Thursday, July 7, 2011

Planet of the Apes (1968): A Review


The Planet of the Apes Retrospective

Simian Says...

A measure of how good a film is could be by how long it remains within the public consciousness.  One could also see how one film inspires a whole industry of sequels, remakes, prequels, television spinoffs, comics, and merchandising.  Using either of those standards, Planet of the Apes is indeed a great film.   However, Planet of the Apes is a great film in both the story it tells and a brilliant example of how science-fiction can serve as allegory for the times. 

In the distant future, four astronauts have left Earth, travelling at the speed of light.  The leader is Taylor (Charlton Heston), a bitter misanthrope joyful to have left a world in chaos.  Also in the expedition is Dodge (Jeff Burton), a generally quiet astronaut, and Landon (Robert Gunner), who is more optimistic about the world than Taylor is.  A third astronaut, the beautiful female Stewart, (Dianne Stanley) has died before they crash onto a strange world.

The three surviving astronauts explore this strange new world, and just before they run out of supplies they discover a bountiful harvest and lush waterfall.  However, they are not alone: there are also mute humanoids who appear uncivilized.  However, both groups are given a rude awakening: they, along with the humanoids, begin to get hunted down, and Taylor sees who is doing the hunting; to his horror, he sees they are being hunted by APES! Apes on horses, and with guns.  In the chase, the travelers are separated and Taylor is captured, but he's shot in the neck, damaging his ability to speak.

In the Ape City, Taylor attracts the attention of Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter), a chimpanzee and animal specialist who becomes fascinated by the human she calls Bright Eyes.  He appears to be a more advanced human than normal.  Taylor, for his part, is desperate to escape and is becoming attracted to another human he named Nova (Linda Harrison).  The leaders of the Ape world, the aristocratic orangutans, look down on both other apes and on human studies.  The Minister of Science, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), would sooner see all humans exterminated and only grudgingly permits the work of both Dr. Zira and her fiance, Dr. Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), an archaeologist who believes that a pre-Simian culture existed, and more blasphemous, that apes evolved from humans. 

Taylor soon makes it clear to Zira that he can write, but Dr. Zaius is determined to neutralize this unusual human.  In a desperate bid for freedom, Taylor makes a daring daylight escape, but is capture.  However, by this time his voice has recovered, and he utters one of the most famous lines in film: 
"Take your sticking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!"
stunning all the apes.

In a hearing, it is decided the chimps will be charged with heresy and Taylor turned over to Dr. Zaius.  He fears Taylor, believing him a member of an unknown human group on the planet rather than a space traveler.  Zaius demands to know where 'others of his kind' are, and gives him six hours before Zaius cuts into him.  With the aide of Zira and Cornelius, Taylor and Nova escape back into the Forbidden Zone, but they are pursued by Zaius and the gorilla army.  Despite being shown evidence of the pre-Simian civilization, Zauis will not bend: humans are a menace and must be destroyed.  Taylor takes Zauis hostage, bargaining for his and Nova's freedom.  After they leave, Zauis destroys the evidence of 'evolution', and Taylor makes one of the most shocking and horrifying discoveries in film history as to the truth of The Planet of the Apes.

I have long argued that a good science-fiction film works on two levels: as a straightforward adventure story and as an allegory on social issues.   Planet of the Apes works so well on both levels that it can be appreciated on one without shortchanging the other.  If we take Planet of the Apes on face value, it is a thrilling adventure story of a man caught in a world where mankind is not the dominant species, where his uniqueness puts him in grave danger, and where monkeys can talk. 

On a more intellectual level, Planet of the Apes is at times both commentary and even satire on the late-1960's world.  One aspect of Planet of the Apes which kept escaping me until now was how the film subtly addresses the issue of race.

In this Simian world, the apes at the apex of society are the orangutans: they are the leaders in politics and religion who are clearly to be obeyed.  After them come the chimpanzees, who are intellectuals and scientists but do not have power, not even shared, and they are somewhere beneath the orangutans but above another group.  At the lowest rung of society are the gorillas: the soldiers and the menial workers.

It isn't until recently that I realized that the orangutans were the lightest apes in terms of skin tone while the gorillas were the darkest.  While not openly stating things about the power structure in America, it is more than coincidence that the "whitest" group held power while the "blackest" group served to do the most basic. 

Planet of the Apes also addresses the explosive issue of faith versus science.  Throughout the film, there is a struggle between the more scientific theories of the chimps and the faith-based thinking of the orangutans.  The entire trial of whether Taylor is human as the apes understand human to be puts these two views in conflict, almost like a parody of the Scopes "monkey" trial.  Even here, within the search to whether apes evolved from man, we get great commentary.  When asked to state why The Lawgiver, the Ape version of God, created all apes equal, Taylor wisely retorts, "It seems some apes are more equal than others". 

However, all these deep thoughts are couched within an exciting tale of a cynical man who finds that he does indeed need humanity, or at least one human.  Taylor is almost always on the run, attempting to escape this mad world he finds himself trapped in.  The audience will naturally identify with Taylor, and thus we are also on the run from his pursuers. 

It was an incredibly shrewd move to cast Charlton Heston as Taylor.  While watching Planet of the Apes I thought that with the exception of John Wayne few actors have projected American strength as well and as often as Heston.  This is the man who has played Moses, Judah Ben-Hur, Andrew Jackson, Michelangelo: titans of power who win great battles militarily or artistically.  As Taylor, the audience sees another side of Heston and no, I'm not referring to his backside in his first nude scene.

Unlike any previous role, Heston is powerless, weak, incapable of overcoming with just his strength.  His performance is that of a man totally stripped of power and having no power except to rage at his weakness.  However, some of his best scenes are with Harrison.  He has to carry the dialogue for both of them, and he is able to convey his growing need for the human contact he's so casually rejected before.

We also have some brilliant performances from McDowall and Hunter as Cornelius and Zira.  In another curious commentary on the times, it is the female Zira who is the more dominant of the two and the male Cornelius who is more hesitant to take on authority.  Both of them have the added difficulty in having to act while wearing heavy ape make-up, and the fact that they can still project such things as love, anger, and fear while encased in it is a credit to their skills as actors.

Both of them never appear to make light of the premise but behave in Planet of the Apes as though humans be the inferior species is the natural order of things.  Both characters are given a desire for truth and knowledge that are easily relate able to us.  Evans, best known as a Shakespearean actor, gives Dr. Zaius range: he isn't a straight-up villain who just wants to get rid of Taylor, but an ape who has motivation for fearing the rise of man.  In fact, his character is one who knows the entire truth and in his way is doing all he can to spare all involved from the ramifications of discovering the truth.

Director Franklin Schaffer does a wonderful job not just in directing the actor's performances right down to having all the apes move in a more ape-like manner, but in holding back information, of trusting that the audience will be able to keep up with him.  For example, the film spends I'd say a good fifteen to twenty minutes building up this strange new world the astronauts find themselves in, and it is done so well that we become engrossed in the story along with them.  Therefore, when we discover we are in a planet of apes, it still comes as a thorough shock to discover this world is run by them.  Throughout Planet of the Apes, Schaffer keeps holding back information such as the fates of Dodge and Landon, that when we get the next twist, we keep being surprised.

The biggest surprise comes at the end in one of the greatest endings in film.  We are given faint hints only at the very end, but when we do see the ending, it still stuns us because of all we've seen.  I have long held that the ending of Planet of the Apes is not just a great twist ending, but also one of the most horrifying ones in film history.  Realizing the truth, I think the audience reaction is between Taylor's and Nova's.  The latter, a simple mute human who has fallen in love with Taylor, can only stare in fear and confusion at what has set Taylor off.  Taylor can only rage at the realization of the truth.

What makes this last moment even more powerful is the lack of music.  It allows us to absorb the full shock of all that we've witnessed and what we are witnessing just before the credits roll.   It was a deliberately wise move to not have music emphasize this scene because we don't need anything to underscore it: the visual is enough.  That isn't to say that Jerry Goldsmith's score isn't important.  Far from it: his music for Planet of the Apes is one of the film's greatest assets.

From the beginning of the film, Goldsmith's score sets a strange, otherworldly feel, both familiar and exotic.  It might be my imagination, but the music sounded highly influenced by Igor Stravinsky.  I don't know if his music was influential, but there was a dissonance to the score that added to the bizarre setting.  In some of the most important points such as when Taylor is making a daring escape or when we see the rulers of this planet for the first time, the score enhances the chaos of the story. 

The script, co-written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, provides moments of excitement (as when Taylor tries to flee) of romance (especially well-written considering that Nova is mute), and even comedy.  One of the lightest moments in Planet of the Apes is at the trial, when the three orangutans refuse to hear, see, or speak to the heresies Taylor's existence confronts them with.  It might be cliché but is still remarkably effective and funny.

I would be remiss if I did not mention of the hallmarks of Planet of the Apes: John Chambers' brilliant make-up work.  The looks of the apes is so convincing and realistic that it makes accepting the premise that much easier.  The orangutans and chimpanzees and gorillas look so amazingly realistic it becomes completely believable that they do talk.  Chambers rightly deserved the Honorary Oscar he was awared for his make-up work. 

I can say that regardless of how many times I see Planet of the Apes, the film continues to surprise me.  It surprises me with its twists and turns even though I already know what is going to happen, because I am always so caught up in the story that I forget I've seen it before.   It surprises me by the wit it has in addressing issues still relevant today: man's inhumanity to man and beast, the fear of 'the other' and how the fear leads to misery, how unfortunately we behave like beasts or hold ourselves better than those who are more like us than are different.

Planet of the Apes is a brilliant science-fiction adventure story.  It's also a brilliant film about at times we are not as humane as humans should be. 


Next Planet of the Apes film: Beneath Planet of the Apes

Comparison Between 1968 and 2001 Planet of the Apes

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