the apes in Planet of the Apes are actually speaking their own language and not English, since most of them are speaking with British accents. But there’s a problem with this explanation. Our earth astronaut hero can understand them, and they can understand him. So, they obviously are speaking English. The same thing happened in the 1968 original, and it bothered me then too.

This actually happens a lot in science fiction movies (and television programs). To its credit, the critically savaged Battlefield Earth dealt with this problem rather credibly. The various Star Trek series (and movies) got around the problem by providing a pseudo-technical solution, a universal translator device, which has always seemed to perform flawlessly except for those rare instances where it served the plot for communication not to exist with a new alien civilization. Babylon 5 simply established that English was the lingua franca on the space station and that most of the aliens had learned it. Realism was served by occasional bits of the Minbari, Centauri and Narn languages being heard now and then. But many sci-fi productions simply ignore the issue and blithely assume that the whole universe, let alone the whole earth, speaks English.

Now, both the 1968 and 2001 versions of Planet of the Apes allow for another explanation of why the apes speak English, but to discuss it at length I would have to divulge the endings of the two movies, which I don’t particularly want to do. This explanation works better for the original version since, by the time you get through it and its four sequels, the fact that apes are speaking English is the least difficult leap of faith you have to make to accept the whole saga. For it to work with the new version, we have to assume that the English language has survived over a period of thousands of years. This might not seem unlikely to most people who don’t give it much thought, but it’s a really incredible assumption when you consider that in the 600 years since Shakespeare’s time the English language has changed so much that most of us have to struggle seriously to understand texts from that time. Which brings up another pet peeve: the fact that movies set in other historical periods usually have the characters speaking completely modern English.

Okay, okay. I know what you’re thinking. I’m too anal. Just relax and enjoy the movie. Who wants to watch major movies with British and American actors speaking Russian? Who wants to see historical movies that are difficult or impossible to understand? Okay, I won’t go that far. But with a little bit of work these issues can dealt with (as in Battlefield Earth) or at least camouflaged with clever writing. That’s all I want.

-S.L., 23 August 2001

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