Director: Franklin J Schaffner
Writer: Michael Wilson and Rod Sterling
Cast: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, James Whitmore
“Get your hands off me, you damned dirty ape!”
Ah, God bless Charlton Heston and his glorious jaw-jacking performance as astronaut George Taylor.
I love the original Planet of the Apes. Franklin Schaffner’s sci-fi classic is based on the 1963 French novel La Planète des singes by Pierre Boulle which takes a wonderful concept – man finds himself on a planet where apes, not humans, are the dominant species – and really gets an incredible lot of mileage out of it. The story is filled with playful wordplay (“human see, human do”), visual puns (see the image below) and role reversals in which the apes treat humans as mindless savages, creatures to be locked in zoos for academics and scientists to study. It’s such a wonderful film and remains a fixture of popular culture nearly fifty years after its release. Everybody knows the line about the damned dirty ape. Everyone knows the final scene even if they haven’t seen the film in its entirety. Yet I believe its Charlton Heston’s fantastic and absorbing performance as the desperate astronaut looking to make sense of and escape his ape captors that make the film what it is. The weirdest thing about it all is I have no idea what Heston is even doing in a film like this.
Planet of the Apes begins slow and steady. It’s over 30 minutes before we see the first ape. A team of astronauts – Taylor, Landon and Dodge – are in outer space, awakened from a cryogenic sleep. They discover that they have overshot both the year and galaxy that they are supposed to be in. Unfortunately for them, their only female crew member is dead too, thanks to a faulty cryo-chamber. If they are the last remaining humans, there isn’t much hope for pro-creation and starting anew. They land on a barren desert planet and begin searching for signs of life.
Before they start their journey, Dodge takes the American flag and plants it in the soil. Taylor finds this to be an amusingly shallow and foolish gesture. He cannot contain his laughter and ridicule. It’s an interesting foot note that Heston’s act of laughing at this type of American exceptionalism predates Neil Armstrong landing on the moon by a full year. Considering the flag waving All-American Republican activist that Heston would become in his later years, it’s quite the sight seeing the character he plays here.
The astronauts soon find signs of life – humans, even – but they are not like any that they recognize from Earth. They are mute, stand around in herds, apparently grazing on the foliage. Then, the all conquering apes make their memorable first appearance. They round up the humans like cattle and soon Taylor learns what he has gotten himself into. A planet where humans are no different from other animals and apes are king.
The beauty of the film is in the detail. The apes have a distinct culture and social hierarchy. They are a religious community, following the beliefs and practices taught by their elders. The different species are broadly considered to be equal but its interesting to note that all the figureheads are orangutans that are conferred the title of Doctor. Despite their titles, they are skeptical of and eager to quash the scientific intellect and curiosity of the biologist Zira. There is a continuous ideological struggle between Doctor Zaius and Zira about the origins of apes which lies at the heart of the film.
The best sci-fi films are full of imagination and create a world that feels cohesive and believable. Planet of the Apes succeeds in doing just that.
As Taylor’s situation becomes more desperate, he reverts to a savage animal instinct as he tries to overpower and escape his captors. It is during a failed attempt to escape the Ape City that he roars that famous line. He eventually forms an alliance with Zira but he never loses his edge and his utter disdain for his plight. He is smart mouthed and happily uses those around him. His romantic relationship with another human in captivity, Nova, seems to be the ultimate act of sexual objectification. Nova is beautiful but mute and with the intellect of a squirrel. A pregnancy was written out of the original script because even in 1968, they could see its kind of messed up for Taylor to do that.
Planet of the Apes is a film filled with ideologies and political subtext. It is a film that rails against organized religion. It profoundly supports scientific questioning over religious doctrine and champions those who challenge the institution. It is about humanity and evolution. It asks us to rethink the relationships between humans and animals. And because its 1968, it even shunts in a Scrappy-Doo quality youngster at the end of the film who idolizes Charlton Heston and is the apparent embodiment of younger generations that will reshape society. As a parting piece of advice, Heston suggests “never trust anyone over 30”. Whatever you say, Charlton!
All of these ideas and progressive politics is what has me wondering what on Earth a dyed in the wool conservative like Charlton Heston is doing in Planet of the Apes. Did he just have a change of heart as he got older? Did he not understand the film he was making? I’ve tried researching it online and have come up empty. Regardless, I’m just happy he was cast as Taylor because his performance is note perfect.
Planet of the Apes was a critical and commercial success when it released all those years ago. It spawned many sequels, mostly terrible. It lead to a spin-off tv show. It’s been rebooted twice. Once unsuccessfully by Tim Burton and a second time with Rupert Wyatt which was shockingly great. But I’ll always come back to the original. Franklin Schaffner’s film is a well crafted blend of thrills, comedy and imagination. I’ve raved about Heston a lot in this review but I would be remiss not to mention the great performances from Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall. You can watch Planet of the Apes today and it still holds up. If anything, my enjoyment is heightened as I wait in anticipation for the films famous lines and high points. That scene where Taylor rides along the shoreline, sees the Statue of Liberty and collapses to his knees in his despair still gets me every time.