A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

Rank: #7

PLANET OF THE APES  jjjj

40th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1968, G, 117 mins.

 

Taylor: Charlton Heston / Cornelius: Roddy McDowall / Zira: Kim Hunter / Dr. Zaius: Maurice Evans / Nova: Linda Harrison

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner / Written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling.

“It’s a madhouse!  A madhouse!”

-Taylor (Charlton Heston) in

PLANET OF THE APES

 

Planet Of The Apes PosterThe 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. 

Not 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.   

The 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.    

One 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. 

All 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 1968. 

The 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. 

Two 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 production. 

That…and Chuck Heston. 

Heston 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.  

Also, 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. 

What’s 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 month." 

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.  

The horror! 

Of 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!” 

Now 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.

Taylor 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. 

The 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. 

PLANET 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.  

PLANET 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 invigorating 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.”   

Not bad for a film about madhouse of post-apocalyptic talking monkeys that enslave mankind.  Not bad, indeed.

In Memory of

CHARLTON HESTON

1924-2008

IMBD filmography

  H O M E