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Planet of the Apes

Planet of the Apes(1968)

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Though movies have plotted out myriad potential futures and fates for mankind, from the dire to the hopeful, it seems impossible to imagine a world in which Planet of the Apes (1968) never existed. Made for less than $6 million by 20th Century Fox in 1967 (the studio's mega-bomb Dr. Dolittle cost three times as much), Planet of the Apes returned a 600% profit on its investment and a box office smash soon became a seminal text, common ground for Manifest Destiny and the Book of Revelations. The film spawned four sequels, a network TV spinoff, a Saturday morning animated series, a 2001 remake by Tim Burton, and a franchise reboot in 2011, beginning with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. (All this is to say nothing of an obscure - at least to western eyes - Japanese miniseries/ripoff from 1974, Saru no gundan, whose episodes were cobbled together by American producer Sandy Frank for the feature Time of the Apes, later mocked/enshrined on Comedy Central's Mystery Science Theatre 3000.) The series enjoyed meaty returns as well in the form of merchandise, including (but not limited to) Halloween costumes, jigsaw puzzles, coloring books, comics, lunchboxes, board games, trading cards, action figures, and novelizations. In June 1973, all five Apes features were aired back-to-back on network TV, a broadcast event heralded by the tagline "20th Century Fox Wants You... to Go Ape."

American producer Arthur P. Jacobs was among the first to see the cinematic potential of French novelist Pierre Boulle's 1963 satire La plante des singes, published in 1964 in English as Monkey Planet. Author of the source novel for David Lean's acclaimed wartime adventure The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), for which he had recalled his experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II, Boulle plumbed those memories of time spent in a cage to inform this wildly divergent follow-up, which posited a dystopian future with intelligent simians in the catbird seat until a 20th Century astronaut appears, An American Yankee in King Arthur's Court-style, to screw up the Bell curve. Though Fox had resisted Jacobs' pitch initially, the studio ultimately relented, allowing him to pay Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling to bang out a screenplay. (Serling's involvement predated that of Jacobs, who had bought the option from Pink Panther director Blake Edwards and replaced him with Franklin J. Schaffner.) Faithful to Boulle's vision of a technically superior ape world, Serling's script was deemed too expensive and rewritten by Bridge on the River Kwai alumnus Michael Wilson, who recast the plot in a quasi-primitive, more cost effective setting. Script doctor John T. Kelley was brought in to brush up dialogue; though he went uncredited, the finished film ended with one of Kelley's contributions, at the time the most profane epitaph ever spoken by the protagonist of a Hollywood feature.

On board early in the genesis of Planet of the Apes was Charlton Heston, who signed on after Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, and Rock Hudson passed on the project - no doubt skittish about starring in a feature reliant on potentially risible monkey makeup. To sell the concept to Fox, Heston agreed to the shooting of a screen test, in which he played human astronaut Thomas (later Taylor) alongside Edward G. Robinson, sporting a prototype of John Chambers' soon-to-be-immortal ape makeup, as orangutan antagonist Dr. Zaius. However make-do the makeup may seem to modern eyes, the test was persuasive and Planet of the Apes went before the cameras in May 1967, with Maurice Evans playing Zaius (Robinson having demurred due to age) and with Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter added to the cast as chimpanzee scientists sympathetic to the plight of Heston's displaced voyager. (Though Jacobs had attempted to snag both Raquel Welch and Ursula Andress to play Nova, a 26th Century human primitive who becomes Heston's mute companion and helpmeet, he eventually filled the role with Fox president Richard Zanuck's girlfriend, Linda Harrison.) The timing of the film's spring 1968 release could not have been more providential, laying in the lap of American moviegoers a parable about race relations only a week before the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King.

Its trendsetting makeup (and Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar nominated score) notwithstanding, Planet of the Apes endured in pop culture thanks to the bleakness of its final frames, which reveal Heston to have landed not on some alien terra but on earth itself, long ago laid waste by atomic war and repopulated in the absence of "something better than man" by the species' simian forebears (a plot point, it bears mentioning, first broached in a throwaway line from Robert Sherwood's 1935 play The Petrified Forest). The film's use of the Statue of Liberty, glimpsed as a mossy Ozymandian ruin, was original not to Boulle but to a Serling draft while the employment of this image as (to quote writer David Holowka) a "dipstick of the Apocalypse" could be found in previous years on the covers of Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, Fantastic Universe, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, as well as gracing the frontispiece of John Bowen's 1958 cataclysmic chronicle After the Rain. In the near half century since Planet of the Apes, the New York landmark has been laid low in similar fashion in such films as Independence Day (1996), Deep Impact (1998), A.I. (2001), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Children of Men (2006), and Cloverfield (2008), which sends the statue's severed head rolling through midtown Manhattan - proving, if nothing else, Planet of the Apes' stinging moral that what goes around sure does come around.

By Richard Harland Smith


Planet of the Apes Revisited: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of the Classic Science Fiction Saga by Joe Russo and Larry Landsman, with Edward Gross (MacMillian, 2001)
Timeline of the Planet of the Apes: The Definitive Chronology by Rich Handley (Hasslein Books, 2009)
Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race and Politics in the Films and Television Series by Eric Greene (McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1996)
ArchiTakes: On Architecture in New York and Beyond,
Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff by Patrick McGilligan (MacMillan, 1989)

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