Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film considered to be essential to the cinema’s golden age. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
Entering the 1960s, cinema was still heavily obsessed with the science fiction genre. The B-movie’s of the 1950s gave way to bigger budget blockbusters. However, America’s obsession with nuclear war and destruction remained a constant theme in sci-fi throughout this time. The Cold War was still raging on, and the threat of attack from countries abroad lingered in the minds of many. Especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, fear of a nuclear missile attack was at an all-time high. The event was the closest the United States had come to escalating a full-scale nuclear war.
While this worldwide paranoia was still in full swing, French author Pierre Boulle published a gripping new sci-fi novel in 1963: La Planète des Singes (or The Planet of the Apes). Boulle’s book attracted so much buzz that producer Arthur P. Jacobs bought the rights before it was even published. Jacobs began shopping the novel around to various film studios. He convinced the vice-president of 20th Century Fox, Richard D. Zanuck, to greenlight a film version of Planet of the Apes in 1964.
Planet of the Apes centers around astronauts Taylor (Charlton Heston), Landon (Robert Gunner), and Dodge (Jeff Burton) who crash-land on an unknown planet in the far-off future. Originally departing in 1972, they wake up from deep hibernation after the crash to discover the date is November 25, 3978 AD. The planet appears incapable of supporting life at first, but the surviving crew soon uncover a society ruled by apes. The apes have assumed their role as the dominant species on the planet and have evolved into creatures with human-like speech and intelligence. Meanwhile, the remaining pockets of humans on the planet are primitive, mute beings oppressed by the apes.
The screenplay for Planet of the Apes was first written by The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling. Although Serling remains credited as screenwriter for the film, the script went through several rewrites. The first version portrayed the apes as technologically advanced which would have involved expensive props, special effects, and sets. Fellow screenwriter Michael Wilson (Lawrence of Arabia) was brought in to write the ape society as much more primitive to cut costs. The iconic twist ending, now known as one of the best of all-time, was Serling’s original idea. It went through several iterations involving the location and state of the decay of the statue involved in the final scene. The imagery of the ending, along with Charlton Heston’s memorable performance, has stayed with movie-going audiences for over 40 years. The Day After Tomorrow, Cloverfield, Independence Day, and Children of Men all include nods to the film’s classic final frame.
Additionally, Planet of the Apes should be recognized for the groundbreaking make-up work in the film. Legendary make-up artist John Chambers designed the prosthetics that turned well-known actors such as Roddy McDowall into their ape characters on screen. The prosthetics looked so real and well-done, it helped many of the ape actors get into their roles on set. Reportedly, the human and ape actors often segregated themselves in between takes with the species they were portraying. For his extraordinary achievement in make-up, Chambers was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 1969.
Roddy McDowall’s home movies from the making of Planet of the Apes.
Taylor’s spacecraft seen on-screen is never given a name. It wasn’t until 40 years later that the ship was named “Liberty 1” in a short film included on the Blu-ray release.
The sound effect used of the rocket ship blasting through the atmosphere of the planet and then crashing into the lake is actually the exact same sound effect used for the Batmobile in the 1966 Batman TV show.
When adjusted for inflation, Planet of the Apes holds the record for the highest make-up budget on a film, representing 17% of the total $5.8 million dollar budget.
Planet of the Apes is available to stream on HBO Go.
What’s your favorite classic sci-fi movie? What other classic films would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.