Last week I got to discuss a very important year in American cinema. One that gave me quite a few options to talk about, including some very “important” movies. And I perhaps threw a bit of a curve ball by talking about a silly farce instead. And, weirdly, this week I’ve got another pretty huge year. But, while 1967 is hailed as a masterful year of American cinema reaching a new artistic zenith, heralding in the short-lived age of the New Hollywood, 1968 is a little different. It’s absolutely stuffed to the gills with fantastic movies, many of which have been rightfully heralded as masterpieces that have gone on to shape the genres they’re part of, but they usually aren’t held in as high of esteem as the films of 1967. Because 1968 was a masterful year for genre movies. We got a slew of truly remarkable sci-fi, horror, and action films. Which, unfortunately, means these films don’t get as respected as their 1967 counterparts. These movies are by no means forgotten or unloved, they just don’t seem to be held in as high of opinion as their more dramatic and award-winning competition. But it’s impossible to deny the power that the films of 1968 have had over popular culture, and American cinema as a whole. We got Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a fascinatingly obtuse and beautiful sci-fi film that leans hard into the science half of that description, giving us a movie that certainly had fantastical elements, but that remains in a bizarrely grounded state, until it very much leaves all of that behind. We also got Bullit, a masterpiece of crime fiction that gave us one of the absolute finest car chases in history, and a perpetual reminder that Steve McQueen was one of the coolest men to ever live. I’ve already talked about Rosemary’s Baby, the gut-wrenching horror film that can be a little hard to watch due with historical context of Roman Polanski, butt hat remains a very effective film if you can put that aside. Sergio Leonne gave us yet another masterpiece of the Western genre in Once Upon a Time in the West, a sprawling tale that stands just as tall as his famous Dollars Trilogy does. And, while I don’t really enjoy where the subgenre has gone in recent years, it’s impossible to deny the power that George Romero’s the Night of the Living Dead has, virtually spawning the concept of zombies for a wide audience. There’s a lot to love in that list. But, when I got right down to it, there was no way I could deny my utter love for one of the most famous films 1968 had to offer. We’re talking Apes today, folks.
Planet of the Apes began life as a novel by French author Pierre Boulle. It was picked up by an American film producer named Arthur Jacobs before it was even published, primarily for the premise alone, and was quickly shopped around Hollywood. But, no one was particularly interested in the story, or Jacobs’ role in it. But, after producing a few successful films, people started to take Jacobs and the story a little more seriously, and the film started to take shape. They found a director, and a pretty impressive screenwriter. Rod Serling, mastermind of the Twilight Zone, was brought in to create a script, but was ultimately rejected because of how elaborate and expensive the film he envisioned would end up being. So, after some tweaking by blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson, the film took on the shape that we know it in today. They then shot some test footage, showing off how feasible the ape makeup could really be, and were able to get the film made. The Ape civilization was made a little more primitive than originally designed, primarily to save money on sets, and filming took place throughout the American Southwest, a lot of it in Arizona. Charlton Heston, quite the established leading man by this time, lent an air of respectability to the whole endeavor, and the sheer originality of the film helped draw in audiences. The movie was a hit with critics and fans alike, even though it was kind of dismissed as a bit of fluffy entertainment, nothing with any real staying power. Which has obviously proved quite wrong. It went on to spawn a series of increasingly terrible sequels, a monumentally ill-conceived remake, and eventually one of the most bizarre and compelling modern reboots, along with leaving a truly indelible mark on American culture, both cinematic and at large.
The film begins with the story of four American astronauts, aboard a spaceship for what is essentially a suicide mission. Astronauts Taylor, Landon, Dodge, and Stewart are to be frozen in suspended animation and sent on a near light-speed journey into the stars, hoping to find a newly habitable planet, but unsure if they’ll ever return to Earth. They spend eighteen months in their hibernation, and are awoke to find that things aren’t going well. Their ship is crash-landing onto an unknown planet and something went wrong with Stewart’s pod, causing her to die. So, the three surviving astronauts crash into a sea surrounded by an unforgiving desert, not sure if there’s going to be any way to survive on their new planet. They also learn that while it was only 18 months for them, almost two thousand years have actually passed due to them travelling near the speed of light. So, with no hope that anyone on Earth could save them, the three astronauts begin exploring their barren new world. There’s no real vegetation or fresh water, and things start to get dire. But, after several days wandering in the desert they eventually come across actual signs of life. Some crude scarecrows perched atop a cliff-side show them at least some sign of intelligent life, and after following them they come across a lush jungle, complete with an inviting waterfall. The three men strip down and hop into the water, thankful for their survival, only to find that when they get out their clothes and belongings have been stolen. They chase after the thieves, only to find a large group of feral humans. They aren’t quite sure what to make of them, or their limited intelligence, but decide to at least try to make some contact with them. Which is when things get really weird. Because as they’re standing there they suddenly find a large group of being arrive, on horseback, apparently hunting the humans. And, these beings appear to be anthropomorphized gorillas.
Taylor, Landon, and Dodge attempt to flee from the gorillas, along with the rest of the feral humans, but it doesn’t really go well. Dodge is killed in the process, Landon is captured, and Taylor is captured as well after having a bullet graze his throat. Taylor is brought to a special Ape research facility in order to save his life, so that tests can be done on him. He awakes, unable to speak, in the laboratory of a psychologist chimpanzee named Zira. She is using humans as experiments for Ape brain surgery, but takes a shine to Taylor, who she begins calling Bright Eyes. Taylor is unable to speak, but apparently the Apes are speaking English, and he understands them. Taylor begins trying to get across to Zira that he can understand her, and that he’s not dumb like the other humans. It doesn’t go well, but Taylor continues trying to get his message across to Zira and her fiance Cornelius, an archaeologist. Eventually though Taylor is able to grab a pen and paper from Zira, and is able to get a message across to her. She and Cornelius begin examining Taylor, having him write messages to them explaining his predicament. Neither of them are very convinced by Taylor, but they certainly think it’s strange. So, they bring Taylor before a panel of wise scientists and religious figures, led by an orangutan named Doctor Zaius, and plead their case. Zaius is convinced it’s all a trick, until Taylor manages to escape and goes on a rampage through their facility. They capture him, and in the process he’s finally able to speak, proving that it wasn’t a fraud.
However, Dr. Zaius still can’t believe that Taylor came from a world where human beings were more intelligent than apes. He becomes convinced that Taylor is from a mutated tribe of humans from the other side of the great desert they passed, and demands that Taylor show the Apes where these human are so they can be exterminated. And, when Taylor refuses, Zaius decides he’s just going to be castrated and lobotomized. Taylor obviously isn’t okay with this idea, and convinces Zira to help him escape. So, with the help of Zira’s nephew Lucius, Taylor, Zira, and Cornelius are able to escape. Cornelius has been able to find an archaeological site far into the desert that may point to the existence of ancient intelligent humans, so they set out to find the proof to convince Zaius. The quartet arrive at the dig site, but before they can begin examining it they’re caught by Zaius and some troops who have been following them. Zaius decides to humor them, and follows them into the site where he watches as Taylor recognizes a slew of artifacts from the humans who dwelt in this ancient home. Zaius wants to ignore all of the proof, until they find a human doll that’s able to talk, something Taylor says an Ape would never make. Taylor, in a rage, take Zaius hostage, and forces his soldiers out of site, demanding he tell them everything he knows. Zaius finally breaks down and admits that he knows about ancient humans, and that they’re responsible for the vast deserts on this planet, but part of Ape religion is to ignore that and keep human subservient so they can’t destroy the planet again. Taylor then decides to travel around the world, looking for more proof of these ancient humans, hoping to show himself that they could have been as good as the humans of Earth. Zauis allows him to leave, but as soon as he does so he has the archaeological site destroyed, and arrests Zira and Cornelius for heresy. Sometime later we then see Taylor wandering the world, and coming across the destroyed remnants of the Statue of Liberty, finally proving to him that he’s not on an alien world, he’s been on Earth the entire time, and the people of his time destroyed the world.
There are certain films that leave such an incredible mark on popular culture. Films that become so iconic that it’s almost impossible not to be aware of them. Even if you haven’t seen the movie itself, it’s so deeply entered popular culture that you will be able to identify references to the film. And Planet of the Apes is one of those films. Seemingly from its first release this film has captured the hearts and minds of people, taking it’s scenes and iconography to heart, resulting in a series of lines and scenes that are so immediately recognizable and powerful that seemingly everyone knows them. And the real reason for that power has to be the fact that it’s just a wonderful film. It’s inventive, different, extremely well-made and manages to transcend any condescension toward the sci-fi genre. It’s a gorgeous film, full of wonderful set-design that works perfectly for the film while suiting the utilitarian budget concerns that necessitated it. Charlton Heston is putting in perhaps his most Charlton Hestony performance of all time, growling and full of absurd American machismo. But, it all takes on a sad tinge in this film, especially as we learn that it was American machismo that probably doomed the entire planet. But one of the most impressive parts of the entire film has to be its make-up. The issue of bringing to life an entire planet of Ape-people surely had to be an incredibly challenge in 1968, but John Chambers and his staff were able to bring these Apes to life in a way unlike anything ever seen before, bringing a believeability to them that completely keeps the film afloat.
For all those reasons, and countless more, Planet of the Apes has gone down in history as one of the greatest and most important science fiction films of all time. And yet, there’s one aspect of it that has probably had the greatest impact on film-making. That ending. It’s one of the most iconic moments of the entire film, a single moment that completely changes the way you see the film, almost begging the first time viewer to immediately re watch it and see if they can see it coming. Which makes sense when you learn that Rod Serling had a helping hand in the script of this film. I’ve never read the Pierre Boulle novel that the film is based on, but checking the plot of that novel I can tell that it’s a fairly distinct story, and also utilizes a similar twist at the end, but in that case blaming the transition of power to human laziness and ape’s naturally evolving. The film however, possibly thanks in large part to Serling’s influence, ended up re-contextualizing everything as an anti-war story. Humanity didn’t become lazy, they became too powerful and dangerous for their own good, and in Taylor’s words “blew it all up.” A substantial amount of Serling’s output revolved around the horrors of war, and humanities ability to destroy itself, and this film is one of the purest distillations of his ideas. The Twilight Zone had pumped out twist endings for five seasons, but Planet of the Apes represents one of the most famous and successful twist endings in the history of cinema. It helped breathe life to the entire concept, creating an entire world of “twist” movies that hope to capture the sheer mind-blowing power of that final scene, with conflicting results. There were twists before Planet of the Apes, and twists after, but it remains one of the most well-executed and effective ever put to film.
Planet of the Apes was written by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson, directed by Franklin J Schaffner, and released by 20th Century Fox, 1968.
Categories: Cinematic Century