A powerfully entertaining parable set in a seminal science fiction classic
Great movies often expose aspects of humanity in fresh and timeless ways, and one spectacular example is the groundbreaking 1968 science fiction film “Planet of the Apes”. This supremely entertaining sci-fi fantasy serves as a potent parable about society that still reverberates with shocking relevance. An enormous box-office and critical success, it was nominated for two Academy Awards, awarded an Honorary Oscar, and named by the American Film Institute (AFI) the 59th Most Thrilling American Film of All-Time. A pop culture phenomenon and one of Hollywood’s most influential and imaginative sci-fi films, it has attained cult status. I first saw “Planet of the Apes” rereleased in a movie theater as a kid and still remember the profound impact it made on me (particularly its surprise ending). Rewatching it years later, I realize how exceptionally thought-provoking the film is, and that it presents a chilling statement about our current state of affairs. It's also a really great movie.
As the film begins we find the skipper of a US space ship, “George Taylor”, recording a voice entry into his ship’s log. He and three shipmates have traveled light years from earth, and he has no regrets leaving the 20th century and asks himself, “Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?”. He then goes back into suspended animation and wakes up a light year later as their ship crash-lands in a lake on a seemingly barren, unknown planet which he calculates to be in orbit around a star in the constellation of Orion, 320 light years from earth. As they search for food and signs of life, they come across prehistoric, nonspeaking humans eating in a cornfield. They are all suddenly under attack, and in the scramble, "Taylor" gets separated from his crew mates and shot in the neck, rendering him temporarily unable to speak. The attackers turn out to be articulate apes.
"Taylor" has landed in a world where the evolutionary pecking order has been reversed, with apes at the top and humans at the very bottom. Because "Taylor" was found wearing unusual clothing, two chimpanzees take an interest in him, “Dr. Zira” and “Dr. Cornelius”. “Zira” is an animal psychologist who studies the cerebral actions of humans, and her fiancé “Cornelius” is an archeologist who has discovered traces of a culture older than recorded time and has a theory that apes evolved from a lower order of primate, possibly humans. Their superior, an orangutan named “Dr. Zaius”, wants "Taylor" out of the way, stating: “That we can learn anything about the simian nature from a study of man is sheer nonsense. Besides, man is a nuisance. He eats up his food supplies in the forest then migrates to our green belt and ravages our crops. The sooner he is exterminated the better. It’s a question of simian survival”. The remainder of the film becomes “Taylor’s” struggle to survive. “Planet of the Apes” is filled with action, fun, suspense, and lots of surprises – to the point that the less said the better. If you haven’t seen the film, do not read the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section until after you’ve seen the film - it will spoil it.
“Planet of the Apes” does what great science-fiction films do best. It uses science and fantasy to create an alternate world in which we see ourselves through new eyes. The apes mirror human society, and while the film is pure sci-fi fun, underneath is a very clever disguise of the turbulent issues faced by audiences of the late 1960s (such as anti-Vietnam War protests, race riots, the Cold War, antiestablishment culture, and space exploration), yet somehow it seems written to reflect the issues of today.
The apes have their own government and blindly follow religious doctrines they call the Articles of Faith, found in 1,200 year old Sacred Scrolls. The first Article of Faith states that the Almighty created the ape in His own image and gave them a soul and a mind, set him apart from the beasts of the jungle, and made him the lord of the planet. Even so, we soon find there’s a simian caste system, with the orange colored orangutans at the top, chimpanzees below them, and the dark skinned gorillas at the bottom.
Apes see and treat humans the way we treat animals – as unsophisticated creatures to be collared, leashed, caged, bred, killed for sport, and experimented upon. Having ape culture so closely mimic our own, cleverly makes it easy for us to see ourselves objectively. As such, the film makes biting and satirical comments about topics such as prejudice, the treatment of animals, government deception, greed, and the contradiction between science and religion. Part of why this film works so well is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously and as a result, its social commentary never gets in the way of its riveting entertainment.
This film was based on a 1963 French novel “La Planète des Singes” (“Planet of the Apes”) by Pierre Boulle. In 1964, Hollywood press agent turned film producer Arthur P. Jacobs obtained the film rights. Realizing the film’s potential, he approached acclaimed writer Rod Serling to adapt the book into a screenplay. Serling had created the sci-fi TV series “The Twilight Zone”, and was known for writing stories that touched upon social and political issues in unusual, entertaining, and often surprising ways. Serling’s final script closely followed Boulle’s book, though he significantly changed the ending. Realizing he needed a star attached to the film to get financing, Jacobs approached Charlton Heston to play “George Taylor”, who accepted. Heston in turn suggest they hire director Franklin J. Schaffner, with whom he had previously made “The War Lord”. Schaffner accepted.
Even with a top star and director already secured, Jacobs had trouble finding a studio to finance the film because of worries that talking apes would look ridiculous. Finally, Richard Zanuck of Twentieth Century-Fox said Fox would pay for a makeup test, and if it was successful and the film’s budget could lower, he would green-light the film. Legendary makeup artist Ben Nye did a makeup screen-test with Heston opposite Edward G. Robinson (as orangutan “Zaius”), and James Brolin and Linda Harrison (as chimpanzees “Cornelius” and “Zira”). The makeup was successful enough for Zanuck to give the go-ahead.
Not entirely content with Serling’s draft (and to get costs down), Jacobs enlisted screenwriter Michael Wilson to rethink the script. Wilson had won a Best Screenplay Oscar for the 1951 classic film “A Place in the Sun” before being blacklisted during the McCarthy Era (which I explain in my “High Noon” post). While blacklisted, Wilson continued to write screenplays with no credit or under a pseudonym, including the screenplay for Boulle’s previous novel, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, which won him a Best Screenplay Oscar (posthumously awarded in 1984 due to his being blacklisted). You can read a bit more about both Pierre Boulle and Michael Wilson in my post on “The Bridge on the River Kwai”.
A major change Wilson made from Serling’s script was to shift the ape city from high-tech to futuristic-primitive. That alone lowered the budget. Wilson also simplified the story and made it a bit more political, adding social statements about class, prejudice, and the hypocrisies of society. His experience being blacklisted and testifying before HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) is certainly echoed in the scene when “Taylor” is deposed before the tribunal of three orangutans. He is degraded and silenced, and it is clear that the orangutans want nothing of the truth (as they humorously take the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” pose).
Even with a first-rate script, Jacobs knew makeup was key to the film’s success. By no means could the apes look laughable. Nye called fellow makeup artist John Chambers to the rescue. The perfect candidate for the job, Chambers had worked as a US Army dental technician during WWII and later created prosthetic limbs and repaired the faces of wounded veterans before arriving in Hollywood. For this film, he experimented for four months until he created makeup that allowed an actor’s face to emote. Rather than a mask he created three or four applications (forehead, nose, chin, and/or modified cheeks) to be applied to an actor’s face and work in unison with their facial muscles. He made perfectly fitted applications from life masks for every actor who played an ape in the film. The only exception were some of the gorillas. Since gorillas were so numerous and predominantly seen in the background, unless they were featured, they wore pullover masks.
A labor intensive feat, Chambers and his teams often worked around the clock. He designed applications for over 200 actors, and brand-new applications had to be applied to principal actors every day. He trained and oversaw no less than eighty makeup artists plus a team of hair specialists who created wigs, sideburns, and hair around the ape’s faces and hands. They formed what was like a hair and makeup assembly line, though all principal actors had their own assigned makeup person.
To keep the look of the apes top secret, the set was closed, forbidding anyone in an ape costume from leaving, including eating at the commissary for lunch (they had their own area in which to eat). Actors had to eat in front of mirrors to make sure they didn’t harm their makeup, and were encouraged to eat only soft foods such as shakes through straws that were provided, since chewing would make the chin applications come apart. Those who smoked were given extra-long holders for their cigarettes. Initially, it took 5 - 6 hours to make-up one actor, but over time it was reduced to about 3 ½ - 4 hours. To achieve correct skin tones, Chambers used airbrush on rubber for the first time. The makeup budget alone rose to $1 million.
It was money well spent and proved a breakthrough in makeup. Chambers broke new ground by allowing actors to express visible emotions while wearing full special effects makeup - something never seen before. Apes seemed like feeling, living, real individuals with whom the audience could empathize and relate. As a result, for his work on "Planet of the Apes", John Chambers was awarded an Honorary Academy Award for his outstanding makeup achievement. Only one prior Oscar was ever awarded for makeup to William J. Tuttle for the 1964 film "7 Faces of Dr. Lao” (the official Best Makeup and Hairstyling Oscar category wasn't created until 1981). Chambers' trailblazing inventions on this film still serve as the basis for how special effects makeup is done today.
John Chambers first began working as a makeup artist for television in 1953, and then in movies starting with 1956's"Around the World in Eighty Days". He earned four Emmy Award nominations during his career, and the TV shows he worked on include "The Outer Limits”, "The Munsters", "Lost in Space", and "Star Trek” (he created "Spock's" famous Vulcan ears). Chambers worked on all four “Planet of the Apes” sequels, and some of his other films include "The Island of Dr. Moreau", "Jaws", "Halloween II”, and "Blade Runner”. In the late 1970s, he created disguise kits for the CIA, and in 1980 helped the CIA rescue American embassy personnel during the Iran hostage crisis (depicted in the 2012 film "Argo", with John Goodman playing Chambers). He was married once, for just over 50 years until his death. John Chambers died in 2001 at the age of 78.
“Planet of the Apes” was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, whose vision keeps the film suspenseful and exciting. He employs many point-of-view shots from the perspectives of both “Taylor” and the apes, helping the audience empathize with both. His camera angles and edits keep the film moving at a breakneck pace, always with arresting visuals. A leading director of TV dramas since 1949 (on such shows as "Studio One", "The Ford Theatre Hour" and “Playhouse 90”), Schaffner was among the first to move the stationary television camera, and he formed a keen visual sense from his years directing TV. He directed television until 1967, earning four Emmy Awards for his work (three as Director and one as producer). "Planet of the Apes" was his sixth film and finest big-screen achievement to date. He reached his cinematic peak with his next film, the 1970 Best Picture Oscar winner "Patton", earning him a Best Director Academy Award (his only). Schaffner directed just eight more films before his death, including "Papillon", "The Boys from Brazil", "Nicholas and Alexandra", and his final film "Welcome Home" in 1989. His earlier films include "The Stripper", "The Good Years", and "The War Lord”. Schaffner was known to have a great sense of humor (which can be seen in his work) and was very well liked. He was married once for forty years until his death. Franklin J. Schaffner died in 1989 at the age of 69.
The brilliantly cast Charlton Heston stars as "George Taylor". A movie star known for playing heroes and virtuous characters (such as Moses, Michelangelo, John the Baptist, El Cid Rodrigo de Vivar, and “Judah Ben-Hur”), Heston had seemingly come to symbolize the history and strength of the civilized world. “Taylor” on the other hand is cynical, arrogant, more antihero than hero, and on this space mission because he felt life on Earth was meaningless and despised people. Once on the ape planet, "Taylor" is reduced to an animal, stripped of his dignity, his freedom, credibility, clothes, and even temporarily of his voice. Having Heston play a character who turns his back on humanity and then becomes its sole defender was a stroke of genius. His larger-than-life persona adds a gravitas that elevates the film’s societal and political messages about humanity. As is often the case, Heston’s acting can be a bit over the top, but it only adds to the film’s excitement and fun. Iconic lines like “It’s a madhouse!” become a humorously chilling last-ditch cry for a dying society. Because Heston takes it all so seriously, we feel for his predicament. Against the producer’s wishes, Heston pushed to keep his nude scenes in the film, feeling they were more realistic (he reportedly loved showing off his body in his films). “Planet of the Apes” was such a resounding success, it became his most successful film since the blockbuster "Ben-Hur", nearly a decade earlier. It also launched a new trend in sci-fi films, a few of which starred Heston including "The Omega Man” and "Soylent Green”. He reprised the role of “Taylor” in the 1970 sequel "Beneath the Planet of the Apes", and made an uncredited appearance as the ape "Zaius" in a 2001 "Planet of the Apes" remake. You can read more about the life and career of Charlton Heston in my post on “Ben-Hur”.
Roddy McDowall plays chimpanzee “Dr. Cornelius”, a somewhat cowardly archeologist who thinks apes may have evolved from humans. An unorthodox theory which the orangutans call heresy, “Cornelius” is cautious, though with “Zira’s” support, does what's needed to try to prove his hypothesis and help “Taylor” survive. McDowall’s emotions completely translate through the makeup, making “Cornelius” a captivating character. Jacobs offered McDowall (a former Hollywood child star and established character actor) the part of “Cornelius” while the two were on an airplane. To prepare for the role, McDowall studied chimpanzees at the San Diego Zoo. “Cornelius” turned out to be the role for which is most remembered, and he also appears as “Cornelius” in the film's third sequel, 1971's"Escape from the Planet of the Apes", and as "Caesar" (the son of "Cornelius" and "Zira") in the final two sequels (1972's "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" and 1973's "Battle for the Planet of the Apes"). He also starred in the 1974 "Planet of the Apes" TV series. Because the makeup would take so many hours, McDowall would often sleep while it was being applied. For some reason, he had an aversion to the hairy hands. He would eat just before his makeup was finished, and not eat solid food the rest of the day. An accomplished photographer, McDowall took movies of himself having his makeup applied. If interested, you can watch the thirteen minute film HERE on YouTube. At the end is footage he took in a helicopter flying to the film's Malibu location, followed by footage on the set with his costars and director. You can read more about the life and career of Roddy McDowall in my post on the film that first made him a star, “How Green Was My Valley”.
Kim Hunter plays “Dr. Zira”, the compassionate chimpanzee who studies human brains in order to learn more about apes. Along with “Cornelius”, she is in danger of being convicted of scientific heresy, though “Zira” stands up bravely in the name of truth. Hunter shows a caring warmth to both “Cornelius” and “Taylor” that makes her completely endearing. Like McDowall, she studied chimpanzees (at the Bronx Zoo) to see how they moved and create a chimp of the future. She immediately accepted the role, thinking the script was fascinating, and was in love with the "Zira's" humor, openness, and commitment to science. Hunter had no idea what she was in for regarding makeup. Her first makeup session took five hours. She and McDowall (who became good friends) were among the first apes to be screen tested, and because of the applications around their noses, their voices sounded nasal. They worked on how to get around that and ended up teaching the other ape-playing actors how not to sound nasal. Three or four types of glue were used to attach the applications to their faces which would wreak havoc on Hunter's skin after several days. Dermatologists were brought in but couldn't find solutions.
Hunter pleaded with the producers that no one in ape costume would work more than four consecutive days, which was agreed upon. She would get to the set at 4am to begin makeup and be ready by 8am for filming, not finishing the day until 7 or 7:30pm. Like Wilson, Hunter had been blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. Though never called to testify before HUAC, it was believed she was blacklisted for her associations with things such as a World Peace Conference and her support for Civil Rights. Someone from HUAC offered to tell her specifically why she was blacklisted if she paid him $200, and when a higher-up at HUAC learned the offer was in writing, Hunter was immediately removed from the blacklist. Once her blacklist was lifted, "Planet of the Apes" was her second film back to the big screen. Because of the grueling makeup process, she didn’t want to reprise her role in the first sequel “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”, but Jacobs convinced her to do it. She liked the script for the second sequel, “Escape to the Planet of the Apes”, and willingly appeared in that film, again as “Zira”. You can read about the life and career of Kim Hunter in my post on the film for which she won her Best Actress Academy Award, “Streetcar Named Desire”.
Known primarily as a Shakespearean actor, Maurice Evans might seem an unlikely choice for the role of the orangutan “Dr. Zaius”. But Jacobs felt great actors were needed to make the apes real, and Evans definitely fits the bill. A powerful government figure who keeps others ignorant in order to maintain power, "Zaius" wants “Taylor” out of the picture as quickly as possible. Thanks to Evans’ performance and Chambers’ makeup, “Zaius” is evil but remains a multidimensional character, even as an ape. According to Life magazine, Evans was pleased to discover he could manipulate his facial muscles and even sweat through the foam-rubber makeup.
English-born Maurice Evans began on stage, gaining attention in the James Whale directed play, "Journey's End" in 1927. By 1934 Evans joined the famed Old Vic Company where he played "Richard II", which led to him work on Broadway in Shakespearian roles such as "Romeo", "Richard II", "Hamlet", "Macbeth", and others. Becoming a US citizen in 1941, he enlisted in the US army during WWII, after which he returned to Broadway, primarily acting in works by George Bernard Shaw. Evans began in UK films in 1929, appearing in nearly a dozen by 1935. His first US film was 1951's "Kind Lady", and he began appearing on television in 1953, reprising the title role in a production of Shakespeare's "King Richard II". A trailblazer in the US, he starred in so many televised productions of Shakespeare (between 1953 and 1960), he holds the record for appearing in more American productions of Shakespeare than any other actor. Primarily working on television, some of his other notable TV roles include "Samantha Stephens'" father on the classic TV sitcom "Bewitched", "General Bertram" in the 1960s "Tarzan" series, and "The Puzzler" on the classic 1960's "Batman" series. His films include "Rosemary's Baby", "The War Lord", "The Jerk", and "Beneath the Planet of the Apes". He returned to Britain in the 1960s, and never married. Maurice Evans died in 1989 at the age of 87.
Linda Harrison plays “Nova”, the female human picked by the apes to mate with “Taylor”. Harrison was dating studio head Richard Zanuck at the time, and Zanuck asked Jacobs if they would consider her for the role. Jacobs and Schaffner met with her, and she was given the part. She was about twenty-one at the time and hadn’t done many films. Her innocence helped tremendously, for she is completely believable as a primitive human unsure of what’s happening around her. She was still camera shy, and Harrison has stated that Heston tremendously helped coach her on how to best work in front of the camera.
Maryland-born Linda Harrison started performing on stage and doing acrobatics by the age of five. Starting in her teens, she began to enter beauty contests as a hope they would lead to an acting career, winning several including the title of "Miss Maryland". She went to California and her good looks got her a 60-day option agreement at Twentieth Century-Fox. During that time, she escorted a studio attorney to the premier of Heston's film "The Agony and the Ecstasy" where she met Zanuck, who was instantly taken with her. Harrison and Zanuck began dating, and she was signed to a seven-year contract. At Fox, she was given acting, speech, and movement classes, and began getting small parts in TV pilots. She played "Zira" in the first makeup test for "Planet of the Apes", and continued appearing in small, sometimes uncredited roles including in the TV series "Batman", and the film "Way... Way Out". "Planet of the Apes" was the breakthrough which made her internationally known. She reprised the role of "Nova" in the first sequel "Beneath the Planet of the Apes", and made an appearance as a woman in a cart in the 2001 "Planet of the Apes" remake. To date Harrison has appeared in just under 20 films and TV shows, others of which include a lead role on the TV series "Bracken's World", playing "Susan" in both "Cocoon" and "Cocoon: The Return", and as Gloria Swanson's assistant in "Airport 1975" (which also starred Heston). Her final film thus far is 2021's "Midnight Massacre". She and Zanuck married in 1969, divorcing nine years later, and to date, it is her only marriage. As of the writing of this post, Linda Harrison is 76 years old.
Another element that truly elevates “Planet of the Apes” into an otherworldly wonder is its phenomenal score composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith. Using unusual instruments such as stainless steel mixing bowls and a ram’s horn, Goldsmith was able to evoke mystery and suspense through a primitive yet modern array of sounds in what he called “carefully structured abstract” music. Music is used sparsely throughout, and the film boldly begins and ends with no music at all. Not only was Goldsmith nominated for a Best Film Score Academy Award for “Planet of the Apes”, but AFI named it the 18th Greatest Film Score of All-Time. He worked with Schaffner on seven projects (this was their second), and the two were great friends.
Los Angeles born Jerry Goldsmith became one of film and TV's premier composers and conductors. In a career spanning over sixty years, he composed scores and songs for over 250 films and TV shows beginning with the 1953 TV movie "The Clay of Kings", and ending with the 2018 short film "Gremlins: A Christmas Nightmare". He earned eighteen Academy Award nominations and won one Oscar for his score for the classic horror film "The Omen" in 1976. Just a few of the other classic films for which he composed include "Chinatown", "Patton", "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (plus four additional "Star Trek" films), "Alien", "First Blood”, "Gremlins", "Poltergeist", "L.A. Confidential”, and "Basic Instinct". He earned five Emmy Awards (out of seven nominations), and just a few of the TV shows for which he composed are "Star Trek: Voyager", "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.", "The Waltons", "Police Story", "Gunsmoke", and "The Twilight Zone". He was also nominated for seven Grammy Awards. He was married twice. Jerry Goldsmith died in 2004 at the age of 75.
Along with Goldsmith’s Oscar nomination, “Planet of the Apes” also earned an Academy Award nomination for Morton Haack’s beautiful Costume Design. Also of note is the film’s stunning art direction and production design by by William Creber and Jack Martin Smith. Remote locations near the Colorado River in Utah and Arizona were used, including Lake Powell, the Crossing of the Fathers, Horseshoe Bend, and Page Arizona. The beach and mountains at Point Dume in Malibu, California were used for the cave scenes and the ape city was constructed at Fox Ranch (now Malibu Creek State Park). Its look was inspired by cave dwellings in Turkey.
“Planet of the Apes” was a phenomenon that inspired eight more films to date (four sequels, a 2001 remake, and a reboot film series starting in 2001), a 1974 TV series, and a 1975 animated TV cartoon series. Its success breathed new life into science fiction films and the genre exploded with films such as "Silent Running", "Westworld", "Soylent Green", "Logan's Run", “Zardoz”, "Solaris", "Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, and "Star Wars" in 1977, which once again advanced the genre. “Planet of the Apes” launched one of the first, most popular, and profitable film franchises in history, which included hundreds of items such as books, action figures, trading cards, mugs comics, Halloween costumes, model kits, lunchboxes, puppets, and more.
Unique, action-packed, and thoroughly engaging, this week’s film is assured to provide thrilling entertainment, and might even make you stop and think about the world in which you live. A highly enjoyable sci-fi classic, enjoy “Planet of the Apes”!
This blog is a weekly series (currently biweekly) on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications for every new post. Visit THE MOVIES page to see a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog with family, friends, and on social media, and subscribe so you don’t miss a post. Thanks so much for reading!
YOU CAN STREAM OR BUY THE FILM HERE:
PLACES YOU CAN BUY THE FILM:
As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases, and any and all money will go towards the fees for this blog. Thanks!!
TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
The first thing “Taylor” says as he regains his voice is “Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!”. AFI ranked that line of dialogue as the 66th Greatest Movie Quote of All-Time.
The final shot of the Statue of Liberty became one of the most iconic endings in film history. Serling changed the ending of the book to have “Taylor” discover he was on Earth. It was Serling’s way of addressing public fears at the time of atomic war, and it leaves one with the profound question, “Will we destroy ourselves?”.