Retro-Musings #3: “Planet of the Apes” (1968)

The 1968 original “Planet of the Apes” movie spawned four sequels, a single-season TV series, a single-season animated TV series, a less-than-successful 2001 Tim Burton remake, and now, with the imminent July 14th release of “War of the Planet of the Apes,” three films of a rebooted POTA movie series (which kicked off in 2011 with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”).   Not to mention a string of nihilistic, early ‘70s dystopian science fiction movies starring Charlton Heston (1970’s “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” 1971’s “Omega Man” and 1973’s “Soylent Green”).

^ Charlton Heston goes mutant-hunting in 1971’s “The Omega Man” (based somewhat loosely on Richard Matheson’s classic novel, “I Am Legend”).

That’s quite a treasure trove from a movie based on a ‘lesser’ novel from French screenwriter/novelist Pierre Boulle (“Bridge on the River Kwai”), who wrote the original 1963 book (“La Planete des Singes”) on a lark after visiting a Paris zoo…

“Planet of the Apes” was my first Star Wars-level pop culture obsession (in the days before Star Wars, of course).   Yes, I’d watched Star Trek and Twilight Zone as a little kid (and loved each), but Planet of the Apes was an event.   And while I was too young to remember the original during its 1968 cinematic release (I was about 16 months old at the time), I do remember seeing the last of the sequels at the movies (1973’s “Battle for the Planet of the Apes”) as well as a few of the others in re-release which coincided with the debut of the 1974 TV series.  And, of course, I’d seen all of the movies multiple times on television broadcasts.

I also had lots of the merchandise as well; a beloved plastic Planet of the Apes cereal bowl, as well as coloring/activity books and the Mego action figures, which were scaled to fit into my Planet of the Apes’ Treehouse Play Set (a favorite toy of my pre-Star Wars childhood).   But enough flashing of my nerd credentials (any reader of this blog is well aware of my geeky ‘qualifications’).

Okay, no more monkeying around (hehe)!  On with the apes...

* THE FORBIDDEN ZONE: 49 YEAR OLD MOVIE SPOILERS AHEAD *

Like Star Wars and ALIEN, the original “Planet of the Apes” opens with the 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare.   It then cuts to the interior of a spacecraft with a space-suited Charlton Heston as astronaut Capt. George Taylor (Heston), recording a final entry in a captain’s log aboard a small ‘sleeper ship’ that is traveling at relativistic speeds.   He notes how time on Earth is occurring far faster than onboard the ship (in keeping with Einstein’s special relativity), and he speculates if the people hearing his transmissions now are a “better breed” of mankind than the one he left behind on Earth of the ‘near-future’ (circa 1972).

^ Only Heston would SMOKE A CIGAR aboard a closed life-support spacecraft…

Putting out his cigar, Taylor then joins his cryogenically sleeping colleagues, Dodge (Jeff Burton), Landon (young Sean Connery lookalike Robert Gunner) and the lone-woman of the crew, Stewart (Diane Stanley).    Opening credits play over “2001”-style space warp imagery married with some oddly experimental, non-lyrical, primitively-styled music (by the late, great legend Jerry Goldsmith).  Then comes the emergency splashdown sequence…

…which eschews miniatures and special effects in favor of a more novel approach; a first-person perspective camera falling from the sky played with the sounds of a rapidly descending malfunctioning rocket engine.  The descent is broken by an Apollo capsule-style splashdown in a desolate river (stark, beautiful location photography of Lake Powell and Glen Canyon in Utah).

The crew is awakened hurriedly as they quickly realize two things; their comrade Stewart perished in cryo-sleep (a cracked seal in her stasis chamber), and that their ship is rapidly sinking.   Leaving Stewart’s shriveled corpse behind, the crew abandons their sinking spacecraft and try to get their bearings on this ‘alien’ world.

The lengthy but revealing ‘exploration’ sequence that follows provides fascinating insights into the three surviving astronauts; the cigar-chomping skipper Taylor is a complete cynic who thinks humanity is a lost cause.  Dodge and Landon see their situation as both a challenge to their training and an opportunity for knowledge.   Taylor continually busts his two younger colleagues’ balls over their naivete.   When Landon plants a tiny American flag in the soil, Taylor’s mocking laughter afterward says it all.  To Taylor?  Humanity and all of its hubris are little more than a pathetic joke.

After several days, the three tired men reach a greening area beyond the forbidding wastes of the desert and eventually encounter a race of primitive humans who are apparently mute and live off of corn growing in an apparently cultivated field.   Taylor concludes that “in six months, we’ll be running this planet” if the mute humans represent the planet’s evolutionary apex.

Then the true ‘masters’ of the planet are then revealed as the humans are sent fleeing and scurrying back into the woods by horseback-riding gorillas with shotguns (!).   The three astronauts are separated in the hunt to meet different fates, as Taylor is shot in the neck and captured.

Awakening from anesthesia in the veterinarian’s surgery center of a zoo, Taylor ‘meets’ his chimpanzee doctor, Zira (a charming, spirited Kim Hunter) and her bright young chimpanzee fiance Cornelius (the POTA series’ eventual staple star Roddy McDowall).   Taylor is unable to speak (as his vocal chords are healing) and tries to communicate via gestures and eventually through writing (takes a big gamble in assuming the apes speak/read English, right?  Boulle’s book worked through this, but the movie doesn’t bother).   The two chimpanzee scientists are astonished to learn that Taylor (whom Zira refers to as “Bright Eyes”) seems to come from somewhere beyond the apes’ ‘forbidden zone’; possibly from another planet.    This draws the attention and ire of the Minister of Science (and ‘keeper of the faith’), Dr. Zaius, played by “Rosemary’s Baby”’s Maurice Evans.   Zaius seems intent on proving Taylor’s intelligence as either the result of surgical manipulation or nothing more than gifted parroting.    The alternative seems to frighten Zaius…

Taylor soon reacquires his power of speech (following a dramatic escape attempt) with the classic line, “TAKE YOUR STINKING PAWS OFF ME, YOU DAMNED DIRTY APE!!!”  (Heston was recovering from a flu at the time, and his voice sounds perfectly raspy for  man recovering from throat surgery).

^ Yes, the movie even works in a sight gag with the ’three monkeys’ (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil) during Taylor’s trial…

The cynical, pessimist Taylor is then put in the ironic position of defending the human race in a trial sequence which recalls elements of both the famous “Scopes monkey trial” of 1925 (chronicled in “Inherit the Wind”) as well as the then-more recent  “House of Un-American Activities” communist witch hunts of the 1950s, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy (POTA co-scriptwriter Michael Wilson was himself blacklisted during that shameful period in US history).

Taylor is further enraged to discover that his astronaut comrades, Dodge and Landon, are now a stuffed zoo exhibit and a horrifically lobotomized invalid, respectively (“You cut out his brain you bloody BABOON!”).

A sympathetic Zira attempts to cheer up the despondent Taylor by assigning him a cellmate; the beautiful primitive whom Taylor dubs “Nova.”  Nova is played by yet another former childhood crush of mine, Linda Harrison (she looks like a 1990s-era Cindy Crawford trying on Raquel Welch’s “One Million Years B.C.” bikini).  Dunno about Taylor, but when I was a kid?  She would’ve cheered me right up…

Taylor is later brought in (bound and armed only with his oratory) before Dr. Zaius.   Zaius tries to grill Taylor for information on where the rest of his fellow talking human ‘mutants’ are hiding (something the first 1970 sequel, “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”, would follow upon).  A resistant Taylor, in turn, begins to understand the orangutan’s fear of him as he comes to recognize Zaius’ conflict.   Zaius is torn between scientific advancement and maintaining his culture’s faith in an ape hierarchy.   Zaius’ worldview doesn’t account for an ‘animal’ human that seems to possess the same ‘spark’ of intellect as the noble, divine ape.   Zaius’ solution?  Suppress the ‘inconvenient truth’ by eliminating Taylor (via exploratory surgery and eventual dissection).

Faced with the imminent death of her prized specimen, Zira employs her nephew Lucius (Lou Wagner) and Cornelius to help Taylor break out of the zoo and escape.   Taylor insists on bringing Nova with them.  Reluctantly, the rogue chimpanzees agree.  Their plan?   To revisit the ‘forbidden zone’, which Cornelius had visited previously on an unsanctioned archeological dig.  It was there that Cornelius had discovered evidence of an older, and (paradoxically) more advanced human culture.    Once there, the curious trio of chimp fugitives and the two humans are surrounded by gorilla troops, led by the tenacious Dr. Zaius.   Taylor feigns being injured in a firefight with the troops and captures Zaius, who is forced to temporarily withdraw his troops.

Entering an archeological dig site within a cave wall, Zaius soon sees Cornelius’ evidence of the advanced human culture for himself; an artificial heart valve, a pair of rotted dentures, and ruined eyeglasses.   The irony of the evidence isn’t lost on Taylor; as human frailties and weaknesses are now being used to bolster the case for human superiority.   They soon uncover the most dramatic evidence of all; a battered, ancient child’s doll… that talks.

Lucius, standing watch outside the cave, is soon overpowered by Zaius’ troops.  Taylor uses Zaius as a hostage and the troops once again fall back.   Taylor has Zaius tied up, as he and Nova say their goodbyes to their ape allies who’ve helped them escape.  Taylor even offers Zira a goodbye kiss (her response: “Alright… but you’re so damned ugly.”).

Soon Taylor and Nova depart on horseback and make their way up the shoreline of the forbidden zone… only to discover the shocking truth of the ‘planet of the apes’; a half-buried Statue of Liberty in the sand.

The planet is Earth; an Earth destroyed by mankind and left for the apes.   Taylor pounds his fist into the surf and bellows, “You finally, really did it!  YOU MANIACS!!!  You blew it up!  God damn you… God damn you all to HELL!!”   The screen fades to black as the sounds of the surf are heard over the otherwise silent end credits.   It’s possibly the single best ending in all of science fiction cinema, I kid you NOT. 

And the ending still works today; especially if you substitute (or add to) the imminent dangers of human-made nuclear war with the current & equally real dangers of human-induced climate change.   As a species, we humans do seem to possess a unique talent for self-destruction.

I must confess that the greater allegorical aspirations of the screenplay were largely lost on my pre-teen self.   I responded mainly to the cool ape makeups (I sooo wanted a POTA mask for Halloween back in 1974; tried to make my own… didn’t work) and the idea of astronauts traveling through time to wind up on a screwed up Earth.   It was very Twilight Zone-ish.    It was as if Twilight Zone suddenly had a feature-length episode with a budget in the millions, and in full color cinemascope.   It’s not too surprising that the screenplay was also worked on by TZ creator/host/writer Rod Serling; who had a Hitchcockian talent for twist endings, as well as a powerful talent for allegory.  “The Twilight Zone” was a favorite TV show in my youth (and today).  My entire family loved it, and that was a rare thing since we usually had wildly divergent tastes most of the time.   Part of POTA’s appeal for me is that it feels like Twilight Zone Unchained.

The film is also aided with terrific art direction by William Creber and Jack Martin Smith.  The ape city has a wonderful cohesion to it.  It looks like a curious hybrid of ancient Rome and the Flintstones, but it very much works.  There is not a single object or prop in the ape city that doesn’t feel like it belongs in those surroundings.   Ape wardrobe is also interestingly color-coded.  The militaristic gorillas wearing blacks and dark purples.  The pacifist chimpanzees wearing brown & green (arboreal colors, reflecting nature).  And the academic/administrative orangutans wearing… well, orange (as well as brown tunics).

While this approach to the ape costuming may seem simplistic, it also gives the ape cultures an at-a-glance distinction and a visual shorthand (this is, after all, a 2 hour movie and not a miniseries or novel).

The sweeping, location-heavy epic direction by future “Patton” director (and Oscar winner) Franklin J. Schaffner makes nice use of the rocky ‘alien’ locales of Utah, Fox movie ranch and even the beaches of Malibu to stitch together a cohesive landscape of a post-apocalyptic Earth beginning anew.

And of course,  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the ape makeups of late makeup legend John Chambers.  While the makeups in 1968’s POTA (and its sequels) don’t exactly pass for real chimps, gorillas and orangutans, they do have a great consistency about them; much like their ape city surroundings.   Their flexibility also allows a surprising range of emotions from some of the actors (Hunter and McDowall in particular).  POTA also won a ‘special’ Oscar for makeup (makeup wasn’t a regular category in those days).   In fairness, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (the other landmark sci-fi movie of that year) had primitive hominids in its ‘Dawn of Man’ opening sequence that were much more convincing.  But the POTA makeups had to be used by the actors to articulate and display subtle emotions…something that the otherwise more realistic but less mobile masks of “2001” simply couldn’t have done.   It’s a bit of a trade off, and POTA took home the Oscar.  As a diehard fan of both movies, it’s yet another reason why I sometimes loathe the randomness of awards and arbitrary rankings.    Why must there be such competition in works of art?   Oh well.  At any rate, the makeup in POTA also inspired other makeup legends like Rick Baker who worked on both Star Wars and Tim Burton’s 2001 POTA makeup; which for all of that movie’s faults, was the single best thing about it.

^ The far-more realistic but less ‘actor friendly’ simian makeup of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (the other great science fiction movie of 1968…).

For the curious?  There are many terrific books on the making of the Planet of the Apes saga as well, including the succinct 2001 paperback “Planet of the Apes Revisited: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of the Classic Science Fiction Saga” by Joe Russo, Larry Landsman and Edward Gross (a prolific moviemaking writer whom I’d recently had the pleasure to meet at WonderCon 2017).  I remember buying the book in 2001 and pretty much consuming it one sitting.   It’s become my shorthand reference for all-things POTA.  Quick, informative and reader-friendly.   If you ever have a pre-2011 POTA question and your internet is down?  It’s a great go-to book.

^ Another more recent arrival (also cowritten by Gross, and entertainment writer Jeff Bond) is the coffee table book, “Planet of the Apes: The Evolution of a Legend” (2014), which also covers the entire Apes canon, including the first two reboot movies as well.   While the text is solid, it’s the large, glossy photos that make this latest one a must-have for POTA fans.   It’s a beautiful book that finally gives the franchise the long-overdue coffee table treatment.

And, of course, there’s Pierre Boulle’s 1963 original novel; which I’d finally read during a trip to Portland, Oregon for a family wedding back in 2000.   My wife and I had one relatively free day during our three-day stay there, and decided to hit the legendary Powell’s bookstore; a three level, sprawling haven for book lovers.   It is the single, largest independently owned bookstore in the world, and we spent the better part of a day exploring it.   We actually had to buy a duffle bag at the airport to take all of the books we brought back with us onto the plane (this was pre-9/11, when luggage regulations were a lot more lax).

^ Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon.  A must-see mecca for book lovers…

One of the many books I’d purchased was a used, good-condition English language paperback of Boulle’s “La Planete des Singes” (aka “Monkey Planet”, or “Planet of the Apes”).  Read most of it back in the hotel room, and finished it on the flight home.   I was fascinated by the differences between it and the 1968 film I grew up with.   From the mysterious framing story which followed a pair of mysterious ‘vacationers’ (later revealed to be intelligent space-sailing chimpanzees) who stumble across the log book (written in 2500) of one Ulysses Moreau, the sole survivor of an expedition to the real-life star Betelguese on a planet named Soror (the titular planet; which was not Earth).  Like the movie, the book employed Einstein’s relativity to allow the crew of academics (not NASA astronauts) to reach the star within their lifetimes.   Once there, they are captured by a more modern civilization of apes, who use cars,  20th century architecture, etc.   Unlike the movie’s hated Taylor, Moreau becomes something of a novelty/celebrity to the apes, who only begin to fear him and his capabilities when it is revealed (via exploratory brain surgery & hypnosis on another human) that the mute humans of Soror were once the ‘masters’ of that planet as well.   The ending has Moreau fleeing Soror in an ape-built rocket ship (along with a pregnant Nova).   During the voyage back to Earth, he teaches Nova to speak, and upon arrival at Earth they land in Paris… and are promptly greeted by intelligent ape soldiers who have similarly overrun the Earth.   Fin.

^ That ending was (more or less) the ending that Tim Burton and his writers tried to repurpose for the ill-conceived 2001 POTA remake, with astronaut Mark Walberg crash-landing in Washington DC and seeing a ape-ified version of the Lincoln memorial.   It didn’t quite succeed.   I won’t go too deeply into the 2001 version, since I don’t want to harsh my buzz for the original at this time.   The makeup and production design of the 2001 POTA movie are its best assets, so let’s just leave it there for now.  Maybe I’ll revisit it in a future blog entry (for my 3-4 loyal readers…).

But getting back to Boulle’s book?  It would be interesting to perhaps attempt a live-action movie of Boulle’s novel someday (a miniseries, perhaps?) but it wouldn’t really fit into the current rebooted series of films, since those take place on ‘our’ Earth, and not Soror, orbiting Betelguese.  Not to mention that the ’68 movie’s ending has far more dramatic punch and relevance than the somewhat more whimsical satire of Boulle’s novel.   “La Planete des Singes” is more Jonathan Swift than Rod Serling, but as a child who grew up loving Twilight Zone, I suppose Serling’s version is my knee-jerk preference (with no offense to Boulle’s incredible legacy).

Andy Serkis’ brilliant motion captured performance as “Caesar” the chimp and James Franco’s Dr. Will Rodman in 2011’s smart reboot, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” 

The modern reboot series, which began with 2011’s excellent “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” follows more of the earlier movie series’ trajectory; showing how a wonder drug which tried to cure Alzheimer’s led to the development of the simian’s artificially boosted intellect and the downfall of our own civilization.  The drug also led to an airborne virus which wiped out most of humanity, unlike the offscreen nuclear war of the 1968-73 movies.   Frankly, a human-targeting virus makes a lot more sense since nuclear war (and its radioactive fallout) would easily kill apes (our closest genetic relatives) as well as human beings (see: “Project X” from 1987).  A virus could be much more genetically specific in its malice.    This is just one of the ways that the rebooted movies ‘cleaned up’ some of the loose ends of the classic original.

But for any of its loose ends or other faults, the 1968 Planet of the Apes is still a landmark piece of science fiction cinema and has arguably one of the greatest endings ever made.  I once had the pleasure of introducing it to a good friend of mine in the mid-‘90s; a friend who had NEVER seen the movie.    We watched it (on laserdisc) at my apartment, and by the time Taylor and Nova made their way up the beach, I was studying my friend’s face for reaction.    When the half-buried Statue of Liberty was revealed, my friend’s jaw promptly went slack.

The movie still works.

 

 

 

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