Feb 11th: “Gorillas in the Mist” (1988)
Celebrating 28 days of underrated 80s cinematic treasures.
Gorillas in the Mist was most likely a film I turned to purely because Sigourney Weaver was in it. What is remarkable about her career is that, even though she’s never broken free from her association with the role of Ripley in the Alien saga, everything that she did in between was unique. She catered for every taste, and even in her later works, managed to find time to work on films that reached a younger audience.
Weaver has remained relevant even though, most youngsters wouldn’t really know who she was. That’s the only mistake I wish we could correct. Leading the young to those who made our cinematic experience, an epic tapestry of valued entertainment. Gorillas in the Mist wasn’t made to entertain however. It was made to enthrall, and like any movie that leads by its moral compass, it’s stays with you long after the credits role. The movie came out fighting to show primates in an accurate fashion. So many filmmakers were well at ease with turning them into monsters. This was a chance to correct that, by putting humanity in the role of both the monsters… and the saviors. This was, and still is, a call to action.
Hollywood has always had a fascination with our ancestry, but never had they really given them a chance to be seen, in their natural habitat. Rarely does Hollywood contribute to the understanding, and the reality that goes with the preservation, of a species, in danger of extinction. The screen doesn’t want to tell us that we have a responsibility to act, but instead, we are told to be afraid, or simply look away. Monkeys and people do not mix. Monkeys are seen as predators, and humans are shown to be their prey.
Hollywood couldn’t have been more wrong, in every sense of the word.
The biopic film, Gorillas in the Mist is one of those rare movies that deals with the difficulties of activation head on. It was a brave story to put onto the screen, with difficult moments that genuinely force us to reckon with our lack of understanding for the natural world that is out of our reach.
This is the story of Dian Fossey is one that should be taught in every school. Not only was she a woman, but a Los Angeles born, privileged and educated woman who accepted the call of destiny to ensure that the gorillas of the Rwandan mountains were safe from human poachers, and that their species had a fighting chance to live. This is by all the means of saying, that Dian was no different to any one of us, but by making a stand, she has led the charge and remains one of the most remarkable animal conversationalists of the twentieth century. There aren’t many films out there that carry social conscience, or spark on a need to learn, to know more, or in the best-case scenario, recruit more members to continue her work.
Primates in movies are almost exclusively shown in cinema as being dangerous, menacing. From the fictional King Kong, the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, to the series of warlike self-autonomous warriors in the Planet of the Apes series.
The 80s saw both a break from the Planet of the Apes series, and filmmakers were able to reach out to new ideas about their portrayal on the silver screen. The 70’s action comedy Every Which Way but Loose, came back with Any Which Way You Can, which did nothing more than add an awww factor to the mix. We were no longer afraid, but still, monkey’s were either hanging out with Clint Eastwood or otherwise seen in the zoo or in tea bag commercials. Apes were a spectacle. Something fun to look at. Films like Project X and Gorillas in the Mist attempted to break from the gaze and attempted — although in very different ways — to put the primates at the centre of their story, with a call to action tagged on, embedded was the thing that kept audience interest, and helped spread the word.
It was only until George A. Romero put the spanner in the works with the movie Monkey Shines, which put the monkey back on the list of being used for experiments that turns them into homicidal terrors. Thanks a lot George. Gorillas in the Mist came out a few months after Monkey Shines, and thankfully stood up as a film that raised awareness and bolstered the cause for action.
Later in October, a television series called First Born was aired with Charles Dance in the lead. This series explored the possibility of what would happen if a gorilla became hybrid with humans. This genetic oddity was shown on the BBC, and didn’t make much of an impact on the release of Gorillas in the Mist.
There almost seems to be an air of protection over the awareness of this film. Watching this leads to a rabbit hole of exploration about the life and work of Dian Fossey. Indeed, Sigourney Weaver narrated the documentary that showed the lost films of Dian, and works well as a companion piece to this very moving motion picture.
Gorillas in the Mist is by no means a conventional movie. It didn’t require much in the way of sound stages, if any. Like Southern Comfort (later in the list) the shooting locations were very real, as were most of the gorillas (I have a feeling that for specifically scripted shots, a human in a suit were needed.) Director Michael Apted (who passed away last month) was one who didn’t stick to any specific type of film and was not fazed when given a challenge such as this.
Sigourney Weaver, was perfectly cast to play Dian Fossey and received many accolades. She didn’t just perform a role, she literally stepped into Fossey’s shoes. In 2007, Weaver would return to Rwanda to film a BBC special called Gorillas Revisited, and would be reunited with the Rwandan apes she had filmed with 20 years before. Waver also holds position as the Honorary Chair of Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.
Sometimes, film and reality come together in ways that go beyond mere entertainment. Gorillas in the Mist holds up as one that not only provides a fascination, but also, it serious a call to action that is as relevant, today.
Written by: Stephen Radford