#388) Planet of the Apes (1968)

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#388) Planet of the Apes (1968)

OR “Monkey See, Monkey Doomed”

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

Written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. Based on the novel “La Planète des singes” by Pierre Boulle.

Class of 2001

The Plot: Astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) and his team crash land on a strange planet over 2000 years after their departure from Earth. After discovering a group of primitive humans, they quickly learn the planet is run by highly evolved apes who have formed their own civilized society. Animal psychologist Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and her archeologist fiancé Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) try to prove that Taylor is the missing link proving apes evolved from humans, but science/religious leader Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) immediately dismisses the notion. Come for the entertaining examination of basic human rights, stay for the twist.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives no superlatives, just a plot synopsis, a talent roster, and a rundown of the film’s many spin-offs. The essay by author John Wills is also pretty bland. God damn you all to hell!

But Does It Really?: “Planet of the Apes” is one of the best science-fiction movies ever made. Like any great science fiction, its premise is simple enough and executed without getting too preachy or technical. As a film, “Apes” truly stands on its own unique piece of ground, with a ripple effect on pop-culture that can still be palpably felt 50 years later. No argument here for NFR inclusion.

Everybody Gets One: Producer Arthur P. Jacobs secured the film rights to the “Apes” novel before it was even published, and was able to use his good working relationship with Fox VP Richard D. Zanuck to get the film made (Jacobs was also producing “Doctor Dolittle” for Fox at the time). Sadly, Jacobs died of a sudden heart attack in June 1973, less than two weeks after the release of the fifth “Apes” film.

Seriously, Oscars?: One of the most successful films of 1968, “Planet of the Apes” entered the 1969 Oscars with two nominations. Jerry Goldsmith’s score lost to “The Lion in Winter” and Morton Haack’s costume designs to “Romeo and Juliet”, but John Chambers received an honorary award for his creative makeup design (which wouldn’t have its own Oscar category until 1981).

Other notes

  • Just a reminder that “Apes” author Pierre Boulle also wrote “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, another novel that end with maniacs blowing it all up.
  • The filmmakers rejected “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling’s drafts of the screenplay (too expensive), but did retain his twist ending for the final film. Former blacklisted writer Michael Wilson was brought in for rewrites based on Franklin J. Schaffner’s suggestion that the apes’ society be more primitive. A third uncredited (and apparently forgotten) writer did a polish and added several of the movie’s really stupid monkey jokes (“Human see, human do”). You leave those to me, dammit!
  • Just a reminder that John Chambers was involved in the 1979 covert rescue mission that saved six Americans during the Iran hostage crisis, as seen in the movie “Argo”.
  • Some roles fit their actors like a glove, as Taylor does for Charlton Heston. He plays jaded natural leaders so well. Plus he has experience leading a group through an uncharted desert!
  • Shoutout to Jerry Goldsmith, who provides an atonal soundtrack that adds to the disorienting, unfamiliar sense of danger that Taylor et al are experiencing on the planet.
  • The Hays Code is dead! Rear nudity for days!
  • So in the future, apes have evolved into the dominant species, humans are now treated as wild animals, and horses…are still horses. Kind of a raw deal for them, huh?
  • It’s amazing that the likes of Maurice Evans, Roddy McDowall, and Kim Hunter all elevated their film careers by putting on ape suits. All three lend credible gravitas and believability to this crazy concept.
  • Apparently Nova is the Smurfette of the humans. Yeesh. Fox contract player Linda Harrison won the role when the likes of Raquel Welch and Ursula Andress turned it down.
  • “How can scientific truth be heresy?” Crap, this movie may be more prescient than ever.
  • “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” I believe you mean, “Please take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape”?
  • The scene of the gorillas hosing down Taylor (“It’s a madhouse!”) is the closest this film gets to paralleling the struggles of minorities during the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s. The apes’ treatment of the humans isn’t too different from how we treated our fellow citizens in this era.
  • The “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” gag was improvised on the set during filming. Side note: The saying originated in China and was popularized by the Japanese, who famously characterized the phrase using three monkeys. The Japanese word for monkey, “saru”, is similar to the negative suffix “zaru”, as used in their translation of the phrase. It’s a play on words!
  • Of course Heston wants to bring a gun to the Forbidden Zone!
  • Like many of the greats, the surprise ending was spoiled for me long before I ever saw the movie. During this viewing, however, I found myself unexpectedly stunned by the final shot. Turns out this film was a cautionary tale all along.

Legacy

  • “Planet of the Apes” was a major hit for Fox, who immediately started cranking out the sequels. “Beneath the…” was an immediate follow-up to the original, while the rest chronicled Cornelius’ son Caesar (Roddy McDowall again!).
  • Other immediate follow-ups included TWO TV series! The 1974 show aired on CBS for three months and featured Roddy McDowall as a third character! The 1975 animated series was finally able to showcase the more technologically advanced apes of the original novel.
  • “Planet of the Apes” got a “reimagining” from Tim Burton in 2001, the same year the original film was inducted into the NFR. Both Charlton Heston and Linda Harrison make cameos. Didn’t help.
  • A reboot trilogy started in 2011 gives Andy Serkis another chance to run around pretending to be a mo-cap monkey, and confirms my long-standing theory that the end of human civilization is James Franco’s fault.
  • The original “Planet of the Apes” has been spoofed so many times over the years, primarily its finale, which was exquisitely put to music thanks to Phil Hartman and “The Simpsons”.
  • As for the “Apes” future as a Disney property, they say a fourth Serkis movie is in development, but I don’t like how Disney has been quietly sweeping their new acquisitions under the rug. How about a themed land at Animal Kingdom instead?

Further Viewing: To convince Fox to green light the movie, a $5,000 makeup test was shot featuring Charlton Heston as Thomas (Taylor’s name in the Serling drafts) and Edward G. Robinson as Zaius. Robinson would eventually back out of the film due to health issues and his dislike for the ape prosthetics.

Further Further Viewing: Roddy McDowall filmed some home movies during “Apes” production, chronicling the makeup application process, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the Forbidden Zone.

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