The Darwinism of Hollywood Filmmakers

HBO’s animal rights documentary Unlocking the Cage, now playing in art theaters across the country, is a signature piece for the respected cable outlet. Although it is not the first documentary of this kind, it comes with a pedigree of esteemed filmmakers and a unique protagonist in the form of a Harvard trained lawyer who we learn has been using both opposable thumbs to argue in court that apes like chimpanzees be accorded a kind of personhood. The lawyer, in lawyerly fashion, nuances his argument and stipulates it is a personhood not exactly on the same level as your average sixth grader, but rather a kind of parallel branch on a communal family tree.

The advent of Darwinism, not necessarily evolution, certainly plays a part in how we have now come to view the natural world through a less divinely inspired prism. Writings where he does mention a creator notwithstanding, Darwin’s evolutionary legacy to a large extent is in the separating of the divine from human contact. Ramifications followed that resulted in some weeping uncontrollably over the unfortunate death of a gorilla in a zoo but unable to muster a scintilla of concern for the human toddler who, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, made it necessary for zoo keepers to take lethal action. How can people get things turned around so completely? Darwin explains it all: “Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work worthy of the interposition of a deity; more humble and I think truer to consider him created from animals.”

Nothing like finding a quotation to answer a quotation. It is a kind of anti-venom and no one produced more of these kinds of quotes than Bishop Fulton Sheen. I thought I knew a quotation that was the perfect answer to Darwin, one I was sure belonged to Sheen. It went something like this, “We are not risen apes, but fallen angels.” Attempts to verify this quote resulted in a serendipitous revelation that pointed toward the answer as to how we have come to a point in our civilization where an attorney from one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world can look people square in the eye and claim personhood and unalienable rights for creatures that have, since time immemorial always been considered, creatures.

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The discovered and verifiable quotation reads like a literary version of a punch to the stomach: “But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides.” The quote belongs to a contemporary of Fulton Sheen, and the Sheen quote I believe I read somewhere sometime may have even been a direct rebuttal to this. The attribution goes to one Robert Ardrey, a man who went from dabbling in the ultimate pop culture milieu of screenwriting in Hollywood in its golden age of the 1940s and 1950s to the more rarified air of academia. In the process, he managed to influence future generations of film makers and combined with other academics represents a kind of source of the Nile for seeing creation as something less than divinely inspired. If Darwin is the Abraham of this crypto-faith, then Robert Ardrey is its St. Paul.

Like a lot of screen writers, the titles of their works are often times more famous than those who penned them. Ardrey worked at MGM at its zenith and wrote some pretty famous movies like The Three Musketeers and The Secret Garden.

Not sympathetic to the Hollywood Blacklist of the 1950s, Ardrey packed up his Remington typewriter and left the country, returning to his passion for anthropology and scholarly pursuits fostered while he was an undergraduate student. In 1961 he published the book African Genesis and the ivy covered walls shook. Not only did the thesis of the book, that human life evolved out of Africa not Asia, fly in the face of the conventional wisdom of the time, but his other bombshell was that man was not some kind of benign forager but a violent, aggressive, and dangerous hairy bi-ped—a premise in full revolt against the prevailing academic wind. Ardrey further proffered it had little to do with environment or nurture, but was organic and embedded in every coiled strand of human DNA.

The Territorial Imperative came next where Ardrey coined a term that is commonplace today and a scientific premise that is almost universally accepted more than half a century later. He further rattled the academic cage with the thesis of this work: “Is homo sapiens a territorial species? Do we stake our property, chase off trespassers, defend our countries because we are sapient, or because we are animals? Because we choose, or because we must?”

Ardrey’s very premise, that man is strictly and only the sum of his aggressive chromosomes is almost as much a theological statement as an anthropological one. The study of man was no different than the study of a pack of baboons or a pod of orcas.

As the bubble that covers the ivy covered walls of higher education becomes less insulated from the popular culture, the influence of Robert Ardrey will grow. What used to be the fodder of small salons or professor-led Socratic discussions on the Commons, are now transmitted instantaneously to millions via the Internet.

Take the scientific triptych of Peter Singer, Stephen Hawking, and Richard Dawkins. All incredibly accomplished academics in philosophy, physics, and biology and all, who in a way, have stood on the shoulders of Darwin and Robert Ardrey to re-map the biological and philosophical topography of human existence. None of these brilliant minds have ever shown much aversion to utilizing all of the pop culture mechanisms of communication at their disposal to further their ideas either. Their shared objective appears to be the removing of any notion of a human-tipped pyramid understanding of creation in favor of one more resembling a never-ending, and in the end, meaningless and random horizontal line.

When it comes to the animal kingdom, all three of these scientific titans accept some part or all of the premises proffered by Robert Ardrey that humans are just another species of apes—maybe a little more advanced—but with differences measured minutely—and any attempt at separating homo sapiens from any other manifestation of ape is logically absurd. Though Dr. Peter Singer, the philosopher among the three, may take a less “hard” science approach, the logical progression once he stipulates the premise that men equal apes and apes equal men produced Singer’s hallmark valuation of human life: “We should certainly put very strict conditions on permissible infanticide, but these conditions might owe more to the effects of infanticide on others than to the intrinsic wrongness of killing an infant.”

Ardrey’s ideas traveled well, especially from the Ivy League to Hollywood… Take the artistic duo of Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick. Peckinpah was a Hollywood rebel of a director who gravitated toward depictions, usually in post-modern westerns, of man’s deep rooted violent nature. His high water mark coincided with the height of the cultural revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. In his prime, he was famous for his almost pornographic use of slow motion violence and bloodletting that had never been seen in a mainstream movie before. Peckinpah was in love with the anti-hero model and I cannot help but think it came from the fact that an actor friend gave him copies of Robert Ardrey’s books about the origins of man. Peckinpah certainly embraced the concept that man was a particularly violent ape-like creature even if he tried to inject a certain amount of pathos in his always tragic characters.

If Sam Peckinpah deserves a paragraph or two in the syllabus of your average film school curriculum, Stanley Kubrick’s body of work requires an entire semester’s worth of study.

Kubrick did not obsess on mankind’s penchant for violence as Peckinpah, but his overriding theme in most of his work seemed fascinated by man as an absurdity, especially when he is thinking he is something special. He directed across a wide spectrum and diverse sampling of American cinema pallets—the crime/caper film The Killing—two great anti-war films Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove—a one of a kind epic Spartacus. Even though I only understand thirty percent of it, a high-end science fiction film was unheard of until Kubrick willed it into existence in the form of 2001 A Space Odyssey. It is within the opening sequence of this Kubrick master work where Robert Ardrey’s beliefs in the nature of man bloom in 70mm wide screen splendor.

No need for a spoiler alert here as the opening scene of the ape-man creature figuring out what to do with the animal bone at the water hole has become so culturally ubiquitous. No doubt it is a great piece of filmmaking as the ape-man slowly figures out what he’s got in his hands and then sets about becoming Ardrey’s “killer ape” in a slow motion ballet of violence as he lets all the other ape-men know which side of the watering hole belongs to whom.

Like Peckinpah, Kubrick was introduced to the works of Robert Ardrey by their mutual acting acquaintance. Ardrey’s hypothesis shows up time and again in other Kubrick movies. Man is just the sum of his DNA. Violence and injustice and nihilism are his only true inheritances. His Roman epic Spartacus is praised in many critical corners precisely because it is one of the few ancient Roman epics made by a major studio that does not have a Christian subtext of any kind.

Stanley Kubrick continues to influence film makers both established and fledgling alike. Through Kubrick’s personal and professional relationship with Stephen Spielberg (and through a kind of cultural osmosis) Ardrey’s philosophy grows exponentially. Spielberg took the helm of Kubrick’s last project after the director’s untimely death. Though Spielberg has had his share of artistic accomplishments like The Color Purple and Schindler’s List, he is mainly known for and has grown incredibly wealthy by providing mass entertainment to a very wide commercial audience. One would be hard pressed to characterize Spielberg as a radical film maker, yet the influence of Kubrick and Robert Ardrey permeate much of his “safer” body of work. Even when he is not delving into deeper terrain like complicated African American family structure or a grim, and brilliant, real life story from the Holocaust, Spielberg tends to view mankind as an end unto himself and even in more traditional fare as Saving Private Ryan, man may be more noble, but no one calls out to God and it is up to the humans to make their own peace with the consequences of inhumanity.

It’s logical to expect then that the upcoming HBO documentary Unlocking the Cage will be more proof of how inculcated Robert Ardrey’s worldview has become. The protagonist of this film, as described in the pre-release publicity, is unanimously positive and is likely to be further cemented once the film makes its debut and we witness the crusading on behalf of apes and other “higher” animals. The temptation to go to Orwell and ponder who decides who are the more equal animals is palatable.

In a review of the film in the Los Angeles Times, writer Amy Kaufman starts with a sentence Ardrey, Kubric, Peckinpah and many others would have absorbed with all the seriousness it intended: “Is an animal’s life always worth less than a human’s life?”

The very fact a question such as this could be posited in a mainstream nationally renowned newspaper without a whiff of irony is sobering. When the “original” Pandora unlocked her box all the evils of the world escaped but hope remained. As the popular culture continues to pulse further from a Judeo-Christian template, and as the efforts of the Harvard trained lawyer in Unlocking the Cage eventually wins his case, it will be hope that sustains us.


  • Robert Brennan

    Robert Brennan has written for several Catholic publications such as National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor and currently has a weekly column either in print or online with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles publication The Tidings (Angelus). He spent more than 25 years working as a television writer and his work for The Tidings usually centers around popular culture and how it relates to being a practicing Catholic.

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