The movie with the iconic ending where Charlton Heston damns them to hell, the original “Planet of the Apes” (1968) was one of the first science-fiction franchises of the second half of the 20th century. It started with one movie featuring talking apes and then spawned four sequels, two TV series, a Tim Burton remake and then a re-energized prequel with the ever-versatile James Franco. Not bad for a film with a very Z-movie concept and a Twilight Zone ending.
Seeing the original Franklin J. Schaffner version for the first time was like seeing a dusty old blueprint for a building I had seen many times before. I had seen the Tim Burton remake while living in Peru, and while there I also saw one of the sequels, “Escape from the Planet of the Apes,” on TV. Unfortunately, I had also already seen the big twist ending of the original movie when the American Film Institute did one of their specials on great movies. They should really stop giving the ending away when they re-examine a film like that. Still, when the film played on TV in 2011 I thought I might as well watch it since the prequel was coming out in a few weeks. Actually the night before Freida Pinto was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to talk about “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” so it all fitted quite nicely.
The original story, whether or not it will end up being integrated in the new franchise, dealt with three astronauts who are lost in space. George Taylor (Heston) notices the time difference between their place in space and Earth is of several thousand light years, meaning if they were to ever make it back home, everyone they know would be long gone. He accepts this graciously as he is a cynic who never had any love for the world he left behind. Landon (Robert Gunner) the second crewman is a believer in their exploration mission and rejects Taylor’s bleak view. When the ship crash-lands on an unknown planet, he plants a tiny American flag on a beach, eliciting raucous laughter from Taylor. The third crewman Dodge (Jeff Burton) gets a lot less development being the only black character in a 1960s film. In fact, when the apes show up he is the first one to be killed.
The apparition of the intelligent apes is a slow reveal, preceded by the three astronauts exploring what appears to be a deserted landscape. Yet there are disquieting signs something is amiss, as they find strange figures posted in the wilderness like a warning sign. They should have listened. After encountering a group of primitive human beings, the astronauts are hunted by horse riding apes who ensnare them with nets like wild animals.
In a world where apes are the intelligent species and humans are held in cages, Taylor ends up in zoo to be studied by scientists Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall). Impressed by his intelligence, they are even more shocked when Taylor escapes and roars the iconic line “Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!” This sends deep repercussions in the apes’ belief system. To them the idea that a human could be intelligent contradicts everything they ever thought to be true. Their outrage reminded me of the reaction religious fundamentalists have when confronted by the theory of evolution.
The film’s primary antagonist is Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans) a true believer in the idea that only apes were ever the dominant species. He does everything he can to ensure Taylor is silenced, as though he as something to hide. Yet once Taylor gets his hands on a gun, he manages to get the upper hand and go after whatever deep dark secret Zaius is hiding. The way a gun gives Taylor power over his jailers possibly heralds Heston’s love of firearms.
The original “Planet of the Apes” touched on some deep issues such as evolution, science, belief and religion. Heston gives a strong performance throughout, despite having to spend most of the movie dressed like Tarzan. A lot of credit must also go to the makeup by John Chambers and all the actors who had to endure it. In the most recent entry of the Apes franchise, actors like Andy Serkis had to wear motion-capture suits in a studio to play the apes, but back in the 60s actors were buried under layers of makeup and had to perform in the hot sun while riding horses. It may look dated today, but it should still be recognized as brilliant work.
As for that twist ending, it’s still a mind-blowing moment, even if you know it’s coming.