Planet of the Apes (1968) ***
Together with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes inaugurated the rebirth of the big-budget science fiction movie in the United States. After a decade and more of steadily declining studio support, the genre came out swinging in 1968, and scored two monster hits which between them changed a lot of minds about the proper role of sci-fi in a film studio’s production schedule. I suspect part of the turnaround had something to do with the way science fiction was faring on television. When Planet of the Apes got the green light from the studio heads, “Star Trek,” “Lost in Space,” “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” and “Land of the Giants” were all on the air (although the popularity of most of them was starting to flag), while “The Time Tunnel” and “The Outer Limits” had been cancelled only fairly recently. But as a second incentive to loosen the purse strings, both Planet of the Apes and 2001 enjoyed the involvement of a pretty major name or two. The latter movie, of course, was the brainchild of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, while the Planet of the Apes script was written by none other than Rod Serling— and in those days, when Serling handed you a script, you gave serious thought to producing it, even if doing so would cost a pretty penny. In this case, 20th Century Fox certainly made a good return on the investment. In fact, so successful was Planet of the Apes that it would spawn four sequels, a TV series, and even a cartoon during the decade to come.
No one ever really comes out and says why, but in 1972, a spacecraft capable of near-light-speed travel was dispatched with a crew of four in the direction of the constellation Orion. After six months in deep space— which, according to mission control’s calculations, should work out to just over 700 years of Earth-time due to the time dilation experienced by objects moving at nearly the speed of light— three of the four crewmembers have bedded down in the hibernation chambers where they will be spending the rest of the trip; mission commander George Taylor (Charlton Heston, from The Awakening and Soylent Green) is about to join them after beaming one last transmission back toward home. Something goes wrong, however. The ship makes its eventual landing by crashing into a lake surrounded by inhospitable, arid badlands, and when Taylor, Landon (Robert Gunner), and Dodge (Coffy’s Jeff Burton) wake up, they discover that Stewart (Dianne Stanley), the only woman aboard the spacecraft, has been killed by a malfunction in her hibernation capsule. With the ship sinking fast into the lake, there’s no time to check the data logs to confirm their position in space, but Taylor notices that the relativity clock on the main control panel reckons the year back home to be 3987. Consequently, it’s a safe bet that Taylor and his companions would find little familiar about Earth when they arrived, even if they could return to it. When you put it like that, the sinking of their ship seems not to be quite such a disaster after all.
What might still count as a disaster if the astronauts’ luck isn’t in is the small quantity of supplies the men were able to salvage from the ship before it went down. There’s a bit of scientific equipment, a pistol and 50 rounds of ammunition, and enough food and water to last the three of them about 72 hours. Otherwise, it’s live off the land or die for the stranded astronauts. And as if the situation weren’t already urgent enough, Dodge makes some quick tests of the soil around their landing site, and determines that it is chemically incapable of supporting anything like terrestrial plant life. So with no better options presenting themselves, Taylor picks a direction and leads his men off in it, ragging them the entire time about how far afield their predicament is from the glory they sought when they blasted off from Earth. As for Taylor, he exempts himself from his bitter criticism of the astronauts’ motives, because neither the expansion of human knowledge, the accumulation of personal glory, nor the hope of gaining immortality by stamping his name upon the record of history ever entered into his calculations. Taylor went into space because he can’t stand people, and the mission promised to get him as far away from as large a fraction of the human race as possible. But as the trek across the desert stretches on toward its third and presumably final day, it becomes increasingly evident that the world on which the explorers crashed is not uninhabited after all. There are indeed plants that have found a way to grow there despite the poisonous quality of the soil, and more importantly, something intelligent made those scarecrow-like objects lining the precipices overlooking the canyon into which Taylor and company’s hike eventually takes them. None of that interests them nearly as much as the sound they can hear from the next valley over, however. Their water supply is nearly exhausted, and that splattery roar is unmistakably the voice of a waterfall.
While the men are drinking their fill unconcerned for conservation for the first time in nearly three Earth-days, and washing the desert grime from their bodies in the pool at the waterfall’s base, they’re too preoccupied to notice the movements in the underbrush all around them— at least until after the remarkably human-like creatures that populate the oasis have made off with their clothes and supply packs. The astronauts give chase, but no sooner have they begun to come to grips with the idea that the local natives are anatomically indistinguishable from themselves (albeit no more advanced technologically than the earliest Cro Magnon people) than the fruitful valley is swarmed with leather-garbed gorillas riding horses and wielding nets and carbines! The cavemen scatter, but most are either killed or captured by the mounted apes. The same thing goes for the astronauts, too— Dodge is shot dead, Landon is netted and beaten senseless with a rifle stock, and Taylor is rounded up after taking a bullet in the throat which just narrowly misses severing any of the major blood vessels.
The next time we see Taylor, he is in an almost Medieval-looking laboratory, getting his neck operated on by a pair of chimpanzees. The one in charge is Dr. Galen (Wright King, from Invasion of the Bee Girls and The Spell); his assistant is Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter, from The Seventh Victim and Bad Ronald), an animal psychologist in the employ of the Ministry of Science. It would appear that on this planet, humans are mute, primitive creatures scarcely more intelligent than an Earthly baboon, while civilization is the province of the great apes. Furthermore, there is a caste system discernable within ape society: gorillas serve mostly in the military, security, and law enforcement professions; chimpanzees are the scientists and bureaucrats; and orangutans make up the priestly class that runs the whole show. Man is, to say the least, a controversial species on the Planet of the Apes. Dr. Zira is convinced that humans are more intelligent than most apes give them credit for, and she believes that they can even be domesticated and trained. Her fiance, archaeologist Dr. Cornelius (Roddy McDowall, of Fright Night and The Legend of Hell House) suspects that man and ape may have shared a common ancestor at some point in the distant past, long before the Sacred Scrolls which recount the history of simiankind were written. But the orangutan Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans, from Rosemary’s Baby and Thin Air), who holds the dual posts of Minister of Science and Defender of the Faith, believes that the only valid reason for studying man is that by doing so, it may be possible to find a quick and efficient way to eradicate him from the face of the planet. Well, Taylor did say he wanted to find a place in the universe where there was something better than man…
Taylor’s predicament is only exacerbated by the injury to his neck, which has temporarily deprived him of the ability to speak. Nevertheless, he does eventually seize upon a way to communicate with his keepers. At first he tries sign language, and while he catches Zira’s eye with the complexity and apparent purposefulness of his gestures, other apes, such as Julius (Buck Kartalian, of The Acid Eaters, who later played the monster in Octaman), the young gorilla who serves as the human-wrangler in Zira’s lab, argue that “Bright Eyes” (as Zira calls Taylor) is just mimicking the apes he sees around him. But when Taylor manages to snatch Zira’s pen and paper away from her and scribble “My name is Taylor” before Julius intervenes to get the writing implements back, he presents his captors with evidence of a far more convincing sort to the effect that he is an intelligent, sentient being. Before long, Taylor has Zira reading practically his whole life story. Neither she nor Cornelius knows what to make of it at first, since the apes are as yet ignorant of astronomy and do not even believe that flight is mechanically possible (one assumes that their world must be destitute of both birds and insects). The two chimps can’t bring themselves to accept his story at face value, but neither can they account for a human who is able to read and write within the framework of their people’s knowledge of the world. It does, however, occur to Zira and Cornelius alike that Taylor represents a nearly unanswerable argument in favor of both their pet theories— a man who can be taught to write could be taught to do just about anything, and a human of such intelligence would also seem to be the obvious intermediate link that would prove Cornelius’s theory of evolution. Then, when Taylor finally gets his voice back (“Take your stinking paws off of me, you damn dirty ape!”), it becomes that much clearer that a lot of current scientific thinking will have to be revised.
Zaius, however, doesn’t want to see any such revisions. He and his orangutan colleagues consider Zira and Cornelius heretics, and look at Taylor as some sort of unnatural monster. Zaius convinces his superior (James Whitmore, from Them! and The Relic) to order the scientists put on trial and the inconvenient human gelded and lobotomized, but he has underestimated the resourcefulness of all concerned. The apes know the desert across which Taylor traveled from his crash site as the Forbidden Zone— although no one is really sure why the Lawgiver forbade its exploration when he wrote the Sacred Scrolls— and Cornelius is pretty sure both that it would make the perfect escape route to freedom for Taylor and Nova (Linda Harrison), the human female whom he has taken as a mate, and that a dig which Cornelius was once forced to abandon out there will yield such irrefutable proof of evolution and human intelligence that not even Zaius and his fellow clerics will be able to reject it. What the Forbidden Zone fugitives don’t realize is that Zaius does know the reason for the ancient interdict, and that there is a stronger motive behind his resistance to the scientists’ revolutionary ideas than mere hidebound conservatism. Meanwhile, Taylor is likely to be more dismayed than either of his simian benefactors at what he finds in the Forbidden Zone.
Planet of the Apes undeniably has an extremely high hoke factor. Charlton Heston’s overacting has rarely been further out of control, Rod Serling’s screenplay wears its several morals on its sleeve more prominently than any but the very worst of his “Twilight Zone” scripts, and there are a number of nagging plot holes which are opened up by the big reveal at the end. But despite all that, the movie winds up being a great deal more than the sum of its parts. Most conspicuously, the ape makeup is extraordinary. While it is definitely less convincing than that in Tim Burton’s much-maligned remake, it still looked pretty damn good as little as fifteen years ago, and there was literally nothing else like it in 1968. John Chambers, Ben Nye, and Dan Striepere accomplished a remarkable feat in creating makeup that would transform the actors into plausible approximations of chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans while still preserving their individuality and permitting them a sufficiently wide range of facial expressions to put their performances across. The majority of the people operating under all that makeup acquit themselves far more honorably than Charlton Heston, too. The somewhat unreliable Roddy McDowall gives one of his best performances here; somehow a brilliant scientist who is too fond of his comfortable career to defend his most challenging ideas against the stuffy old duffers who control his professional future feels like the perfect role for him. Maurice Evans also does great things with Dr. Zaius.
Ultimately, though, we have Rod Serling to thank for Planet of the Apes’ greatest successes. Not because of the famous “Twilight Zone”-style twist at the end, either— that would have been old hat by 1968 even if Serling himself hadn’t spent so many years beating the idea into the ground on television. No, where Serling’s screenplay really shines is in its handling of the characters of Taylor and Dr. Zaius, and in the way the twist ending forces us in the audience to reevaluate our understanding of them. Taylor starts out as both a misanthrope and a huge pain in the ass. Indeed, when his ship crashes on what appears to be the wrong planet, ages and ages later than was called for in the mission plan, Taylor seems perversely pleased with the situation. Lord knows he has enough fun rubbing his companions’ faces in the idea that they’re never going home again. But once he falls into the clutches of the apes, he changes his tune altogether, and spends the rest of the movie struggling to assert the superiority of his species over another in whose eyes he is nothing more than an animal. Then comes his final-shot discovery by the seashore in the Forbidden Zone, which pretty much proves that he was right the first time— and what’s more, that Dr. Zaius was right, too! And that’s what really wins my respect for Planet of the Apes, that Dr. Zaius— the bad guy, the stand-in for the ignoramuses who prosecuted John Scopes for teaching evolutionary theory in a high school in Dayton, Tennessee, the ringer for the dogma-happy prelates who excommunicated Galileo when he published his evidence that the Earth revolved about the sun and not the other way around— is, in an important sense, right. Despite his title, it isn’t just “the Faith” that Zaius is defending, but the very survival of simian civilization. Zaius knew from the beginning what Cornelius was going to dig up in the Forbidden Zone, and because of that he knew that Zira’s efforts to educate and socialize humans could only end in disaster for the apes. What Taylor sees in the Forbidden Zone— and what Dr. Zaius knew he would see— cuts the ground out from under not just the facts of the story as we thought we understood them, but from under the presumed theme of the movie as well. It is the rarest, boldest, and most effective sort of surprise, and it would make up for twice as much of Charlton Heston falling hyperbolically to his knees and bellowing, “It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!!!!” as Planet of the Apes actually contains.