Sunday, 13 July 2014

"A Planet Where Apes Evolved From Men?:" A Look Back at the Original Planet of the Apes Series

Spoiler Warning: This retrospective will be discussing specific plot points from the five original Planet of the Apes films.

The Planet of the Apes franchise is one of the most audacious, bizarre, bold and bleak film series of the 20th century. Released between 1968 and 1973 the original five films took an allegorical look at the social and political issues that America confronted during this time, such as racism, war, and the fear of nuclear war. As opposed to the James Bond franchise, Planet of the Apes wasn’t merely escapism. They were high entertainment that also presented its audience with cautionary tales about the future of civilization.


The idea of a planet on which apes were the dominant species and humans the primitive creatures sprang from the imagination of French novelist Pierre Boulle. Boulle had previously written the novel The Bridge on the River Kwai, which became the Oscar winning film from David Lean in 1957. Boulle wrote Planet of the Apes in 1963. The novel-while somewhat overshadowed by the film franchise- is a brilliant piece of science fiction that should be read by all fans of the genre. It's narrated by Ulysse Merou, a journalist who takes part in a space journey with Professor Antelle and a physician named Arthur Levain. They land on a planet much like earth, which they name Soror. They realize the planet is dominated by intelligent apes who enslave humans. Levain is killed and Antelle becomes animal-like while locked in a zoo. Unlike the other humans on the planet Ulysse can speak. He shacks up with a woman named Nova and becomes friends with Zira, an animal psychologist, and her archeologist finance, Cornelius. 

In 1968 a film version of Boulle's novel was released. And after nearly 50 years Planet of the Apes is still the definitive film of this franchise. The film stars Charlton Heston as George Taylor, an astronaut on an unspecified mission with three others: two men- Dodge and Landon (Jeff Burton and Robert Gunner), and a woman named Stewart (Dianne Stanley, un-credited). The film opens with Taylor recording a message in which he says their ship is travelling at the speed of light. Even though they have been away from the Earth for only several months (their time) the Earth has aged hundreds of years.


Taylor goes in to hibernation with the rest of the crew and after the title sequence the ship crashes on an unknown planet. The three men discover there was an air leak in Stewart’s tube, which killed her. The three remaining astronauts eventually happen upon primitive humans who cannot speak. Gorillas come along and begin hunting the humans. Dodge is killed but Taylor and Landon are captured. Taylor is shot in the throat so he can’t speak. Thus the apes believe Taylor is just another dumb human. As in the novel Zira and Cornelius (Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall) become his allies. When Taylor regains his ability to speak he utters one of the film’s most iconic lines, “Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”  


A tribunal is held to discover why Taylor can talk. It’s in these scenes that the film explores the conflict between faith and science. The orangutans believe that its scientific heresy for Zira and Cornelius to claim that Taylor is a missing link in the evolutionary change. Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans)- an orangutan and the film’s chief antagonist- holds two contradictory positions. He’s both Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith. Near the end of the film Taylor says Zaius's position as Defender of the Faith interferes with his obligations towards the progression of science. Zaius responds by saying: “There is no contradiction between faith and science...true science.” Zaius  can’t or won't acknowledge the conflict in his duties. Zaius knows that man used to rule the planet but believes it’s best to keep the true history of the planet a secret from ape society. He even goes as far as destroy Cornelius’ archeological dig, which contained evidence of an earlier non-ape civilization. Zaius is a great antagonist because his motivations and philosophy make complete sense and we can the situation from his point of view. He feels he’s acting in the best interests of his species. He’s not a noble character but he does have- in his mind at least- noble intentions.


In the closing moments of the film Taylor-on horseback with Nova (Linda Harrison)- discovers the ruins of the statue of liberty on the shore. It turns out this "alien" planet was Earth all along. The final shot of the film is one cinema’s most indelible images and of the greatest closing shots of all time. It’s an image that represents the downfall of civilization-in particular American civilization- the fear of nuclear destruction and the how remnants of the past are always present. The ending of the film also relates to Taylor's character arc. At the beginning of the film Taylor says he has no regrets upon leaving the 20th century and mocks Landon for having any affinity for humanity. By the end Taylor has regained some appreciation for humanity. He tells Zaius that whoever was here before the apes was “better than you.”  When he sees the statue we see a man who's hatred of humanity is arguably validated. The ending also shows that Taylor cared enough about humanity that it's self destruction deeply anguishes him.


What’s also notable about the use of this image is it represents the cultural difference between Boulle’s novel and the film series. While the novel was written through a French perspective the film was directed and written by Americans. The statue of liberty is a thoroughly American image and it’s placement at the end of the film speaks to the fall of America even as it also represents the downfall of civilization at large. Rod Serling was already famous for his TV series The Twilight Zone, which tackled social issues on a weekly basis through the prism of science fiction and fantasy. Serling   co-wrote the screenplay for  Planet of the Apes with Michael Wilson and suggested the now famous ending. In Boulle’s novel the planet is not earth. The novel ends with Ulysse, Nova and their son travelling back to Earth only to discover that it’s also become a planet of the apes. The seed of the film’s ending is there but Serling expanded upon the ending.  The film's twist ending defined the entire mythology on here onwards. It’s strange now to think of the planet being anything else but Earth. It’s a perfect thematic resolution and brings home all the social commentary of the story. The upside down civilization isn’t just a mirror version of our society but the result of man’s self-destruction.


While the Planet of the Apes films aren’t usually thought of as directors’ film, Franklin J. Schaffner’s work here can’t be overlooked. Schaffner invokes and sustains a mood of surreal and nightmarish dread. He makes us feel we’re on a completely “alien world.” Schaffner’s direction captures Boulle’s absurd vision. Jerry Goldsmith’s score also adds to the tension and atmosphere of the film. His score matches the primitive nature of the world.

While Planet of the Apes was never designed to be an ongoing series the success and popularity of the film led to a sequel two years later. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1971) is one of the most gonzo and audacious sequels I’ve ever seen. Its ending alone may be the greatest example of franchise self-sabotage in film history. However, the film suffers early on from feeling like the original film in miniature. Heston only agreed to appear at the beginning of the film (in which he disappears) and then reappear at the end only to be killed off. Thus the filmmakers had to introduce another leading character and actor.

TV actor James Franciscus was cast as Brent, another astronaut who was sent to find Taylor’s ship. Like Taylor Brent lands on future earth. He meets up with Nova, Cornelius and Zira. Then along with Nova searches for Taylor. The early parts of the film do feel like we’re going over familiar ground, with the added wrinkle of looming war as General Ursus (James Gregory) rallies gorillas behind his mission to enter the Forbidden Zone. Franciscus is solid in his role but he can't help but feel like George Lazenby to Heston's Sean Connery. It's too apparent the filmmakers were attempting to "replace" Heston but I feel a different kind of human lead than just another all American astronaut would've made things fresher. Ted Post took over directing duties from Schaffner and does a serviceable job. His direction doesn't feel too inconsistent with Schaffner's and he keeps the pace rolling along smoothly.

 The film becomes more its own animal when Brent and Nova’s search leads them underground. There they discover mutated humans with telekinetic powers worship a nuclear bomb capable of destroying the entire planet. Brent and Nova become the mutants’ captives and we learn Taylor is also imprisoned. The mutants don’t exist in Boulle’s novel but are a creation of the script by Paul Dehn. Their society is a startling new piece of the planet’s mythology. This aspect of the world that was suggested in the first film. Its theorized that Taylor is a mutant. This idea comes to full terrifying light in this film. These mutants are a twisted and perverse representation of how the world’s destruction has changed humanity. Moreover, the worshipping of a bomb as some kind of God is a satirical jab at religion. It's also a play on idea that humanity invented God and not the other way around. If this bomb is the mutant’s God it’s not a benevolent God but a violent and angry one.

The film also comments on the Vietnam War. There are chimpanzee protestors who are against the war, representing the negativity towards the conflict in Vietnam and the generation gap between the powers that be and the younger generation who wanted love, not war. Ultimately, It’s war that brings about the world’s complete destruction. After escaping, Taylor attempts to stop the bomb from going off but is shot by Ursus. Taylor confronts Zaius for the last time and asks for help. Zaius blames humanity for all the destruction in the world. Taylor witnessed Nova being shot by a gorilla. Nova was all Taylor had left and his final act is to activate the bomb, obliterating the earth.  I think the film is saying that history not only repeats itself but repeats itself to an even greater degree. Human civilization as we know it has already been destroyed due to human war but now the entire world, including apes, will cease to exist due to the gorilla war. But it’s a human that sets off the bomb, which may validate Zaius’ fear of humankind.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes’ ending is incredibly bleak and it’s remarkable that the filmmakers got away with it. It’s hard to imagine a major studio today would allow a major franchise film to  eliminate the possibility for more sequels. But while this ending appeared to end the franchise for good, the studio demanded another sequel. In a strange twist of fate destroying the world forced the filmmakers to be creative in how they would continue on the franchise and expand upon the mythology.

In Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971) we learn a chimpanzee scientist named Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo) was able to repair Taylor’s sunken ship. He, Cornelius and Zira escaped from the planet before it exploded and travelled back in time to 1970s San Francisco. This was an ingenious way for the series to continue and find a fresh context in which to tell another story, despite it being a stretch that Milo could fix Taylor’s ship. By bringing apes to present day Earth the film reverses the dynamic of the previous films. The apes are now the outsiders.


While Cornelius and Zira (Milo is killed by a gorilla when the three of them are first put in a zoo) are first treated as celebrities and the film functions as a light comedy, the film takes a darker turn when it becomes more apparent that the apes will eventually cause the world to be destroyed. Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) wants the apes- including Zira’s unborn baby- to be killed. (Hasslein is the scientist whose theory on light speed travel Taylor mentions in the first film.) The apes have allies in Drs. Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman) and Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trudy), along with Armando (Ricardo Montalban), a circus owner. But tragically Hasslein kills both Zira and Cornelius- after Cornelius fatally wounds Hasslein- at the film’s conclusion. Hasslein also kills what he believes to be Zira’s child, which is actually another baby ape. Zira’s real child is with Armando.


Director Don Taylor does an admirable job at balancing the light and dark elements of the film’s script (written by  Dehn once again). The emotional journey on which the audience goes along with the characters feels tonally cohesive and not too jarring. McDowall wasn’t able to come back for Beneath so the role was recast with David Watson but thankfully he was able to reprise his role as Cornelius here. He and Kim Hunter are really the heart of this franchise and it’s devastating to watch them die- especially since we’ve grown close to the characters for two prior films.

Escape is a very philosophical film, particularly when it comes to the ethics of murder. Hasslein asks if we'd kill Hitler when he was a baby or his mother when he was pregnant. Is murder justifiable if it can stop horrible things from happening. The harsh irony in this film is that Hasslein believes murdering Cornelius and Zira will save the future. The truth is the opposite. Cornelius recounts how poorly apes were treated by humans and this cruelty led to the ape uprising. It’s only through love and respect that the future can be saved. I presume the film is attempting to say that even a man of science can be driven to violence but I feel Hasslein too easily slips in to the role of murderer. There needed to be more development for that particular shift.


The final shot of the film, with little baby Milo saying his first word over and over- “Mama” is haunting and a perfect finish to this film. Beneath’s ending was very close ended- Escape’s clearly sets the stage for another sequel.

That sequel would be Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). I feel this may be the best of the four sequels. Emotionally it’s the most powerful of the five films- as well as least “fun” of the series. While Escape had its share of lighthearted moments Conquest is consistently unpleasant. This is an angry film and continues the perspective shift found in Escape. It’s no longer the humans are the victimized. We finally see the cruelty and injustice that led to the apes taking over. The film picks up in 1991, 8 years after a plague wiped out all cats and dogs. Humans have taken on highly evolved apes as pets- and essentially slaves. America has also become a police state. Milo (now going by Caesar) is now a teenager and is still in the care of Armando. Caesar has to pretend he can't speak so he won't be discovered as Cornelius and Zira's child.  Montalban does subtly look older and a little more world-weary, which I like. While in the city Caesar curses a police officer who is abusing an ape. Armando attempts to take the blame so Caesar is not discovered. Armando is taken in to custody and Caesar becomes a slave. Armando dies after attempting to escape an interrogation, spurring Caesar to lead a rebellion against humanity. 

 J. Lee Thompson, the director of the original Cape Fear (1962), was brought in for this installment. Thompson creates a harsh atmosphere and a gritty aesthetic to the film, and stages the rebellion scenes with a brutal bluntness and lack of glamour.


Cornelius died in the previous film but Roddy McDowall returned to play his former character’s son. What’s remarkable about McDowall’s performance is Caesar feels like a totally different character than Cornelius. Caesar is a much angrier, rawer and impetuous character than Cornelius. Through makeup McDowall crafts a performance that makes us feel both empathy and terror. It’s a tremendous performance that solidifies McDowall as the signature actor of this series. We understand Caesar’s motives and the film makes us angry along with him. The humans in this film aren’t the primitive savages of the first film but they’re savages nonetheless. They've learned nothing from Cornelius and Zira's arrival- that the mistreatment of apes will be humanity's downfall.


There’s another sympathetic character named MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), the aid to the cruel Governor Breck (Don Murray), who briefly becomes Caesar’s owner. MacDonald is black and he mentions he is the descendant of slaves, which ties him and Caesar together thematically. Caesar tells MacDonald that he is shedding blood by the right of slaves to punish his oppressors, to which MacDonald says that “I, a descendant a slaves am asking you to show humanity.” MacDonald knows that an eye for an eye will just bring on violence, not peace.

Caesar doesn't heed MacDonald's plea and has Breck killed. This is after he gives a speech that foreshadows the world we’ve seen in the original film. This ending had to be changed due to poor test screenings.  The changed ending has an ape named Lisa (Natalie Trudy) say “No” to Caesar, imploring him to show mercy. McDowall recorded another speech which follows the originally shot one, in which Caesar says humans will be ruled with compassion. This speech plays over close up of Caesar’s eyes and reversed footage of gorillas bringing their guns down on Breck. It’s an awkwardly edited ending and the original is much truer to the film’s dark vision. It does, however, match up better with the subsequent film.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) is the final film of the original series. I think this film is the least of the sequels. The film is let down by having the lowest budget of the five films. Battle needed to be a grand and spectacular finish to the saga but ends up feeling anti-climatic and small in execution. It takes place over a decade after the events of Conquest. The world has been ravaged by nuclear war. Caesar, his apes and a small band of humans are attempting a peaceful cohabitation in ape city. It’s an uneasy truce, particularly with the gorilla Aldo (Claude Akins) not wanting anything to do with humans. Caesar is a softer ape now, comfortable in his role as leader. But Aldo proves a threat to Caesar since Aldo wants to be leader. There’s also the looming danger of humans who are radiated and are the ancestors of the mutant humans from Beneath the Planet of the Apes.


Thompson returns to direct and he brings a somewhat softer touch to this film then with Conquest. I feel Thompson does the best with a limited budget. He can’t quite make a full on epic but he does give the film some stakes as Caesar has to decide whether to fully accept humans as equals or to continue looking down on them . The ape commandment “Ape shall never kill ape” is also broken when Aldo accidently murders Caesar’s son Cornelius.

McDowall's performance is strong once again. And I do like the idea behind this film- the whole question of whether ape and man can live together peacefully and whether history repeat itself. Battle has the most optimistic ending of the series, giving us hope that peace is possible but both humans and apes will need to work hard to gain it- even centuries after Caesar’s death. However, the film's optimism doesn't contradict the previous films. Instead, the film moves on from the bleakness of the previous films and brings the saga full circle. Thematically it feels like a logical ending to the series. The film isn’t as fully realized in terms of its scale but it’s earnest and direct in terms of what it wants to say. There's a melancholy quality to this film's ending. In part because we're sad to leave the series behind and that the bookend to the film- with John Huston as the Lawgiver- takes place many years after Caesar's death. We feel we've lost a great ape who did much for his kind- as well as human kind.

So,  that's the original Planet of the Apes series. In the years before Star Wars and the resurgence of Star Trek, these films shaped the science fiction genre. The first is the strongest but the entire saga is a wonderfully told science fiction myth. And it all came from a little novel over fifty years ago.

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