Stone Classics: PLANET OF THE APES (1968).

Posted: July 12, 2011 in Apes, Classics, Movies (P), Sci-Fi

 

Film Forum has an all-new 35mm print of Planet Of The Apes which is screening all this week. It’s a classic and the important kind of classic, and though I don’t return to it all that often, you can be sure I have some thoughts about it. Here are some:

What do you say about 1968’s Planet Of The Apes? Is there a single canny observation to make about it that a more prominent film writer hasn’t already made? Is there a single silly joke to make that an Emmy-winning Simpsons writer hasn’t already made?  Probably not, but I haven’t tried as of yet, and seeing as how my website betrays a profound love of monkeys and great apes, it seems like an oversight that ought be remedied.

The first Planet Of The Apes movie was the kind of success that achieved widespread cultural awareness, sparking a series of four (!) sequels throughout the 1970s, prompted a misguided remake from a great director in 2001, and now in 2011, is headed for a square-one re-imagining from a far-lesser-known director.  What does Planet of The Apes mean to so many people?

Well I can start by admitting what it means to me.  Planet Of The Apes scared me as a kid, when I would catch it replayed on Channel 5 on Saturday afternoons. It’s a science-fiction action epic and an allegory, not a horror movie, but try telling that to me at the age of seven or eight.  There’s something so eerie about the way the movie is set up, how the trio of lost astronauts land on the titular planet and make their way through an ominously unpopulated landscape, and there’s something so uniquely bizarre and frightening about that first entrance of an armored ape soldier on horseback, accompanied as it is by the blaring, trumpet-heavy score by the great Jerry Goldsmith. The fact that, sure, by today’s standards the then-revolutionary effects designed by John Chambers now look somewhat remedial, and the scarcely-movable ape faces would never be acceptable in today’s more advanced computer-aided effects climate. But when you’re as young as I was when I first saw Planet Of The Apes, you’re still working to parse the difference between life-reality and movie-reality, and there’s no cynic alive who can persuade me that the ape arrival isn’t a startling, indelible movie moment.

There’s so much else that’s striking about this movie, which has elements which are better than you even remember or expect.  It was written by Academy-Award-winning screenwriter Michael Wilson and Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling (who’s responsible for the brilliant twist ending), from a novel called Monkey Planet by Pierre Boulle.   The director, Franklin J. Schaffner, also made Patton and Papillon but those don’t exactly prepare you for this strange, brilliant beast of a film, which is so odd and yet so effective.

There’s the typically outsized lead performance by Charlton Heston, never much more of an actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger, the star who most often wins comparison, but like Schwarzenegger, Heston is one of the few movie stars whose heightened presence makes an outlandish premise seem more believable just by the nature of their obvious commitment to it.  (He did it again three years later, in The Omega Man.) It’s a backhanded compliment, but it’s still a compliment:  It’s hard to imagine this movie working for an audience with any other movie star.  There are plenty of movie stars of that era who I love more — Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes — but I can’t see any of them stepping into Heston’s sandals. You don’t want a naturalistic actor in a role like this:  Notice how the more authentically human Mark Wahlberg brought down the energy in Tim Burton’s remake.  Wahlberg was unable or unwilling to rise to the levels of hysteria and histrionics that a movie about talking apes probably requires.  If he had, this is probably what would have resulted.  Well, that or The Happening.

There are less pretentious pleasures to be watched also, foremost among them the spectacle of a cheering ape army, and of course, Linda Harrison as Nova, the voiceless slave girl who Heston’s Taylor is thrown into a cage alongside, so that ape scientists can observe them mating.  No pressure.  It can’t be ideal conditions for maintaining the urge to procreate while you’re dressed in a loincloth, rolling in dirt, and being poked and prodded by chimpanzee scientists.  This helps.

 

 

There’s probably some socio-political subtext to the fact that the primary human female role in the movie says nothing and looks pretty, but that’s just one more layer of subtext to a heavily loaded film.  Frankly there’s nothing apolitical about a movie with imagery this easily misinterpreted to arrive during the racially-combustible 1960s (not for nothing does the lone African-American character, Dodge, suffer the fate he does), but that’s not even the main concern of the film:  The real meat-and-potatoes comes in when the few sympathetic apes (the scientists) come into ideological conflict with the ape establishment (the politicians) who are whipped into a persecution-minded fervor by a villainous few — namely the obstinate and duplicitous Doctor Zaius (Maurice Evans).

Hey, am I the only one who always thought Doctor Zaius looked a whole lot like Moe Howard?

 

That’s distracting from my point, though, which is about the eternal debate between forward-thinking science and status-quo-maintaining entrenched thinking.  And I do mean debate:  There are long political arguments in this film, much more idea-heavy dialogue than a movie about warrior monkeys could ever be expected to have.  The first Planet Of The Apes movie is nothing less than a metaphor for the struggle of men of science against the prevailing thinking of the masses, like Gallileo’s being condemned as a heretic by the Church of Rome, or advocates of stem-cell research being derailed by the Bush administration.  The only difference between this movie-world and ours is that on the Planet Of The Apes, the religious zealots like to fling their own poop.

The fact that this most ridiculous of premises sparked an ongoing-to-this-day sci-fi franchise, while even more improbably, serving as a vehicle for serious political debate and philosophical allegory, makes Planet Of The Apes an absolute moviegoing necessity.  Thanks to Film Forum’s revival this week, this is the time to do it.

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