Sunday, January 1, 2012

Planet of the Apes (1968) -- Frank Schaffner

I revisited the Planet of the Apes films this week (the original five). I have seen the first--by far the best in the series--many times over the years, and the second when it was released in 1970, but had only caught short glimpses of the final three on TV. As a series, the films have a lot going for them. They are more about ideas than action, including social and political issues of time travel, isolation, race relations, how humans treat inferior beings, our penchant for violence, our fear of change, and nuclear war to cite just a few. In that respect, the films are intellectually stimulating. Of course, on the simplest level, they are just good entertainment, though the production values diminish considerably by the end.

It all begins with Planet of the Apes, released in 1968 and directed by Frank Schaffner, better known for Patton, made two years later. It's easy to see why the film was a critical and commercial success (the 7th highest grossing film of the year). It was the first big studio science fiction film in over a decade and had a star cast, including Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowell, and Kim Hunter. Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans replaced Edgar G. Robinson at the last minute due to Robinson's ill health. Evans does a fine job but it would have been fun to watch Robinson in ape makeup.

The spaceship Icarus brings three US astronauts to a strange planet. 
Surely the story is familiar to everyone. Three astronauts, led by Heston (Taylor), crash land in a lake on a strange planet in the year 3978 after traveling through a space/time portal. (Their ship looks remarkably like the space shuttle). The scene is shown subjectively as if you are inside the craft, rather than watching from the outside.

Forced to abandoned their sinking craft, they make it to shore and begin to walk, hoping to find food and shelter. The land is desolate and desert-like, but eventually takes on a verdant character. When they pause to take a dip in a pool, humanoid creatures steal their clothes. They give chase, finding a tribe harvesting food. It appears the astronauts will survive. Suddenly there is a noise, causing the humanoids to flee in panic. Armed gorillas riding horses attack, killing several of the tribe and one of the astronauts. The rest are captured like wild animals; a gun shot grazes Taylor in the throat, leaving him wounded and speechless.

The hunting sequence and sudden appearance of the gorillas is the best scene in the film, as much a shock to 1968 audiences as the characters in the film. Jerry Goldsmith wrote a thrilling innovative musical film score using ram horns and other odd instruments. It is most effective here. Schaffner does a wonderful job creating suspense in the scene, taking his time to reveal what's attacking. All we see at first is something moving through the corn and high grass, beating the vegetation with sticks to drive Taylor and company. We know it's dangerous by the reaction of the tribe. Schaffner smartly intermixes overhead and ground level shots to enhance the dramatic feel, and uses hand-held cameras and odd angles to capture the disorientation of the prey.

Taylor soon find himself in a cage at the ape village, a dehumanizing experience. In this upside down world, apes are the dominant species. While the gorillas are militant, chimpanzees are docile. One, Zira (Kim Hunter) a psychologist, takes a fancy to Taylor, whom she calls "Bright Eyes." He seems extraordinarily intelligent for a dumb human beast. Zira's fiance is Cornelius (Roddy McDowell). She arranges for Bright Eyes to have a female, whom he calls Nova (Linda Harrison). Harrison has no lines and is clearly in the film for the male audience. Her outfit is reminiscent of Raquel Welch's from One Million B.C. If her acting didn't garner her any love from Academy voters, it did from the studio head, Daryl Zanuck Jr. He married her.

Linda Harrison as Nova. 
Orangutans occupy the highest social order in the ape village, with Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) the leading intellectual. Obsessively resistant to change, he blocks scientific study that might diverge from the teaching of the Sacred Scrolls. He knows more than he lets on about his planet's history, and the relationship between apes and humans. Three orangs comprise the tribunal at Taylor's trial in the film. An amusing sequence has them covering eyes, ears, and mouth in a play on "see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil." Perhaps to save on the wardrobe budget there are only three types of apes on the planet, and each type wears distinctive clothing: orange for the orangs; green for the chimps; and black for the gorillas. 

Taylor eventually regains his speech in an entertaining escape attempt. When captured, he famously yells, "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" When Dr. Zaius threatens to lobotomize Taylor, Zira and Cornelius help him escape, taking him with them on an expedition to the Forbidden Zone. There, a cave reveals artifacts, one a human baby doll that speaks. By now, many in the audience likely guess the film's "secret," though Taylor is still confused. Zaius warns him to quit digging into the past. "You may not like what you find."

Taylor and Nova ride off and soon encounter one of the most iconic images of 1960 films, the ruins of the Statue of Liberty. It's a great shot. Schaffner first shows Taylor riding up the beach, the camera positioned behind the crown of the statue. It takes a moment to understand what he's seeing from that POV. We see Taylor slide off the horse, shocked he collapses in the surf and pounds the sand.    

For Hunter, this was a long way from her Streetcar days and it's hard to picture Stella Kowalski as an ape. (In the spirit of tongue-in-cheek, it might have been fun to have had the Taylor character bellow Zirrrrrra! somewhere in the film, albeit more subtlety than Brando).

Heston with McDowell and Hunter. 

The source novel for the original story is by Frenchman, Pierre Boulle, author of the Bridge on the River Kwai. For younger film fans at the time, Heston, whose early career is noted for his work in epics in the '50s and '60s, had a resurgence of sorts in science fiction films starting with Planet of the Apes. Other films in the genre included The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973).

One version of the original poster for the film.

The four sequels are a mixed bag, but each propels the story forward. In the second film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, a rescue mission in the form of Brent (James Franciscus) follows Taylor to the planet of the apes. It's shortly after the events shown in the first film. In the Forbidden Zone a group of mutant humans live underground and worship a nuclear bomb. They possess a bizarre telepathic power that makes no sense for the story. The apes attack with devastating results. The film has a few good things going for it: James Gregory as leader of the gorillas, exhorting them on with "the only good human is a dead human." And Victor Bruno appears as one of the underground humans, looking ridiculous. Like Linda Harrison in the first film, he has no lines. However, those acting lessons must have paid off for Harrison because she reprises her role as Nova here and gets one word--"Taylor!"  

If audiences thought the franchise over, they were mistaken. The studio knew a good thing when it counted its receipts. A third film, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, finds that Zira and Cornelius miraculously got off the planet just minutes before it blew up, escaping in Taylor's rescued space craft. They travel back in time through the same space/time portal used by Taylor and land in present day (1970) L.A., where they become celebrities. They also face fear and persecution similar to what Taylor encountered in the first film. The villain here is Dr. Otto Hasslein, whose theories of time seem proven by the appearance of apes from the future. He's convinced the apes need to be destroyed to save mankind. 
"That's what I'm worried about. Later. Later we'll do something about pollution. Later we'll do something about the population explosion. Later we'll do something about the nuclear war. We think we've got all the time in the world, but how much time has the world got? Somebody has to begin to care."
Like the first two films, this one has a surprising climax. Zira keeps the saga going by secreting her newborn (Caesar) in a traveling circus. It is a nice step up in quality from the second film, and introduces the concept of whether man, or in this case an ape, can change the future and thus later history. Depending on how one interprets the sequence of events that follow, you might conclude that Caesar in fact does just that.

Strange visitors from the future. 

Caesar takes charge twenty years later in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the best of the sequels. He leads a revolt against humans, setting in motion the geneses for the planet of the apes. Though the action here takes place on a relatively small scale--reflective of the declining production budget--there are lots of explosions and fire as police in the city try to halt the riot. It is considerable more violent than the earlier entries in the series.

Caesar leads his armed apes against humans. 
The final segment, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, is largely a mess, ripe with an inane script and some terrible acting. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, apparently another ten years into the future. Mutant humans attack the ape village in as pathetic action sequence as you will likely ever see. John Huston appears as an orangutan and narrator, no doubt working for the paycheck. Mercifully, he regained his status as a fine actor in his next role as the dastardly Noah Cross in Chinatown.

This one is directed by J. Lee Thompson, whose resume would suggest better. He also made the admirable Conquest. The best film to his credit is The Guns of Navarone, for which he received his only Oscar nomination. If one can believe Wikipedia, the studio had progressively reduced the budget for the series with each successive entry. Starting with $5.8 million for the first film, by the fifth it had fallen to just $1.7 million. It shows.    

Claude Akins as the militant General Aldo in Battle for the Planet of the Apes.
The legacy DVD releases has a fascinating "making of" disc that accompany the films. It's remarkable how long it took producer Mort Abrahams to convince a studio to make the picture, and provides intesting background on the innovative makeup. You also get to see Edgar G. Robinson as an orangutan in a test.   

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