With Dawn of… now in cinemas, we revisit the original tale of those damn dirty apes.
Who made it?: Franklin J. Schaffner (Director), Michael Wilson, Rod Serling (Writers), Arthur P. Jacobs (Producer), 20th Century Fox.
Who’s in it?: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, James Daly, Linda Harrison.
Tagline: “Somewhere in the universe, there must be something better than man!”
IMDb rating: 8.0/10.
Make no mistake, 1968 was the year of the ape.
Whether marvelling over a stone monolith or riding horses to hunt homo sapiens, those chimpanzees and gorillas were everywhere that year. Our closest animal relatives seemed to become a money-making machine over night, and Wes Craven will tell you that market research indicates “people love monkeys.” Even Clint Eastwood spent two pictures with an orangutan! Nothing comes as close, however, to giving these simians their due than the Planet of the Apes franchise, a Darwinian nightmare that trumps the titanic breadth of King Kong by being, of all things, a serious morality play. These furry fuckers talk, and they’ve got politics!
Apes was pretty much a low-budget cottage industry for Fox back then. Under the auspices of the money-loving producer Arthur P. Jacobs, 20th Century produced four sequels to this film between 1970 and 1973. The cultural impact meant that there was also a short-lived television series, a cartoon, a dreadful “re-imagining” by Tim Burton, and a recent reboot that reignited the brand spectacularly. Few of the follow-ups, save perhaps for the awesome Rise of…, matched the understated genius of Franklin J. Schaffner’s classic original. This is serious, thought-provoking SF born out of the most ridiculous of concepts; a film remembered more for its iconoclastic ending than its thoughtful acting, creative direction, and then-cutting edge effects.
The film opens with four astronauts crash-landing on an Earth-like planet. The female of the group didn’t survive her long jaunt in hyperseleep, leaving Dodge (Jeff Burton), John Landon (Robert Gunner), and the prototypical leader George Taylor (Charlton Heston) to escape to shore in a raft. They soon hypothesise that the year is 3978 AD, over two-thousand years since they left home. Their new surroundings appear habitable at first, until they come across primal humans being chased by the planet’s rightful leaders; a highly-developed ape race given the power of speech and deductive reasoning. Oh, shit.
Planet originates from an original concept by Frenchman Pierre Boulle, whose story was similar to the film except for one key area: the apes ruled in a technologically-advanced world. Schaffner’s idea was to make their civilisation much more primitive, which certainly appeased the project’s modest five millon budget. Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling even wrote a draft with the futuristic vision in mind (only his celebrated final twist remains in the final version). While that would have been awesome to see – and the sequels and various spin-offs have pointed towards it – the first Apes probably hit home because of how recognisable it all is. The world feels like an area you’d see in an outlandish zoo, yet instead of the title critters in cages, it’s us. The “villains” are so relatable whilst retaining their otherness that you go along with the barking mad set-up.
It is easy to love Apes considering what it managed to achieve technically for the time – bolstered by John Chambers’ make-up effects – but it really hits home as a social commentary. Plenty has been said about the genre’s time-honoured ability to hold a candle up to humanity, and Planet continues that great sci-fi tradition. Even the ape hierarchy has been extensively mapped-out; gorillas are the police force, orangutans are the public servants, and chimpanzees are the brains behind the operation. It also doesn’t shy away from themes as weighty as racism or even genocide, using the divide between human and simian kind to rustle up all manner of social dilemmas. The filmmakers don’t forget that they’re making a sci-fi/adventure flick, though, engineering plenty of crucibles for our lead character to go through. They even inject some knowing humour, with the sight of three ape judges reinacting the image of those “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” monkeys being an inspired example.
Making things even more interesting, the humans aren’t entirely rejected by our hairy cousins. Ape sympathisers Zira (Kim Hunter), an “animal” psychologist, and her fiancé Cornelius (franchise-regular Roddy McDowall), an archaeologist, save Taylor’s life and even take a personal interest in him when they discover his intelligence. Their meddling in human affairs doesn’t sit right with Cornelius’ superior, Dr. Zaius (a brilliant Maurice Evans), eventually forcing the pair to become heroes to save the wayward astronaut from a lobotomy. Indeed, you may find yourself loving the simian personalities more, and it’s rather telling that Taylor’s big smooch in the picture isn’t with fellow human Nova (Linda Harrison) but with the considerably furrier Zira.
Heston’s Taylor is an interesting protagonist as he doesn’t start out as the warmest of people, with a clear level of arrogance and the general demeanour of a douchenozzle, but his experiences in this strange land change him. In typical genre fashion, he learns to be more accepting and more human. Heston has never been an actor I particularly enjoy as a screen presence, but he fits the self-righteous George like a glove, capably essaying a damning yet redemptive portrait of mankind. That we feel some sympathy for the guy when he makes that fateful discovery on the beach only makes the movie greater.
There’s every chance that young audiences will disregard the original Planet of the Apes as a slow, talky affair with vintage effects, but keen sci-fi enthusiasts like myself will continue to see the brilliance in it, and why it has more than deserved a multi-film series. This is an engrossing polemic fused with a sense of adventure, wit and unexpected power.
Oh, and that ending? Blinder.
Oh, and here’s the best Apes parody ever courtesy of Kevin Smith…
- One of the first films to have a major large scale merchandising tie-in. Merchandise related to the film included toys and collectibles, action figures, picture and story books, trading card sets, books, records, comics, and a series of graphic novels from Marvel Comics.
- During breaks in filming, actors made up as different ape species tended to hang out together, gorillas with gorillas, orangutans with orangutans, chimps with chimps. It wasn’t required, it just naturally happened.
- Roddy McDowall, an experienced actor, recommended to his companions in make-up that they should frequently add tics, blinks and assorted facial gestures to add a sense of realism and keep the make-up from appearing “mask-like.” McDowall reportedly became a merry prankster with the make-up, driving home with it on, and shocking some of the other drivers on the freeway.
- The sound effect of the rocket ship hurtling through the atmosphere of the ape planet and then landing in the lake is the exact same sound effect used for the Batmobile in motion from the TV show Batman also produced by 20th Century Fox.