Written by Pierre Boulle, Rod Serling, and Michael Wilson
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
I can remember my parents first allowing me to view this film when I was about 7 or 8 and it came onto television for the first time. Although they had seen it before, they were quiet, allowing me to experience the surprise plot twist in its original, intended form.
How wonderful that feeling must have been! The first movie-goers who viewed the film back before the Internet was around to leak stories must have walked out of the theater stunned.
Of course, much had to do with the political climate of the times. We were embroiled in the Cold War. I can still remember having air-raid drills in school (although what purpose there was to putting your head down between your knees if a nuclear weapon was dropped other than to kiss your butt goodbye, I’ll never know) and Russia was “the enemy” much the same way those in the Middle East are “the enemy” now. We were taught both Creationism and evolution in high-school science. I was fortunate to have a very good teacher who drew parallels between the two and demonstrated that either the writers of the Bible were a lot smarter than people give them credit for, or there was something more at work. Too bad kids in school don’t get that anymore.
And Planet of the Apes fit right into that political and social climate. It exploited the apprehension people felt about embracing either the theory of evolution or a divine creation; it exploited the fears of our politics exploding is a fireball that would destroy all humanity; it exploited the fact that humans could never seem to get along.
The movie opens with humankind’s invincible ego; Charlton Heston’s Taylor is one of four astronauts on a deep-space mission to a far away planet. The other three have already descended into a deep sleep while he waxes philosophical to the cockpit recorder. His words are for naught, for when they arrive at their destination, the ship lands in a large lake and sinks to the bottom, taking the recording device with it. A glance back before he leaves the ship tells Taylor they are now in a time period 2,000 years in the future.
Three of the four have survived. The lone woman in the group was a victim of an air-leak in her sleeping compartment. Only Landon and Dodge (Robert Gunner and Jeff Burton) are alive to undertake the journey with him. The area they have landed is devoid of life, despite having a water source. With only three days provisions in their packs, they must find a food and water supply quickly. Of course, when they finally do, they suffer a rude awakening. On this planet, the humans are the wild animals and Apes are the more intelligent species, having developed a community as well as medical sciences and religion.
That leads to the battle for who is right and who is wrong. Taylor is an anachronism to all the Apes believe up until this point, and his arrival strikes fear in the leaders of their world. Narrowly managing to avoid the fates of death and a lobotomy that befall his fellow crewmates, Taylor wanders through the film trying to get the Apes to listen to him, when he is considered no more than an animal. While the few humans still surviving on the planet may be used to this, to Taylor it is unnatural.
This movie is all Heston’s vehicle and as that, I think that is one area where it suffers. I’ve never liked Heston as an actor and find that here the character has been drawn more to suit his acting ability rather than the other way around. The character of Taylor has the same tone I’ve seen Heston play in films like The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur as well as many interviews. His pacing is a bit off at times and I just felt like telling him to loosen up a little and let the character flow better. It almost felt like he was portraying the actor who was playing Taylor rather than Taylor himself.
The makeup is astounding for it’s time and is another item that garnered great notoriety for the film when it first was released. Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter are buried beneath very life-like ape makeup for the characters of Cornelius and Zira, two Ape-anthropologists who go beyond the conventional thinking in their community and seek to find the truth of the relationships of apes and humans in their world.. They make us believe them better than Heston does Taylor without the makeup. Their vocal intonations and expressiveness with their eyes conveys more than Heston’s swagger any day.
Some of the best scenes involve Taylor’s somewhat philosophical discussions with the head scientist, Dr. Zaius (portrayed by Maurice Evans). Even as Taylor speaks, we know he will never convince the man of his argument. Evans conveys that he is hiding something mainly with his eyes and it is not until the end when he sends Talor off with his “bride” Nova to find his own way in the world that we finally realize that Zaius has known all along more than he is letting on.
What has made Planet of the Apes hold up so well almost 35 years later is the story itself. Peter Boulle wrote the original novel. However, I believe it is the hand Rod Serling – writer, creator, and producer of The Twilight Zone television series – gives him with the script that keeps it so strong all these years later. I could see and feel his touches with the film, having had the experience of all the Twilight Zone marathons behind me. There are subtle touches to the story that convey the tone of the times without hitting you over the head with it, such as the petting of humans to calm them down, much the same way we do with our own animals.
I also found the cinematography to be beautiful. Most notable are some of the shots in the beginning as the humans are walking through an apparent desert. Later on during the intense chase-scene, the camera is used at odd angles and reminds me a lot of the way movie-makers have recently begun the use of hand-held cameras in films.
Well worth the trouble to find the film, I’d wish everyone could watch it without knowing the surprise ending, then watch it again to look for the clues. Much the way The Sixth Sense had people leaving the theaters in shock, this film manages to convey that same sense of “How did I miss that?”
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