Skip to main content

Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #350: Planet of the Apes


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.  

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #77: Spartacus

Spartacus (1960) is an interesting movie in Stanley Kubrick's filmography because it doesn’t really feel like a Stanley Kubrick movie. I don’t exactly know why, but his signature style doesn’t seem to be present unlike in classics such as The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, or Dr. Strangelove. It does however feel like one of those big sword-and-sandals epics in which you have British thespians acting as Roman politicians with the occasional big battle sequence. In that respect it is spectacular and features Kirk Douglas at his best as the titular hero.
The story of the rebel slave Spartacus has inspired a bloody and sexy TV series (so far unseen by me, but I hear it’s great) and the story behind how it was made is one of those cases of life imitating art. The Bryan Cranston film Trumbo tells how screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted in Hollywood during the 1950s for his communist beliefs and had to rebel against the system by writing screenplays for cheap movies under a fake nam…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #79: The Thin Red Line

I once saw an interview in which Christopher Plummer said that what Terrence Malick needs is a writer. He was referring to his experience shooting The New World, which saw his role considerably reduced. The same happened to a much greater extent with Malick’s war movie The Thin Red Line (1998), which saw the screen time of many movie stars reduced to mere minutes amid a 170-minute running time. However you have to hand it to the guy: he knows how to make anything look beautiful, including the carnage of war.
Malick’s movie came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan, so I think that year I had my fill of ultra violent war films and was no too interested in seeing it. Sixteen years later I finally caught up to it on Netflix, but in hindsight the big screen might have been a better option since this is a very visual story. The plot is pretty loose, following one American soldier and sometimes some of his brothers in arms as they make their way through World War II in the Pacific theat…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #85: Blue Velvet

Exactly how do you describe a David Lynch movie? He is one of the few directors whose style is so distinctive that his last name has become an adjective. According to Urban Dictionary, the definition of Lynchian is: “having the same balance between the macabre and the mundane found in the works of filmmaker David Lynch.” To see a prime example of that adjective film lovers need look no further than Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), which does indeed begin in the mundane before slowly sinking in macabre violence.
My first introduction to the world of David Lynch was through his ground breaking, but unfortunately interrupted, early 1990s TV series Twin Peaks. This was one of the first television shows to grab viewers with a series-long mystery: who killed Laura Palmer? A mix of soap opera, police procedural, and the supernatural, it is a unique show that showed the darkness hidden in suburbia and remains influential to this day. Featuring Kyle MacLachlan as an FBI investigator with a love for …