A brief look back at the original 1968 classic and its essential sequels
Recently, I took my three little boys to see a revival screening of what is still one of my all-time favorite motion pictures and a work of daring, groundbreaking popular science fiction that has long ago attained the status of myth. I’m speaking of Planet of the Apes, a picture I was obsessed with as a child and – thanks to the nurturing influence of my Uncle and his own passion for the movie – became part of the fabric of my life. The toys, the sequels, the short-lived television show, the mass-merchandising and most importantly, the dark, cerebral moralist spine of the series, one that was put in place by a draft of the script penned by my hero, The Twilight Zone architect Rod Serling. Sure, Pierre Boulle’s novel “Monkey Planet” was the source of the story, but that book trades in social satire while the resulting hybrid motion picture and the legacy of entertainment that followed, was most assuredly a byproduct of the late-60’s and early 70’s cultural fixation of future-shock tales of terror. Indeed Planet of the Apes was my first real taste of heady, grimly prophetic and sophisticated fantasy filmmaking, one that was charmingly washed down with those iconic make-up designs, lively dialogue, primal action and appealing – to a child – genre tropes. It was and remains a work of startling art and the films that followed both built on, fumbled and re-directed its messages in fascinating ways.
Needless to say my children – ages 11, 9 and 7, respectively -all fell under the film’s spell (I highly recommend seeing this classic in the theater if you have yet to do so) and it sparked an “Ape Fever” in my house that, as of this writing, is thriving enough that we now own a set of the original 70’s MEGO Planet of the Apes dolls, the POWER! book and record sets and more.
And after the kids and I cycled through those first five films, discussing them at length and interpreting the maddening “time loop” metaphysical nature of them, I was inspired to write down some quick feelings on each and every one of them.
Here, then, are those thoughts…
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Franklin J. Schaffner’s untouchable adaptation was a labor of love for all involved and it was a huge success, both critically and commercially. It stars aging Hollywood icon Charlton Heston as Col. Taylor, an American astronaut lost in the brutal landscape of a planet ruled by talking, socialized simians, one where mute humans are the “dogs”. Heston offers his best genre work here, forming the first of his sci-fi trifecta of Soylent Green and The Omega Man and the rest of the cast adds gravitas to what under a different director and lesser actors would be nothing more than a pricey B-movie; Kim Hunter’s progressive and rebellious doctor Zira, Maurice Evans as the conservative, terrified and fascist Dr. Zaius and of course, the inimitable Roddy McDowall as Zira’s mate, Cornelius, the company man who refuses to live a lie. Jerry Goldsmith’s nightmarish music still chills, John Chambers’ ape masks allow the actors to use only their eyes and voices to create deft characters and, whether you’ve seen it 100 times or for the first time, that final shot is unforgettable, in both aesthetic and meaning. A perfect film.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
Rushed into production after the astonishing success of the first film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes suffers from Jaws 2 syndrome, attempting to replicate the beats of the first film too closely with much of the same cast reprising their roles and character ticks and because of that, it simply doesn’t have its own fingerprint. That, and the absence of Roddy McDowall as Cornelius (McDowall was off directing his surrealist horror film Tam-Lin) and general dour, joyless tone of it sink this one and do not lend it to pleasurable multiple viewings. It’s a real bummer, albeit a mesmerizing one. Surprisingly, despite the film’s bloody and nihilistic climax (one that Heston insisted on if he was to return to the franchise), the film was rated G in the U.S. The best part of the film is James Gregory as the horrifying General Ursus, whose public proclamations that “the only good human is a dead human!” are chilling and iconic.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
With the planet decimated at the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, director Don Taylor and writer Paul Dehn wisely brought their chimp heroes Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) to earth. What starts as a goofy, fish-out-of-water romp quickly turns deadly serious, jerking the viewers emotions around expertly and ending on a final image that is almost as haunting as the one in the original. A great film even isolated from the franchise and an essential bridge entry in the series.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
J. Lee Thompson’s righteous fourth Apes film is, in the cyclical initial Apes timeline, an origins film, telling the tale of the creation of the “monkey planet” itself. Diminishing budgets meant that the supporting ape masks were cheap rubber cowls but Roddy McDowall gives what might be his career best performance as the fugitive Caesar who, after he witness the brutalization of his people and his kindly “father” ( the brilliant future Fantasy Island star Ricardo Montalban) is killed, launches a full scale revolution. The original climax sees Caesar enacting the bloodiest of acts and that censored violence was restored for the recent DVD and Blu-ray versions and it radically alters the very fabric of the movie and its messages. It’s a mean, oppressive film that feels exhaustively claustrophobic, its action centered on a sterile city block and scattered, computer-soaked offices and labs. And while it’s only a PG-rated picture in either cut, it’s the most relentlessly intense and violent entry of them all.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
The fifth and final of the initial Apes series, J. Lee Thompson’s lower-budgeted entry is often derided as being cheap and childish. But it’s really rather exciting and moving, with Roddy McDowall’s Caesar venturing into the wasteland to find evidence of his parents and then doing battle with racist Gorillas in his base empire. The film boasts a great cast, including Phantom of the Paradise legend Paul Williams as Caesar’s trusted adviser Virgil and Claude Akins as the brutal General Aldo. And Severn Darden makes a memorable villain indeed. What’s perhaps most interesting is that Battle is a sequel to the theatrical cut of Conquest, with Caesar being a kinder, more loving leader who lives in peace with the humans. If the series had stopped at Conquest, it would have simply chased naturally back to Planet of the Apes as far as its evolution is concerned. But Battle instead ends with a deep sense of melancholy and grace, a timeline defying notion that Caesar’s decency in fact altered the course of history. And while some might balk at that as being a facile notion, I find it rather beautiful and cite Battle as perhaps the most interesting of all the sequels. It was after all written by husband and wife scribes John and Joyce Corrington, who brought the same spirituality and dark beauty to the loose “I Am Legend” adaptation The Omega Man, itself starring Apes legend Heston. Also of note is that the recent Blu-ray release of the film restores the extended international cut, which is slightly longer and more violent and adds character moments that serve to enrich the film.