As our movie begins, we see what looks to be a familiar shoreline. The opening moments are reminiscent of what we have seen in the first two movies. Then, the shocking sound of a helicopter makes us realize this will be a very different Apes movie. We see Taylor’s spaceship floating in the ocean, eventually brought to shore by the military. As high-ranking officials salute and welcome the three astronauts to the United States, they remove their helmets, revealing they are in fact chimpanzees. Thus begins the great third chapter in the Apes saga, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971).
To enjoy this movie, you have to take some immediate leaps of logic. First, the last we saw in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Earth was destroyed. It becomes immediately obvious that this movie does not take place on that world. Well, more accurately, it does but it takes place in a different time in what was then only two years away rather than thousands. We are quickly told that a scientist by the name of Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo, Who Killed Teddy Bear) was an ape with knowledge well beyond his years. He not only found Taylor’s sunken spaceship but had it pulled up and restored enough to survive the destruction of Earth in 3955, conveniently finding its’ way to just the right time period. Okay, at this point, if you’ve accepted talking apes, this really shouldn’t be that hard to follow. Just go with it and enjoy the ride.
After our three chimpanzees are taken to the Los Angeles Zoo, we quickly lose Dr. Milo as he is killed by a depressed gorilla. Our focus now shifts to two familiar faces, those of Cornelius (once again played by the returning Roddy McDowell) and his wife Zira (Kim Hunter). They are befriended by Dr. Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman, The Swarm and Piranha) and Dr. Stephanie Braxton (Natalie Trundy in the second of her eventual three roles in the Apes franchise). Meanwhile, the President of the United States (William Windom, Captain Decker of the classic Star Trek episode “The Doomsday Machine”) is taking the advice of Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden, The Rat Patrol and Colossus: The Forbin Project), a renowned scientist previously mentioned in the first two films. Hasslein knows that Cornelius and Zira represent a future where apes rule and he decides that eliminating them will alter the future and save mankind. Cornelius and Zira go from celebrities to most wanted, on the run as Zira is pregnant and ready to give birth.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes is very different in tone from what we had seen in the first two films. It does require some leaps of logic but, once you do, you can enjoy what I feel is actually a better film that it’s’ predecessor. I thoroughly enjoy Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but here we continue the story and begin to come full circle in how apes will eventually rule the planet. Cornelius offers us a timeline of how, over centuries, apes go from pets to servants after a disease wipes out all dogs and cats. As servants move into slavery, the key moment when an ape named Aldo says “no” is the catalyst to apes ruling Earth as mankind continues on the path to self-destruction. The action and suspense turns the tables as man takes the place of gorillas, now hunting down Cornelius and Zira, who ultimately have to rely on humans for help just as they once helped Taylor and Brent. It all works to tie the first three movies together.
Even with a smaller budget, the movie really looks just as expensive due to the ability to use real-life sets and only three actors in make-up. Jerry Goldsmith returns for a whimsical soundtrack that picks up on elements of the first film while standing out as unique, enhancing the new surroundings of the movie. Paul Dehn is back as writer and is now on board for the rest of the series, just as producer Arthur P. Jacobs continues his work of producing the saga. Don Taylor directed the third Apes chapter, his most well-remembered genre film alongside Damien: Omen II (1978) and The Final Countdown (1980). He also directed quite a bit of classic television, including episodes of Night Gallery and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
The film clearly sets things up for a sequel and a new timeline of events. Ricardo Montalban (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn) makes the first of two appearances as circus owner Armando, helping save Zira’s baby Milo, putting into motion the arrival of talking apes centuries ahead of the events described by Cornelius. Despite being rushed into production, Escape from the Planet of the Apes was ultimately more successful than Beneath the Planet of the Apes, assuring more Apes films to come.
Check out the trailer (warning, it is full of spoilers) and come back next time as we witness the Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972).