Spanked by the Monkey: Planet of the Apes (1968)
It’s time for my next step in the chronological journey through the Planet of the Apes films. For the most part, these films are pretty lousy, being a strange mixture of cheap prosthetics, cack-handed social commentary, bad acting, and nonsensical science fiction. However, the original Planet of the Apes from 1968 has long gone down as a genre classic. It’s reputation partially derives from the simply stunning ending, which I will be spoiling if you happen to be the only person on the planet that doesn’t know what it is (even lost tribes in the Amazon know what the ending to this film is), but that does the film a massive disservice. This is a stone cold classic for a reason.
OK, who doesn’t know the plot of Planet of the Apes? Just in case someone out there doesn’t, it goes like this: Charlton Heston plays NASA astronaut Taylor. With his crew, he flies out on what he presumes will be a one way mission. They enter hypersleep, and then wake up having crash landed on an alien planet. Discovering that there are people, but they are mute and kind of retarded, the Astronauts are captured by the planet’s dominant species: the Apes. Taylor is injured, so the scientist chimpanzees Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) assume that he’s the same as other humans. Eventually, Taylor (christened Bright Eyes by Zira) comes to the attention of the ruling caste, the Orangutans, and Dr Zaius in particular (Maurice Evans). The apes run a theocracy, and any scientific investigation has to go before the council to ensure that it doesn’t interfere with their religious beliefs, one of which is that man has always been stupid and vicious. Eventually, Taylor leads Cornelius and Zira to the forbidden zone, which reveals the truth about humanity (something Zaius already knew, which changes the perception of him from villain). Taylor leaves the apes and rides round the corner with Nova only to discover the buried Statue of Liberty, whereupon he falls to the ground and starts punching the beach screaming “You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you all to hell!”. Film ends.
This is a superb movie. First and foremost, the score by Jerry Goldsmith is outstanding and fits so brilliantly with the material that it’s deservedly one of the most renowned of his career. Secondly, the makeup work here by John Chambers is simply outstanding and won an Academy award. Makeup wasn’t anything new when this film was made, hell, Karloff played Frankenstein’s monster aeons before, but this was one of the first times it was applied on such a scale. It’s testament to how good the prosthetic work is that Planet of the Apes still today looks dramatically better than the other films in the series.
Acting underneath all that shit must have been a challenge, but Kim Hunter as Zira is simply astounding. She’s a quality actress anyway (See Streetcar Named Desire) but here she manages to convey emotion mostly using her eyes while wearing an absolute ton of plastic crap. Heston has always been a bit hit or miss for me, but here his overly macho and arrogant persona fits that of the overly macho and arrogant to the point of stupidity Taylor. McDowall became inextricably tied to this series, but t’s hard to see why, because he’s probably the worst of the principal characters. He isn’t bad, per se, but Cornelius has little to do other than cluck around Zira and generally be a bit of a pain.
Then there’s the script. Rod Sterling adapted Pierre Boulle’s novel, and the script was rewritten by Michael Wilson. Boulle, incidentally, hated the ending, but he’s wrong. This is an extremely intelligent script. While the concept is intrinsically stupid and almost laughable, the film itself has a lot to say about different subjects such as religion interfering in scientific discovery, man’s inherent brutality, and so forth, and even now the messages contained within the film still stand up to scrutiny. For the most part, that is, because the late 60’s anti-war posturing is a touch dated nowadays, to put it mildly. It’s also astonishing that a film as nihilistic as this one managed to get made, let alone spawn a franchise that’s lasted 43 years. Think about it for a second- but this is about Humanity’s essential stupidity and how we’ve made ourselves effectively extinct. I’d be very surprised to see something like this in a big Tentpole release nowadays, and indeed Burton’s piss poor remake doesn’t go down this track.
This was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner who went on to make Patton, and he was at the top of his game here. The individual scenes of the Ape City are brilliantly staged, the stupendous opening is tight and clear, and the decision to use a wide angle for the Statue of Liberty scene still looks fantastic today, even though he did let Heston off the leash a tad in this scene for some almost brain-meltingly bad acting.
It isn’t perfect though, although I am going to give it a maximum, and there’s one fundamental problem with the film: Nova. Nova is set up as Heston’s love interest, but the whole thing is a bit, well, icky. She’s totally mute and borderline retarded, and this doesn’t look like true love as much as abuse. To make matters worse, Linda Harrison, despite having a grand total of 0 spoken lines, is unable to elevate the part, being all puppy-dog eyes and annoying mannerisms. I can see why she’s in the film, because I’m a male heterosexual with eyes and she is smoking hot, but the reality of it is that she’s only in the part because she was boning the 20th Century Fox president. However, in hindsight, although I can see why Taylor takes her with him, the character has no business being in the film. Nova is a blatant B-Movie piece of tits and ass in a high-concept A movie.
Overall, This is a nailed on classic and it is one for a reason. While the sequels may have dated horribly over time, the original Planet of the Apes stands there as an absolute titan of the genre. I can’t praise this film enough, and this is, as a result, one of the shorter reviews in this series, because there isn’t anything to say that hasn’t been said before. Simply put, Planet of the Apes is a stone cold, nailed on science fiction classic, and as such can have a maximum 4 extremely happy chimps out of 4.
Next time out is the inevitable sequel: Beneath the Planet of the Apes, where we get to see what actually did happen to mankind.