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Ape Management Part 1: Planet of the Apes (1967)

I am a big, big fan of the original five Planet of the Apes films (released between 1967 and 1973).  They’re so marvelously ambitious and earnest and, at the same time, so laughably silly, that I’ve always held a great fondness for the series.  While all four sequels represent a steep drop in quality from the original Charlton Heston-starring film, the sequels go in such bizarre, unexpected directions, and they’re so filled with their own charmingly quirky touches, that I find an enormous amount to enjoy in all of them.  (I am not afraid to admit, gentle reader, that my enjoyment of all five of these films is assisted, and sometimes enhanced by, the consumption of generous quantities of grape-juice-plus while watching them.)  With the I-can’t-believe-it’s-really-happening arrival of a new Planet of the Apes film this summer (the ridiculously titled — and that’s saying something for this film series — Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franco), it seemed a suitable excuse to go back and revisit the five original films.  (I might re-watch Tim Burton’s 2001 Apes film — which I’ve only seen one time — as well, I haven’t decided yet.)

So let’s begin with the first and the best: the original Planet of the Apes from 1967.  Charlton Heston plays Taylor (not sure if that’s his first or last name), an astronaut who leads a deep-space mission that goes terribly awry — their ship is knocked off-course and crash-lands on a planet where Apes are the dominant species and humans are just mute savages and slaves.  (“It’s a madhouse!”)  Heston’s comrades quickly meet unfortunate ends, but Taylor himself befriends two brilliant and inquisitive chimpanzees: Zira (played by Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowell).  He also befriends (if that’s what they’re calling it these days — wakka wakka!) a beautiful human girl (played by Linda Harrison) whom he decides to name Nova.  When Taylor’s ability to speak is discovered, he is put on trial by the incredulous ape leaders (including Dr. Zaius, played by Maurice Evans) who cannot believe that a human is capable of speaking the way apes can.  Taylor is eventually freed, and despite Dr. Zaius’ warning (“Don’t look for it, Taylor!  You may not like what you find.”) sets out into the “Forbidden Zone” in order to discover how it came to be that apes took over the planet.  What he discovers brings him to his knees, and has become an indelible image in our pop-culture ever since.  Just in case you didn’t know the surprise ending of the film, it’s spoiled on the DVD box cover art.  (And just in case you missed it on the front cover, the image is on the back cover as well.  SHEESH!!)

Although there are moments that are hopelessly dated, over-all Planet of the Apes stands up as a very strong film even today.  While I love the sequels in spite of (or perhaps because of) their failings, this first film doesn’t require rose-colored (or beer-colored) glasses to enjoy.  Although the premise sounds silly (a world where apes rule man!!), the makers of Planet of the Apes set out to create an ambitious, socially-minded film.  In the tradition of the very best episodes of The Twilight Zone, the film uses a sci-fi/fantasy device to tell a story about the world today: social relations, our openness to scientific inquiry and new ideas, and more.  (It’s no surprise that the film feels like a movie-length Twilight Zone episode — and I mean that as a strong compliment — because the screenplay was co-written by Rod Serling!)  By the time the movie arrives at Taylor’s show-trial (intentionally written and staged to remind us of the Scopes Monkey trial — and boy, there are layers and layers of apes jokes/references, aren’t there?), I think any discerning viewer will understand that this film wasn’t meant to just be escapist entertainment.

But luckily for us all, such high-minded narrative ideas are all wrapped up in a rousing man-against-the-world story told on a broad canvas.  The film holds up visually quite well.  Though one might laugh, today, at the film’s depiction of an inter-stellar space-ship, it’s hard not to be impressed by the vast vistas of desert and jungle in which the film’s story is set, by the elaborate sets (including the convincing recreation of you-know-what at the end of the film), and most of all by the innovative make-up and prosthetic effects used to bring Zira, Cornelius, Dr. Zaius, and all of the other apes to life.  It’s a pretty astounding achievement.  Sure, you can quibble that the apes’ lip-movement isn’t always perfectly synched to the dialogue, but over-all the ape makeup is remarkably life-like and expressive.  They don’t exactly look like real apes, but then, they weren’t really meant to.  What’s most important is how well the performances — and the inner life and vibrancy of the actors — is able to show through all the layers of makeup and costumes.  In many respects, the ape characters like Zira, Cornelius, and Dr. Zaius are far more human than the fairly one-dimensional Taylor.

Ahh, Charlton Heston.  His gruff, cigar-chomping (even inside his space-ship!!), I-hate-the-world performance is, in some respects, the film’s weakest element — but on the other hand, it’s also one of the best things about the film!  I find myself endlessly fascinated by Heston’s mannerisms and line-delivery.  This is a movie-star whose wattage was burning bright, and he brings a lot of energy and humor (sometimes intentionally, sometimes definitely not) to the film.  Heston chews a LOT of scenery in the movie.  Obviously his beach-pounding shouting in the film’s climax is his most famous moment (“You maniacs…!”), but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  (His growled line “Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” is suitably famous, but I get even more glee listening to him bellow “It’s a madhouse!  A madhouse!!” when confronted with the reality of a society run by talking apes.)  Heston is a riot, whether he’s acting like a jackass to his fellow shipmates (mocking them for their reasons for going on the deep-space expedition) or deciding to tuck his lit cigar into his space-suit pocket before he goes into cryogenic freeze.  (Thanks goodness he did so, so he can light that cigar back up thousands of years later, when he awakens from the cryo-sleep to find himself stranded on the Planet of the Apes!)

While I can love and laugh at Charlton Heston’s over-the-top lead performance, it’s the afore-mentioned Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell who really impress.  No matter how great the makeup, it requires an incredible actor to be able to perform under layers of prosthetics and costuming, and Ms. Hunter and Mr. McDowell demonstrate that skill in spades.  Their performances are far less showy than Mr. Heston’s, so it’s easy to overlook their great work.  But somehow, they take their plastic ape faces and create wonderfully lovable, fully-realized characters.  Who’d have thought, back in 1967, that it would be these two who would anchor the sequels, rather than Charlton Heston??  But they both, quite deservedly, go on to have quite prominent roles in several of the subsequent films.

I also need to take a moment, here, to recognize Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score.  This, too, is easy to overlook, but the amazing Mr. Goldsmith (one of the finest film composers ever) created an amazing, innovative score for Planet of the Apes.  There’s some rousing chase/action music featured in the film, but what really captures my attention (especially now that I’ve seen this film several times) is his weird, atonal atmospheric music that one hears throughout the early sequences of Taylor and his team exploring the alien planet they will soon learn is ruled by apes.  There’s something wonderfully primitive and savage about the music, which also successfully amps up the dread.

“Somewhere in the universe there must be something better than man.”

There’s a lot to laugh at when re-watching Planet of the Apes these days.  But for a movie made almost 45 years ago, I think it holds up remarkably well.  And while I can have tremendous fun laughing at Charlton Heston’s speechifying (“Tell me, though,” Chuck wonders in an early-in-the-movie Captain’s Log.  “Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war with his brother?”) and his ass-kicking, while I can relish the only-in-the-’60s joy of Linda Harrison’s skimpy costume and chuckle at the silliness of everything from Talyor and co.’s space-suits (with metal back-packs) to the color-coding of the different types of apes (chimpanzees wear green, orangutans wear orange, and gorillas wear purple and black), underneath all of that the movie has a potent beating heart.  This, more than anything else (including the famous shock ending, though that certainly doesn’t hurt) have accounted for the film’s longevity.  (It’s really hard to believe that, in 2011, they’re still making new Planet of the Apes films!)

As for that famous ending, though of course it no longer plays as a surprise, it retains its power.  What was once a shocking turn of events now plays out as the inevitable, tragic confirmation of what we, the audience, knew all along.  That, as Troy McClure once sang, it turns out that (SPOILER ALERT!) “it was Earth all along,” grounds the movie in a long tradition of great speculative fiction.  And while that might be less the reason that I enjoy re-watching this movie than the divine delight of hearing Charlton Heston scream “it’s a madhouse!!”, it certainly remains a strong reason why the film has aged as well as it has.

Bring on the mutants in part two!

Zira: “What will he find out there, Doctor?”  Dr. Zaius: “His destiny.”

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