In 1968, you had two towering examples of big-budget Hollywood sci-fi. On one side, you had 2001: A Space Odyssey: intellectual, technically dazzling, artsy and inscrutable. On the other side, you had Planet Of The Apes. It was much more accessible to the popcorn crowd because it was built around a traditional matinee idol in Charlton Heston, wedded its science fiction elements to traditional mystery and adventure elements that the average viewer could hang his or her hat upon and its key technical marvel – the amazing humanoid ape makeups – actually increased its accessibility by making the unreal seem real.
That said, you shouldn’t let the veneer of traditional Hollywood filmmaking in Planet Of The Apes fool you. Even by 21st century standards, it remains every bit as subversive as 2001: A Space Odyssey. It just achieves its agenda in a more direct and confrontational manner.
Planet Of The Apes starts in the space adventure mode established in the 50s by sending a group of astronauts into space, accelerating deep into the future to see what they can find. The leader of the group is Taylor (Heston), who has the look and leadership skills of hero but otherwise has a pessimistic, acidically sarcastic manner. They land on a planet where walking, talking apes are the status quo and humans are a mute, primitive species that is hunted and experimented on like animals.
It’s the beginning of a waking nightmare for Taylor. After many struggles, he finds allies in chimpanzee doctor Zia (Kim Hunter) and her anthropologist husband Cornelius (Roddy McDowell). However, he is up against a lot: his ship has been destroyed, he quickly learns how cheap human life is on this strange planet and he has a formidable enemy in Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), a leader who uses his religious standing to bend the planet’s science to his own dogmatic, anti-human stance. Taylor learns the value of his humanity by having to fight for it but he will discover that this planet has other surprises in store for him.
Planet Of The Apes was an instant hit for 20th Century-Fox and the main reason for this success is how it packages its subversive elements in the grandest of thrills. Producer Arthur P. Jacobs came from an agent background and carefully assembled his production in agent style. The first element was the script, adapted from a novel by acclaimed French author Pierre Boulle. Rod Serling worked on early drafts of the script, contributing a fantastic twist ending that has an ironic, Twilight Zone-style sting, but the shooting script was prepared by Michael Wilson, who adapted Boulle’s Bridge On The River Kwai for the big screen.
The script keeps its main premise from becoming dull by shifting its story through different modes: there is space adventure, a stretch of suspense where Taylor can’t speak due to a throat injury and has to convince his captors he can speak, a courtroom drama stretch where Taylor fights for his life and an escape thriller that leads to the film’s legendary coda. The script deftly shifts through these modes, propelling its way through the changes with sharp plotting and literate, often darkly witty dialogue. Through the dialogue, it sneaks in some surprisingly subversive messages about caste systems, inhumane treatment of animals and particularly the dangers of allowing religion to dominate science.
The next part of the package was attaching Heston as a star. His marquee value was crucial to getting Hollywood to accept this unusual project. He also happens to deliver a fine, even daring performance: a few of his quotes have become pop culture memes but it’s interesting to note how daring it was for the man who played Moses and Ben Hur to play an abrasive, humanity-spurning anti-hero with a dark sense of humor. He twists his natural screen charisma in an edgy direction, selling the character’s abrasive elements with the forceful confidence of a classic leading man. In doing so, he furthers the film’s quietly subversive quality.
Once Heston was onboard, it was easier to find other quality actors – and Jacobs and the studio spent the necessary money to get them. In many ways, Hunter and McDowell are the heart of the film: despite being under makeup that obscured their familiar faces, they use their eyes and physicality to sell us on these science-minded chimpanzee humanoids as decent, open-minded characters who the audience can identify with. Similarly, Evans manages to terrorize the audience without ever resorting to familiar villainous mannerisms by making Zaius into a character who can craftily use power and social/religious mores to dominate those around him in classic authoritarian style. His ability to remain convinced of his superiority while resorting to manipulation and deceit is what makes him a chilling antagonist.
The final part of the package assembled by Jacobs is the craftsmen who brought the film to life. Franklin J. Schaffner was recommended by Heston, who directed him in the film The War Lord, and it was an inspired choice because Schaffner was able to hit the right blend of artistry and realistic elements that keep the project grounded. Schaffner directs action in a thrilling manner here – highlights include apes conducting a human hunt and a sequence where Taylor is chased through the ape city – but he’s just as skilled at making dialogue-heavy debates tense and smartly-paced. His biggest achievement is creating an ape world that feels tangible physically and is fueled by the kind of emotions and social conventions that the audience can relate to.
It’s also worth noting that Schaffner’s style is largely traditional but can throw in a dash of the avant-garde when necessary: the crash-landing of the astronauts, handled exclusively via POV photography and crafty sound design, is the best example of this. The same thing could be said for Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which mixes traditional film orchestration with experimental electronic drones and edgy percussive effects. Leon Shamroy’s cinematography plays a big role in selling the earthiness that keeps the futuristic world grounded. Most important among the director’s collaborators is John Chambers, creator the film’s groundbreaking humanoid ape makeups. They are unearthly yet instantly believable, using just enough of the actor’s face (specifically the eyes) to allow the viewer to accept them.
Simply put, Planet Of The Apes is one of the great science fiction films. It remains potent because it blends sharp, sardonic commentary on the human condition in the language of genre cinema, staying otherworldly enough to capture the audience’s attention but surrounding its sci-fi element with a credible reality that keeps them involved. By the time that infamous coda hits you, it packs a punch because the film has made you buy into its strange yet oddly relatable world.