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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.