Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Planet of the Apes Series

Grade : A+ Year : 1968-73 Director : Franklin J. Schaffner, Ted Post, Don Taylor & J. Lee Thompson Running Time : 8hr 6min Genre : ,
Movie review score
A+

The great irony about the “Planet of the Apes” saga is that, while Charlton Heston was the most important piece of getting the original film, inspired by Pierre Boulle’s novel, made, it was, in fact, Roddy McDowall who was essential in the franchise’s long-term success. True, the films vary in quality as the series goes on, but McDowall, first as the scientist ape Cornelius and then, later, as his son, Caesar, brings a wisdom and sincerity to his roles that allow us to believe his chimp characters underneath the groundbreaking makeup work of John Chambers. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if I ever heard or read Andy Serkis, the brilliant actor whose motion-capture work on “Lord of the Rings” and “King Kong” is the standard-bearer for the artform, and who plays Caesar in this summer’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” say that it was McDowall’s work in these films that inspired him when Jackson tapped the actor for the role of Gollum.

All that being said, it is Heston whose gruff, cynical character Taylor was the first stepping stone into accepting the world of the “Apes” films, as produced by Arthur P. Jacobs, when the first film was released in 1968. The captain on an interplanetary expedition in travelling at the speed of light, Taylor had no higher ideals when he signed on– he was sick of humanity’s self-destructive nature, and glad to leave the modern world behind. He then goes into his planned hibernation before returning to Earth. After the ominous opening titles that no doubt inspired Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” the craft crash lands in a lake on a desert planet, and Taylor and the other two survivors of the crash are forced to escape before the ship sinks. They row to shore in a life raft, but not before Taylor sees the date on the ship’s controls: the year is 3954, almost 2000 years after they left Earth. They are unsure of where exactly they are, but one this is certain– they are the last of their kind, if not humankind, as they will discover when they make the treacherous trek through the Forbidden Zone and into a vegetative area in which they, and other humans (who have long lost the power of speech), are wrestled up by a band of Gorillas (in one of the most terrifying and exciting sequences of all science fiction) and taken to Ape City, where Taylor comes in contact with the sympathetic and fascinated “animal psychologist” Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter), and her scientist fiancee, Cornelius. Together the three of them will uncover the mystery of not just the ape’s evolution, but the tragedy of man’s decline.

After 43 years, the secrets of “Planet of the Apes,” written by “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling and Michael Wilson and directed by “Patton” Oscar winner Franklin J. Schaffner, are all well known in the annuls of science fiction and pop culture. And yet, the excitement and imagination of the film remains as potent as ever. The evocative imagery created by Schaffner, cinematographer Leon Shamroy, and art director William Creber is extraordinary considering the budgetary limitations of the time; they create a living, breathing future society that is frightening and dangerous. The Oscar winning makeup by Chambers remains believable and surreal to behold, while the score by Jerry Goldsmith is a classic of invention and bold musical gestures (it’s one of his best scores). But what resonates most the more one watches are the story, and the intelligent, entertaining social commentary on everything from the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s to the McCarthy hearings of the ’50s to the Scopes trial on teaching evolution in schools in the ’20s, and the performances that are so genuine they make this unbelievable story of a topsy turvy world feel real, giving weight to Taylor’s cries of realization at the end, when he understands what happened to the world he left behind. You know the scene, you know the words; what matters most is how they are combined by Heston and Schaffner into one of the most iconic moments in film history, and how that feeling of uncertainty permeates throughout the rest of the series.

Using the dramatic conclusion to the first film as an ending point, “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” finds Taylor journeying further into the Forbidden Zone with Nova (Linda Harrison), the young woman with whom he had been paired by the apes. After encountering several otherworldly disturbances, caused no doubt by the nuclear fallout, Taylor vanishes, leaving Nova on her own. Meanwhile, another ship has crashed on this planet, with a rescue team, led by Brent (James Franciscus), on the search to what happened to Taylor. It isn’t long before Nova and Brent meet, and ride back into Ape City, where they meet back up with Cornelius and Zira after hearing the political rants of a gorilla military leader, Ursus (played by James Gregory), who wants to march into the Forbidden Zone amid rumors of humans living there. (True, the obvious parallels are the unrest in Southeast Asia of the time, but watching it now, it’s impossible not to see similarities with our current troubles in the Middle East.) Hunter returned as Zira, but McDowall was unable to return to play Cornelius; instead, David Watson filled the role and performed admirably, although when McDowall returned in the next film, it’s obvious how his personality was missed in this film. Also returning was Maurice Evans as Minister of Science, Dr. Zaius, whose intelligence as the orangutan politician who seeks to hide the truth of this world’s reality, that at one point, humans were indeed at the top of the evolutionary chain, is essential to the successes of the first two films, and to the impact of the social commentary they contained.

One of the most distressing things about the “Apes” films is how Fox tightened the budgets for each of the sequels. Of course, now that’s a scenario that would border on the absurd, but back then it made sound financial sense (especially for a studio that had just suffered several box-office disasters), even if it diminished the ability of the filmmakers, such as screenwriter Paul Dehn and director Ted Post on “Beneath,” to create as believable a film as the first one; the budgetary limits are most prevalent in crowd scenes, where obvious, pullover ape masks were used in lieu of the full appliances created by Chambers and his team. That said, Post and his creative team deliver a rousing adventure that not only contains genuine surprises, such as the mutant humans living in a long-buried Manhattan, but also an ending that takes the narrative of the first two films to its inevitable conclusion, with the ape civilization being ended the same way humans perished all those years ago.

Of all of the sequels, “Escape From the Planet of the Apes” is the one that requires the greatest suspension of disbelief in terms of moving from one sequel to another; after all, if the apes had found Taylor’s original spacecraft, how is it we didn’t see it in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes?” The irony of that is, of course, that “Escape,” written by Paul Dehn, is the best of the “Apes” sequels, and the one film in the series that carries the dramatic weight and imagination that, in a just world, should have earned it Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. Yes, I went there, and the truth is, I bet few people coming to the franchise now would argue.

This film is a real delight. When Zira, Cornelius (welcome back, Roddy), and Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo, whose character dies not long after their arrival) return to 1970s Earth in Taylor’s spaceship after the future Earth’s destruction, they are now the outsiders, just as Taylor was in the first film. In reality, this was the most natural progression for the series after the sci-fi, post apocalyptic world of the first couple of movies, and it was an inspired choice. A big part of the film’s success comes from the performances by McDowall and Hunter, who understand these characters inside and out. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ve no doubt seen the brilliant documentary, “Behind the Planet of the Apes.” All one has to do is listen to the actors talk about their roles, and the affection in their voices, and realize that these characters became as personal for them as their earlier, more acclaimed roles in films such as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “How Green Was My Valley.” That passion comes through in every moment of the film, which is less of an adventure and more of a love story. Of course, like many love stories, this is a tragic one, as the couple becomes a threat to national security when Zira is revealed to be pregnant, and the truth about the world Cornelius and Zira come from is inadvertently revealed. It is at this point when another of the series’s beloved characters, Armando (played by Ricardo Montalban), is introduced. A circus owner, Armando is a sympathetic human who gives the pair sanctuary when the government comes to distrust them, and who will come to love their child as one of his own animals.

“Escape From the Planet of the Apes” is great cinema, and great science fiction. It even, I would argue, tops the original film not only in the story but social commentary; it was impossible for me not to think about the present culture wars about gay marriage and rights when watching the way Cornelius and Zira are treated by those that fear what might happen if they are to live. And after taking a break from scoring “Beneath” (he was deep into scoring “Patton” at the time, resulting in another great composer, Leonard Rosenman, composing the music for that film), Jerry Goldsmith returns with another exciting and imaginative score that rates with one of his most memorable works. But it is the performances by McDowall and Hunter that give this adventure of “Apes” its grieving heart and soul. It is a masterpiece, and conventional sense would be that the series should have ended here, but the “Apes” saga had still bigger thematic fish to fry.

For his third screenplay in the “Apes” series, Paul Dehn took the racial tensions of the first three films and brought them to the surface in the most provocative and controversial film yet. The year is 1991, and many years back, a plague had been brought back in the space expedition that killed all the dogs and cats in the world. To cope with this loss, humanity turned to apes, and immediately saw their intelligence and ability to learn. They then turned apes into their servants, which over the years became an indentured servitude akin to the practice of slavery in the first century of the United States. Eighteen years have passed since the deaths of Cornelius and Zira at the hands of the government, and the country has turned into a police state. Into one of these cities (actually, the Century City plaza that had just been erected in L.A.) enter circus man Armando (played by a returning Ricardo Montalban) and Caesar, the grown son of Cornelius and Zira, and played by Roddy McDowall in a passionate and exceptional performance. You can see the rage and frustration build up in Caesar’s eyes as he watches his brethren humiliated in public, until finally, he must speak. That act forces his separation from Armando, who will be interrogated for hours before falling to his death, which removes the last shred of hope Ceasar has for humanity’s ability to live peacefully, not just with apes but themselves. Now integrated as a worker ape in the Governor’s employ, Caesar is able to plan a rebellion that will tilt the tide of power forever.

The director on “Conquest” and the final film of the series, “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” was J. Lee Thompson, who had previously directed the Robert Mitchum-Gregory Peck thriller “Cape Fear” and “The Guns of Navarone.” Befitting the darker tones in Dehn’s script, Thompson doesn’t shy away from the more violent ideas of the story. “Conquest” is, once again, a natural progression in the saga, as the social commentary is a more direct reflection of the time in which it was made than it was in the previous film. That makes for a lesser film in quality, as more subtle satire is likelier to stand the test of time than that which hits the viewer over the head, as it sometimes does here, but Thompson’s handling of the material is powerful and riveting, and initially led to a PG rating for the previously G-rated franchise before cuts were made. Here, the cuts have been restored, and seeing them for the first time, makes the film a stronger work. Of course, the film would never work without the adventurous acting by Roddy McDowall, who abandons the pacifist tone of the intellectual Cornelius for the revolutionary spirit of Caesar effortlessly, even if a speech at the end, added in post and intended to give hope to a previously bleak storyline, feels out of character when considering the changes Ceasar underwent throughout the film’s previous 80 minutes. I guess producer Jacobs and screenwriter Dehn were looking forward to the final chapter. Unfortunately, they compromised this film in the process.

(Author’s Note: I actually watched the Unrated, restored original version of “Conquest” for this review, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the post-added speech by Caesar calling for peace at the end was left out. A bold move, that makes “Conquest” even better. The theatrical remains on the Blu-Ray box set, but this version is the one I think I’ll be watching more of over the years.)

The fifth and final film of the “Apes” series, “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” is the most flawed, and yet, the most intriguing. In the years after he led the ape rebellion, Caesar has grown wiser and more prone to loving thy neighbor rather than hate. A family man, Caesar has married Lisa (the female ape he worked with in “Conquest,” and played by Natalie Trundy, who was in all of the “Apes” sequels) and has a son of his own, whom he has named Cornelius. He has built a small village of survivors after a great nuclear war decimated the world, and a tenuous bond with humans. One day, Caesar is confronted with a potential break in the peace when the gorilla General Aldo (Claude Akins) attacks a human teacher who says the unspeakable word to his disobedience, “no.” Caesar has a crisis in his ability to lead ape and men into a peaceful future, and so he and the philosopher orangutan, Virgil (Paul Williams), and a human leader (the brother of “Conquest’s” MacDonald, played by Austin Stoker) make the trek into the Forbidden City to look for recordings that might help Caesar, although they are discovered by a group of radioactively scarred humans led by “Conquest’s” head of security, Kolp (Severn Darden), who takes the opportunity to get even for the humiliation Caesar inflicted on humanity all those years ago, leading to a final battle between man and ape.

Although Paul Dehn wrote the initial draft of the script, which continued the bleak tone of “Conquest,” Jacobs wished to return to a more family-friendly tone, and hired the husband and wife team of John William Corrington and Joyce William Corrington to polish the script into something more akin to the original film. The results are…silly, and at times, all too familiar thematically when you think back to the story of “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.” Returning as director was J. Lee Thompson, who had the unenviable task of creating an epic adventure on a budget that was barely over $1 million. He does what he can, although the limitations are all too obvious at the end, when the mutated humans and Caesar’s colony fight one last battle for dominance in the future. That said, Caesar’s questioning of his ability to lead ape and man into a true friendship is genuinely compelling, and McDowall plays the storyline with intelligence and emotion, especially after his son dies after overhearing a plot by Aldo to overthrow his father. Also important in bringing the film greater weight than it otherwise would have is the role of the Lawgiver at the beginning and end, played by the legendary director John Huston with his famously gruff voice and soulful gravitas. These two performances, and a storyline that is enhanced in the “Extended Version” contained on the series’s massive Blu-Ray box set, improve “Battle for the Planet of the Apes’s” stature as a solid sci-fi adventure, even if it remains the worst of the original “Apes” franchise.

In the end, the “Planet of the Apes” franchise produced by Arthur P. Jacobs at a time of dramatic transition, not only in Hollywood but in America, is a case of the whole be greater than the individual parts. It tells a sprawling, intelligent, and exciting story of Earth’s future with ideas as fascinating as any dramatic film that came out of the studio system in those days. At the center of it, though, were characters whose actions are dictated by the times they find themselves in, as they try to do what’s best not just for themselves, but all those who may come after. It remains a landmark of science fiction cinema, and fertile ground for filmmakers who have something to say about the present, for the sake of what might happen in the future.

“Planet of the Apes” (1968)- A+
“Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1970)- B+
“Escape From the Planet of the Apes” (1971)- A+
“Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972)- A- (Unrated: A)
“Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (1973)- B

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