SUB-GENRES: Thriller / Drama
DIRECTED BY: Franklin J. Schaffner
WRITTEN BY: Michael Wilson & Rod Serling (screenplay); Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle
PEW PEW: There is plenty of action contained in pockets within the strong narrative, though the action is presented in the fashion of the era and is, therefore, not quite as hectic as the action sequences in modern films.
CAT FOOD: The Planet of the Apes film series frequently dips its pen into the ink of social commentary and liberally applies it to both the background and foreground of the pictures. This one tackles racism, nihilism, animal rights, war, religion, science, equality, and much more.
There was no shortage of science fiction novels being published in the fifties and sixties, and many of them had powerful things to say about the world around their authors. While some of these novels went on to be adapted into film, many of them were too ambitious or bizarre to even attempt a faithful re-imagining. When French author Pierre Boulle (famous for The Bridge On the River Kwai) published La Planète des Singes (Monkey Planet) in 1963, it’s hard to believe anyone could picture a successful film coming out of it, with the limited production tools of the era, at least.
But blow me down, they did it. La Planète des Singes, a novel about a journalist’s experience on a distant planet populated by intelligent apes who wore suits and drove cars, and treated the less advanced humans like animals, went on to spawn eight feature films (with a ninth on the way next year), a live-action television series, a cartoon series, and a clandestine merchandising campaign that predates Star Wars’. So pull up a seat, cause over the next eight days, we’re going to talk about Planet of the Apes, easily one of the most profound and important science fiction film series’ in the genre’s rich history.
An American attempt to crop Boulle’s wild concept into a film that audiences wouldn’t scoff at saw the light in 1968, after a savage production effort that employed nearly all of the industry’s special effects people. While the film, bearing the English title Planet of the Apes, differed in some major areas from the novel (the apes are less advanced in the film, the main character is quite different, and the ending, while still a twist, is a different beast altogether), it still took the soul of Boulle’s novel and injected it into an arguably more profound misadventure.
The film begins with Taylor, the leader of a manned mission into deep space, joining his fellow astronauts Landon, Dodge, and Stewart in hibernation. His opening monologue paints him as a distinctly misanthropic character who isn’t fond of his fellow man and has embarked on a journey through time and space to leave them behind and to find something better.
When the ship crashes on an unfamiliar barren planet, only Taylor, Landon, and Dodge survive to know the perils the planet holds within its forested regions. As the three astronauts discover primitive mute humans, they also discover evolved apes that ride on horseback, carry guns, and hunt the humans for sport. All alone after the hunt, Taylor finds himself wounded, unable to speak, and confined to a cage in an animal lab run by a chimpanzee scientist named Dr. Zira.
While Zira and her fiance Cornelius view Taylor as a sort of missing link that may help science to understand how apes evolved from men on this planet, others are not so thrilled. As Taylor demonstrates his intelligence, he gathers unwanted attention from Dr. Zaius, a shrewd orangutan who is Minister of Science as well as Chief Defender of the Faith, a combination that proves potentially lethal for the intelligent Taylor, who presents as an anomaly to science and an abomination to the faith that threatens ape superiority.
What unfolds over the course of the film changes Taylor from a bitter misanthrope into a dynamic and powerful character who is willing to fight tooth and nail to prove that mankind is better than the narrow-minded and dogmatic apes, that his kind transcended the fear of the unknown to become technologically advanced people with the freedom of expression. The story presented in the film might seem ridiculous to those going in, a planet where talking apes rule men, but it very soon turns utterly serious and the struggle is terribly human and incredibly identifiable.
The ending, which I will keep from you because it will blow you away if you don’t know it already, was expertly crafted by Twilight Zone/Night Gallery mastermind Rod Serling. It mirrors one featured in the Twilight Zone episode “I Shot An Arrow Into the Air,” but is much more profound and pulls the rug out from under any sense of comfort you might have gained whilst following Taylor’s story.
The film’s cast is a thing of utter beauty. Big screen heavyweight Charlton Heston deftly portrays a hero much different from the ones we normally see in this type of picture. He isn’t immediately the champion we’d like to cheer for. He hates people and is abrasive to his colleagues, but the situation, coupled with Heston’s prodigious acting ability, carves a pillar of a man out of him. The change in his character underscores the fragile dynamic present in every human conscience.
Zira and Cornelius, the two apes that befriend Taylor, are played by Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall respectively. Hunter brings a passion and humanity to the intelligent Zira that is strong but also oddly soft and fragile. Zira presents as a powerful figure who cares deeply and is not easily silenced. Maurice Evans, who plays the film’s chief antagonist Dr. Zaius, is another one of the film’s great treasures. This dude portrayed the thick-headed religious zealot and the brilliant academic all at once with the utmost class. Zaius is a menace whose influence and single-minded vision are to be feared, but he is also dignified and genuinely afraid of what Taylor represents to his way of life.
And of course, there’s Linda Harrison’s Nova, an absolutely stunning creature with no dialogue who eventually represents the innocent side of humanity. She knows little of what’s going on but still knows enough to try and stop Taylor from creating to much of a stir. She knows the dangers of her world and of standing up to the apes. She’s also one of my all-time favourite babes. Dude.
While my mind is on the film’s stunning visuals, I have to make mention of Planet of the Apes’ set and make-up design. As mentioned above, the film was so ambitious it required the vast majority of the industry’s visual effects workers to bring to life. The complex, highly detailed, and mind-bogglingly functional ape make-up was created by a dude who designed prosthetics for deformed soldiers. The first time a gorilla soldier is shown on screen it is a genuine milestone far removed from the stiff and non-expressive ape masks of the era.
Ape City is also a really neat design. While it isn’t nearly as advanced as the one described in Boulle’s novel, the film’s Ape City presents an ancient yet civilized design with just the right amount of barbarism to accurately represent the oppressive creatures who dwell within.
And I’m not going anywhere without mentioning Jerry Goldsmith’s legendary score. Reverb-soaked crashes, jarring piano, martial horns, and other foreign sounds combine to make Planet of the Apes’ soundtrack a thing of wondrously peculiar majesty. It works just as hard as the actors and the visual effects to paint this world as one far removed (but not dissimilar) from our own.
Finally, the magic of Planet of the Apes isn’t simply because of its memorable characters, riveting action, and the high-stakes struggle of its protagonists. The film is as popular as it is because it came along at a time when human rights were being questioned. Its social commentary is more than just an embellishment to jazz up an already loaded picture. Planet of the Apes teems with concepts, both obvious and hidden, that blast and drive into the hearts and minds of the film’s viewers. The amount of truth the film proposes about the meaningful issues of both then and now is staggering to say the least. And yet, it never really comes off as preachy. You take what you will from its rich narrative.
In closing, Planet of the Apes is a suspenseful, cerebral, and immersive experience that should not be missed by anyone. While there are some who may find its drama to be boring by today’s standards, I’ve seen a great many of such people pulled in to Planet of the Apes by pure imagination alone. Without a doubt, this picture is one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time.