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From ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ to ‘Apocalypse Now,’ Here Are the Films That Inspired ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’

With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and now War for the Planet of the Apes, director Matt Reeves has undoubtedly left his mark on a series of films that make up what is arguably one of the best movie trilogies ever told.

With War, Reeves delivers a film that’s different from the two that came before it in that its story plays out entirely from the perspective of the apes. Unlike Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, both of which spent equal time on its human characters as its ape characters, War for the Planet of the Apes goes all-in with Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his pack as they defend themselves from attack while on the hunt for a new home far away from those looking to destroy them.

With “war” being the first word in the title – and with this film being the one that finally brings us much closer to the planet of apes teased since 2011’s Rise – director Matt Reeves relied heavily on war films for inspiration. When Fandango sat down with him for an exclusive chat about the film, we asked Reeves to break down five of his greatest cinematic influences on War for the Planet of the Apes.

All of these films, as well as others specifically curated by Matt Reeves, are now available to watch on FandangoNOW.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

I wanted to watch a lot of [films from director] David Lean because I wanted the movie to be epic and mythic, and I would say that [TheBridge on the River Kwai] was the movie that really affected [cowriter] Mark [Bomback] and I the most as we were watching movies.

There was something about the idea of this grand war story that was really told in an intimate way, as a battle of wills between the Alec Guinness character and General Saito. Their kind of psychological battle was totally inspirational in telling the story between Caesar and the Colonel. The idea of this captive who would really fight his adversary in a psychological way and in a battle of wills. That story was tremendously important to us.

Paths of Glory (1957)

Paths of Glory is one of the great war films; I mean, [Stanley] Kubrick is incredible. One of the things that I really wanted to do was to push this story into an ape point-of-view story fully. The previous two had been split in some way, and I wanted this one to really be Caesar’s story and Caesar’s perspective, and so we literally lifted the idea of that sort of trench walk that Kirk Douglas takes so you can feel palpably this idea of walking in the trench.

via GIPHY

In our story, it’s an aftermath story; what he’s looking at, really, is the cost of war. And so, it’s a different application of it, but it really inspired it, this idea of being photographically and emotionally as much through Caesar’s perspective as possible, and that was something that Kubrick did brilliantly in that movie. I mean, that movie is so powerful, and I think it has so much to do with the perspective from which he’s telling the story.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Because I felt that this was really a description of an arc that begins in Rise, but in [War] really flowers into the description of the seminal figure in ape history, I wanted to push the story out into the realm of the mythic. So I wanted to watch a bunch of mythic movies, and one of the ones we watched was Empire Strikes Back, and it was so interesting.

For me, I was very excited about this idea about the mythology of the Force and what it meant, and I thought, “Wow, there’s something really powerful about what that represents in these stories, how it’s this representation of dark and light,” and for me, it was like a light bulb.

[Cowriter] Mark [Bomback] and I started talking about it, that actually we’d had that all along, because our Force was this question of human nature, this idea of looking at us grappling with the different aspects of our nature… you know the animal and the rational. That sort of war within us, and without it being outwardly stated, for me, it was very much what the movie was about. We wanted to take Caesar and push him to a place where he was going to be grappling with his empathy for the first time in any of these films, and that it was going to become this sort of epic mythic emotional journey rooted in this kind of philosophy and this idea that, to me, connected to Star Wars.

The Great Escape (1963)

It’s interesting, when [cowriter] Mark [Bomback] and I sat down, we watched pretty much a movie a day in the beginning, just to be inspired and just to think, and we were looking at a lot of war films. And we knew that at a certain point the apes were gonna become captive, and we looked at a movie, a Robert Bresson movie called A Man Escaped, and we looked at The Great Escape.

There’s some kind of excitement to seeing how a band of apes who come together as a family in a way that, you know, you so root for those soldiers in The Great Escape. They pull together in this way to get through this adversity, and at the end of the day, what we care about is the emotional connection that the apes have together, they’re like a family.

I think it’s part of the fun of the movie, and so The Great Escape was definitely an inspiration for that.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

It’s funny, because the “Ape-ocalypse Now” reference [towards the end of the film], to me, was really gallows humor. You know, the simian flu had wiped out the planet, and these guys were being held in essentially what was a concentration camp for sick, and so they were looking to escape, just the way the apes are looking to escape. As the apes find an escape route, they find this flicker of that moment in time for the humans, and they, themselves, of course, are aware of Apocalypse Now, and for them, they think that this whole simian flu has been their ape-apocalypse.

And so it shows this side of human nature where there’s … Somehow, in order to cope with the tragedy of the world, we can always sort of find a way to laugh at something, to laugh at ourselves, even in the darkest moments, and that gallows humor seemed like an apt sort of expression in that scene.

But the film also inspired us in a kind of psychological journey, of course. I mean, the story is about how Caesar is moving not up the river toward Colonel Kurtz, but he’s moving across the landscape of California and into the Sierras on a search for the mystery that is the Colonel, who is capable of tremendous brutality, as we discover.

From the outside, he seems like a monster; and the journey is one where as he finally confronts the Colonel, he has to confront the fact that the Colonel may have more in common with him than he would like to admit. And so, the idea is to take the audience on that journey. I mean, obviously, Apocalypse Now was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and obviously, this being a war story, and the nature of the extremity of war, there seemed to be something that can really resonate in that journey. And so, there’s no question that was definitely an inspiration in a big way for the story, narratively.

War for the Planet of the Apes hits theaters on July 14. You can snag your tickets right here on Fandango.

Additionally, you can watch all of the films mentioned above, as well as more curated selections from War for the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves, on FandangoNOW.

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