In 1963, French author Pierre Boulle wrote Planet of the Apes. It told the tale of three astronauts who travel to Betelgeuse and discover a planet where apes are the dominant species and humans are savages. Thus, the start of what would become one of the greatest franchises in film history. From 1968 to 1976, the Apes series dominated with 5 feature films, a short-lived live-action television series and a Saturday morning cartoon. Following a Tim Burton reboot in 2001, we are now enjoying a new series of films with a third planned for 2016. And it all started with 1968s Planet of the Apes.
Producer Arthur P. Jacobs had purchased the rights to the original novel in 1963 but found little interest in Hollywood. But, after Jacobs began to earn himself a reputation, 20th Century Fox was interested and the project was greenlighted. As the script was being developed, and as in the original novel, the concept of three casts of Apes society was a groundwork that would survive to the final film. There are the gorillas, the more militaristic police force, the upper class orangutans who rule society and the more liberal minded chimpanzees who are the scientists. However, the technologically advanced aspects of ape society would be abandoned early on due to budgetary constraints. Legendary Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling wrote an early draft that was rejected. However, elements would be retained in what would eventually be the final draft, rewritten by Michael Wilson. The advanced ape society was now replaced with a more primitive (and cheaper to film) version. What did survive was Serling’s iconic final scene, still one of the best in cinematic history.
Planet of the Apes was released in 1968 with top Hollywood actor Charlton Heston (The Omega Man, Soylent Green) in the lead role of astronaut George Taylor. Taylor is the commanding officer of a space mission that includes fellow male astronauts John Landon and Dodge, along with the lone female Stewart. Upon crashing into a lake surrounded by rocky terrain and desert, it’s discovered that Stewart’s hibernation chamber had cracked, leaving her to die before the others had awoken. Our three survivors leave the sinking ship in search of life on this strange alien world. They soon discover a humanoid species that appear to be mute. But before Taylor has a chance to name himself their god and take over the planet, he and the others are shocked to see gorillas on horseback hunting the humans. Fleeing for their lives, Dodge is killed and Landon is knocked over a cliff before Taylor is shot and captured.
We discover that apes rule this planet. They are intelligent, using horses and living in dwellings, as well as possessing weapons. However, there is no electricity, so perhaps the best comparison would be that of Earth in the 1800s. Taylor is kept in a cage in what appears to be a zoo where humans are studied. He is eventually befriended by two chimpanzees, Cornelius (Roddy McDowell, It!, The Legend of Hell House) and Zira (Kim Hunter, The Seventh Victim), who believe Taylor to be different. Once Taylor regains his speech, it becomes a race to save Taylor and his mate Nova (Linda Harrison) from Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans, Rosemary’s Baby), who clearly knows more about man than he is letting on. The final scene is a stunning one, wrapping up the tale while leaving the door open for answers as to what really happened to the world Taylor once knew.
There are several aspects of Planet of the Apes which help it stand out as a true sci-fi classic. The script is intelligent, weaving a tale where we ultimately see that the flaws of mankind lead to its’ destruction but are the apes any better? A superior cast enhanced the script, from the main cast to the supporting actors, such as James Whitmore and James Daly. The shooting locations gave it an expansive feel, from the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon to Malibu Creek State Park. And as we are being treated visually, there is an amazing score by Jerry Goldsmith that was nominated for an Academy Award.
All of these combine for an amazingly fun flick that is one of my personal favorites. I have very fond memories and watching this movie countless times when I was a kid on Friday and Saturday nights. It not only launched a series of films, but a merchandising juggernaut that included everything from trading cards to action figures to coloring books to puzzles. Not to mention those great book-and-record sets!
I highly recommend Planet of the Apes and suggest you watch it on Blu-ray as the remastered picture is stunning. Be sure to watch the great documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes as well. Then, seek out the 2011 novel Conspiracy of the Planet of the Apes, written by Andrew E.C. Glaska. It expands on the movie by telling the story of what happened to astronaut Landon between the time he was captured and we see him return, lobotomized and mindless. Amazing illustrations by artists such as Jim Steranko make it well worth tracking it down.