A film review by Craig J. Koban
PLANET OF THE APES
40th Anniversary Retrospective Review
1968, G, 117 mins.
1968, G, 117 mins.
Heston / Cornelius: Roddy McDowall / Zira: Kim
Hunter / Dr. Zaius: Maurice
Evans / Nova: Linda Harrison
“It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!”
-Taylor (Charlton Heston) in
PLANET OF THE APES
original 1968 PLANET OF THE APES may not have a level of artistic
prominence that many other landmark films from that era have been able to
achieve (it certainly is not as noteworthy of a film as LAWRENCE OF
ARABIA, DR. STRANGELOVE, or THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, to name a few), nor
is it the crowning sci-fi accomplishment of its era (that accolade easily
is taken up by 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY).
Yet, on a level of combining thought-provoking and timely themes
alongside nail-biting suspense and intrigue, APES still remains one of the
grandest entertainments of its decade.
It’s both thoughtful and fun, which accounts for its worthiness
in terms of repeat viewings.
The film is spectacular and enjoyable, but many film pundits often do not give Franklin J. Schaffner’s (PATTON) film any deserved credit for its then inventive and unique filmmaking style, odd and offbeat musical score, and its rightful place on a list of films that transcended the medium. PLANET OF THE APES was arguably the very first sci-fi film that gave serious legitimacy to the genre, before works like 2001 and George Lucas’ STAR WARS came and solidified it.
The sci-fi extravaganzas that predated APES were largely of the
hokey, campy, and intellectually vacant wasteland of the 30’s and 40’s
adventure serials. Not to many filmgoers gave sci-fi a chance in the spotlight
before the 60’s, but APES made people come in and take notice.
only was the film significant from a financial perspective (it was a smash
hit when released), but it arguably became the first box office titan to
spawn a multimillion dollar advertising explosion into movie related
merchandise (a trend that people ignorantly and wrongly believe that Lucas
started nine years later with his space fantasy).
PLANET OF THE APES is an essential film in terms of how it provided
a schematic of sorts for the way future big budget sci-fi/action films would
be mounted, made, and marketed to the masses.
1968 film spawned not one, not two, not three, but four sequels – albeit of inconsistent worth – not to
mention a TV show, a cartoon series, a comic book line, toys upon toys,
and even a lackluster and ill- conceived “re-imagined” remake done by
Tim Burton in 2001 (which too was a box office champion).
If APES displays anything of significance then it’s the fact that
it was one of the first films that exploited a previously untamed
territory – multi-million dollar merchandising tie-ins and targeting
certain demographics – to help develop the film into a proto-blockbuster
that are a dime-a-dozen during our current summer months.
It’s so deceptively easy to overlook the ingenuity of the
promotion of PLANET OF THE APES. Yet,
if you place yourself within a time warp and view the film in context, its
impact becomes clear.
aspect that many pompous film critics also overlook is how well APES works
as an ingeniously mounted bit of insane socio-political commentary.
No one will ever label the film as being subtle with its themes or
messages, but those expecting even modest subtly from a sci-fi auctioneer about
damn, dirty talking apes that enslave dumb, mute, animalistic human
creatures miss the point. APES
was also inimitable for the way it sort of developed and tent pole for how
future great sci-fi films and TV shows were made.
In my mind, the best sci-fi works are ones that are allegorical and
use their fantastical themes and stories to comment on contemporary
settings and times. APES does
all of that: It’s a twisted hybrid of nightmarish Orwellian class
struggle; a Darwinian tale of survival of the fittest; a wacky and warped
construct of Evolution gone backwards and amok; and it also manages to
look at issues of slavery and subjugation, not to mention the relevance of
science in a world where the religious theocracy has a viselike grip over
its civilians. APES certainly
has its lighter and sillier moments, but there is no doubt that it was
trying to be about something more tangible and important than most other
sci-fi films of its time.
of this, of course, was an incredibly hard sell for audiences of the time.
Studio mogul Richard Zanuck once explained that making APES was
a constant uphill battle of rejection for years until everyone in the crew
could overcome the hurtle of the film’s preposterousness.
Not only that, but having actors perform plausibly under ape
makeup to deliver believable performances that would not be distracting
proved equally daunting. Simply
put - most studio execs simply felt that the film was not a viable option in
film itself got its inspiration from an unusual and inspired sci-fi
novella "La planete des sings" (Monkey Planet) by Pierre Boulle which
showcased a technologically advanced and intelligent simian society that
dominated lesser valued humans (to keep costs down, the apes in the film
adaptation were kept conveniently low tech).
Realizing the eerie oddness of the film – not to mention its
shockingly ironic ending (more on that later) – the producers thought there was
no one better than Rod Serling (from TV’s THE TWILIGHT ZONE) to helm
the script. There were many
re-writes made after Serling wrote his draft (most notably in terms of
characters, names, and changing the Ape culture to a primitive one), but
the essence of Serling’s script was still there in abundance, alongside
his original ending, which author Boulle actually preferred to the one he
wrote in his original novel.
other keys were crucial to getting this film made: the makeup and its
cast. In order to convince
Fox studios to green light the project the producers shot test scenes
using early prototypical mockups of the ape makeup (on the making of
documentary, BEHIND THE PLANET OF THE APES, the test footage is a great
curiosity piece, seeing as it has Edward G. Robinson playing one of the
apes, but the legendary performer later backed out of appearing in the
film due to the long,
arduous hours it would take in a makeup chair).
Nonetheless, the test was a success that helped launch the film’s
also appeared in the screen/makeup tests playing one of the human
characters and I think that securing him for the film was fundamental to
legitimizing the project (although Marlon Brando, at one point, was
considered). Charlton Heston
was, by the late 60’s, already a household name to even casual filmgoers
as he played larger than life personas with a masculine bravado and gusto
in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956), BEN HUR (1959), and EL CID (1961), the
latter being one of his least appreciated performances.
Heston appeared in APES at that very critical time in one’s
career where one’s omnipresent celebrity status was at a high and also
before some much maligned fiascos (ahem, AIRPORT 1975 and EARTHQUAKE) that
would taint it later. Heston’s performance in APES would launch him into another
stratosphere with fans of sci-fi, which later precluded his appearance in
future sci-fi cult hits like THE OMEGA MAN and SOYLENT GREEN.
What’s criminally overlooked (I use that term a lot here) is Heston’s performance, which is earnest, sincere, boisterous, and delectably and appreciatively unhinged and theatrical. He is the glue that cements the picture around him from becoming unhinged at the seams. What’s interesting here is that Heston does not play the part for cheeky laughs, nor does he pour on the sentimentality and emotion for hammy effect. His character is flawed too, one of those rare anti-heroes with a chip on his shoulder who is a cocky, cigar smoking, and negative minded nihilistic. A cheery, square-jawed, and one-note hero would have undermined the film’s creepy tone. Heston’s performance in APES is one of his best and the stuff of sci-fi, geekdom legend. More importantly, he was the precursor action hero before there was such a thing in Hollywood movies; a sort of thinking-man’s Arnold Schwarzenegger that combined hunky allure, caged aggression and spunk, and an inquisitive vitality.
watching this future President of the NRA run around in a loin cloth,
flexing his muscles, packing heat and kickin’ a lot of super-intelligent
simian ass is a trip. This is
a tough, uncompromising man that won’t back down to no one…or
animal...and it's his bold and boundless charisma that makes his performance work.
APES is enthralling from the start. We see a 20th Century astronaut named Taylor (Heston, making even his cheesy introductory monologue about the loneliness of space travel kind of moving) travels with his hibernating colleagues through the cosmos. He and his fellow star trekkers have hardly aged at all, but their deep space exploits at light speed have warped time (they are still their late 20th Century selves, but earth back home is now thousands of years in the future). Taylor soon joins his other four deep sleep voyagers and places himself in a hibernating chamber. Six months later their ship crash lands on a mysterious, barren, desert like planet. One of the female astronauts died in her sleep when her chamber malfunctioned (in a sinister reveal) so the other three remaining men, Taylor, Landon (Robert Gunner), Dodge (Jeff Burton) emerge from the wreckage to make the best of their stranded visit to this strange world.
Yet, there is a peculiar familiarity to this planet…hmmmm.
great about APES is that it does not force the action and intrigue down
our throats right away; this is a patient film that builds slowly and
allows some time for the human characters to play off of one another. All of this also helps to address and develop the fatalistic
impulses and mindset of the aggressive and somewhat morally vacant Taylor.
At the point where the men find their first signs of life and water
(which involves an impromptu skinny dip, in a cheeky scene) their party is
abruptly interrupted by the discovery of a clan of prehistoric clad humans
that all appear dumb and mute (although one cave girl, Nova, played by the
gorgeous Linda Harrison, looks way, way too fetching to be a
unintelligible troglodyte). Taylor
likes what he sees, and in an arrogant boast, mutters to his friends,
“If this is the best this planet has to offer we’ll be running it in a
Evolutionally regressed humans are not all that Taylor and his men find. Soon, they and the human clan are overrun and captured (in a now iconic action scene that has been lampooned countless times) by an vicious and fierce ape culture, but these apes ride horses, walk like bi-pedal men, and can – gasp! – speak fluent English! What Taylor learns is that apes are the superior society and that – double gasp! – humans are used as slaves and guinea pigs.
course, Taylor and his men are the only intelligent and speaking humans on
this planet, but his colleagues are eventually captured and lobotomized
and Taylor is shot in the throat, impeding his speech altogether.
He is caged like an animal, but two kind hearted and noble human veterinarians, Zira (Kim Hunter, very decent) and her fiancé, Cornelius
(Roddy McDowall, equally refined in a performance that would stay with him
for his career) befriend what they see is an uncannily smart human. Of course, a smart and – dear God – talking human is
absolute heresy in the religiously dogmatic ape society lead by Dr. Zaius
(Maurice Evans, playing a cold and calculating villain).
Then the astonishing happens:
Taylor shows Zira that he can write!
Zaius, of course, sees this as a threat and orders Taylor to be
lobotomized for the sake of simian survival, but Taylor makes a daring
escape through the ape village in one of the film’s most rousing action
scenes (Schaffner here uses a deliberately skewed and chaotic camera set
ups and shots – combined with Jerry Goldsmith’s experimental
music track of flutes, woodblocks, piano cords, and ape sounds - to create a
hauntingly effective and suspenseful montage). Taylor
is quickly captured, which culminates with him finally speaking to the ape
masses in what know is one of the greatest lines of the cinema: “Take
you’re stinking paws off me you damn, dirty ape!”
that Taylor appears to be the first human on this planet capable of
speaking, this thrusts the whole religious theology of ape culture for a
loop. A hearing is held to
help decide what to do with Taylor; after all, a brainless human incapable
of thought or speech is not nearly the danger that Taylor has now become.
The tribunal is one of the film’s more evocative scenes in terms
of it's handling of its themes, and it also culminates to the film’s
biggest laugh. When
Taylor’s words reveals his origins as an astronaut and are greeted with
animosity and anger by the perplexed panel, the three apes sequentially
cover their eyes, mouth, and ears respectively: see no evil, speak no
evil, and hear no evil.
is giving no quarter at the tribunal and his fate is set, but Cornelius
and Zira help him escape to the “Forbidden Zone” – once a paradise,
now off-limits to most apes – and before Taylor makes his full escape he
and company visit one of Cornelius’ odd archeological digs that shows
human remains and elements of an intelligent human culture. Taylor
thinks that humans came before apes based on this evidence. By the time
Taylor makes his full getaway and towards this film’s shocking twist
reveal as to the true origins of this planet of apes, he realizes that he
was more right than he thought he was.
ending of PLANET OF THE APES still remains one of the most forcefully
potent and ironic moments of the cinema, which is accentuated by one of
Heston’s quintessentially grandiose moments of powerful enunciation.
No more is the film’s supernatural level of Twilight Zone
macabre felt than with this twist ending, which is jarring and
staggering…and then the film quickly fades to black to let the shock
settle in and the darkness of the film’s conclusion germinate.
It’s simply one of the most impactful conclusions ever conceived.
OF THE APE's conglomeration of relevant storytelling, rousing action, and
sly humor still provides a great ride.
Few films get as much comic and dramatic mileage out of its odd
premise as this film does. Many
moments and dialogue exchanges are small masterpieces of satire, as is the
case when one ignorant ape tells Zira, “You know what they say, ‘human
see, human do'” or when Dr. Zaius tells Taylor, “I see you’ve
brought the female of your species, I didn’t know man could be
monogamous,” to which Taylor hilariously deadpans, “On this planet
it’s easy.” On top of
that the film has a serious subtext of race relations, intolerance, and
ultimately makes a stance on nuclear arms proliferation.
The tribunal alone - which attempts to discredit the “thinking and
speaking” Taylor by chastising him as a menace and walking pestilence -
must have, no doubt, felt very germane to the Civil Rights era that APES
was released in. It is the
film’s well-rounded performances and frankness
with its searing themes that ultimately helped elevate APES beyond being a
ridiculous and inane sci-fi flick.
OF THE APES has received its share of accolades after its release and has
become well revered as a cult classic.
It rightfully won a Special Achievement Oscar for John Chamber’s
then groundbreaking makeup and was nominated for Best Costumes and Musical
Score, the latter that was recently voted #18 on AFI’s 100 Greatest Film
Scores. Some of the film’s
dialogue is now a part of the cultural lexicon and frequently makes Best
Of lists. The ending of the
film, as mentioned, is still remembered as one of the more scandalous ever
concocted, and Heston’s virtuoso performance, Schaffner’s tight and
sharp direction, and Serling's thinking man’s script remain as
ever. Best of all, in 2001 APES was selected for preservation in
the United States’ National Film Registry for films of a “culturally,
historically or aesthetically significance.”
In Memory of