scene from Planet of the Apes

Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Planet of the Apes at
50 Years Old

| published June 1, 2018 |

By R. Alan Clanton,
Thursday Review editor

One of the most important science fiction parables of the cinema, the original Planet of the Apes is now 50 years old. Yes, half a century.

This seems both improbable and shattering: as a kid I shelled out hard-earned lawn care money to see it in a theater about nine blocks from my house. That theater is now an office complex, though the little business district in which the former theater resides looks much the same as it did in 1968, and contains many of the same types of concerns: a busy pool hall, a popular pizza restaurant, a barbershop, a hair salon, a dentist, a florist. Gone are the mom and pop drug store with the tiny storefront post office, and the locally-owned hardware store.

Such are the ravages and ironies of time. The more things change, the more they stay the same. When Charlton Heston’s character—astronaut George R. Taylor—finally encounters sentient life on what he and his fellow space travelers believe is a remote warm planet in a distant solar system, he finds a world in which apes, gorillas, orangutans and other primates reside at the top of the evolutionary chain, but where humans exists as little more than wild beasts—nuisances, really, to the fragile ecosystem and agricultural balance managed by the apes.

Based on the darkly sardonic sci-fi novel by French writer Pierre Boulle (his novels include The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Executioner, and Saving Face), Planet of the Apes (the story of an intellectually curious writer who travels to a distant planet) was rewritten into a screenplay by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson, both of whom had a skilled eye for the American and British moviegoer, and with the goal of reframing the story into something which more resembled the contemporary interests in space travel. Held up for reasons having to do almost entirely with the costs of special effects, make-up and set design, the film treatment and script variants languished for a few years until studio chiefs were convinced that the film could be made without sending the studio into a lake of red ink.

Thus, between the time producer Arthur Jacobs purchased the rights to the novel from Boulle in 1963, and when shooting began in the spring of 1967, four years of behind-the-scenes discussion and debate would take place: could the movie be made at any cost; and once complete, would audiences bother to see it—this at a time when sci-fi was struggling to make a real impact at the American box office. After all, as far as the Hollywood chiefs were concerned, sci-fi’s Golden Age was widely presumed to have been in the 1950s, and unknown filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were a decade away from their major, game-changing big screen achievements. The TV series Star Trek had not yet made its prime time debut, and there was skepticism within the major studios about the cash power of sci-fi. Still, the Boulle’s avante garde novel offered something attractive and compelling, especially to the eyes of Jacobs and others who saw a lot of potential. Parallel to the development of Planet of the Apes into a viable, tractionable screenplay, were the rumors circulating about MGM’s major sci-fi project, then also approaching the start of shooting: 2001: A Space Odyssey, a more-or-less joint creative effort by writer Arthur C. Clarke and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. (In an ironic twist of fate, both films would be released the same week; both would involve apes and the complex special effects and prosthetics needed to make such make-up believable; and both would include mind-expanding studies into evolution and time travel.)

As for Planet of the Apes, the Great Space Race certainly played a role in the changing attitudes in the upper echelons at 20th Century Fox. By the time shooting began in 1967, the Gemini program was coming to a close and the Apollo program was rolling out. Manned missions to the moon were already on NASA’s schedule, and the American space program was—to put it mildly—reaching past its fever pitch and on the brink of transformative steps into outer space and onto other worlds. Anything was possible; and after all, what wonders would we find on those faraway worlds we would surely soon visit and perhaps inhabit?

The role of director was offered to several notable filmmakers, including top-listers Blake Edwards (the Pink Panther series) and J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone). Edwards was believed within the studio to be capable of threading both subtle comedic elements and ironic structure into the movie, whereas Thompson was seen as able to produce a more action-filled epic. (Thompson would, in fact, take on the role of director for several Planet of the Apes sequels in the 1970s; his stewardship of the franchise brought the series toward a more action-laden narrative).

In the end, Franklin Schaffner was chosen. Schaffner, whose earliest projects included the original adapted-for-TV version of Twelve Angry Men and the 1965 film The War Lord, would later achieve award-winning success with Patton (1970) and Papillon (1973)—films with similar big screen epic qualities.

It was Schaffner, working with screenwriter Wilson, who recrafted Serling’s more advanced ape society into something somewhat more primitive in appearance—a gimmick which not only simplified the logistics and lowered the cost of production, but also allowed the project to be fast-tracked into production after its long series of delays. The prime role eventually given to Charlton Heston (astronaut Taylor) was first considered for James Brolin, still new to acting and not widely known outside of the studio. Brolin, in fact, appeared in a test shoot commissioned to convince the suits at 20th Century Fox that newly developed make-up and prosthetics would make the ape and gorilla sequences believable. Linda Harrison’s role as Nova was originally offered to both Raquel Welch and Ursula Andress, both bankable superstars at the time, but neither of whom were particularly smitten by the script. The role of the chief foil, Dr. Zaius, was first considered for Edward G. Robinson (who also appeared in that test shooting), but eventually went to British stage and screen actor Maurice Evans, whose resume included a substantial experience with Shakespearian work on stage and on television. Other key parts were given to James Whitmore (President of the Ape Assembly), Paul Lambert (minister), Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, and James Daly.

Shooting began in late May 1967 on locations in Arizona, California, Utah and Colorado.

The film’s plot is sci-fi infused with mystery, or perhaps the other way around. After a presumably long voyage into deep space, our protagonist astronauts crash land into a large lake on an uncharted planet. They must wake up from their hibernation, grab their survival gear, and hastily exit the spaceship before it sinks into the water. On the way out of the ship, Taylor checks the control panel and its onboard clock and calendar: thousands of years have passed even as Taylor and his colleagues have aged only a few months. The Earth they once knew is long gone, even if they had the ability to find their way back across the galaxy and back to their home planet. Taylor and his fellow astronauts—Dodge and Landon—must now survive on what appears to be a largely lifeless planet, a rocky, craggy, flinty landscape with no signs of plant or animal life—though a place where the air is breathable and the atmosphere similar to that of Earth.

The three men at first row in their small lifeboat along the waters and rivers, then, hike on foot in search of…anything. Finally, they stumble upon a tiny plant…then, another, and still another, until they reach an area with lush vegetation. While bathing in a small waterfall-fed pond, their spacesuits and most of the survival gear is stolen by creatures unseen. Moments later, they track the thieves—primitive human-like creatures (in fact, they are exactly like humans, only mute, unskilled at tool use, and dressed only in animal skins)—who are foraging for food in a grove. Taylor and his colleagues suspect that these humanoids are at the top of the evolutionary process on this planet, and joke that within a few months they—Taylor, Landon and Dodge—will be effectively running the planet.

No such luck for them. Moments later the tribal, primitive humans are attacked by a well-organized fighting force of apes and gorillas, many of whom are heavily armed, many on horseback. We quickly realize that it is the apes who are in charge of this planet. In a violent hunt, the humans—Taylor, Dodge and Landon among them—are herded and attacked, some roped and hogtied, others chased, still others shot and killed. Dodge is killed, while Landon is badly injured. Taylor, attempting to escape in the melee, is shot through the neck. When he wakes up days later, he find himself in a zoo-like enclosure, his neck so badly wounded that he cannot speak. Around him are a few other humans in cages or cells, and among the facility are various apes, chimpanzees and primates at work—some are guards, some are attendants, some are doctors or "veterinarians." Taylor cannot communicate. One of the doctors, a female named Zira, dubs Taylor “Bright Eyes,” for his apparent facial engagement and attentiveness.

Members of the medical staff offer Taylor a female human for companionship, a woman whom he will eventually call Nova. Later, Taylor attempts to escape, only to be caught after a long and rambunctious foot chase through the ape city. Upon his being netted finally by the gorillas, Taylor is able to finally speak, shouting “take your stinking hands off me you damned dirty apes!” Shocked, aghast, and horrified, the ape population suddenly realizes that this human is no ordinary creature. Taylor is quickly ushered back to his cell, quarantined from all others (except Nova), and labeled a freak or mutant by the apes.

Taylor soon surmises the new reality of his situation: he is stranded on a planet where apes have evolved from humans, and where the evolutionary processes are the reverse of what is the accepted theory of evolution back on Earth.

Thus the gist of the story. Taylor, and his two newly befriended ape doctors, Zira and Cornelius (played by Kim Hunter and Roddie McDowall), must stand trial—a show trial, really—before the top minds of religion and science among the apes. Cornelius and Zira are accused of conducting medical experiments to create Taylor, a speaking human.

Later, with the help of Zira and Cornelius, Taylor and his female companion escape in an effort to spare his life from certain execution. They journey by horseback toward what they understand to be a sea past an area known as the Forbidden Zone. There, they link up with Cornelius and Zira, who have—as it turns out—unearthed a strange archeological find, an area which may include life of a previous civilization. Among the artifacts: reading glasses, small tools, what appears to be a tiny heart valve, and a human baby doll. In the meantime, Dr. Zaius (played by Maurice Evans), and a contingent of his military guards, have also arrived at the archeological site, which lies along the shore of an ocean or sea. After a brief exchange of gunfire, Taylor captures Dr. Zaius, and, along with Cornelius, Zira and Nova, explore inside the cave where the artifacts have been found. After the human doll is tossed aside and cries “momma,” Taylor theorizes that the “humans” who once lived there must have been more intelligent than the scientific authorities have assumed, and may have predated the apes.

Dr. Zaius warns Taylor that he may not want to know the awful truth of what lies beyond in the Forbidden Zone, and that its worst implications may in fact tell a more complete tale of what really happened on this planet. Still, Taylor and Nova eventually decide to leave on horseback to explore the planet, start a new life elsewhere, and maybe find answers. They follow the shoreline for hours, and eventually—right there on the beach—stumble upon definitive evidence that Taylor has, in fact, not travelled very far at all. Normally at this point in a retrospective review we would warn readers of what is next. But there is, of course, no spoiler alert needed here: the movie ends with what may be the most famous final frames of any American film, and by far the most shocking ending of anything presented in science fiction. Taylor is back on Earth after all. He has merely travelled through time.

Though released the same week as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and despite the superficial similarities (apes, time travel), those two classic movies of the early summer 1968 are, to be sure, strikingly different films in style and tone. Where Kubrick’s masterpiece—like most of his films—is a marvel of careful pacing and patient understatement, meticulous detail and exacting set-design—Planet of the Apes is more direct and conventional, notwithstanding its sprawling locations in the U.S. National Park locations of Lake Powel, Glen Canyon, and the Grand Canyon, and its lavish and innovative motif of primitive, cave-like architecture.

Where 2001 leaves many questions unanswered, especially with its oblique conclusion and the unresolved issue of the never-seen aliens’ purpose, Planet of the Apes—which frequently and regularly has its principle characters consciously asking the obvious and most overt questions—addresses the somewhat unforeseen question of its purpose only in the final frames with its stunning, shock ending.

To some film critics, as well as many fans of Planet of the Apes, that iconic, mind-blowing ending resolves and repairs most—if not all—of the film’s flaws. Among those minor irritants: a self-styled cynicism by our protagonist Taylor (Heston), whose running rhetorical debates with his astronaut colleagues, followed by his persistent monologues and diatribes on the notions of natural selection and his new found home, seem to serve the narrative poorly for the first hour or more (though this may have been deliberate on Schaffner's part). Only as the film circles its target more closely toward the end do we begin to reconcile Taylor’s place in the story, an often glib and bitter figure who at times seems more of an outcast from Earth than the stoic, well-trained NASA space traveler we are supposed to believe he is.

And in the expansive opening sequences, neither Dodge nor Landon seem totally at ease with their place in the film, nor within our understanding (certainly not in the heady, late 60s) of what mettle an astronaut is imbued. Their banter seems more like a weird fusion of technical college and Haight-Asbury than that of Houston or Cape Canaveral, and Taylor’s self-conscious needling of both seems at odds with the training and esprit de corps long associated with the legendary figures of real world space travel. Taylor’s somewhat irritating nature as a grouchy, near-misanthrope serves as an undercurrent which only begins to resolve itself as he must face the harsh realities of his new world, and his unsettled place as something worse than a brute animal, but also a very real threat to the society of apes.

Thus the shock ending not only saves the film from a place in movie history as a mere near-classic, it so easily resolves the context of Taylor’s overt doubts and hard-edged cynicism that it propels the film into a pantheon of near exclusivity, and managed to help the movie stand on its own (and the tougher test of time, as it were) despite the monumental competition it faced that summer from Kubrick’s masterful 2001 (a film widely regarded as one of the greatest achievements in cinema).

Planet of the Apes also addressed more directly the paradoxes of time travel—a well-honored theme within science fiction for more than a century—and the sometime contentious matters of natural selection in a real world where the issue was far from resolved within schools or places of worship. Throughout the story, Taylor often openly questions how a planet could be populated and dominated by a species of apes which evolved from humans—a process which allows the narrative to include issues of racism, sexism, generational differences, war, and even nationalism, not to mention the attitudes of how animals are treated in captivity or in the wild. The film seeks, overtly and transparently, to create an inverted world in which all these issues are thrown to the forefront.

The script also envisions a society in which all matters of religion and all precepts of hard science are merged forcibly and dogmatically into one stream of thought, managed and “protected” by elders among the apes and orangutans. Those who violate these codicils can be censured and punished—as is the case with Cornelius and Zira, both highly educated and both extremely enlightened, but obviously constrained by the imposition of draconian rules regarding science and beliefs. For their alleged crime of manufacturing a “talking human” they are charged with “scientific heresy.” Thus the film had the ironic gift of angering and goading both left and right, and of mocking both science and spiritual belief almost evenhandedly. It also begged questions: would the imposition of pure science on a society be any intellectually healthier than the imposition of total religion? Would the ham-fisted merger of science and spiritual belief serve to resolve anything, or would it impose instead tyranny on both (as is the case in the society depicted in the film)?

In the film’s final frames, Dr. Zaius—Taylor’s arch-nemesis—is proven correct. In fact, we come to understand that Zaius was right all along, and may have even understood the terrible truth of the matter: Taylor’s world may be long gone, but he is in fact back home, left along the shores of a world which his own people—the humans—destroyed more than 2000 years earlier (a subject to be more deeply explored in the movie’s several popular sequels).

Planet of the Apes also passes a critical test which can be applied to nearly any film: it stands the test of time well, and in fact may have greatly improved with age. Despite its occasional heavy-handed attempts at societal self-analysis and its overt cynicism, the film remains intriguing, likeable, and even fun, without resorting to comedic effects. It also resonates as an anti-war film produced at the height of the Cold War. In those famous final frames, as Taylor reacts with visceral emotion on that desolate stretch of beach, we understand that the story was not about the forces of evolution, but the power of mankind to destroy itself with nuclear weapons. (The issue of nuclear war and a post-apocalyptic world was not present in Boulle’s novel, but was instead grafted upon the story by Serling, who thought American and British movie audiences would better appreciate the shock ending).

The 1968 movie spawned four direct sequels, all of which were released in the 1970s and using many of the same cast members (most notably Roddy McDowall), along with an animated TV series in 1975. Director Tim Burton rebooted the original story with his 2001 version, which starred Mark Wahlberg in the lead role and employed a wide array of cutting edge special effects; Burton’s version was followed by the even more substantial reboot which began in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and last year’s War for the Planet of the Apes (see Cameron Dale’s review of War on our Front Page). That trilogy has improved the look and feel even more—deploying every possible layer of digital effect—but none have surpassed the original 1968 film for power and substance.

End scene from Planet of the Apes The success of the original may also be the result of some of the more obvious elements: Schaffner’s directorial style, including his penchant for creating epic, visually stunning canvasses (his Patton and Papillon each share this visual and cinematic DNA); Heston’s trademark thespian tenor, something bordering on over-acting, which may have served well the cynical, sometimes caustic character he portrayed, and may have best captured the depths of his anguish and pain in those final frames; and the recrafting of Boulle’s novel by Wilson and later Serling. Serling’s thumbprint, especially, steered the movie overtly toward the American moviegoer, and helped make the film a classic among an entire generation of sci-fi fans who use Planet of the Apes (just as they identify so closely with the impact of Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and, later, Star Wars) as a touchstone—a rock from which the power of science fiction could be readily drawn and a film which would transform our views of time travel and the exploration of space. Related Thursday Review articles:

2001: A Space Odyssey: Fifty Years Ago Science Fiction Changed Our World; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; April 12, 2018.

Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; September 18, 2016.