Science fiction at its best reflects one of two things: either our own fascination with the unknown pertaining to our existence, or our inherent fear of ourselves and “the other.” If a science fiction film can dazzle and awe as well as be socially conscious, all the better. Nobody wants to see a condemnation of ourselves made from atop a soapbox, but if you put it in the context of the future or an alien civilization, then, brother, you can preach until your preachin’ muscles are sore.
If 2001: A Space Odyssey was 1968’s example of the first type of sci-fi (exploring the without), then Planet of the Apes is undoubtedly its example of the second (exploring the within). Truly, with a title like that, one might assume a B-grade affair akin to The Giant Spider Invasion or something similar. Truly, the marketing was pitching it as a big adventure movie with international star Charlton Heston facing off against a whole society of simians who hate humans, but it’s so much more than that. 20th Century Fox knew that if they could just get people to see it, it would kick them right in the metaphorical gut.
Planet of the Apes was a sci-fi movie unlike many before or since, and it changed a lot of the ways people saw franchises. I’ll get to the wonderful performances, the pulse-pounding music, the brilliantly adept direction, and the groundbreaking special effects makeup in a moment, but, to me, the key to Planet of the Apes’ success and longevity is down to three men: Pierre Boulle, Michael Wilson, and Rod Serling.
Boulle, the author of The Bridge Over the River Kwai, wrote the novel La Planète des Singes, upon which the film was based. It told the story of an Earth astronaut who crash-lands on a planet run by an advanced society of apes, complete with giant skyscrapers, flying cars, and laser guns. He is ostracized due to his being a human, who are thought to be beneath apes, and eventually flees. That is the very, very basic outline which was retained by the film. Boulle’s novel was a reaction to French, and specifically Parisian, society and he was initially skeptical that the story would work as an American film.
One writer Fox thought could do a good job was Twilight Zone and Night Gallery creator Rod Serling, who was well known for introducing audiences to harrowing worlds and different societies. Serling’s script added much of the mystery and subtext that we see in the finished film, as well as the very Twilight Zone ending. However, Serling’s script was ultimately rejected due to a number of factors, including cost, though his name still appears on the film.
The scriptwriting duties were turned over to Michael Wilson. Wilson wrote or contributed to many classic films including It’s a Wonderful Life, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia. Most of his work was uncredited, as he had been placed on the infamous “Blacklist,” the list of Hollywood types barred from working due to their perceived Communist connections during the McCarthy hearings. Wilson is the one who set the film in a more primitive ape society, owing mainly to Fox not having enough money to make the giant advanced city depicted in Boulle’s novel. Wilson also put in the more overt social references along with placing the apes in a caste system, separated by job and species.
In the film, the three Great Apes species have their own tasks. Gorillas are ill-tempered and unenlightened and serve as the police force and the manual labor; chimpanzees are the scientists and the logical thinkers; orangutans are the politicians, philosophers, and keepers of the religion. There are lots of important social factors at work here that reflected 1968. First, this is a society where the lawmakers are also the spiritual leaders. Ape society is therefore a religious oligarchy that purports to act in the best interests of the people. They allow the scientists their experiments and theories, but if any of them find things (true things, mind) that threatens the status quo, they are punished and brought to the Forbidden Zone to die.
The second important factor here is that, even in ape society, the lighter the skin tone, the higher the class. Gorillas are dumb, unsophisticated and violent while the orangutans are “intellectuals” who are, frankly, pompous and condescending. This is a none-too-subtle reflection of how America was in the 1960s, or more accurately, how those in charge saw America. The arrival of Taylor (Heston), a human who not only could speak but was intelligent and rational, threw everything in their society into chaos, or would have if they allowed it to happen. It’s actually the supposedly peace-loving orangutans who cause most of the strife and cover up the findings of the chimps.
There is a scene in the movie I’m sure was Wilson’s direct condemnation of the Communist witch hunts he experienced. Taylor, along with his allies, the scientists Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter), is brought before a tribunal of orangutans, of which the sinister Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) is one. Taylor is not treated like a person (he’s treated like a human), is literally stripped of his clothing and dignity in front of the entire room, and is not allowed to speak on his own behalf, even though he clearly can. Humans can’t speak, the tribunal says, so clearly what he’s doing is mimicry and not actual thought. It’s a very frustrating sequence in which the three orangutans actually go into “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” positions, but it’s effective in displaying the kind of refusal to listen to reason or facts that were so prevalent in the HUAC hearings.
The direction of Planet of the Apes was done by journeyman director Franklin J. Schaffner, a veteran of television who would go on to win a best director Oscar for 1970’s Patton. Schaffner, while not flashy, gives the film the exact mixture of fantastical and groundedness it needed. There are very few close-ups in the movie, usually shooting things in medium or wide for the letterbox frame. However, the close-ups that are used, specifically the moment when Taylor finally speaks, become instantly more effective when bookended by wider shots.
Schaffner also displays an attention to the world at the time in his direction. Right after Taylor speaks his famous first line to his captors (“Get your stinking paws off me, you damn, dirty apes!”), he is placed back in his cage, whereupon a gorilla fires a high-powered water hose at him (leading to another classic line, “It’s a mad house! A MAD HOUSE!!!”). This is shot in the exact same manner as news footage of civil rights riots had been. Clearly, a man speaking his mind and being tortured with a fire hose is high evocative and indicative of that kind of horror going on in the “real world.” Schaffner leans into the skid in this case and draws the comparison visually as well as conceptually.
The concept of talking apes would not have worked at all if not for the special makeup designed by John Chambers. Many of the background apes, who sadly became mid-ground apes in later films, wore rubber masks with very little expression, but for the principals and supporting characters, it was a completely different story. Chambers was able to allow the actor’s face to at once totally transform and still have total control of their movements. Granted, the actors had to exaggerate every facial movement to the point of ridiculousness, but they could still do it. The eyes remained full of life and character, and McDowall specifically was able to embody his character, brilliantly making this his most recognizable role, to the point where he appeared in four out of the five films and was on the spinoff television show.
It’s easy to overlook Heston since, as the human, he has the seemingly easier job to do, but there’s no doubt that he’s fantastic in the movie and brings a much-needed air of believability to the circumstances. If the audience didn’t believe that Heston felt this was all really happening, the movie would have never worked. Sure, his very Heston-y line readings have become the stuff of imitation and parody today, but if you think anybody else could have made them sound more realistic, you’re fooling yourself.
The final piece of the puzzle to making Planet of the Apes work is the atypical, percussion-based score of Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith was a veteran composer of about 300 film and television productions dating back to the late ’50s. He would go on to compose the music for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the main theme of which became now-iconic the Star Trek: The Next Generation music. For Apes, Goldsmith focused on tribal beats and blasts of horns rather than on any specific melody or tune. This music gives the movie a hurried and tense feel throughout, even in the early scenes before the apes appear.
The decision to have no music over the final scene, in which Taylor and his mute girlfriend Nova (Linda Harrison) travel down the beach and come upon the fallen image of the Statue of Liberty, was a genius one. Despite being totally spoiled for modern audiences (I didn’t even worry about warning you, you’ll notice) and parodied to the ends of the Earth, this scene still packs an unbelievable wallop and ends the film on a bleak and defeated note which would run through three of the next four films in the ensuing franchise. On a recent episode of Mad Men, taking place in 1968, Don Draper takes his son to see the movie. The child’s reaction once the film ends, “So, he was on Earth the whole time and we destroyed the Earth? Shit…” was the perfect summation of what audiences must have thought, and still think, after watching this movie.
Planet of the Apes was a certified hit for 20th Century Fox and all but saved the studio after the huge debacle of their expensive bomb Doctor Dolittle. It led the studio to commission a sequel, and eventually four sequels, between 1970 and 1973. With each subsequent film, the circular time narrative was fleshed out, continually twisting back on itself, as it’s learned that future apes came back in time and created the apes that eventually took over Earth. The franchise always made money, even the fifth and, let’s face it, shoddy final installment, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, and a television show was made in 1974, though it only lasted one season.
Truly, Planet of the Apes is one of the most important and longest lasting science fiction franchises in all of Hollywood. Before this, there was nothing like it. It’s safe to guess that there would be no Marvel Cinematic Universe or even a Star Wars trilogy if Planet of the Apes hadn’t worked. The merchandising alone was unheard of at the time, but now is the way any big movie hopes to market itself and make huge money in the process. With the 2001 remake (which was awful) and the new retooled Apes movies, it’s safe to say that there’s still an interest in the story and the concept, and it probably won’t die away any time soon.
While every component of that initial film is brilliant, I still don’t think we’d be talking about it if not for the potency, darkness, and intelligence of the story. We’re captivated by the backwards politics and societal insanity of an ape world in which humans are considered dumb, and going beyond merely the indelible scenes and images, we find a very troubling allegory for our own life and a possible outcome should our allegiances and predilections go unchanged. Still, 45 years later, we feel the pain and anguish in Heston as we see what his Earth has become, even as he goddamns us all to Hell.