Planet of the Apes (1968)


(director: Franklin J. Schaffner; screenwriters: from the book Monkey Planet by Pierre Boulle/Rod Serling/Michael Wilson; cinematographer: Leon Shamroy; editor: Hugh S. Fowler; music: Jerry Goldsmith; cast: Charlton Heston (Taylor), Roddy McDowall (Cornelius), Kim Hunter (Zira), Maurice Evans (Dr. Zaius), James Whitmore (President of the Assembly), James Daly (Honorius), Linda Harrison (Nova), Robert Gunner (Landon), Jeff Burton (Dodge); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: G; producers: Mort Abrahams/Arthur P. Jacobs; 20th Century Fox; 1968)
“If you need to see any of the Apes’ films, this is the one to take in.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The first in the successfully camp sci-fi series that led to four sequels and two television series, Planet of the Apes (1968), is taken from the satirical book Monkey Planet by Pierre Boulle and written for the screen by Rod Serling (creator of The Twilight Zone series on television) and Michael Wilson (blacklisted during the McCarthy reign of terror). It is directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (“Patton”/”Papillon”) with both touches of wit and dumbness as it reflects on the theory of evolution in an unorthodox way. It rails against those who blindly believe in the Bible, playing games with faith versus science arguments as it manages to deliver some strong sermons against prejudice and intolerance. The beautiful settings come by courtesy of the National Parks of Utah and Arizona.

The film opens as an American exploratory spaceship on a long space mission crash-lands on a distant planet some 2,000 years in the future and three astronauts come out of their deep hibernation to survive without significantly aging as they get caught in a time warp. The survivors Landon (Robert Gunner) and Dodge (Jeff Burton) are led by Colonel George Taylor (Charlton Heston), a sarcastic misanthrope who is happy to escape the human race and its steady diet of violence. He finds that the apes rule the planet and are the highest form of life, as their brand of civilization though without modern technology nevertheless is similar to the ones that humans have created–including the negatives of segregation whereby stereotypes are used to fill positions (an obvious racial reference to America’s difficulties with such matters). The ape rulers can talk, think, and reason as they hold court over a multilayered civilization. As a reverse from life on earth, the humans are not highly evolved and are still at a primitive animal stage of development, needing to be caged.

The ape characters take over the story as we meet their leader Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), who is shocked when he finds Heston can intelligently talk and orders him sentenced to death because it goes against his beliefs and teachings that humans can act civilized. But Heston finds support with the sympathetic behavioral scientist Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and her fianc√©, an archaeologist named Cornelius (Roddy McDowall). Heston’s first words after recovering from a throat injury incurred when he was shot when he tried to escape, are directed at Dr. Zira: “Get your stinkin’ paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” The scientists theorize that apes evolved from humans, and they think by studying Heston they may find the missing link. Accused of being heretics by their narrow-minded leader they risk death by continuing with their experiments to establish true knowledge, something that has been denied the general ape population in the name of law and order. Meanwhile Heston suffers the humiliation of being observed and studied in the lab by the apes. You can see where we are going here, as the human theories on earth are parodied and everything is topsy-turvy.

If you need to see any of the Apes’ films, this is the one to take in. It’s a grimly drawn post-apocalyptic fable with an overripe social commentary that lacks subtlety or nuance, but somehow needs to be said (though I wished it were said in a less ham-fisted way). But the acting is superb, the scenery is stunning, the ape makeup brilliant (John Chambers won an honorary Oscar for his inventive makeup), the sci-fi story itself is thought-provoking, and the startling ending of a rediscovered civilization is truly frightening. It is only the special effects that don’t make it because they are so cheesy. Some of the ideas explored might make you think again about your own life values and the dangers of nuclear weapons.