Planet of the Apes (1968) Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
“Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!”
Released at the same time as Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes gives us a brilliant science fiction examination of the “past as prologue” thematic idea. It is based on the novel La Planète des singes (1963) by French writer Pierre Boulle. Planet of the Apes explores a variety of compelling ideas –evolutionary biology, space/time travel, the nature of prejudice among others (apropos for its themes, Planet of the Apes was released one day before the death of Martin Luther King Jr). Television’s golden writer Rod Serling was hired to write the script (originally intended to be a Twilight Zone spin-off), but after a year or so Serling departed the project so the script cycled through different writers eventually settling on Michael Wilson, writer of Bridge on the River Kwai. Apparently the final script contained numerous departures from Boulle’s original novel which concerned a couple traveling through space who discover a message in a bottle about a man who uncovers a planet populated planet filled with intelligent apes. The pair scoff at the idea but the twist reveals this couple to be actually a pair of intelligent chimpanzees traveling through space.
Planet of the Apes was to become an iconic and rare science fiction success in Hollywood at the time, spawning four sequels in the 1970s, a television show, an animated cartoon, and further remakes including Tim Burton’s widely panned 2001 film and a surprisingly praised reboot trilogy released between 2011-2017 (Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014, and War for the Planet of the Apes in 2017). Thus far I have watched two of the original 1970s sequels —Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)— but they fall far short of their predecessor. The 1968 original was the fortunate beneficiary of Franklin J. Schaffner’s directorial efforts (also the director of Patton among other classic films). Somehow he managed to lead a project that very well could have been a campy, silly picture about talking monkeys and turn it into a compelling science fiction thriller.
The plot of Planet of the Apes focuses on George Taylor (played by Charlton Heston who had the flu during filming), a cynical astronaut who has traveled through time and space along with two others Landon (Robert Gunner), and Dodge (Jeff Burton) –their female companion named Stewart tragically died due to a sleep chamber malfunction. The group has traveled nearly two thousand years thanks to light-speed transportation and time dilation, Taylor embraces the thought that everyone he once knew has long since died because he hopes to find a better planet in the universe than earth. Their ship crash lands on a strange desert planet and as it sinks into a lake they wander in search of anything organic since their food supply is low (scenes in this section are reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode “I Shot An Arrow Into The Air”). Eventually they discover a string of disturbing scarecrows dotting the barren hillsides followed by a band of primitive humans as they pick food from a lush farm. However, the humans are soon hunted down for stealing the food by a fearsome army of human-esque, horse-riding apes. In the chaos, Taylor is shot in the throat and temporarily rendered mute, while Dodge is killed and Landon is captured (later lobotomized).
Taylor is taken hostage by the apes along with a female companion he names Nova because the primitive humans cannot speak (Nova is played by Linda Harrison, longtime girlfriend of the film’s producer Richard Zanuck, she was pregnant during the shoot and they had to be creative in hiding her pregnancy). From his cage, Taylor is introduced to a strange civilization constructed by intelligent apes, in particularly he meets a sympathetic ape scientist named Zira (Kim Hunter) and her archeologist fiance Cornelius (Roddy McDowall). They refer to Taylor as “bright eyes.” On this planet, the apes are the dominant species while the primitive humans are castigated as “beasts” and they are routinely rounded up and tortured or experimented upon. Taylor is brought before the elders who refuse to believe his story of space travel, and they label him a freak of nature. The apes assume he is a new mutant breed of human life who likely dwell out in the “Forbidden Zone” –a vast region of the planet prohibited to apes per their religion. An ape leader named Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) views the arrival of Taylor as a threat to because he sees humans as an inherently violent, dangerous threat to the survival of civilization.
Before Taylor can be medically castrated, he is freed from imprisonment by Zira and Cornelius. They flee to an archeological dig site that Cornelius once developed at the edge of the Forbidden Zone. Dr. Zaius follows them but he is captured and used as leverage by the trio. In the archeological caves they find a doll that cries, “mama!” Why would primitive humans have developed a talking doll when they themselves cannot speak? Cornelius believes there once lived an advanced race of men on this planet, but Dr. Zaius pulls out a religious scroll that warns about the coming of mankind. Taylor decides not to wait around to find out. He takes Nova and decides to venture further into the Forbidden Zone, because he realizes the apes will only ever want to control him. Before he leaves, Dr. Zaius warns, “you may not like what you find” –indicating that he knows the horrid truth about this planet. Taylor wanders along the shoreline on horseback until he suddenly sees a giant looming structure protruding out of the sands. He collapses onto the beach and curses humanity as we pan out to see the remnants of the statue of liberty (in one of the greatest twist endings in cinema history). Taylor has been on earth this whole time, and mankind had simply destroyed civilization in a nuclear holocaust many thousands of years prior. The film ends in total silence save for the eerie sounds of the waves crashing.
Planet of the Apes is a fun yet sobering, atmospheric, and intellectually stimulating film that offers a new twist on science fiction’s many warnings about the coming nuclear age. The social commentary here is poignant –even a futuristic ape civilization can recognize the threat posed by nuclear weapons. It is a skeptical story that highlight the pride and arrogance of mankind. Rather than pursuing the truth about earth’s history, Dr. Zaius is content to uphold an ancient religion in order to preserve peace and life, he knows the ugly truth but prefers to cover it in a noble lie. In many ways, Dr. Zaius is proven correct –the truth is ugly and horrifying. The film also offers a theory of evolution, in which apes overcome humans as the more cognizant species –there does not seem to be any particular explainable reason lurking behind thousands of years of evolutionary biology. Filled with rich irony, a unique, unsettling score by Jerry Goldsmith, as well as delightful humor (cue scenes of the apes using cameras or seated like the three wise monkeys “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”), Planet of the Apes is a longtime favorite of mine.
The ending seems like a Serling ending. It would be interesting to see his original script.
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Serling was a master for how to flip over our perspectives of what the we thought we knew, enough for such an impact to extend to our entire world which via The Twilight Zone began with Third From The Sun. For two of the most pivotally cautionary messages during the 60s about racial prejudice and the dangers of nuclear war, it’s deservingly one of the best movie twist endings of all time.
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