Planet Of The Apes

Planet of the Apes by Ian Johnston
With the franchise reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes due in August, Ian Johnston looks back at the classic 1968 original dystopian simian nightmare picture, Planet of the Apes.

Arthur P Jacobs wasn’t a movie mogul. A former messenger boy turned publicist, his first film as a producer was the Shirley MacLaine vehicle What A Way To Go! (1964), a glib satire about a naïve Ohio woman who marries a string of millionaires and inadvertently becomes the richest woman in the world. It was by no means a classic picture.

Jacobs immediately began looking for other ideas ”“ “I want to find something like King Kong,” he told everyone in Hollywood ”“ and finally a French agent rang. “I’ve got something here which is so far out I don’t think you can make it,” Jacobs was told. The agent went on to recount the story of Pierre Boulle’s La Planete Des Singes (aka Monkey Planet), a novel set in the distant future and depicting a civilization in which man is an endangered species, in thrall to a superior race of apes. Jacobs bought the rights without delay. The agent told him that he was crazy.

Jacobs spent the next few years pitching the film, showing preliminary sketches and a screenplay by science fiction writer Rod Serling; of The Twilight Zone TV show fame. A breakthrough came when he secured a meeting with Charlton Heston, a huge Hollywood star usually associated with Biblical epics and period dramas. Within an hour of meeting the relative novice, Heston committed to the project. The actor also recommended TV and stage director Franklin J Schaffner, and with these names attached Jacobs tried the studios. 20th Century Fox’s Richard Zanuck was interested but he still had reservations. To persuade him, Jacobs convinced Zanuck to pay for a make-up screen-test, featuring Heston playing opposite venerable Hollywood veteran Edward G. Robinson as ape leader, Dr. Zaius. Robinson bailed out of the project straight afterwards ”“ “It’s a good part,” he said, “but the make-up is a bitch.” Yet, more importantly, Zanuck had been impressed with the results of the test he had seen on screen.

20th Century Fox put the film into production in 1967, starring Heston as Taylor, the cynical leader of a crew of American astronauts. Their mission is to be a long-term space exploration, but Taylor and co are rudely awoken when a malfunction causes their ship to crash-land on a seemingly deserted, Eden-like planet. Flaws in the space-time continuum mean that the year is now 3978; the sole casualty is the only female member of the crew, whose suspended animation pod has cracked, leaving her a desiccated corpse. “Three Adams and no Eve,” Taylor comments wryly.

After a long march through the desert, and on the brink of dehydration, they find a freshwater pool. As they bathe, their clothes are stolen, and the timid culprits reveal themselves to be a pack of mute, primitive humans. Taylor is amused ”“ but his complacency is shattered when rifle shots cut through the air. His shock is intensified when he sees their assailants ”“ gorillas on horseback, toting guns and throwing nets as they hunt the fleeing humans. Taylor’s comrades are captured and killed, and he is shot in the throat, damaging his vocal cords.

Injured, he is taken to the ape capital, where Cornelius (the great Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter), a husband-and-wife team of chimp scientists, take an interest in him. Orang-utan leader Dr Zaius (revered British thespian Maurice Evans) is immediately suspicious and recommends that Taylor be castrated. Unsurprisingly, Taylor tries to escape, and he is soon recaptured ”“ at the very moment that he regains his voice. “Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” he snarls, and his captors are dumbfounded. This time Zaius insists that Taylor is stripped naked and made to stand trial, advising that he must be taken away for brain surgery.

Helped by Cornelius and Zira, Taylor escapes again, taking the scientists and a native woman he names Nova (former model/beauty queen Linda Harrison) into the notorious Forbidden Zone. Dr Zaius and his hench-apes try to stop him, but Taylor has a rifle. “Don’t try to stop me ”“ I’m pretty handy with this,” he warns. “Of that I’m sure,” says Zaius. “All my life I’ve waited your coming and dreaded it.” Zaius lets him go, and Taylor presses on until, finally, in one of the most famous futureshock endings ever filmed, he learns the awful truth about the ”˜monkey planet’”¦.

With its stunts and make-up, Planet of the Apes was a hard shoot for its cast, but audiences were bewitched by Leon Shamroy’s cinematography, which made Arizona’s desolate landscapes seem mysterious and otherworldly, and laughed at its witty script ”“ “You know the saying ”“ ”˜Human see, human do’”). The film was well received by the Academy to: John Chambers won n honorary Oscar for his incredible make-up, while Jerry Goldsmith’s innovative score ”“ with its ape-calls and chilling ambient echoes ”“ received a nomination.

Smelling a franchise, Fox demanded sequels. Heston refused, but as a favour to Zanuck he agreed to make a cameo appearance in Beneath The Planet of the Apes (1969), the first ”“ and so he hoped, the last ”“ of the sequels. Charlton Heston worked on the understanding that his character would die. His belief that there would be no more ape movies was bolstered by the script, which blew up the entire planet. Heston was wrong. Taking their own view of the space-time continuum, Fox hit upon the idea for prequels and so forth. The films became progressively more banal with ever diminishing budgets – Escape From Planet of the Apes (1970), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), Battle For the Planet of the Apes (1973) ”“ and the series (and a short lived TV show) eventually died a natural death.

Director Tim Burton attempted a 2001 resurrection with the big budget/ all-star cast ”˜reimagining’ of the 1968 original picture. Burton’s picture did good business but was a bitterly disappointing critical farrago. Rick Baker’s ape prosthetic makeup work was state of the art and Tim Roth excelled as crazed chimpanzee General Thade, but an appalling script and Burton’s weak direction scuppered the picture. This August will finally see the franchise rebooted yet again with Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franco, John Lithgow, Andy Serkis and Brian Cox. Who knows what ”˜the ape of things to come’ will be.

The original Planet of the Apes, however, remains a haunting, if somewhat kitsch, reminder of the turbulent 1960s, and the late Charlton Heston’s sincere performance has a remarkable resonance. It just goes to show: you couldn’t make a monkey out of Chuck.

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