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Planet of the Apes (The Original Series)


Now that Tim Burton's remake is on the way (or out already, depending on when you're reading this), this is as good a time as any to revisit the less stylized, more workmanlike films (by directors generally more nondescript than Burton) that kickstarted the whole thing...


PLANET OF THE APES (1968)

This wildly popular but heavy-handed and amateurishly directed film of Pierre Boulle's Monkey Planet still has a great idea going for it. Charlton Heston (overacting as usual) is Taylor, an astronaut stranded in a future world run by a corrupt ape government that keeps humans as slaves. Heston is pretty annoying, but after he's shot in the throat and captured, we identify with his repeated attempts to show the apes he's intelligent. Befriended by sympathetic chimpanzee scientists Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), Taylor escapes with his new love interest Nova (Linda Harrison) and, in the famous shock ending, finds out where he really is. Repetitive and slow-paced, but fun. With Oscar-winning make-up by John Chambers, one of Jerry Goldsmith's cruder scores, and lots of messagey dialogue about evolution -- you can tell Rod Serling worked on the screenplay. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (who did Patton next).

 


BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970)

A lot less poky than the original, and generally more entertaining. Taylor and Nova ride across the Forbidden Zone. Taylor stumbles into the hide-out of some radiation-scarred mutants who presumably survived the nuclear holocaust. They worship a big atomic bomb. The lonely Nova meets another astronaut, Brent (James Franciscus), who's less condescending towards her than Taylor was, though he does try to kill her a couple of times under the telepathic influence of the mutants. Meanwhile, a cadre of gorillas led by Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) and the warmonger General Ursus (James Gregory) delve into the Forbidden Zone looking for Brent and Nova. There's some funny, dated social commentary (the pacifist chimpanzees hold a sit-in peace protest against the gorillas) and a typical 1970 ending in which the bomb is detonated and a narrator intones, "An insignificant green planet is dead." Big Chuck was finished with the Apes saga but returned the next year in another post-apocalypse cult favorite, The Omega Man.


ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971)

Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter), along with a third chimpanzee, Milo (Sal Mineo), manage to escape from Earth 3955 before it blows up. They land on Earth 1973. Milo is killed by a non-speaking gorilla. (Mineo himself was killed five years later, though not by a gorilla. This was his last movie.) The tables are turned as Cornelius and Zira are befriended by kindly scientists Bradford Dillman and Natalie Trundy. Cynical genius Eric Braeden (now on The Young and the Restless) wants to kill the apes, who are expecting a baby. Helpful circus owner Ricardo Montalban takes them in and adopts their baby, who goes on to star in the next installment. Passable entertainment, but it's no fun watching the likable, witty Cornelius and Zira become hairy martyrs. With a rinky-dink score by Jerry Goldsmith and a confusing explanation of infinite regression. Watch for M. Emmet Walsh as the military aide with the oranges.

 


CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972)

It's 1991, and humans have turned apes into pets because all the cats and dogs were killed by an outer-space virus in 1983. (I was thirteen at the time; I remember no such mass expiration of household animals. So much for the precognitive power of sci-fi.) Over the past eight years the apes got smart enough to be conditioned as domestic servants. Enter Caesar (Roddy McDowall), the adult son of Cornelius and Zira. Caesar's friend Ricardo Montalban has kept him away from society. When Caesar sees how humans are brutalizing apes, he gets mad and starts planning a revolution. With a band of orangutans, chimps, and gorillas, he defeats the human army and gives a stirring speech. It's the shortest film in the series, but it's lead-footed and erratic, with the climactic skirmish shot way too close in. Typical piece of hackwork from J. Lee Thompson, who also directed the next and last one. It's the only PG-rated Apes movie (the rest were G), probably because of increased violence and lots of electroshock torture.

 


BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973)

An okay finale. It opens in 2678, with John Huston as the Lawgiver, a wise old orangutan who teaches his class about Caesar (Roddy McDowall). The rest of the movie is set in about 2015 and involves Caesar's problems with the barbarous gorilla General Aldo (Claude Akins) and a band of mutants from the Forbidden Zone. The film brings the Apes saga almost full circle, with the humans in Ape City reduced to slaves (who can still speak, having not been lobotomized yet). The battle scenes are staged better than in Conquest, and there's a lot of action and the usual political parallels (at one point Caesar says "Let us reason together," just like LBJ). Also with Lew Ayres, Paul Williams, Austin Stoker (Assault on Precinct 13), and John Landis as a human slave. Landis got to know Apes make-up designer John Chambers, who later appeared in Landis' directing debut Schlock.

 


After this, in 1974, came a short-lived TV series, which was recycled into two TV-movies: Back to the Planet of the Apes (the pilot) and Forgotten City of the Planet of the Apes. There was also a Saturday-morning cartoon from 1975-76, as well as the usual comic books, novelizations (historical novelist John Jakes penned one, as did SF author David Gerrold), bubble-gum cards, action figures, and so on. In 1998, upon the original film's thirtieth anniversary, the films were all reissued on videocassette; a boxed set contained a documentary narrated by Roddy McDowall, and the films were given similar treatment on DVD soon after. Then, in 2001, came Tim Burton's remake, which did not follow the storyline of the first five films but blazed its own trail (a working title for it, in fact, was not Planet of the Apes at all, but The Visitor).

The irony of the Apes series is that it preached non-bigotry, but it was still racist on some level. The warlike, bestial gorillas were dark-skinned; the more intelligent and peaceful orangutans and chimpanzees were light-skinned. 20th Century-Fox was able to get away with that in the early '70s, but in reviving the franchise for the 21st century it seems they had to rethink the color-coding a little.