Planet of the Apes (1968)

Astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) lands on a planet where apes have evolved from men, and must convince two chimp scientists (Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter) that he is intelligent. "Planet of the Apes." Not pictured: Troy McClure.

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Screenplay by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling; based on the novel by Pierre Boulle. Produced by Arthur P. Jacobs. Music by Jerry Goldsmith. Photographed by Leon Shamroy. Edited by Hugh S. Fowler. Art direction by William J. Creber, Jack Martin Smith. Starring Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, James Daly, Linda Harrison, Robert Gunner, Lou Wagner, Woodrow Parfey, Jeff Burton, Buck Kartalian.

Note: If by some miracle you are unaware what the ending to Planet of the Apes is, you might as well turn back. The film is near-impossible to really talk about unless you discuss the ending. So I’m going to spoil it. You’ve been warned.

After 43 years, the most shocking thing that one can discover about Planet of the Apes is that it is serious. Now don’t misunderstand: yes, it is also a little silly. And by now, the Apes series, with its premise that lends itself so easily to camp, has become so dated and burdened with sequels, remakes, spin offs and parodies (an effort made much easier by the hammy mannerisms of Charlton Heston, star of the first two films), that one must concentrate hard in order to view the first Apes as it should be seen: an eerie, desolate sci-fi parable. But if you really look, it is indeed that, warts and all, and it’s unfortunate that Apes now looks to some as little more than a fantasy franchise that people grew up with (and outgrew). No, sir. Apes has something to say.

What I like about Planet of the Apes is that it creeps up on you. It’s slow. In many respects, it mirrors the approach of Ridley Scott’s Alien, although Alien of course methodically descends into Lovecraftian horror, while Apes is a tiptoe into a kooky funhouse. But its steps are just as measured, and I like the way the movie believably foreshadows things to come while taking its time. As astronaut George Taylor (Heston) dictates a log entry six months into a deep space mission to colonize a distant world, he waxes poetic about what will become of his planet as he travels into the far future thanks to the theory of relativity. Obvious, yes, but it’s a believable reverie for a space commander who may never see his world again. Then he slips off into sleep and we have something to think about over the startling credit sequence, as Jerry Goldsmith’s score plays with unsettling percussive statements. And then Taylor and his two companions (Robert Gunner and Jeff Burton) crash into a lake on a mysterious planet and must swim to shore, where they are greeted with a frightening wasteland of rock, sand, and no vegetation.

Taylor, ever the leader, is pragmatic and cuts to the quick: “Alright, we’re here for good.” When a companion mounts a tiny memorial to a newly fallen comrade, Taylor laughs at him and points out that she’s been dead for months. The three men bicker and live off military rations as they travel through this strange new world, in sequences that have a kind of creepy awe, like some of the more expressive moments in 2001: A Space Odyssey. They are dwarfed by canyons, rivers, and jagged peaks. Some shots show them as tiny specks against the vast alien landscape. Later, they are watched from atop cliffs by indistinct shapes, and find a batch of scarecrow-like figures that are quite unnerving. One could imagine an entire movie based on these scenes, of men exploring a daunting new world, where aliens are infrequently (if ever) seen.

Eventually they find plants, and water, and when they go swimming, their clothes are stolen. Life! They meet some other humans, who are tribal and dress in rags, and, in an eerie shot, stare into the jungle in terror when a hunting horn is sounded. There’s a slight echo here of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, especially George Pal’s 1960 film version, where men and women of the far future have their existence occasionally interrupted by savage kidnappings from mysterious monsters. The monsters in this case, however, turn out to be a pack of gorillas with a nasty disposition, who take our heroes captive in an exciting action sequence. Has anyone ever made a tally of the number of movies in which Charlton Heston runs from people while dressed in a loincloth? Just wondering.

This brings us into act 2 of Apes, which will center on Taylor’s captivity by the apes, who live in a spare, bony-white city of man…excuse me, ape-made caves. Since Taylor has been wounded in a fight, his simian jailors naturally presume he is, like other humans, mute and stupid. It leads to amusing dialogue from the chimpanzee Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter), the Diane Fosse of the apes, struggles to define the sentience of humanity. Meanwhile, her earnest fiancée Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) tsk tsks her and is generally hapless about being involved. Taylor is abused and mistreated by his jailors, and his efforts to communicate are met with frustrating results, especially when he runs into the mysterious orangutan Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), who has a few tricks up his sleeve. It’s at this point in the film that the ape actors pretty much take over the story, especially the wry McDowell.

Zira and Cornelius eventually form a kind of bond with Taylor, yet still seeing him as a beast. Later, they will go on trial for suggesting the heresy that man could be intelligent, which goes against the “sacred scrolls” of ape society. The subtext here is not challenging, but the script still scores points, even when it’s being obvious. And there are some sequences that are quite chilling (such as when Taylor discovers what has happened to his shipmates, and a courtroom scene where his rags are removed so that he stands naked in front of a courtroom). If there is a problem in these moments, it’s the comedy, which is liberally deployed and becomes a little too broad for such a serious-minded story. An ape society that ironically mirrors our own is one thing (and makes a certain amount of sense given the conclusion), but when one monkey says to another “human see, human do,” the jokiness becomes a little much. The movie twists itself into overwrought shapes sometimes, both to forward its social commentary and to preserve its secret ending.

Ah, yes, the ending. Anyone with an even passing familiarity with iconic film scenes knows about the climax of Apes, where Taylor, now freed, rides a horse across a beach and comes face to face with the Statue of Liberty, and collapses in loud despair. (“You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you all to hell!”) The planet of the apes, it turns out, is actually Earth in the far future, nuclear war has killed us all and allowed the apes to take over. Even the remaining humans have become mute, devalued idiots, and humanity’s sole footprint to this great planet will be scattered artifacts and a mark of barbarism. Does knowing this ahead of time make the film better? It’s the question I have struggled with at every viewing, because of course how can the movie pack the punch today that it did in 1968?

I think…it still works. I speak now of the whole movie, not just its ending. In many ways Planet of the Apes is a flawed masterpiece, because it is cheesy at far too many moments, yet it opens and closes with such courage and power that it really should be seen. The film has several strengths, but much of them are drawn from the screenplay by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling (from Pierre Boulle’s book). Serling, who created and wrote for the classic television series The Twilight Zone, engages here in his favorite tactic as a writer: to depart on flights of fancy that eventually land closer to home than we expect. Many sci-fi writers use the conveyances of speculative fiction as a way to comment on the world around them, but Serling’s style was more aggressive. Here, he creates a large-scale metaphor to explore several different ideas, and then suddenly strips the metaphor away, so that we, as viewers, feel somehow implicated. It’s really quite brilliant.

For many, Heston remains the anchor of Planet of the Apes, the prototypical he-man with perfect abs who mocks the dumb monkeys for their backwards ways (little does he know). Heston plays Taylor as smug and cynical, which works for the narrative as it works to crush to him. But on screen, this idea disappears into a morass of Heston’s self-conscious acting ticks. At times it plays like swaggering self-parody, like some of John Wayne’s lesser roles. The real MVPs in Apes are the apes themselves. Not just the invaluable McDowell (who found himself inexorably tied to this series beyond all reason), but also Hunter, and Evans as Dr. Zaius, who dispenses useful advice and in many ways is one of the smartest and most sympathetic characters in the movie (and his final actions underscore the fact that even when you take away the final scene, Apes is a pretty dark and nasty little 60’s “popcorn” movie).

Apes has a lot of things on its mind. It strikes a tone of twisted race relations by enforcing imagery that ties Taylor and his fellow humans as slaves. And it attacks the way religious zealotry interferes with law (echoes of the Scopes monkey trial are deliberate and clever), and even tackles the sensitive topic of atheism within science (“Oh no, I’m not getting involved in that argument,” Cornelius says, his eyes twinkling knowingly). And, of course, its ultimate conclusion that nuclear war wiped humanity from Earth’s historical record is cynical and mean-spirited, but in a way that fits the traditions of the best science fiction, provoking us to thought. None of these topics date the picture and actually kind of help it attain a rather magical quality. The production is very clearly 60’s, yet its themes draw you in, regardless.

The direction, by Franklin J. Schaffner, who went on to direct Patton, is top notch, not just in the early passages but also later scenes that show off the ape city without being showy. Although the sets, like many 60’s genre pictures, feel like sets, they are nevertheless persuasive, and suggest a scavenger society, built on the ruins of the past, without quite endangering the film’s surprise. This is the best made of the Apes movies, which is ironic, since it is also the simplest and most direct in narrative purpose.

The Apes films are a curious breed, when you think about it, since they fold in on themselves like a Möbius strip. Time travel comes in around the third movie or so, which causes the curious effect of having a series that ends right where it started, and where the last couple movies are actually both prequels and sequels to the first films—at the same time. Throughout, you have the same notes sounded about racism, tribalism, the horrors of war, etc, only each time more overt, as if the filmmakers become afraid that we still weren’t getting it. And then there is more comedy, which is intended to make the eventual scenes of violence more jarring, but just feels out of place. In all, there have been six Apes movies, including the new one by Rupert Wyatt called Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which is a prequel, despite the fact that it’s a virtual retelling of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (the fourth movie), but it’s still very different, but it’s the same, but, but…

Okay, and there’s a seventh movie, too, because Tim Burton did a remake in 2001. What can I say about the Burton film? It’s terrible. Oh, the art direction is nice and the ape makeup (by Rick Baker) is awesome, and it’s entertainingly hammy (Tim Roth chews every piece of scenery he can find)…but it’s saddled with a terrible protagonist, played apathetically by Mark Wahlberg, who, just like in the original but with much less class, plays a class-A jerk. In a way, he deserves a comeuppance just like Taylor does in the original, but after pointless action climax (poorly handled by Burton), we get to a conclusion that makes absolutely no sense. None. Zero. The 2001 Apes movie is a plot-hole-addled joke, a rush job that reeks of brand name exploitation, and we should dismiss its existence at every opportunity. The movie doesn’t exist. Let’s never speak of it again.

Whenever I tackle a film for this column, I watch it once more, and I was kind of dreading this one, since it is a seminal sci-fi film that this sci-fi fan was truly quite bored with, the last time I saw it. I think that’s because I was twelve, and a big socially conscious sci-fi epic with a scarcity of pretty girls wasn’t interesting (Linda Harrison as Nova, Taylor’s eventual companion, wasn’t enough for me). But I quite enjoyed this revisit to Planet of the Apes. Perhaps that’s because I can see more clearly what the series is doing, or perhaps it is because the issues it embraces concern me more. Or perhaps it is thanks to the splendid DVD edition, which offers pristine widescreen picture that allows one to admire the craftsmanship much more. Or maybe, as a viewer, I have just plain evolved. It feels very good to think so.

GRADE: B

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1985 – Fright Night

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1992 – Unforgiven

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One thought on “Planet of the Apes (1968)

  1. Pingback: Fright Night (1985) « Time-Traveling Film Critic

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