Thoughts On the Planet Of The Apes

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/17/08


  Whilst searching Amazon a while back, I happened to come across a copy of Planet Of The Apes: The Ultimate DVD Collection which was significantly cheaper than the other editions sellers had listed, yet was listed in excellent condition. I could not resist the urge, so splurged for this massive thirteen disk collection that includes the five original films, the 2001 remake by filmmaker Tim Burton, the 1974 CBS television series, and the 1975 NBC Saturday morning television cartoon. For a fan of all of the named, as well the great original dystopian novel, La Planète Des Singes, by Pierre Boulle (who also penned The Bridge On The River Kwai), it was a no brainer.

  Of course, there are variances in quality between all the works, but even the worst of them is a bit more intelligent than the average Hollywood tripe today. Plus, all the disks come encased in a life-sized head of one the apes played by Roddy McDowell (the rebel ape leader Caesar) through most of the series. By necessity, this review will not be an in depth review of all of the elements of all of the constituent parts, merely an overview and assessment of same. So, let’s start at the beginning.

  The first disk is of the original 1968 sci fi classic, Planet Of The Apes, starring Charlton Heston. It is a simply stunning transfer, and looks as if it were filmed this year. It was directed by Franklin Schaffner, who went on to success with the Oscar-winning biopic Patton. It is the tale of a misanthropic astronaut, and his three comrades, sent on the first interstellar flight, somewhere towards Alpha Centauri. The tale follows Heston’s character, Colonel George Taylor, and his two surviving male underlings, Dodge and Landon, after they crash land on a seemingly deserted Earth-like world. The female member of the crew, Stewart, has died due to an air leak in her hibernation capsule.

  While they think they are in a different solar system, and have traveled over two thousand years into the future, it not too slowly becomes apparent that they are back on Earth. The willful suspension of disbelief is needed, of course, because the chances that astronauts could not tell that they were under our sun, moon, and constellations- even a few millennia hence, is unlikely. Then there is the terrestrial flora, then the encounter with mute humans (how unlikely is that?), and then being captured by English speaking gorillas on a hunt. I mean- they speak English, and American astronauts cannot piece things together? Yet, if one can give in to that initial act, all the rest of the film- and subsequent series, unfolds with quite a bit of logic, although at times seeming at odds.

  Dodge ends up killed and stuffed in an ape museum while Landon is lobotomized so he cannot speak. Taylor cannot speak, initially, because he has been shot in the throat by a gorilla. He is mended by two chimpanzee scientists, Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowell), an archaeologist, who believe he is ‘bright.’ She calls him Bright Eyes. They are under the tutelage of Dr. Zaius, an orangutan bureaucrat who knows the secret that his world is earth, and that taking humans once ruled it. Ostensibly, the secret is that humans destroyed the world in a nuclear war, and devolving into muteness, while apes evolved to rule the globe.

  Eventually, Taylor regains his voice, after being put on by trial with Zira and Cornelius, who are charged with heresy, and one of the film’s many signature moments comes when Taylor is netted and captured after escaping, and rails to the apes who catch him, ‘Get your stinkin’ paws off me you damn dirty ape!’ Yet, by the time that line is uttered the viewer has so bought into the film’s suspension of disbelief, that when we see the shock on the faces of the apes, upon hearing a human speak, it mirrors the viewers’ shock. Later, at the trial comes the great sequence where the three orangutan inquisitors will hear no more, and cover their eyes, mouths, and ears, in the classic see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil pose.

  What some forget, in all the manifest political analogies the film and series put forth- such as the three ape races corresponding with the three main Classical stocks of Man: Negroid/Gorilla, Caucasoid/Chimpanzee, and Mongoloid/Orangutan, is that Planet Of The Apes was also a devastating critique of organized religion and its deliberate deceits. Zira and Cornelius, with Zira’s nephew, free Taylor, and he and Nova (Linda Harrison)- the female human given to him as a mate, escape with them to The Forbidden Zone- the desert where Taylor first landed. Zaius and the gorillas follow, on horseback, and Cornelius shows proof that humans preceded apes on the planet, including a human doll that could speak. Taylor asks if an ape would make a doll that speaks. They also find dentures and an artificial heart valve. The gorillas attack and Taylor takes Zaius hostage, gets food, water, a rifle and ammo, and he and Nova are allowed to escape along the shoreline, after scorning the man with a citation from Ape scripture: ‘Beware the beast man, for he is the Devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.’ Zaius then blows up the cave and the secret of human history predating ape culture.

  One might think that Taylor should have pieced things together by now, but the film ends with him finally linking things up, when he comes across the deteriorated upper half of the Statue Of Liberty, and curses his ancestors. Whether the statue has been blown up or simply buried in sand is unclear. What is clear is that it is not only a great twist ending to the film, thought up by the film’s original screenwriter, Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame, but an iconic political image- and the most devastating of the 1960s to come from film. Here is Heston, the embodiment of intelligent macho American goodness- far more so than the more one dimensional icon of John Wayne, on his knees and wailing, pounding the sand impotently, as all that was America is in ruins. Given that this was released not long after the Tet Offensive showed that America was losing in Vietnam, its impact was enormous.

  The film was one of the two great science fiction films released that year, which made sci fi a more respectable subject for serious drama. The other, of course, was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose iconic imagery was on a par with this film’s. Serling’s original script, which more closely followed the novel’s futuristic themes, was redone by Michael Wilson, who for budgetary reasons had to primitivize the ape society. The film won three Oscars- for best score, by Jerry Goldsmith, Best Costume Design, and Outstanding Achievement in Makeup- an honorary award specifically for the film’s historic impact. But, even though elements of the makeup hold up today, it is the truly otherworldly and spooky score by Goldsmith that- along with Serling’s original screenplay, make the film such a classic. The second disk contains assorted bonus material for the first film, including an excellent two hour long making of documentary, hosted by Roddy McDowell.

  The third disk contains 1970’s Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, directed by Ted Post, starring James Franciscus as Brent, an astronaut who also crashes in The Forbidden Zone, and has come after Taylor and his crew. He finds Nova, meets up with Zira and Cornelius (played by David Watson- save for an opening flashback to the first film), and finds that underground mutants in the desert, and in the ruins of the New York City subway system, can play telepathic tricks with others’ minds, and worship a nuclear warhead, which can destroy the world. Dr. Zaius is now in league with a psychotic ape general named Ursus (James Gregory) who wants to exterminate all humans, and conquer the mutants in The Forbidden Zone, and take whatever food they have to stave off an impending famine. Eventually, in a battle royale, Taylor, Nova, and Brent are all killed, as the apes kill the mutants and try to take down the Doomsday Bomb. Taylor, in his dying seconds, pleads to Zaius for help. The orangutan hypocrite dismisses him, and as he falls, Taylor’s hand either deliberately or accidentally, sets off the bomb. Just as the provenance of the Statue Of Liberty’s demise in the first film is not clear, so is the interpretation of Taylor’s final actions in this film. The film ends with the narration of the great cartoon voice actor Paul Frees: ‘In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.’ It’s a good film, but could have been more fleshed out. The disk contains no extras, save for the requisite series trailers.

  The third film in the original series occupies Disk Four, and was directed by Don Taylor. Escape From The Planet Of The Apes was released in 1971, and follows Dr. Zira and Cornelius, along with a third chimp, Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo), as they arrive back in the 1970s- using the original spacecraft from the original film. This is never properly explained, since the primitive ape society would have had to dredge up the ship, then learn how to pilot it, assuming it was still in operating condition after its opening crash, and somehow avoiding the second film’s Armageddon. Ok, suspension of disbelief time- but now it’s wearing thin. Also, since there are only three ape actors in costume, the cheapness of the studio is starting to work against the series. Fans of the films wanted to see more apes, but the studio gave them less.

  Milo is quickly killed by a captive gorilla (an actor in a really bad gorilla costume), and Zira and Cornelius are soon targeted by the U.S. government for study and possible elimination, as their tale of futuristic talking apes leads some to believe that they are the harbingers of mankind’s doom, especially when Zira is found to be pregnant. The film’s bad guy is Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden, fresh off his starring role in another apocalyptic sci fi film, Colossus: The Forbin Project)- of course, a German. The film deftly loops back on itself, when Zira and Cornelius are subjected to many of the experiments that Zira, herself, performed on humans. The President of the United States orders that Zira not be allowed to give birth, and both be sterilized. One would assume this would be an easy thing to accomplish, but, after Cornelius kills a human guard, and the duo escape, Hasslein uses it to foment a lynch mob mentality. The scientists who aided in their escape, and were their protectors, hide them at a circus run by Armando (Ricardo Montalban). Zira gives birth to a son named Milo.

  Hasslein and the bumbling government agents track the couple down to an abandoned ship on the Los Angeles docks, where Hasslein shoots and kills Zira and the infant ape she carries. Cornelius then shoots Hasslein, and is killed by a Navy sniper. Zira crawls to Cornelius, and tosses the dead baby over the side. However, Zira and Armando had switched the real Milo with another chimp baby, and left Milo’s upkeep in Armando’s hands. By now, the producers knew they had to leave open ends for sequels- something that neither of the first two films were planned to have. Escape From The Planet Of The Apes ends with Milo sitting in a cage, speaking the words ‘Mama, mama?’, sounding strikingly like the ancient human doll that is discovered in the cave at the end of Planet Of The Apes. This film also had many elements that were in Pierre Boulle’s original novel- such as the apes being hailed as celebrities, just as the human astronaut Ulysse Merou is by the novel’s futuristic ape society.

  The film was a box office hit, and so a third sequel, and fourth film was ordered. In 1972, Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes, directed by J. Lee Thompson, was released. Roddy McDowell plays the ape Milo, all grown up, and having assumed the name Caesar by chance. It is near the turn of the 21st Century, and cats and dogs have been wiped out by a plague, so apes have been domesticated, then turned into slaves. The Unites States has also devolved into a nation of fascistic city-states. The circus owner Armando (still played by Ricardo Montalban) has hidden Caesar’s origins, but Caesar is a rebel by birth, and the nastiest of the apes McDowell will play in the Apes universe. The fascist Governor Breck (Don Murray) of Central City is counterbalanced by the humanistic MacDonald (Hari Rhodes)- a black man who sympathizes with the apes.

  Armando is captured, and to avoid being tortured into telling the truth about Caesar’s roots, he suicides. This drives Caesar into a rage, and he begins to foment rebellion. Suspension of disbelief is needed for what follows, as the humans are now, like the apes in the first two films, superior, yet dumb. Also, although Caesar’s Central City rebellion is seemingly successful, how this translates into a planetary coup is never stated. Caesar then shows mercy when he spares the lives of his former slavers, at the behest of MacDonald and a chimp named Lisa. This seems to change the future history of earth, as envisioned in the first two films, where man was said to have squandered his own domination of the globe because of an apocalyptic event that led to the rise of the apes and mankind’s descent into mute savagery.

  Or, perhaps not, as the film was to end on a less hopeful note, with the apes slaughtering men, but was changed when the film did not do well with test audiences. A new speech for Caesar was added: ‘Where there is fire, there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch and conspire and plot and plan for the inevitable day of Man’s downfall- the day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind. The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble. When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland out of which I will lead my people from their captivity. And we shall build our own cities in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends. And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty. And that day is upon you now.

  But now, now we will put away our hatred. Now, we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the night of the fires. And those who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God, and if it is man’s destiny to be dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion, and understanding. So, cast out your vengeance. Tonight we have seen the birth of the Planet Of The Apes!

  The fifth and final film in the original series was also directed by J. Lee Thompson, and was called Battle For The Planet Of The Apes. It was released in 1973. Now it seems that a nuclear war has ravaged earth and caused the downfall of mankind. Caesar heads a small rural community of apes, with human servants, and seems more peace loving than in the prior film. But, a proto-Ursus gorilla leader named Aldo (Claude Akins) is his nemesis. Now, all the apes can speak- although it was earlier claimed in the series that Aldo- not Caesar, was the first speaking ape. Cornelius had uncovered this aspect of Ape lore before the earth blew up at the end of the second film. This suggests that the third through fifth films are in a timeline unrelated to that of the first two films.

  Caesar has married Lisa, and has a young son named Cornelius. MacDonald is now his confidante, and when Caesar wants to learn of his parents MacDonald suggest they go to the city ruins in The Forbidden Zone (which has to be a different Zone from the New York City located ruins of the first two films, since this Zone is in Southern California). Their trek to the city enrages the mutant human leader, who declares war on the apes, just as Aldo conspires to overthrow Caesar. Cornelius overhears the plot, and Aldo kills the young ape- the supposed first intentional murder in modern ape history. The apes stave off the human attack (although there are so few apes and humans that the ‘epic’ battle is fought by a few dozen individuals), and then Caesar avenges his son’s death by killing Aldo. Caesar then frees the humans, after seeing that the apes have become as bad as the humans who mistreated them were. They form a new society. The film ends with the iconic Ape Lawgiver, centuries later, telling the tale to a group of ape and human children. The final shot is of a tear rolling down the face of a statue of Caesar which, like the ends of the fist two films can be seen in one of two ways: either Caesar is crying for this interim state, between the time of film five and the first film, does not last, and humans are subjugated, thereby bringing on the end of the world, or he is crying in joy, for the timeline of the original film has been irrevocably altered.

  Disks 7-10 feature the 1974 live action CBS television series, Planet Of The Apes. It had been over two decades since I last saw an episode. It lasted only 14 episodes, and starred Roddy McDowell as an ape named Galen. He befriends two human astronauts from the 1980s, who are slung over a thousand years into the future, to 3085 A.D. These are Colonel Alan Virdon (Ron Harper, who later starred in the Saturday morning kids tv show Land Of the Lost- which also dealt with time travel and alternate universes), and Major Peter Burke (James Naughton, who became a huge Broadway star). The three end up as renegades after the humans are sought for destruction by Dr. Zaius (Booth Coleman) and General Urko (Mark Lenard, who played Mr. Spock’s father, Sarek, on Star Trek). However, there are key differences between the film series and the television show that make the television show a third Apes universe (the first two being the Ape history of the first two films, which ends in Armageddon, and the second being that history altered by Cornelius and Zira’s escape to the past).

  In the tv series, Dr. Zaius is clearly a different ape than the film Zaius, not just because it’s a different actor playing the orangutan, but because the tv show is set about 800 years earlier, and humans in this timeline can speak. Generally, each episode was sort of like an Apes version of The Fugitive, as the trio went from town to town, doing al sorts of small things- like delivering a cow, concocting ad hoc medicines, improving fishing techniques, and tracking down the history of human civilization’s demise. While there was certainly action in each show, the series was quite well written, if a bit didactic- such as one episode where the trio battle a KKK-like gorilla group, and a blind female chimpanzee, who hates humans, falls in love with Burke, thinking him a human (I guess she could not smell the specific difference?). Where it excelled was on the interactions between the three leads. The acting by McDowell, as Galen, is arguably the best of any of his franchise characters, and he exemplifies the adage of acting through one’s eyes. Harper and, especially, Naughton are also excellent, and the repartee between the three leads is sterling and believable- at least on a personal level; if not always in the outlandish adventures tossed their way. They spoke like real friends do, with an easy camaraderie and small digs at each other. A special kudo needs to go out to Mark Lenard, as General Urko, who shows that he, too, could act with his eyes. One wonders had he ever gotten a role on a television series where he was not required to wear makeup, if he would have been propelled to real stardom?

  The show also gave employment to mid-level tv stars on their way up or down the ladder of fame, such as Marc Singer, Zina Bethune, Jackie Earle Haley, Roscoe Lee Browne, and Beverly Garland. The episodes were recut into five tv movies called Back To The Planet Of The Apes, Forgotten City Of The Planet Of The Apes, Treachery And Greed On The Planet Of The Apes, Life, Liberty And Pursuit On The Planet Of The Apes, and Farewell To The Planet Of The Apes. McDowell shot several little inserts, as an older Galen, narrating the telefilms from an undetermined future. In these he states that the two astronauts ‘


found their computer in another city and disappeared into space as suddenly as they’d arrived.’ Thus, despite its budget limitations, the television version of the franchise had some great potential, if only its ratings had held up. The DVD transfer is rather standard, and no attempt at a visual cleanup was done.

  Disks 11 and 12 contain the 1975-1976 animated NBC Saturday morning tv version of the franchise, called Return To The Planet Of The Apes. It was a low budget, but ‘high concept’ cartoon from the DePatie-Freleng company. It mixed elements of all the franchise incarnations before it- from the modern equipment of the apes in the original French novel to characters like Zira, Cornelius, and Zaius from the film series, to General Urko from the television show, while adding new and quasi-new elements like apes that live like Buddhists and worship a giant King Kong-like snow ape, dinosaurs and assorted other sci fi staple monsters, as well as reworked characters like Nova, and a different version of the Brent character from the second film. It is hard to try and interpolate its existence into the known Apes franchise universe, because of the above facts, and that it is set later in history than any of the prior Apes incarnations. Overall, it lasted only one season (13 episodes), and the animation was the typical cheapo 1970s sort, save for a vivid and hallucinogenic color scheme, and surreal and detailed backgrounds where colors shifted in and out of frames, that made the cartoon, despite its limitations, an abstract and yet impressionistic pastiche, and a beautiful work of art in its best scenes, as well as very smartly written for a show appealing to children.

  Disks 13 and 14 have the 2001 feature film remake of the original film by Tim Burton, and starring Mark Wahlberg, and the special features of the second disk. Ok, this Planet Of The Apes is not a remake as much as a re-visioning. But, it’s still, at best, a mediocre movie, whose plot is more absurd than any other of the previous franchise incarnations, even as its makeup and special effects are top notch. But, the only real reason to sit through a film like this a second time is to ogle the lovely Estella Warren in skimpy outfits. Set only a few decades in the future, it has the Wahlberg character go through time warps to where his genetically enhanced space apes have taken over a planet where the mother ship has crashed. The whole of the film is didactic, if a bit humorous, and ends with Wahlberg headed back to earth, only to find an ape society quite like that in Boulle’s novel, where the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. now has the face of Thade, the renegade and evil chimp portrayed by Tim Roth. Thankfully, the film, while doing good box office, was a critical dud, and no sequels have been made….yet.

  Overall, the whole franchise was a mega-hit of the 1970s, and prefigured the Star Wars craze that followed it- if only in merchandisability, not intelligence. At some point in the future, I’d love to see a single director take the original novel, and give it a 21st Century spin, for the novel’s ending is the only ending that surpasses the original film’s climax. And that scene, despite some of the silliness of later incarnations, has stayed with me for nearly forty years since I first saw the film. In it, the great belittled misanthrope finds out that his hatred for humanity was wholly justifiable, and that he was right to leave behind the world that he knew and search for something ‘better than Man in the universe.’ Yet, he is not totally corrupted and disdainful of his own kind, for in a scene, just minutes earlier, when confronted with the equally hubristic and provincial Zaius’s dismissal of the discovered human remains in the cave, he brags that ‘Man was here first; and he was better than you!’ Yet, the final shot, from above, of Taylor writhing in the sand, as the waves wash about his and his species’ insignificance, with no music to lead one into the credits, is still one of those moments that only film can provide. Indulge the first film, especially, as well as the best of the rest, for the whole Planet Of The Apes franchise shows that Hollywood entertainment need not be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. Ain’t that refreshing, if nothing else?


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]


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