Science Flick-Tion: Planet of the Apes (1968)

(Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of irregularly-scheduled columns by Managing Editor Byron Brewer, mainly dealing with classic and not-so-classic sci-fi/fantasy/horror films and their denizens. Mr. Brewer’s opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CosmicBookNews.com. He welcomes both raves and opposing views – so get to the CBN forum, for d’ast sake!)


With director Rupert Wyatt currently working on Rise of the Apes, scheduled for release this year, I thought a look at the original Planet of the Apes would be in order for this column.

Planet of the Apes was a 1968 film directed by Franklin J, Schaffner based on the 1963 novel La planete des singes by Pierre Boulle. The film, which stars Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter, was released by 20th Century Fox. It was one of the first true science fiction movies I saw in a theatre, shortly after the death of my paternal grandfather, and it and its sequels had a profound impression on me and my choice of media material.

The script was originally written by Rod Serling (Twilight Zone) but had many rewrites before eventually being made. Changes included character names and a more primitive ape society, instead of the more expensive idea of having futuristic buildings and advanced technology. However, Serling’s stylized twist ending (a trademark from his Twilight Zone days) was retained and became one of the most famous movie endings of all time. The exact location and state of decay of the Statue of Liberty (as seen in the 1998 documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes) was changed over several storyboards. One version depicted the statue buried up to its nose in the middle of a jungle while another depicted the statue in pieces.

Upon the advice of Heston, producer Arthur P. Jacobs chose Schaffner as director. Filming took place between May-August 1967, mostly in California and Arizona, with the opening scene shot at Lake Powell, Utah. The film's budget was around $5,800,000.

Planet of the Apes was released on Feb. 8, 1968, in the United States and was a commercial success, gaining $32,589,624 at the international box office. The film was groundbreaking for its prosthetic makeup techniques by artist John Chambers, and was well received by critics and audiences, launching a film franchise including four sequels as well as a short-lived television show, animated series, comic books, various merchandising, and eventually a 2001 remake. McDowall in particular had a long-running relationship with the Apes series, appearing in four of the original series of five films (absent from the second film of the series, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, replaced by David Watson in the role of Cornelius), and also in the television series.

In 2001, Planet of the Apes was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Of course, the film tells the story of an astronaut crew who crash-land on a strange planet in the distant future. Although the planet appears desolate at first, the surviving crew members stumble upon a society in which apes have evolved into creatures with human-like intelligence and speech. The apes have assumed the role of the dominant species and humans are mute animals wearing animal skins.

Astronauts Taylor (Heston), Landon (Robert Gunner), Stewart (Dianne Stanley) and Dodge (Jeff Burton) are in deep stasis when their ship crash-lands in a lake on an unknown planet in the year 3978 A.D., after a 2006-year voyage at near-light speed (during which the crew ages only 18 months). The planet has no moon and the clouds at night are luminous. The astronauts awaken to find Stewart's decomposed body, and that their ship is sinking. They use an inflatable raft to reach shore. Once there, Dodge performs a soil test and pronounces the soil incapable of sustaining life.

The three astronauts set off through the desert, gradually encountering plant life. They find an oasis at the edge of the desert and decide to go swimming, ignoring strange scarecrow-like figures. While they are swimming, their clothes are stolen. Pursuing the thieves, the astronauts find their clothes in shreds and the perpetrators -- a group of mute, primitive humans -- contentedly raiding a cornfield. Suddenly, gorillas on horseback charge through the cornfield, brandishing firearms, snares and nets, which they use to capture whatever humans they can and kill those they cannot. While fleeing, Dodge is killed, Landon is bashed in the head and knocked unconscious, and Taylor is shot in the throat. The gorillas take Taylor to "Ape City," where his life is saved by two chimpanzee scientists,"animal" psychologist Zira (Hunter) and surgeon Galen. Upon awakening, Taylor -- now housed in a cage with a girl whom he later calls Nova (Linda Harrison, not Frankie Raye, lol), who was captured on the same hunt -- discovers that his throat wound has rendered him temporarily mute.

Taylor discovers that the apes, who can talk, are in control and are divided into a strict caste system: the gorillas as police, military and hunters; the orangutans as administrators, politicians and lawyers; and the chimpanzees as intellectuals and scientists. Humans, who cannot talk, are considered feral vermin and are hunted and either killed outright, enslaved for manual labor, or used for scientific experimentation.

Zira and her fiancé, Cornelius, an archaeologist, take an interest in Taylor when he tries to communicate by mouthing words. Their boss, an orangutan named Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), tries to hide Taylor's attempt to communicate by writing in the dirt. Eventually, Taylor steals paper from Zira and uses it to write messages to her. Zira and Cornelius become convinced that Taylor is intelligent; but upon learning of this, Zaius orders that Taylor be castrated.

Taylor manages to escape and flees through Ape City. During his flight, he finds himself in a museum, where Dodge's corpse has been stuffed and put on display. Shortly thereafter, Taylor is recaptured by gorillas; finding that his throat has healed, he angrily addresses them, shouting, in what has become one of the most memorable film lines, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”

Nova is transferred to a cell across from Taylor's as the warden Julius (Buck Kartalian) sprays Taylor with water. The shocked apes hold a tribunal to determine Taylor's origins (in a parody of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial) run by the President of the Assembly (James Whitmore), Dr. Zaius, and Dr. Maximus (Woodrow Parfrey) with Dr. Honorious (James Daly) as the prosecution. Taylor tells of his two comrades and explains that one was killed and the other lost. At this point the court produces Landon, who has been subjected to a primitive lobotomy that has rendered him catatonic.

After the tribunal, Dr. Zaius privately threatens to lobotomise Taylor if he doesn't lie about where he came from. With help from Zira's socially-rebellious nephew Lucius (Lou Wagner), Zira and Cornelius intervene early the next morning and “kidnap” Taylor and Nova, taking them to “The Forbidden Zone,” a region outside of Ape City. Cornelius explains that no one knows why it is called the Forbidden Zone; it is merely an ancient taboo and has remained quarantined for centuries. Some years earlier, Cornelius had been digging near the zone and found artifacts of a previous generation that was not simian. When the party is intercepted by Dr. Zaius and his soldiers, Taylor spares Zaius' life. Inside a cave, Cornelius shows them the remnants of a technologically advanced human society buried in the cliff by the sea. The truth is revealed that the apes' world was, at one time, controlled by humans, but at some point in history, apes developed intelligence and the roles of apes and humans were inverted, with apes becoming the dominant species and humans becoming the apes' household pets, and later becoming animals living in the wild, incapable of speech.

Dr. Zaius admits that he has always known about man and the fact that human civilization existed long before apes ruled the planet. He explains that the Forbidden Zone was once “a paradise,” but man's destructive tendencies caused it to be annihilated thousands of years earlier. Zaius agrees to exile Taylor and Nova, implying that somewhere within the zone lies something that completely reveals the truth about the vanished human civilization. He further implies that this area was considered "forbidden" in order to protect the dignity and identity of the ape civilization. Zaius advises Taylor not to look for it because he will not like what he finds. When Zira asks, “What will he find out there, Doctor?", Zaius replies: “His destiny.” Once Taylor and Nova have ridden away on horseback, Dr. Zaius has the gorillas lay explosives and destroy the evidence of the human society.

Taylor and Nova follow the shoreline and eventually discover the truth that Dr. Zaius warned them about: Taylor stops the horse and dismounts, staring up in disbelief at an object not visible to the viewer. He approaches the object, finally descending into a fit of rage, screaming: “We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you. God damn you all to hell!” The picture zooms out to reveal the charred remnants of the Statue of Liberty, half-submerged in the shoreline, revealing that the planet was actually Earth the whole time, and that the paradise that became the Forbidden Zone was once -- New York City!

So cool, eh? I sincerely hope Wyatt’s Rise of the Apes brings a new spark to this great sci-fi franchise.