GBUK Film Classics: ‘Planet of the Apes’ (1968)

Looking at some all-time favourites…

“Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!”

Year:  1968

Starring:  Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans

Director:  Franklin J. Schaffner / Written by:  Michael Wilson and Rod Serling

What’s it about?

A team of human astronauts find themselves on a world where intelligent apes are dominant…

In review

Whilst the Planet of the Apes franchise has seen a successful reinvention with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and last summer’s smash hit sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it’s likely that a sizeable section of the audience are unaware that there is indeed a franchise that began life decades earlier.

Based on the novel by French author Pierre Boulle (whose works also include The Bridge over the River Kwai), Planet of the Apes is the science fiction film classic that would spawn an enduring and popular franchise which by the mid 1970’s would include four sequels and two television spin-offs (one live action, one animated) as well as a plethora of merchandise.

Adhering relatively close to the main plot elements of Boulle’s novel, the film adaptation of Planet of the Apes diverges creatively to depict a more primitive ape society as opposed to the technologically advanced one described in the novel (and the initial script by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, which was subsequently rewritten by Michael Wilson) – primarily due to budgetary concerns and the practical limitations of the times.  This is however all in the film’s favour, giving it a more ‘primal’ feel aided by some basic yet wonderful production design.

Charlton Heston brings star power to Planet of the Apes and is a reliably strong lead as the cynical and misanthropic Taylor who finds himself the subject of controversy and scrutiny as an intelligent and articulate primate, captured and caged like an animal in a world where humans are the mute and lower species.  The real draw however are the ape characters – wise and humble chimpanzees Cornelius (McDowall) and Zira (Hunter) who fall foul of the hateful and cantankerous orangutan Dr. Zaius (Evans) as they befriend Taylor.  Of the ape actors, Roddy McDowall is the standout performer and would continue to delight and further explore the character of an advanced simian in sequels Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (he was unavailable for first sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes) as well as the short-lived live action television series.

Naturally, this brings us to one of the biggest highlights of the entire production – the incredible makeup and prosthetic design of the apes themselves.  Created by John Chambers (responsible for Mr. Spock’s iconic pointed ears in Star Trek) and complemented by Morton Haack’s costume design, the ground-breaking makeup effects still hold up today and would rightfully earn him an honorary Academy Award.

Whilst there are elements of satire and thought provoking exploration of themes such as society, racial prejudice and cautionary tales of the human condition reminiscent of all good science fiction, a large part of the appeal of Planet of the Apes is its pure entertainment value and the depiction of a believable ape society with its hierarchy split across three central ape creeds – the political orangutans, the scientific and academic chimpanzees and the militant gorillas.

Another key component of Planet of the Apes is the inventive and experimental Academy Award nominated music score by Jerry Goldsmith for which he employed the use of unusual instruments and unconventional techniques to help create the eerie and primal feeling of the ape’s world.

Planet of the Apes leaves the viewer with one of film’s greatest and most iconic twist endings, (retained from Rod Serling’s original script) – the revelations of which I shall not divulge here for those who have not seen this classic slice of SF cinema.

Standout moment

Finding themselves in a field where a mute and dumb human society is ‘grazing’, astronauts Taylor, Landon and Dodge are shocked to witness the arrival of clothed, rifle wielding gorillas…on horseback!

Three reasons it’s a classic…

  1. It depicts a believable society of intelligent apes, thanks to a successful blend of production design, incredible makeup effects and the delightfully nuanced performances of actors such as Roddy McDowall.
  1. It features a wonderfully eerie and inventive score by Jerry Goldsmith.
  1. It delivers a shocking and memorable finale which stands as one of the most iconic moments in film history.

Did you know?

Screenwriter Michael Wilson was blacklisted by Hollywood for being a communist during the era of the McCarthy ‘witch hunt’ trials.

If you like this then watch…

Planet of the Apes (2001) : flawed though it may be, Tim Burton’s reimagining is still worth a look and evokes the spirit of the 1968 original by featuring superb makeup design and a mind boggling twist finale that still provokes discussion today.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes : the Apes saga begins anew with this smart reinvention that replaces practical ape makeup effects with remarkable motion capture performances melded with breath-taking CGI.

Taylor (Charlton Heston) befriends chimpanzees Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) in the classic original 'Planet of the Apes'.

Taylor (Charlton Heston) befriends chimpanzees Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) in the classic original ‘Planet of the Apes’.

Advertisements

11 thoughts on “GBUK Film Classics: ‘Planet of the Apes’ (1968)

  1. Nice review. A timeless classic: non-convoluted, intelligent, & thought-provoking. Why can’t there be more like it?

    *stares into coffee*

  2. Great review! Your reviews are not only very well written, you also make them very informative and interesting. It still amazes me that the DVD cover gives away the ending – they clearly assumed that everyone is familiar with it. It’s a shame, because it is one the THE great cinema endings.

    • Thanks Gareth! You’re right about the marketing for the film, on the one hand it’s such an iconic image and makes it appealing to new viewers but it also diminishes the shock of the finale.

      Planning to revisit the sequels over the summer and figure out how to review them without getting too spoilery because of how the finale affects the series going forward…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s