The Series Project: Planet of the Apes (Part 1)

Oh yes. It's time for apes.

The Planet of the Apes series is perhaps on of the stranger sci-fi concepts to be stretched into an entire series. Sure, each film made plenty of money, and the first 1968 film was a huge hit in its day, but the high concept seems to be a little too arch to continue too far. A planet of intelligent, talking apes? How did someone manage to make that? Were it not for the recognizable name, and Hollywood's unending propensity for plundering old properties, I would venture to say that something like that wouldn't be made these days. Much less spawn four sequels, two remakes, and two TV series. I guess the late '60s and early '70s were a different time.

Maybe their topicality and oddly short shelf life is what keeps them alive. Each of the films uses its sci-fi conceits – as all great sci-fi does – to illustrate a current-day social ill. Today, we can sit back and watch these films as the time capsules they are, and perhaps more greatly appreciate the artistic merit, earnestness, and no small amount of camp that went into making them. The series is a sort of pulp sci-fi conceit peppered with the social concerns of the day. Or maybe they’re kept alive by the sheer overpowering ridiculous awesomeness of seeing an ape on horseback, shooting humans. There's a refreshing delirium to the image that managed to endure, and stretch into hours and hours of filmed entertainment. Apes are very human-looking. Why not put words in their mouths and guns in their hands?

What is it about apes, anyway? Is it just because they look so human? Is it their genetic similarity to us? Why is the thought of a primate committing acts of violence so alluring? Why are moneys so funny and fascinating? Whatever the reason, movie apes seem to have a kiddie monster matinee quality that has stretched into an entire sub-genre of film. From King King to Trog, we've been following ape monsters since the beginning. 

 

Oh my friends, the time has come. It's time for another installment of The Series Project here on CraveOnline, wherein I shall be examining the Planet of the Apes movies entire, and seeing how they are constructed as a unit. I will, if I am at all successful, decipher their meaning and examine their continuity, if any.

There were seven Apes movies in all. The initial five-film series ran from 1968 to 1973, and covered a vast swath of ape history. In 2001, a high-profile remake of the first film was made, and in 2011, an equally-high profile remake of the fourth film was made. The first film was based on a 1963 French-language novel called La Planète de Singes by Pierre Boulle. The sequels all follow their own continuity, and go down a rather dark rabbit hole of persecution, slavery, and tragedy. Indeed, each one of the films (with the exception of the fifth) ends on an unbearably tragic note, wherein a major character dies, or some horrible moral compromise is made. The series skips around in time a lot, and the films don't really follow their own plainly stated timeline quite correctly. You'll find that the overarching history of the series is a little dodgy.

Here I go. I will try my hardest to make as few monkey puns as I can, but I make no promises. Let us begin, shall we?

 

PLANET OF THE APES (1968)
Directed by: Franklin J. Schaffner

Schaffner was a well-known director of television before the first Apes movie, but its success led him to make the especially notable films Patton, Papillon, and The Boys from Brazil. The most prominent talent involved in the film, though, was Rod Serling, who co-wrote the screenplay. The auteur behind The Twilight Zone brought his usual dry apocalyptic nature to the proceedings, imbuing a level of wit in the material not seen often enough in science fiction. Serling's presence, I am certain, is the reason the film seems to take itself so seriously.

Planet of the Apes is something of an American classic. Its images are so striking, and the apes are so naturally believable, that its entered common parlance in many ways. Even though the films' star, Charlton Heston, perhaps sees the film as something of a lesser point in his career (he much preferred larger-than-life historical heroes), it's likely going to be the first film of his that many young people see. In a way, the popularity of the Apes films has made a firmer mark on popular culture than films like Ben-Hur and Touch of Evil.

Look, I know you know the big twist at the end of the film (heck, they put the film's final shot on the cover of the video, fer cryin' out loud), but I'm going to proceed as if you don't, just in case. Plus, further continuity won't come into play yet, so I will proceed in a naïve fashion.

Heston plays an astronaut named Taylor who, along with three cohorts, has been sent on a vague mission into outer space. At the film's outset, he notes that hundreds of years have already elapsed on Earth while they continue to travel at near-light speed. He remarks with no small amount of melancholy that the people who conceived of his mission are long dead. I wish I knew more about this mission, but nothing doing. He goes into hypersleep and is not awakened until something hits his ship. He and two of his cohorts, Landon and Dodge (Robert Gunnar and Jeff Burton) survive, but the third, the only woman on the mission, died in hypersleep. They realize that something has gone wrong, and they slept too long. They then, rather suddenly, crash on a nearby planet, right into a lake. During their escape from the ship, Taylor notices that the time readout indicates that it is not the year AD 3978. Whatever these guys were sent into space to do, it's long since become irrelevant.

Taylor seems pretty easy-going in the face of his displacement in time. He makes jokes. The other two seem less devastated than someone would be to learn that they're utterly lost on a weird alien world thousands of years in the future. This easy, flip attitude in the face of vast canyons of alien distance , you'll find, dominates this film and lends to its strength.

The three astronauts wander through the strange canyon country where they landed, eventually finding increasing signs of life, and then signs of natives (they see some eerie scarecrows). They eventually strip and take a bath in a nearby waterfall. The planet is, they find, kind of Edenic. I liked the slow build of this film. Too many sci-fi films seem way too eager to get to the action. Planet of the Apes is a good, solid 112 minutes, and it employs it well. Things don't merely occur in a sequence. They unfold in a natural way. In a film that is meant to be a big-budget sci-fi blockbuster, this is almost daring. The astronauts' cloths are soon stolen by people! Yes, it turns out there are native, human-looking beings on this planet.

And, yes, it turns out that the humans are all mute, unintelligent caveman animals. They cannot speak to our heroes, and our heroes must dress in skins. Then there's the big reveal: humans are being hunted by well dressed, well armed gorillas on horseback. I'm trying really hard not to make a “guerrilla warfare” joke. I hope you appreciate my restraint. All three astronauts are captured, and Taylor gets shot in the neck, leaving him mute. The three of them are taken by the gorillas back to the ape city.

It's here that we see the true nature of the planet. It is indeed ruled by apes who have a police force, a language (English, as it so happens), a religion, politicians, and a scientific community. They're intelligent, and seem to live in a blissful agrarian state. It's not made explicit in this film, but the chimpanzees are the scientists, the gorillas are the cops, and the orangutans are the politicians. It's here that we meet the kindly couple of chimps Dr. Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and his fiancé Zira (Kim Hunter). Zira is the head human researcher in the ape city, and has been trying to find an intelligent human; she believes they are capable of much more than the brute animal behavior she has seen.

The apes makeup, by the way, was revolutionary in 1968, and still looks great today. The kinds of makeup along these lines seen in the past were either over-the-head masks, or complicated clumps of fur like in The Wolf Man, which required hours to apply. In Planet of the Apes, ape noses and chins were glued to the actors, giving them simian mouths, but their own eyes. Even though most of their faces were covered, most of the actors managed to express their way through the makeup, letting us know their character. It probably helped that the filmmakers chose such expressive actors; I have a feeling Heston himself would not have fared so well under the ape nose.

Anyway, Zira begins to look after Taylor, nicknaming him Bright-Eyes. Taylor, meanwhile, tries desperately to prove that he is intelligent, and is stymied at every turn; his attempts to write in the dirt are erased by fellow humans. Taylor also forms a weird bond with the mute hottie Nova (Linda Harrison). It's not until days have passed that Taylor finds himself alone in a room with Zira, and proves that he can write. Zira immediately begins inquiring into who he is and how he can write. Kim Hunter portrays Zira as a feisty and intelligent woman. Her eyes crinkle and bulge in a convincing way. She and McDowell will become the face of the series. Oh, it's during this point where we learn that Taylor's two cohorts have been killed and lobotomized respectively. Yikes.

Okay, it's never really explained (in this film, anyway) how the apes all speak English, and how they can understand Taylor. In Star Trek, we at least have the convenient plot mechanic of The Universal Translator to help us along. In Apes, the simians just speak English and that is all. How funny if they all spoke German or some other Earth language. Eventually Taylor also manages to regain his voice (his first recovered line is the immortal “Get your stinking hands off me, you damn dirty ape!”), and it is here that he incurs the ire of Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), a local magistrate, who would put Tayor on trial, and debate whether or not he has a soul. Zaius would have Taylor killed or gelded.

It's the conversations between Taylor and Zaius where Serling's influence seems to shine. Philosophical questions get asked. What constitutes intelligence? Do intelligent beings, previously thought to be animals, have the same rights as everyone else? We begin to think about the way Americans treated the native Indians during the American Revolution and after. And we, perhaps, posit what would happen if an intelligent animal approached us. Would it have a soul? Is a soul a construct of the brain? For a film with a bunch of monkeymen, it's surprisingly thoughtful.

Zaius seems to be afraid of Taylor, and has an aversion to the vast Forbidden Zone where Taylor's ship crashed. We, through small bits of information, begin to learn that Zaius is hiding something about the history of humans on this planet, and that he fears something terrible that will befall apekind should Taylor be allowed to live. Fearing what a single character represents for society's future will be a strong theme through the third and fourth films. Taylor manages to flee the ape city with Zaius as a hostage and Cornelius and Zira in tow. He takes Nova with him. For cuddles. They all find a cave where artifacts of a human society once existed. Zaius claims they are ape artifacts until Taylor finds a talking human doll. Would apes make a doll that talked? “The Forbidden Zone used to be a paradise!” Zaius yells. “Humans made it a desert ages ago!”

Taylor eventually kisses Zira goodbye (which is, I think, the first interspecies kiss in film history), and he and Nova head out into the Forbidden Zone to look for answers. They find it in one of the most shocking twist endings in all sci-fi history, which I will talk about openly now. IF YOU DO NOT KOW THE ENDING OF PLANET OF THE APES, STOP READING NOW, AND GO WATCH THE FILM. I WILL NOT BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR GIVING AWAY SOMETHING IMPORTANT. Also, tsk tsk. How do you not know the ending by now?

Yes, it turns out that Taylor was on Earth this whole time. He finds the Statue of Liberty, on a beach, half buried in sand, implying that we humans finally did ourselves in with nuclear weapons, allowing the apes to evolve in our place. “Damn you all to Hell!” Taylor shouts. There was some controversy, from what I understand, about the coarseness of that language. Heston explained to the producers that he was not blaspheming, but genuinely calling upon real damnation to Hell. They let it remain.

I got the impression that humans wiped out all their own kind in an unnamed war, leaving apes to evolve on their own, without exposure to humans, other than as mute derivatives of their previous selves. However, my impressions are wrong. We'll learn in future film that apes and humans co-existed for a long time, and a lot of the history is either incorrect or severely fudged.

This film is a great classic, and I love it. I will not gush much more.

But let's onto the next film, which plays less like a sequel to this first film than a prequel to a heady, psychedelic acid fest like Zardoz. Let us to…

 

NEXT: Everything goes completely insane for the rest of the series…


BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970)
Directed by: Ted Post

Ted Post is 93, and is still alive.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes ups the crazy by a factor of 12. Good God, is this ever a mindsquishing movie. The small, subtle pieces of philosophical insight hidden throughout the often silly-looking first film seem to have been exaggerated to a ridiculous degree here. Not only are there apes, a second talking human, and weird calls to war, but we'll also meet a race of psychic underground mutants with the power to induce hallucinations and to control behavior. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I heard tell that Heston would not agree to be in this film unless he was given very little screentime, and that his character actually died, leaving him out of other films. So we have that to look forward to.

The film opens with footage of the first film, as Taylor (still Heston) finds the Statue of Liberty again. He wanders about the Forbidden Zone with Nova (still Linda Harrison) encountering strange phenomenon; walls of fire spontaneously appear, and lightning strikes. The special effects are pretty cheap-looking. Taylor eventually finds a mysterious sand dune that he falls inside of. As if the dune were a hologram. He just sort of fades out. Nova, dummy though she is, was trained to look for Zira (Kim Hunter again) should Taylor get hurt. She goes off on horseback.

Meanwhile, we see the crashed remains of a second Earth ship. This one contained Brent (James Franciscus), who begins to go through exactly what Taylor went through in the first film. What are the odds that his ship would oversleep for the exact same amount of time? Well, as is explained in dialogue, he seems to have slipped through some sort of time hole, and he knows it's the distant future. I don't like that as much as merely oversleeping and returning to Earth. Brent states that it's 3955. Wait! That was 23 years before the last film! This is a rudimentary math problem that is never solved. It's frustrating, too. Didn't they have a script for the first film to reference?

Brent finds his way to the ape city (he must have crashed closer), and he meets Zira. Cornelius is there, but is now played by David Watson. Don't worry. McDowell will be back. Zira is fearful of meeting another talking human, as a local gorilla, General Ursus (James Gregory) wants to invade the Forbidden Zone using a newly-built gorilla army. Dum dum dum. No guerrilla jokes here. Nosiree. It's here that the class/race/species differences between chimps, gorillas and orangutans is made explicit. We also learn that Zira is racist against gorillas. Chimps may be pacifists, but they can still use racial slurs. Zira sends Brent out of the city before the gorillas catch wind of him and kill him.

Wait, why does Ursus want to invade the Forbidden Zone? From what we've seen, there's no one there. It's a desert. What could possibly be in the Forbidden Zone that an ape would want? Well, aside from Susan Tyrell and her frog butler? Bonus points if you get that one. But seriously, there's nothing there of value. There's no one to kill. Why is the looming threat of military action even proposed? The gorillas, we learn, are just a warlike lot. I guess they won't be happy unless they ride in formation with guns to do something.

Brent, meanwhile, dressed in animal skins (and sporting one awesome six-pack, by the way), finds a hole leading under the surface of the planet. He finds an old New York subway station. He has a brief existential crisis as he learns that this is Earth. He treks down further into the planet, and finds the subterranean ruins of old New York. Nova follows him, and it's amusing to see this woman, clearly a runway model, try to climb over ruins. She's clearly not used to it. Look for an homage to this dainty, mincing wild native in the 2001 remake when Estella Warren shows up.

Get ready, 'cause things are about to get stupid.

Brent encounters some humans! Oh my! They wear hoods, and speak to him by making little buzzing noises with their minds. They can communicate telepathically. Humans have survived through the radiation of the unnamed war, and are constantly in fear of apes invading the underground space where they've been hiding out for millennia. They can control people with their minds, and make Brent strangle Nova a few times, and make him feel pain. They can spy on people using a big psychic screen.

Okay, you had me with the talking apes and the weird distant future thing. You had me through the warmongering and the obvious allusions to Vietnam. You even kind of had me with the time hole thing, even though I didn't like it. You even had me through that weird-ass ape sauna scene where we see them with no clothes on. But secret underground psychics? That's either ridiculous, or awesome. Oh, and it gets better. The war allusions become even more obvious when we learn that the psychics are really hideous pale mutants who wear spooky rubber human masks. They also worship an unexploded nuclear bomb, which they see as a powerful thing. I'm all for wry satire and pacifist subtext, but this is about as subtle as, well, a nuclear bomb.

Then there's a really bugnuts hallucination sequence where the mutants give the gorilla army a vision of upside-down crucified apes in a field of fire, while a statue of The Lawgiver, the ape deity, bleeds tears and collapses. This sequence is like something out of a Ken Russell film.

Brent finally meets up with Taylor, who was being held captive by the mutants. The mutants use their powers to make them fight. They must do something to Nova as well, as she screams Taylor's name. Then, in a really rushed and chaotic climax, the apes find the underground lair, invade, smash up all the mutants' stuff, and begin killing them. I suppose Ursus was right. The psychics don't seem to use their powers much here. I guess when you're a half-crazed CHUD it doesn't cross your mind. Anyway, Brent and Taylor escape and make their way to the main hall. Brent is shot to death, and Taylor, wounded, manages to activate the nuclear bomb. Yes, the entire planet is snuffed like a candle. It happens that quickly. We then hear a voiceover by Paul Frees saying “In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.”

Good job, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, in addition to your weirdness and psychic morlock mutants, you now have a totally inappropriate and ineffective stab at 2001: A Space Odyssey grandeur.

Y'know, for all the bitching I've done about the film, I actually kind of like it on a camp level. It goes so over the top, it's kind of hard not to love it. This film, though, will seem to be the one that the series will try to live down in sequels. I mean, they ended the world. They end up bending over backward to accommodate that. As we shall see in…

 


ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971)
Directed by: Don Taylor

Yes, the Don Taylor who directed this film was also the husband in the original Father of the Bride (1950).

So we blew up the Earth. Where do we go? Why back in time of course. This new film follows Zira (still Kim Hunter), Cornelius (Roddy McDowell, back again), and their colleague Milo (Sal Mineo, yes, Sal Mineo) as they land on Earth in the present day. Evidently they salvaged Taylor's ship from the lake where it crashed, and took it to space, all off screen in the last film. They then flew through the aforementioned time hole, and end up on Earth in 1973. Sigh. Watch the preview for this film. It looks pretty dang dumb. Luckily, the film is better than it looks. Even though it sets up all kind of new premises.

So Zira, Cornelius and Milo are fond by the military on a beach, and are taken to some veterinarians (played by Bradford Dillman and Natalie Trundy). The three apes have opted not to speak as to not raise the suspicion of the humans. It doesn't take long, though, for Zira to break down and start talking to her human captors. It's a miracle. Just as suddenly, Milo is killed by a present-day gorilla through the bars of his cage. This death seems so arbitrary, it'll have you wondering if Mineo needed to get out of a contract. Zira and Cornelius are brought before a government commission where they are grilled, and prove their intelligence to the world. They do, however, leave out some vital pieces of information about themselves. They do reveal they're from the future, but not that they saw the Earth end in 3955 (3978?), and they certainly don't mention that Zira was a biologist that used to dissect humans on a regular basis. I guess claiming to be a talking space chimp from the future is bad enough without adding the word “dissection” to the discussion. They are charming and fun enough to be considered safe and even heroic.

I'd like to say a brief word here about Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter. My goodness are they ever compelling. McDowell may be known for his long string of genre films, and for burying his face in ape makeup for four of the five ape movies, but I recently re-watched the 1963 version of Cleopatra, and was astonished at what a powerful actor he was. McDowell is actually very subtle and talented, and even though he's saddled with a funny ape mask and posture, managed to bring a kind of wit and charm to Cornelius. Kim Hunter, having a more expressive face, seems to bring even more to Zira. These two are real troopers.

Anyway, a suave and smarmy government aide named Otto Hasslein (played by 31-year resident of The Young and the Restless Eric Braeden) begins to intuit that the apes are hiding something, and wants to know more about their past/our future. He plies the apes in a long and insufferable sequence wherein he gives them fancy clothes, and makes them into local celebrities. He eventually feeds some wine to Zira (they call it “grape juice plus”) and she reveals that they saw the world end, and that it was in the 3950s. Zira, by the way, has just announced that she's pregnant. Yeah. Feed booze to the pregnant chimp woman. Anyway, the announcement of the end of the world has Otto running to the president himself. He is concerned about the fate of humanity. The president is much more pragmatic. “I think we'll be out of office by then,” he replies.

Nothing doing for Otto. He immediately forms a vast conspiracy that if the unborn ape baby is allowed to survive, then it will eventually breed with other apes, increasing their general gene pool, leading to an ape takeover, leading to human war, leading to the second movie, leading to the destruction of the Earth in the 3950s. Is it me, or is the possible destruction of the Earth thousands of years in the future kind of a vaguely large thing to be worried about? Shouldn't you be grilling the apes more about the nuclear war (that you started) that wiped out the humans to begin with? Shouldn't you work on stopping that first? This paranoia about an ape takeover is what will drive the climax of this third film, and the following two.

Cornelius gives a monologue about the history of the ape uprising. It turns out that there was a plague at some point in human history that wiped out the cats and dogs. Humans began buying apes as pets. Then they started training them to do household chores. Over the course of 500 years, the apes eventually learned to speak English, and fight against the humans. They were led by an ape whose first word was “No!” Remember that “no.” It will come into play in the fourth, fifth and seventh films. These events from the monologue will be enacted in the fourth film.

So where does the nuclear war come in? Well, maybe it was a war with the apes. Argh. Things are getting too involved for their own good.

Eventually Cornelius and Zira flee Otto (with the aid of their vet friends) to a circus run by Armando, played with great panache by Ricardo Montalban. Yup, he's one suave m*****f****r. He is agrees to hide the apes with his other chimps, but they decide to leave. Not before, though, Zira gives birth, and switches her new intelligent baby with a regular chimp. Good thing they look alike. The film ends with a great chase and a tragic shooting wherein Zira, the baby and Cornelius are all gunned down. In tradition of all the films, the ending is a total downer.

The last shot of the film is the baby chimp back at the circus saying “mama” for the first time. The effect used to make this happen was simply looping the film of a baby chimp back and forth, so it looks like it mouth is saying “mama.” It’s unintentionally hilarious.

I don't know if I liked this one too much. I supposed I liked the levity, but the villain had way too protracted a motive for wanting to gun down these poor apes. Really? 'Cause they might destroy the world in two thousand years? Is that ethical? The president actually gives a really cogent argument against Otto. Otto argues that it was okay to assassinate Hitler. The president points out that it might not be ethical to go back in time and kill one of his remote forbears.

The next film strays into a manic place where the evolution of apes is sped up immensely, and logic flies so far out the window it may as well have gone through a time hole itself. Be sure to join me next week for my look at Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, as well as the final film in the series, and the two more recent remakes, which are both a marvel of design and special effects.