Hollywood of the 1960s was in many ways no different than it is today. When you have a big hit at the box office, why not try to recapture that same success. When Planet of the Apes (1968) was a commercial hit, 20th Century Fox was more than ready to go back to Ape City with Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970).
Producer Arthur P. Jacobs was back with Ted Post directing the second release in the franchise. Director Franklin J. Schaffner was ready to move on to his new project Patton following the success of Planet of the Apes. Post was fresh off the Clint Eastwood western classic Hang ‘Em High (1968), which in some ways made him a logical choice considering how many of the scenes were set in the desolate Forbidden Zone. Fox studios wanted Charlton Heston back as astronaut Taylor but he was very hesitant to revisit the role. He finally agreed to a much-reduced presence, ultimately appearing in only a handful of scenes.
The movie picks up right where Planet of the Apes ended, beginning with a recap of the final scene leading up to Taylor and Nova (Linda Harrison) on horseback, riding off into the Forbidden Zone. Through flashbacks, we see that they encounter fire and earthquakes before Taylor disappears into a cliff wall. Not too far away, we see a crashed spaceship resembling Taylor’s from the first film. The ship’s commanding officer, referred to only as Skipper (Tod Andrews, Hang ‘Em High), dies as fellow astronaut Brent (James Franciscus, Marooned and Valley of Gwangi) begins putting together his whereabouts. They were on a rescue mission for the Taylor’s lost ship, traveling through the same time warp. Brent soon discovers Nova riding on horseback and, upon seeing that she has Taylor’s dog tags, he rides with her to Ape City in search of answers.
Once there, he discovers a planet ruled by apes and a gorilla faction hell bent on war. General Ursus (James Gregory, TV series such as Star Trek and Barney Miller) wants to storm into the Forbidden Zone, despite objections from Dr. Zaius (played by the returning Maurice Evans). Cornelius and Zira (again Kim Hunter) have smaller roles here, serving only to essentially set Brent and Nova on their way after he is shot. They are soon captured and, upon quickly escaping with some help from Zira, they head into the Forbidden Zone with a gorilla army not too far behind. Brent soon understands that he is indeed on his Earth just as he discovers a race of underground mutants worshipping an atomic bomb. A collision between apes and mutants ultimately leads to the final conflict that seemingly ended the franchise.
Roddy McDowell was not able to reprise his role as Cornelius due to his commitments in directing Tam Lin (1970). David Watson does a very convincing job of playing the character. So much so that I must admit I didn’t realize for years that it wasn’t McDowell, who would return to the role the following year. Several familiar character actors appear as mutants, such as Victor Buono and Gregory Sierra. Natalie Trundy would make the first of several appearances in the Apes franchise playing mutant Albina.
While Heston had a very small role, his scenes were among some of the best in the movie, including the final moment involving the Alpha-Omega doomsday bomb. Franciscus did a fine job of taking the lead hero role but something seemed to be missing. This same feeling also pops up when listening to the soundtrack. Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic music for the first film is gone, replaced with a score from Leonard Rosenman, who is well-known for other works such as Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). It works here, especially the gorilla march, but it lacks many of the other-worldly qualities Goldsmith brought to the first film.
One of the biggest setbacks in this film is the reduced budget combined with the needs for a larger cast of apes. Unfortunately, this was resolved by having many of the background actors wear masks instead of actual make-up. Look in any scene, especially during General Ursus’ speech, and it is painfully evident. Visually, the movie lacks the overall scope of the original and comes across looking as if it had its’ budget slashed in half. Not surprising because that was just the case.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes is a fun sequel despite being much weaker than the first film. Check out the trailer before hunting down the Blu-ray. Of course, it did well enough at the box office to warrant a third sequel, which was quickly rushed into production. Next time, we take a big leap in logic so that we can Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971).