Take Your Stinking Paws Off Me, You Damned Dirty Ape!
In 1968, when moviegoers first heard about the film, Planet of the Apes, the title obviously turned a lot of people off. Yet, the film was a box office and critical success. Few people probably thought the film would spawn one of the greatest film franchises in history. Spawning four direct sequels, an animated TV-series, a remake, and another trilogy of prequels/reboots. Obviously, the novel the film is based on by author Pierre Boule gets a lot of credit, but there’s no denying the quality of the 1968 film is the reason for the franchise’s true success.
Charlton Heston plays astronaut George Taylor. Taylor is awoken from his deep space travel hypersleep by alarms as his spaceship crashes on a remote planet. He, along with two other crewmembers are able to escape the ship as it sinks into the planet’s sea with only the clothes on their back. As the three stranded men explore the planet they come across primitive men with no spoken language. Soon they realize the top of the food chain is a race of technologically advanced talking apes who enslave the primitive men. Taylor is captured by these apes and is flung into the middle of a cultural and social feud between dueling factions of apes.
When he finally reveals to head of this ape society, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), his true origin and nature, his existence threatens the foundations of the ape’s social constructs. With his life in danger, Taylor embarks the help of two apes scientists, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter), to aid in his escape with his newly found love interest Nova (Linda Harrison). His fight for survival and flight to escape the ape’s civilization leads him on a journey of that ultimately ends in a horrifying discovery.
Heston as the blue-eyed Taylor debatably gives his best performance of his career. If not most iconic. It’s either this, Moses, or Ben Hur, right? When you consider Heston’s performance taking on a high-powered fire hose and a hoarse throat, you’d never know the man was fighting the flu throughout filming. Taylor is a man you want to be. A lover, a fighter, and a leader. Heston has a lot on his shoulders as the only “man” in the film and carries the film with ease. His chemistry with the rest of the cast, whether man or ape, creates relationships and friendships you care about. He’s one of the easiest heroes to cheer for on film.
Planet of the Apes provides another actor with a career defining performance. Roddy McDowall’s career was made playing various apes in the franchise, from Cornelius to the original Caesar. Thanks to his performances, in this film and three of the four sequels, the debate between who the better Ape actor is will be endless. Andy Serkis vs McDowall is an argument that hours could be spent deliberating with no clear winner. Motion capture perhaps makes acting a tad easier, giving McDowall a slight edge in the debate. Emoting through the layers of thick makeup and prosthetics and providing an awe-inspiring performance is no easy task. McDowall made a successful career out of it.
Another great ape performer is Kim Hunter as Zira. While McDowall saw little success in film outside the franchise, save for an illustrious career of voice acting. Hunter gave some great performances both under the mask and without it. After all, she is Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire. While McDowall often gets the title of best Ape actor, it’s actually Hunter who wins my heart with her performance. Somehow, her eyes and charming personality create a loving ape worthy of affection. It’s a little embarrassing to say, but Taylor’s inter-species lip lock isn’t shocking, it’s understandable.
Not only does Planet of the Apes define the careers of actors, the score easily consists of some of the greatest sci-fi music ever. Thanks to Jerry Goldsmith, once you hear the score for the film, it’s not hard for you to imagine the music in your head. There are few films out there that are capable of this symphonic achievement. Goldsmith’s inspiration, a gorilla mask. His weapon of choice, a ram’s horn. Being the first completely atonal score in Hollywood, it also makes history.
The year of 1968 was the golden age of science fiction. Between Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, Hollywood would never be the same again. The success of these two films sparked a great interest in the final frontier, with a little help from Star Trek, of course. Without these three key elements, would man had ever stepped foot on the moon a year later? I think that’s a good question to ask.
While Heston creates one of the greatest manly men in film history, he also receives credit for helping decide some of the best moments from the film that man people still quote today. The ending of the film, which still resonates today, ultimately came down to the stars preference. I sometimes wonder what the film would have been like with a different ending and if the franchise would have been as successful. Every decision made for Planet of the Apes was the right one. Creating a film legacy that still has no ending in sight.
The only flaw I truly see in the film all comes from retrospect and technological advancements in filmmaking. The award winning make-up was groundbreaking for the time but may be hard to swallow for new audiences. With that said, the only time the make-up really stumbles is during some moments of dialogue. For most of the film, it’s not hard to imagine this is truly a Planet of the Apes. Combining the groundbreaking make-up with an amazing costume design helps pull that off.
In the end, it’s always a great adventure revisiting Franklin J Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes. Schaffner flawlessly provides a composition consisting of great performances from both man and ape, an eerie and memorable score, and great sci-fi world-building and action. While War for the Planet of the Apes concludes a great prequel reboot, fans are still wondering if we will ever see a remake of this original story done so eloquently. Tim Burton tried and failed. Hopefully, Andy Serkis and his team are up for the challenge of another trilogy. Starting with a proper remake of Planet of the Apes. As a fan of the franchise, this is all I ask for.