Shortly before the library closed due to the novel coronavirus, my co-worker, Adam, loaned me a set with all five of the original Planet of the Apes films - three of which are currently in the Johnson County Library collection, and two of which are available to stream from home on IndieFlix. This pentalogy (five!) of films includes Planet of the Apes (1968), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). I really only had plans to watch the first film, and maybe try out one or two of the sequels, but then I found myself more or less trapped at home with this set, and I thought, “Why not watch them all?”
I suppose the rest of this blog post answers that question, but be warned: Spoilers for all five of the films follow.
The first Planet of the Apes film (available to stream through JCL on IndieFlix here) came out in 1968. It was based on a French science fiction novel by Pierre Boulle called “La Planete des singes,” which the US publisher translated to “Planet of the Apes,” and the UK publisher translated to the much better “Monkey Planet.” In the book, a journalist travels to a distant planet and finds intelligent apes ruling over monkey-esque humans. At the end he discovers that the humans used to rule the planet, but they took their minds for granted and got lazy, and the apes took over. My understanding is that the original novel was satirical, but riffed more on how intellectually complacent modern man was getting. For the film adaptation, producers hired The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, and he infused the story with Cold-War-era nuclear and racial themes, and added the classic twist ending we all know and love.
I hadn’t seen the original film in about twenty years or so, and re-watching it this week, I could not fathom how that ending ever managed to surprise anybody, even in 1968 when you didn't have 50 years of spoilers pressing down on you. They foreshadow it pretty heavily, and I think the only reason a viewer might write it off as a possibility is because the astronauts seem very confident that they are on a planet other than Earth and say so frequently. (Then again: That should be your first clue as a viewer. After all, this is the creator and head writer of The Twilight Zone, people.)
Regardless, I feel like the first film holds up very well, and is a true sci-fi classic. It takes a potentially laughable premise very seriously, but it rides the line between thought-provoking and entertaining with success. It’s also very well-made. It was a relatively high-budget picture for the time, and it shows. The beautifully shot desert landscapes early in the film accompanied by the Jerry Goldsmith score become downright eerie. The Ape City sets are imaginative, and the costumes are pretty spiffy too, but the most impressive thing to me was how good the monkey makeup is, even by today’s standards. It was a combination of prosthetics and makeup, and it looks great. The actors are really able to deliver a performance through it.
Thematically, the film is an interesting relic from the late 1960s. The younger apes are disillusioned with the war-mongering ways of the older apes (particularly the brutish gorillas, who aren’t as gentle and intellectual as the chimpanzees). Zira’s teenage nephew Lucius is plainly a stand-in for the hippies and anti-war types of the late 60s. If I remember correctly, at one point Taylor (Charlton Heston) specifically tells him, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” a catchphrase popular amongst the counter-culture at the time. Along with that, the irony of Taylor’s character being sprayed with a hose by intolerant apes would not have been lost on audiences in the Civil Rights era, and the humans being marched around in chains evokes the slave-trade. Some of it is a bit on the nose, but it’s not uninteresting, and it was certainly relevant in its time. However, this time around I personally felt like the most potent thread of commentary was in regard to animal rights. You can’t watch these films without wondering what it would be like if apes (or some other species) turned the table on humans, and while it wasn’t enough to get me to go vegetarian, Dr. Zaius’s casual order that Taylor be castrated made me laugh in nervous discomfort and hope that my old family dog didn’t take it personally.
The final thing that struck me as I re-watched Planet of the Apes was just how many quotable lines it has. Namely “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” “You maniacs! You blew it up!” and “It’s a madhouse! A maaaadhouse!” Charlton Heston is really something to behold in this movie, and in my opinion, he is the main reason this film is a classic. Some people call it over-acting, but given how fussy I get when people fail to use their turn signals, I bet that if I was ever launched into space, put into a deep sleep, and wound up on an Earth 2000 years in the future that was populated by intelligent apes that had enslaved mankind, I would be pretty dramatic too.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes is an unexpected sequel in a number of ways. Some of you younger folks out there may not remember this, but there was a time when sequels were held in generally low regard. They were usually crappy cash-grabs that never lived up to the original, and since most movies used to have actual endings instead of the modern trend of “endings” (where doors are always left open for a sequel), a lot of the time sequels didn’t really make any sense. “I thought the story was wrapped up perfectly well in the first one,” you might say. “There’s no need for me to see another,” you’d finish, tapping the onion on your belt (which was the style at the time). Anyways. Sequels were not generally in fashion, but obviously they weren’t unheard of. Planet of the Apes made a lot of money, and in the late 1960s 20th Century Fox wasn’t exactly sitting on a mountain of cash, so they started plans for a sequel.
To his great credit, Charlton Heston didn’t want to do this sequel. He eventually agreed to a small role in it, so long as they killed his character off and donated his salary to charity. I didn’t know this going in, but that didn’t stop me from laughing out loud when, at the beginning of Beneath the Planet of the Apes (here), Heston’s Taylor is riding through the desert with the beautiful Nova, and a big, awful-looking wall of fire abruptly pops up in front of them, then there’s an earthquake and Heston falls into a pit and disappears by falling through an apparently solid rock wall, much to Nova’s (and my own) confusion. I had no idea if he would reappear later in the film or not, but it seemed exactly like something I would do if I was a producer and I had to give the audience Charlton Heston but he didn’t want to be in my movie. Taylor does reappear later, but not for quite a while.
Fortunately, we have James Franciscus as Brent, who looks like a younger, more conventionally handsome Charlton Heston. He stars as an astronaut on yet another ship from our time that has found itself crash-landed on the (echo effect on) Planet of the Apes (echo effect off). Brent makes his way to Ape City, meeting Nova along the way, and witnesses a meeting of apes where gorillas are demanding to journey into the Forbidden Zone to make war and take resources, despite the tut-tutting of the intellectual chimps and the vacillating of the bureaucratic orangutans. This sets up a scene where the belligerent gorillas ride out through a listless gaggle of chimpanzees protesting the war by holding signs and mindlessly shouting “Freedom” and “Peace.” It’s bizarre. It makes the sometimes heavy-handed commentary of the first film feel light, and it is just a hilariously ridiculous sight. Brent and Nova make their way out to the Forbidden Zone (with the help of Zira and Cornelius) and wind up going underground, where Brent sees the ancient New York subway and Radio City Music Hall and realizes that he is on Earth after all.
At some point, I think outside of the former St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Brent casually takes a drink from a fountain and spits the foul, stagnant water out. It’s really not important to the movie at all, but I couldn’t stop laughing. He’s surrounded by the ruins of New York, basically inside of a cave where it doesn’t look like anybody has been for millennia, and he thought this water was going to be refreshing? This guy is supposed to be an astronaut!
Soon Brent finds himself in a chamber with a handful of people who communicate telepathically. They are the mutated descendants of the humans who survived nuclear winter, and have dwelled underground ever since. Every time Brent doesn’t answer their questions they blast his brain with a high-pitched noise that is exceptionally annoying and it happens a lot, to the point where I turned the volume way down because my wife seemed to be getting irritated from the dining room. Also, they use their powers to make him nearly kill Nova, just to show they can. The whole thing feels like a very bad episode of Star Trek.
The mutants take off their faces next, in what is intended to be the great shock of this film, and I don’t think it’s ever explained why they had normal-face masks, but I suppose 20th century beauty standards die hard. Anyways, they go from looking like normal people in cheesy 70s tunics to looking like prune people in cheesy 70s tunics. They imprison Brent and Nova, and you’ll never guess who’s already in jail: Charlton Heston! Taylor, I mean! The mutants are very against committing acts of violence themselves, so they use their mind powers to make Taylor and Brent fight each other to the death. The fight scene is definitely stupid and too long, but the actors really commit, so that was fine. Toward the end, Nova shouts her first word ever: A moaned, awkward “Taylor!” This distracts the mutant that is making them fight with his mind powers, and they escape the jail.
Oh, I forgot to mention something. The mutants worship a golden atomic bomb – a doomsday bomb capable of destroying the entire planet – and have placed it at the center of the cathedral. If I’m not mistaken, this is social commentary, but I would have a hard time really elaborating on that coherently. Anyways, the war-mongering apes come barging in at the end and there’s a big fight. Taylor gets shot and falls on the button that sets off the bomb. Everything goes white, and a narrator informs us that the planet is now dead. The end! According to the special features, this ending was chosen by outgoing 20th Century Fox president Richard Zanuck, the son of former studio president and then-current absentee chairman Darryl Zanuck. Darryl, it seems, was upset that Richard had not renewed the contract of his (Darryl’s) young girlfriend Genevieve Gilles, so he mustered up connections in the company to give Richard the boot. Richard moved over to Warner Brothers, but not before saddling the Planet of the Apes franchise with a sequel that would make it impossible to milk further.
Or perhaps not! Beneath was a hit with audiences, and so the next year Escape from the Planet of the Apes was released. The world may have ended in the year 3955, but the blast of the doomsday bomb launched Zira and Cornelius (in Taylor’s fixed-up spaceship) back in time to 1973. It flips the original film for a bit, and now it’s the humans who are examining the unexpectedly intelligent apes. The humans are much more welcoming than the apes were in the original film, and the apes from the future even become celebrities for a while. Zira has the press laughing up a storm as she wisely points out human foibles during a Presidential commission meeting, and she speaks at a woman’s club saying it’s high time the men start helping out around the house. (Apparently she’s instantly familiar with contemporary gender gripes wherever she goes.) However, the party ends very quickly when the meanest government man (Dr. Otto Hasslein played by Eric Braeden) discovers that Zira is pregnant and puts together the idea that if these apes come from a future where talking apes have subjugated the entire human race, then it probably isn’t a good idea to let them multiply, as this may be the beginning of man’s end, so to speak. He orders that Zira’s unborn baby be killed, and that both she and Cornelius be sterilized. Up to this point in the film, some of the scenes had kind of a goofy 70s sitcom vibe to them, so this is all a bit of a buzzkill.
The film shifts into a kind of thriller with monkeys on the run from the government. Thanks to the help of some human scientists Zira and Cornelius find refuge at a circus, where Zira gives birth to her baby. The circus is headed up by Ricardo Montalban as Senor Armando, who loves animals and has just overseen the birth of a chimp in his very own circus. In a bit of the kind of perfectly sound theological reasoning Hollywood specializes in, Armando says that if God intends for apes to inherit the Earth, then he is happy to help them, rather than cooperate with the US government and try to change the course of events to save humankind and the planet. Thanks a lot, Senor Armando!
With the US government on the hunt, Zira, Cornelius and their new baby head for a big abandoned ship in a Los Angeles port. They’re quickly found by the evil Dr. Otto Hasslein, who shoots Zira, then shoots her baby multiple times. A sniper takes out Cornelius, and that’s that. “What’s that?” you say. “No twist?” Well, buckle up, baby: It turns out Senor Armando and Zira swapped out her baby with the other chimp that was recently born at the circus. The camera slowly moves in on the little baby ape in his circus cage and, through the use of film tricks you might expect in a much cheaper film, he starts to speak. Viewers rooting for the apes will celebrate, and other viewers will realize that this means that a goofy ringmaster has just doomed the human race and the planet.
There’s a critical view of humankind on display in the first two films, but Escape is the first film that descends into straight-up misanthropy. As an audience we’re now regularly going to be asked by this franchise to root for characters that are working to subjugate the entire human race. And we’ve seen in the first two films that it’s not like the apes go on to create utopia. If we saw the first film as containing a dystopian world that mirrored and satirized the flaws of our own, then why exactly are we to be rooting for the creation of that world? The apes create a world that is much worse than even the jaded 1960s-and-70s-Left’s caricature of America, which is what has been under the series’ satirical lens so far. The apes will create a world where totalitarian “wisemen” (or wiseapes, rather) like Dr. Zaius hide knowledge from their citizens and rule over Stone-Age-tier societies rife with injustice (think of Taylor’s mock trial or all of the enslaved humans) only to be overthrown by even worse war-mongering gorillas like General Ursus and then blown up when Charlton Heston falls on the doomsday button in the mutants’ church. Say what you will about America in the Vietnam era – that might sound like a perfect analogue to some people – but at least we survived it, and at least we had free speech, cool cars, no slaves, and The Brady Bunch.
Blatant misanthropy is certainly a unique premise for a film franchise, and they’re not always asking us to root for every character and their motivations – some of this is just watching the future of the first film unfold – but the dramatic tension of many scenes relies on you wanting the apes to succeed, and if you’re not on board with the general idea of ushering in the (echo effect on) Planet of the Apes (echo effect off), much of films three through five in the franchise becomes an interminable slog.
Which brings us to the Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (in the JCL collection here, or available through JCL on IndieFlix here), the darkest entry in the series. It takes place in the future: 1991. A plague from outer space has killed off all of the dogs and cats in the world, and humans – in their desperate need for pets – have turned to apes for pets, only to discover that the apes make better laborers and custodians than pets. By 1991 society has come to rely on these ape slaves, much to the chagrin of human laborers, who are seen protesting at one point. Throughout the movie, Caesar, the child of Zira and Cornelius from the previous films, rises to power culminating in the liberation of the ape slaves, and the downfall of humanity. The scenes at the end where Caesar directs the other apes (who haven’t evolved to speak yet) in their attack on the human security forces are actually kind of cool, taking place amid the ugly and oppressive Brutalist architecture that was a hallmark of so many sci-fi dystopias back then. But while I was watching it I couldn’t help but think, “Boy, I guess the villain in the last film was right. They really should have killed that cute little baby monkey when they had the chance.”
The racial themes are very thick in Conquest. Apes are auctioned off like African slaves, and police are dressed almost exactly like Hitler’s SS. Screenwriter Paul Dehn (who wrote or co-wrote all four of the movies that followed the first) seems to have realized that the 1970s humans in Escape weren’t despicable enough, so he’s really ramped up how awful humanity is by 1991 – turning them into a highlight reel of historical atrocities – to get you more on the apes’ side. It’s a very bleak movie, filled with scenes of humans treating human-like apes cruelly – sometimes basically just torturing them. Yet it’s also the kind of movie where a karate chop knocks someone out for however long you need, and throwing a net on a group of men with guns renders them completely harmless. It’s the kind of futuristic sci-fi movie where everybody is wearing a turtleneck for some reason. For me, this, combined with the half-baked nature of all of these movies except for the first, made it awkward whenever the film reached for significance.
Again, the filmmakers can’t allow that harmony is possible between different groups (be it races or species). They have painted themselves into a corner, because we know that this all has to lead to the result we saw in the first film. You have nothing to hope for. As a human watching them, you can’t really cheer on the subjugation of humankind, but you need to root against the humans – especially in this movie – if they’re standing in for the racists and the bigots of history. But you’ve already seen the dystopia that results when the apes takeover, so even if you can check your human baggage, and get on Team Ape, it doesn’t work out well. By the end of Conquest, the film acknowledges that apes are taking over “for better or for worse,” and that now that they have dominated humankind they just have to wait around until the nuclear winter they know to be inevitable arrives. Unfortunately instead of feeling like I was watching an epic story unfold, I only felt confused by the convoluted mess that had unfurled over the course of these four films.
Did somebody say sequel!?
That’s right, there’s still one left! (Plus the TV series, plus the Tim Burton remake, plus the reboot film trilogy of the 2010s, but we won’t cover those here.) Battle for the Planet of the Apes (here) finished the film series up in 1973. Paul Dehn only contributed a story to this, instead of a full screenplay, so it is much less punishing. It starts off with acclaimed director and sometimes actor John Huston in full monkey makeup. The year is 2670 AD, and he’s telling a group what happened to Caesar after nuclear warfare destroyed everything.
Caesar (who, I should have mentioned before, is played by Roddy McDowall) is in charge of a village of apes and humans. The apes are the dominant species, and the humans mill about doing odd jobs for them, but they seem to be mostly free. This irks a militaristic gorilla named Aldo, played by Claude Akins. Caesar is much less revolutionary in his older age, and hopes for peace between the species. He decides to head out to the Forbidden City to try to find footage of his parents that is held in an archive, and see if they tried to impart any wisdom to him.
They find the footage, and if I remember right, it doesn’t amount to much. Unfortunately, by entering the buried archives, they’ve provoked the race of mutated humans that is living underground, setting the stage for the invasion of Ape City. In Caesar’s absence, Aldo and his soldiers plot to overthrow him. They imprison all the humans and raid the armory. Caesar’s young son overhears them plotting, and much to the horror and shame of the other gorillas, Aldo fatally injures the boy. “Ape shall never kill ape” is the primary law in Ape City, and this is an especially horrible violation of it.
Eventually the mutants come, and they destroy a lot of Ape City. Pleas for peace on both the ape and mutant sides go unheard by belligerent leaders, and mayhem ensues. However, just when the mutants think they have the apes licked, Caesar calls for everybody to stop pretending to be dead and fight. Dozens of apes leap up from the ground and overwhelm the mutant invaders. It’s a brilliant strategy that I’m surprised isn’t used more often in real-life warfare.
Aldo and Caesar argue about the fate of the imprisoned humans, and it is revealed to Caesar that Aldo killed his son. Community opinion turns sharply against Aldo, and Caesar chases him up a tree. Aldo falls to his death, conveniently allowing Caesar revenge without violating the sacred law. Caesar decides – thanks to the lobbying of the son of the human that helped free him in Conquest – that humans are to be treated as equals with apes. The movie returns to John Huston telling the story to what we now learn is a group of ape and human kids. He says that they all must hope for a peaceful future, and the camera moves over to a statue of Caesar, which miraculously releases a single tear. And that’s the end.
There isn’t as much to analyze in Battle, but I have to say, I think it’s the second best in the series. It’s silly, but it’s fun enough, and it allows for some hope. Sure, we know where this is all headed in a thousand years, but it’s nice to see a little peaceful coexistence. Also, for some reason Paul Williams plays an orangutan in this one, which was fun.
The series is so muddled and weird that I don’t really have any closing statements or final assessment to offer, but I will say, if you ever find yourself trapped at home with all five of the original Planet of the Apes movies at your fingertips… just watch the first one.