The Psychotronic Zone
By David Skolnick
Planet of the Apes (20th Century Fox, 1968) – Director: Franklin J. Schaffner. Writers: Michael Wilson, Rod Serling (s/p). Pierre Boulle (novel). Cast: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, James Daly, Linda Harrison, Robert Gunner, Lou Wagner, Woodrow Palfrey, Jeff Burton, Buck Kartalian, Norman Burton, Wright King, & Paul Lambert. Color, Rated G, 112 minutes.
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. – The Lawgiver in the Sacred Scrolls
There isn't another movie more than the Planet of the Apes that has changed my plans over the years. I own the original Planet of the Apes five-movie DVD collection and have seen the first film more than 50 times. But when I stumble across it – no matter whether it just started or is about to end – on TV, whatever I'm doing at the time or about to do waits until the movie is over. Thankfully, I have a patient family.
Sure, there are science-fiction films with significantly better special effects, but few that are as timeless as Planet of the Apes. The 1968 movie isn't stale nearly a half-century later. A key reason is the apes who run the planet are primitive. They ride horses. They use non-automatic rifles. They use nets to capture humans. They live and work in huts. They don't have cars, planes, trains, telephones, televisions, radios, watches or anything people had in 1968, much less what an advanced society more than 2,000 years in the future would have. There's not even evidence of indoor plumbing in Ape City. The ape society could easily pass for 1868. That's the brilliance behind the film: Not having any technology, even the basics, gives the apes a level of authenticity that would be missing if the film took the opposite approach.
The plot is taken from Pierre Boulle’s novel and adapted by the screenwriters. The film begins with a four-person crew on a spaceship that left Earth a year or two ago. Because it's traveling at near light speed, the Earth has aged about 2,000 years. Taylor (Heston) is talking into a machine, acknowledging that those he knew back home are long dead.
After he joins the others in deep-hibernation sleep, the ship makes a crash landing into a body of water on a planet. To save on money, viewers don't get to see the crash and only get a glimpse of the top of the ship as it sinks into the water. During the crash, the protective cover over Stewart, the lone woman on the ship, cracks and ages her to her death while the three men – Taylor, Landon (Gunner), Dodge (Burton) – age several months. How do we know? They all grew beards, but they’re rather neat when they should be ZZ Top length.
The three abandon ship, board an inflatable raft and paddle to shore, where tests are done showing nothing can grow in the dirt. But at least they can breathe the air. They walk the vast wasteland – we later find it's deep in the Forbidden Zone – until they stumble upon a plant and realize life can be sustained here. They don't give a second thought to several giant scarecrows on top of mountains. Upon finding a body of fresh water we get our only nude scene as all three take their clothes off and we’re given a shot of their bare asses.
While swimming, their clothes are stolen and destroyed – along with their supplies of food and water. They turn the torn items and found rags into something to cover themselves. It's then that they see who destroyed their clothes and equipment: a group of primitive humans. The humans can't speak. and the astronauts figure they'll be running the place in a few months. Suddenly a horn sounds and they look up. Much to their dismay, they see a group of gorillas, some walking on two feet and other riding horses, attempting to capture the humans. Dodge is shot (he’s the lone black guy and it's the black guy who is typically the first to get killed in movies) and Landon is captured. After fending off the gorilla attack, even though he's shot in the neck, Taylor is eventually caught.
Brought back to Ape City, Taylor attracts the attention of Zira (Hunter), an animal psychologist and chimpanzee, who is fascinated with his ability to mimic speaking. (Getting shot in the neck temporarily takes away Taylor's ability to speak.) She calls him “Bright Eyes.” Zira and her fiancé, Cornelius (McDowall), an archaeologist and also a chimpanzee, are fascinated with Taylor, who starts to write things down, telling his story, which neither believes. But they realize he is intelligent, far more so than the other humans on their planet.
Dr. Zaius (Evans), aware that Taylor is a threat to his society, orders the human castrated. Dr. Zaius doesn't want Taylor breeding, which could be a possibility as he's got the hots for one of the humans on the planet he calls Nova (played by Harrison, who was dating Fox studio head Richard Zanuck at the time).
Taylor escapes and when captured utters the legendary line: “Take your stinking paws off of me, you damn dirty ape!” He's brought before an ape tribunal, consisting of Dr. Zaius and two other high-level orangutans, where he is found guilty of crimes even though humans have no rights under ape law. It's one of the best scenes with Zira speaking on behalf of Taylor and the three orangutans doing the classic monkey “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” bit. Doomed to castration or possibly becoming a lab experiment, Taylor, along with Nova, escape thanks to Zira, Cornelius, and Zira's nephew Lucius (Wagner). The five head for the Forbidden Zone followed by Dr. Zaius and an army of gorillas.
Taylor is able to take Dr. Zaius hostage and the group, except Lucius, enter a cave Cornelius discovered a year prior filled with human artifacts. The most damning item is an old baby doll that cries. Dr. Zaius tries to be skeptical, but can no longer keep up the charade: Why would apes make a human doll that could make noise when they're all mute? The doctor finally admits that he was aware of the history of his planet and that humans were far more civilized centuries ago. But, he says, humans destroyed themselves and parts of the planet, turning the Forbidden Zone from a paradise into a wasteland.
The film ends with the apes agreeing to give Taylor – who has Dr. Zaius hostage – and Nova a horse, gun and supplies as they head deeper into the Forbidden Zone. When asked what Taylor will find, Dr. Zaius ominously says, “His destiny.” The good doctor nailed it: It's one of the most iconic endings in cinematic history.
We first see a rusted piece of metal as Taylor and Nova ride a horse along the shoreline, then a close-up of the two on the horse stopping to look at the metal, they ride a little more, and a metal point is visible, then three more in what looks somewhat like a crown, they both get off the horse and stand. As the water comes ashore, Taylor says: “Oh, my God, I'm back. I'm home. All the time, it was...we finally really did it.” (He drops to his knees and pounds his fists into the wet sand as water rushes over him.) He screams: “You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” The viewer gets a reverse shot to see what Taylor sees. And there it is – the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand from its waist down.
The 1963 French novel of which the film is based – La Planete des Singes, cleverly translated as The Planet of the Apes or Monkey Planet in English – and the original movie screenplay by the legendary Rod Serling featured advanced technology that certainly would look ridiculous if viewed today. But what led to the decision to make the apes primitive? Just one thing: money. It was far too expensive for 20th Century Fox to have the apes living in a high-tech world. The advancements considered in the late 1960s for 3978, the year Taylor and the rest of his ill-fated crew crash land deep in the planet's Forbidden Zone, would cost way too much for a company trying to keep expenses down on this film. Serling was replaced by Michael Wilson, a former blacklisted screenwriter who co-wrote, without credit, films such as Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.
Fox's refusal to spend money on props and sets for Planet of the Apes was stronger on the four sequels released annually between 1970 and 1973. The budget decreased with each film – though the dark storyline of the third film Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) is the best of the bunch despite the terrible special effects. However, there's no denying that the makeup used in the films to make human actors look simian was spectacular and years ahead of its time. The apes in the later reboots are the results of CGI technology. While it's spectacular, I'll take a guy in classic POTA makeup over an ape created by CGI every time.
As for casting, Heston was Taylor from the word go. Particularly after his career peaked, and even during its high points, Heston's acting ability was much maligned. However, if you were casting a historical/biblical epic such as Ben-Hur, El Cid and The Ten Commandments, he was your guy. The same goes for dystopian/post-apocalyptic films such as Soylent Green, The Omega Man and Planet of the Apes. He's the perfect actor for those roles. Don't believe me? All you have to do is watch the remakes.
Heston's intensity, bravado and charm give life to George Taylor (we only know his first name because it's in the credits; it's never mentioned in the film). Whether he's uttering his first words to his simian captures – the memorable “stinkin' paws” line – or on his hands and knees during the stunning conclusion of the film – “You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” – Heston owns the screen.
The legendary Edward G. Robinson was originally cast to play Dr. Zaius, Taylor's nemesis – an orangutan who is minister of science and chief defender of the faith, two roles that conflict, particularly when Taylor falls from the sky. Eddie G. had to take a pass on the film though he's in a screen test that was used to sell the film to Fox. Robinson had to bow out because of health problems that got worse when he had to sit through hours of makeup to look the part. Robinson's final cinematic role – and his most touching – would come five years later as Heston's partner in Soylent Green, released three months after his death.
Imagine the Planet of the Apes dialogue with Robinson. “I have always known about man, myah. From the evidence, myah, see, I believe his wisdom must walk hand and hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain, you mugs. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him, even himself, Blue Eyes, myah, myah, myah. If you ain't out of town by tomorrow, you won't ever leave it except in a pine box. You're through.”
Evans, a Shakespearean actor with very little film experience, was cast in the key role of Dr. Zaius. He's extraordinary, and while watching the movie you can see Evans put his Shakespearean talents to good use. McDowall and Hunter, two actors with extensive filmographies – including an Academy Award for Hunter for her portrayal of Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire – were eventually tapped to play the key roles of Cornelius and Zira, the chimpanzees who help Taylor. McDowell would have prominent roles in three of the four sequels as well as the short-lived 1974 TV show based on the film.
The apes have a caste system with the orangutans being the government leaders – very similar to our existing society – with the chimps as the timid intellectuals and the gorillas as the soldiers.
That this film received a G rating is stunning. It's filled with violence, including murder, some brief nudity, and very adult themes. This is post-Hays Code, and apparently the Motion Picture Association of America didn't pay any attention to this film.
The ending, with Heston discovering the Statue of Liberty, lasts for about one minute and 50 seconds and to me is the greatest, most powerful and shocking ending in cinematic history. Even though I've seen it dozens of times, it never loses its impact. It was Serling's ending, even though it’s strangely anticipated by Roger Corman in his camp classic, Teenage Cave Man from 1958, and one that seems straight out of an excellent episode of The Twilight Zone.
Based on the film's conclusion and the sequels that are true to the “ape time continuum,” Ape City is somewhere in or near New York City. If the Forbidden Zone is Manhattan, then Ape City is either Staten Island or Long Island – depending on which direction it is.
My first experience seeing the film was on TV. It was a mainstay on WABC-TV's 4:30 Movie in New York City, where I grew up, as part of Planet of the Apes Week. The original was stretched over two days with three of the sequels – Battle rarely aired – shown the other three weekdays. I pop in the DVD every so often and as I mentioned, I've come across it on TV several times.
Thankfully TCM recently showed it on the big screen providing viewers, including myself, who've never seen it in a theater the chance to do just that. It's a movie made for the big screen. The vastness of the Forbidden Zone and the size of the cliffs toward the end of the movie – filmed in Arizona and California, respectively – are incredible sights to see on such a large screen. I didn't truly appreciate the sheer size of the locations until seeing it in a theater. I went with a friend who also loves the films, particularly the original. In between reciting lines to each other and ourselves – there were only about 10 other people in the theater – we marveled at the breathtaking cinematography and the marvelous ape makeup.
The film screamed for a sequel, but Heston barely showed any interest in doing one. The deal struck by Heston's agents on his behalf included that he have a very small part, Taylor would be killed and his salary would go to charity. While Beneath the Planet of the Apes is a very good film, the original is a timeless classic and the best of the entire Apes series of movies.