Before the third and final installment in the Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes comes to theaters, I decided to revisit the entire Planet of the Apes saga. I was struck by the relevancy of the social commentary and by the epic scope of the series.
The following is Part One of a two-part series on Planet of the Apes:
1. Planet of the Apes (1968)
In 1963, Pierre Boulle published his science fiction novel La Planete de Singes. In 1968, 20th Century Fox released their heavily Americanized film adaptation of Boulle’s work. Planet of the Apes, a great treasure of American science fiction cinema, was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner who directed Patton, and written by the master of America’s golden age of sci-fi TV himself, Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone.
Charlton Heston plays astronaut George Taylor who is joined by his companions Landon and Dodge. The three Americans are on board a space vessel that crashes, 2,000 years in the future, on some distant planet. On this planet, humans are considered wild animals and apes are the dominant, intelligent species. The apes, on horseback, kidnap humans and treat them as slaves and/or research subjects. Comic British actor Roddy McDowall plays Cornelius and Kim Hunter plays Dr. Zira, an “animal psychologist.” Cornelius and Zira are apes who befriend Taylor and what follows is a thrilling space opera and shockingly progressive social commentary.
Heston was never a great actor and his capacity for cheesiness is demonstrated in full in this film. It was his cheesiness, however, that gave us great lines like “Get your stinking paws off me you damn, dirty ape!” In the scenes where Heston’s Taylor is mute, however, his physical acting proves that he is right at home.
Schaffner’s film feels less like Star Wars or Lost in Space and more like the biblical slave epics The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, Heston’s bread and butter. Heston is dressed in garments that make him look like a Roman slave and the village he is enslaved in is brown and dusty, desert-like, with Roman structures that hold barbaric methods of capture.
Although the dialogue is cheesy, and the ape costumes are fairly silly, they are classic and they are key ingredients to a good science fiction movie experience. Good sci-fi always embraces its inherent silliness and over-the-top characters and their dialogue. We smug cinephiles may deny it, but the cheesy dialogue and silly plot lines are what make classic gems like The Twilight Zone, Star Wars, Star Trek, E.T., and Battlestar Galactica great.
Unlike Star Wars, Boulle and Serling have offered a philosophical inquiry into our views of violence, animal cruelty, planet care, and governance. Taylor begins his journey on his ship by recording in the captain’s log, “Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?” After Taylor, Landon, and Dodge crash land on the title planet, Taylor says to Landon, “There must be something greater than man out there. Has to be!” Following President Trump’s insidious and uninformed decision to withdraw our country from the Paris Climate Agreement, revisiting the thoughts and science fiction spectacle of Planet of the Apes might very well be worthwhile. The famous final shot of the film reveals what Serling had in mind all along: the Statue of Liberty stands still, buried up to her armpits in sand. Taylor’s final words ring in my ears as I listen to Trump’s mindless, heinous speech on climate change and the economy. “I made it. I’m home. You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! God damn you all to hell!”
2. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
Ted Post , director of the Dirty Harry film Magnum Force, directs the sequel to the sensational Planet of the Apes. It picks up right where the first film left off. In fact, the prologue of the film features Charlton Heston’s character Taylor and his encounter with first, the buried Statue of Liberty and second, an encounter with a mysterious fiery force in the desert.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes picks up with the astronaut called Brent (little known actor James Franciscus) following the trail of the lost Taylor. Brent and his “skipper” are on a rescue mission. After skipper dies following their crash landing on the familiar desert planet, Brent encounters Nova (Linda Harrison), the mute human woman who traveled briefly with Taylor. Nova has Taylor’s tags and she leads Brent to the city of the apes where he meets the noble Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and her fiancé, Cornelius (played in this film by David Watson and not Roddy McDowall). Zira and Cornelius offer their support and protection to Brent and Nova, but it is not enough, as a gorilla general has chosen them as “target practice.” Brent enacts a harrowing escape that instantly reminds us of the chase scenes with Charlton Heston in the first film. Heston and Franciscus are both handsome, physical actors. They excel in these areas.
Brent and Nova find their way into a secret, underground tunnel that leads to a cold, damp cave. Brent discovers NYC train station signage and sees what the audience already knows: This is Earth. This is what used to be America. Brent asks the prophetic and foreboding question, “My God, did we finally do it? Did we finally really do it?”
Then, the humming starts. George Lucas once said that every great drama has three acts. In the first act, you introduce the characters. In the second act, you put the characters in a dark hole. In the third act, you get the characters out of the dark hole. This film is the dark hole. And it is, surprisingly, quite dark. Brent hears a humming noise that gets in his head and commands him to hold Nova’s head under water while choking her. It is a frightening scene, to be sure. But then, Brent meets the strange, robed, telepathic humans who have built an underground community in order to worship their God, the atomic bomb.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes isn’t a very good standalone film like its predecessor, but it does a damn fine job of furthering the social commentary. In the last moments of the film, as the apes and bomb-worshipping humans kill each other at the foot of the atom bomb, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) exclaims to Taylor, who has been found by Brent, “You ask me to help you? Man is evil! Capable of nothing but destruction!” Brent, Nova, and Taylor are all shot to death by the apes and it is Taylor whose bloody hand presses the button that sets off the bomb and ushers in the ending voiceover narration: “In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.”
The writers of this film do not hold back. They are harshly critical of American human beings and our role in destruction. The first time I saw this film, as a child, I thought it seemed kind of silly and out-of-touch. Beneath the Planet of the Apes is further proof that science fiction becomes, unfortunately, more relevant and prophetic with age.
3. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
Little known film director Don Taylor picks up Escape from the Planet of the Apes right where Beneath the Planet of the Apes left off. While this may seem damn near impossible, given the fact that Beneath ended with the ultimate destruction of the planet Earth, bear in mind that at its heart, Planet of the Apes is about time travel. It is never explained, but we know that astronauts Taylor and Brent somehow managed to time travel into the Earth’s far future. The two heroic apes of the series, Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and her husband Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) managed to jettison themselves into Earth’s past just before the atomic bomb in Beneath blew up the planet. Zira and Cornelius have brought their nephew Milo (Rebel Without a Causes’s Sal Mineo) along with them. The film opens with Zira, Cornelius, and Milo landing off the coast of California and being discovered by members of the American military.
Escape exists only because the great Rod Serling, in his screenplay for the first film, decided to scrap the original ending by Pierre Boule and add a brand new dimension that changes the story entirely: time travelling into the destruction of Earth by the USA. Escape may have been a misfire. While it has an interesting plot and furthers the scathing social commentary of the first two films, it feels very different from Planet of the Apes and its sequel. It is clear to me that Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) borrowed a lot of its own story from the influence of Escape. The third film in the original saga is a story about three intelligent apes who have become used to seeing animals as humans. Now, the shoe is on the other foot, and the American scientists and soldiers who are charged with their keeping aren’t sure what to make of them. Hunter and McDowall are wonderful as Zira and Cornelius, but, it just doesn’t have the epic scope and science fiction spectacle of Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
4. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
Lee Thompson directed the original Cape Fear (1962) and Guns of Navarone (1961) before directing Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth film in the original Planet of the Apes film saga. Like its predecessor, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest is set in America in 1991. This film picks up years after Escape ended with the brutal murders of Zira and Cornelius, the heroic apes who met the human astronaut Taylor in Planet of the Apes.
This film introduces Caesar, the only son of Zira and Cornelius. Caesar is played by Roddy McDowall as was the character of Cornelius. Caesar has been raised and cared for by Armando (played by the best actor playing a human of the saga, Ricardo Montalban) who promised Caesar’s parents that he would care for him for his entire life. The character of Caesar, of course, is currently being reimagined in a reboot trilogy by Andy Serkis. In this universe, however, Armando has brought Caesar to America at a time when humans are keeping intelligent apes as slaves. The film opens with the revelation that Armando is trying desperately to keep Caesar’s ability to speak a secret. His parents were murdered because they were believed to be a threat to all of humankind. As Armando and Caesar witness a police officer choking an innocent ape on the steps of city hall, Caesar yells out “Human bastards!” Armando is taken into custody and Caesar is taken to a slave compound where he is kept with mute apes.
Conquest is filmed as if it were a thriller or horror film. Having directed Cape Fear, Thompson is accustomed to this. The humans are the monsters and murderers. The apes are the frightened, innocent victims. Thompson’s camera moves around the mobs of apes in wobbly close-ups. Conquest is filmed differently and the story is told differently than any of the other films. Conquest makes it clear that the style of storytelling has changed in the saga. Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes were both epic, sci-fi dramas which mirrored the great American slave epics. Conquest does, however, what Escape from the Planet of the Apes could not do. It creates an atmosphere. It creates a sense of foreboding and fear and it gives Roddy McDowall an opportunity to show off his acting chops as Caesar.
Conquest furthers the social commentary. This time the commentary is less of a global satire and more of an American satire. Americans are depicted as brutal, selfish, white slaveholders. Cops are depicted as unfeeling “inhuman bastards” who choke the innocent slaves.
Much like in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar teaches the apes he is imprisoned with to fight and then leads a revolt against their human captors. Governor Breck, a true villain, is about to be beaten to death by the apes, but Caesar responds by saying, “But now… now we will put away our hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the night of the fires, and those who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God, and if it is Man’s destiny to be dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion, and understanding. So, cast out your vengeance. Tonight, we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!”
Joey Armstrong is a hospital chaplain from Western New York. He is also a playwright and amateur cartoonist. Follow him on Twitter @chaplainmystic and Medium, where he writes more reviews for film and television.