By John H. Foote
Has it truly been fifty years since the original Planet of the Apes (1968) stormed into theatres, stunning audiences with its brilliance and that stinger of an ending? Apparently, time really does fly by because it has indeed been fifty years. I was nine the first time I saw the film, and ten years later, realized just how great it was, a seething allegory of the sixties in America.
A document of its time.
I watched it again last night to write this piece and tried to imagine I was seeing it for the first time. Having not seen it for a while, that was easier than I thought.
The opening was bizarre, Taylor (Charlton Heston) speaking to a computer, but really to us, before he puts himself into a long sleep, to wake up centuries later to a different society on a different world. A malfunction causes their craft to crash into a lake in the year 3955, where they are fortunate that the air is breathable, the water safe to drink, to bathe in.
They know one thing for sure, everyone they ever knew, was long dead. In the middle of a desert-like area, barren of trees, of life, they begin a trek to find something. They walk and walk until they find an oasis of water and trees. Much to their surprise, they find people, primitive mute people dressed in animal skins, eating the corn that grows in abundance. They size them up and realize in a month they will be running the planet.
Suddenly a roar is heard and the people start running in terror, immediately. Whatever is coming they know all too well what it means. The astronauts run with them. Hiding in the corn, Taylor sees for the first time what they fear, apes on horseback, firing guns, speaking. They are hunting the humans. He right now is nothing more than a creature being hunted. Prey.
The apes continue their hunt, they capture the humans they can, they kill those they cannot, shooting them and gathering them like dead livestock, to be used for dissection by their scientists. Shot in the throat, Taylor cannot speak, which quite likely saves his life. To be used as an experiment, he is sent to the scientists, chimpanzees Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and Dr. Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), kind apes who do not believe in the slaughter of the humans. Taylor manages to communicate through writing, which stuns the apes that he has the power of writing, and eventually he speaks. Having escaped, he runs through Ape City until finally caught in a net he growls at his captors, “Take your stinking paws off me you damned dirty ape.” Having never encountered a human who could speak, the apes are understandably terrified, except the elderly Dr. Zauis (Maurice Evans) who has always known he would arrive. Put on trial, he is sent to be executed but rescued by his chimpanzee friends and their militant young nephew, who take he and his mate Nova (Linda Hamilton) into the Forbidden Zone. It is here Cornelius shows Taylor the diggings he has been working on that pose many strange questions. They find a doll, a human doll, that speaks “mama” but how could this be, why would this be”? How did a society of apes evolve on what Taylor calls this upside planet? Warned by Zauis, who has given chance with his gorillas army, not to go looking for what he seeks, “You may not like what you find”.
Zauis frees him, allows him to go, and down the beach he and Nova ride, for the first time free on this strange planet. Zira asks the older doctor what he will find out there and Zauis answers almost sadly, “his destiny”.
As the waves break on the shore Taylor rides with his girl towards what they hope is a better life.
Then he sees it. We do too, spikes in the foreground. Taylor gets off his horse and realizes he is home, he has always been on earth, albeit earth in the distant future. Sinking to his knees he roars out in rage, “You murderers! You blew it up! Oh, damn you…goddam you all to hell” and for the first time, the camera pulls back to show us what he sees. Buried armpit deep in the sand is the iconic Statue of Liberty, alone as the waves break against her.
SImply put, astounding. The most stunning ending in movie history. Writer Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone nailed it, managed to write the perfect ending to the film. Nothing could have improved it. Nothing. That it was not among the nominees for Best Screenplay Adaptation is forever to the shame of the Academy, though they have in fact a number of things to answer for in 1968.
The performances in the film have never ever gotten the credit they deserve. Heston gives his best performance as Taylor, trapped in a world he does not understand. His growing awareness that what made him unique on earth in his time could get him killed here is remarkable. Kim Hunter, famous as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) allows her humanity to shine through her makeup, creating a compassionate, decent ape who sees humans not as animals but as their equals. McDowell was excellent as Cornelius and would appear in each sequel with the exception of the next, becoming the actor most identified with the franchise. Maurice Evans was marvelous as the treacherous quietly terrified old Zauis who understands more about Taylors’ coming than Taylor does himself, and has always known he was coming. Each creates a unique character, and looking at the nominees that year, it is mystifying as to why these four were not among them?
Despite rave reviews and strong box office, Planet of the Apes received just three Academy Award nominations and won a special award for its make up. The film deserved nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Heston), Supporting Actor (Evans), Actress (Hunter), Script, CInematography and Film Editing. This, of course, was the same year Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (10968) was also terribly overlooked for Best Picture and several other awards though it was nominated for Best Director.
The legacy of Planet of the Apes was marked within the film from its first screening. The Tableaux in a court of the three judges, apes in the pose of hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil, the funeral message echoing the words of Will Rogers, “I never met an ape I didn’t like” through to the obvious mirroring of the society of the time. Clearly, Ape City was a reflection of the sixties, with the gorillas representing the army, the orangutans the government, the chimpanzees the youth and hippy culture and the humans the Vietnamese. It is a biting satire masquerading as science fiction, if one looks deep enough, there is so much of our own world at the time mirrored throughout the film.
The sequels which followed were each progressively weaker, as production values grew cheaper, the story was silly, though did complete the circle, and B movie actors joined the apes family, with McDowell that only stand out. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) was reasonably well received, but Escape from the Planet of the Aoes (1971) brought Zira and Cornelius to modern day earth where they gave away the secret of the future. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) surprisingly good, dealing with the rise of the apes under Caesar, son of Zira and Cornelius, again portrayed by McDowall, but the final one Battle for the Planet of the Aoes (1973) was scraping the bottom of the barrel, and not even John Huston as the Lawgiver could save it. The series then moved to television for a single year before heading into movie oblivion waiting for a remake. Tim Burton finally made one in 2001, Planet of the Apes which was terrible with one exception, the performance of Tim Roth as an angry chimpanzee General. Despite Roth, the film was crucified and any ideas for a franchise died with it.
The Ape franchise made a comeback with a superb trilogy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) which cast Andy Serkis in a motion capture performance as Caesar, an intelligent ape, who could speak through sign. The shock was by the end of the film, he was speaking vocally. Next came Dawn of the Planet f the Apes (2014) in which Serkis took on the essence of a battered Lincoln with his fine performance as Caesar, who only wants peace for his community of apes in the forest. Finally, War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) in which Serkis was again brilliant as Caesar, going to war with man, but only for the sake of peace. He finds it but at a terrible cost. The trilogy received excellent reviews and managed to pay homage to the original many times over. Beyond Caesar, there was Maurice named for Maurice Evans and many other instances of tribute.
Next week a new book written by J. W. Rinzler will be released, a tribute to the original film, now fifty years old. It is a detailed filled book about the first film, from the moment they bought the rights to the book upon which it was based, Monkey Planet, right through to the release and impact of the first great film. A must-have for Apes fans.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.