This year marks a very significant anniversary for sci-fi films. Of course, it is the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that is not the only sci-fi classic celebrating its 50th anniversary. That other film is Planet of the Apes, a sci-fi masterpiece which launched a successful film franchise that resonates to this day.
Planet of the Apes was a 1968 film adaptation of Pierre Boullle’s novel, which was published in 1963. The film, like the novel, was an allegorical examination of human society and how inhumane people can be. In the story’s case, the humans were represented by super intelligent apes that control the planet.
George Taylor (Charlton Heston in one of his greatest performances) is an astronaut on a deep-space mission to find a new habitable world. He and his fellow astronauts crash land on an Earth-like planet centuries from now. Before long, Taylor is the only survivor and is captured by upright, talking ape-like beings that rule a pre-industrial civilization. During his capture, Taylor is injured and unable to talk, much less communicate. Most of the apes that hold him captive for science experiments treat him inhumanely and lump him along with the other mute and animalistic humans that inhabit the world.
Taylor stands out because of his expressed intelligence and catches the attention of a simian scientist studying him, Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter). As Taylor regains his speech (done so dramatically when he shouts defiantly “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn, dirty ape!”), he befriends Zira and her husband, Cornelius (Roddy McDowell), an archaeologist. These two champion his cause for equal rights against the ruling apes that refuse to recognize Taylor’s intelligence. One of these members is the fundamentalist Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), who won’t acknowledge Taylor’s sentience, and seems to be hiding secrets about his planet’s dark past.
Taylor’s struggle is the heart of Planet of the Apes and echoed the civil rights movement that engulfed American society in 1968. What is remarkable about Taylor’s plight is that at the start of the film he had a dim, pessimistic view of humanity. So it’s a great sense of irony when he alone is forced to champion humanity to the dogmatic apes that refuse to acknowledge his rights, let alone his intelligence. This was best seen in the pivotal tribunal scene where Taylor pleads his case to the obtuse Assembly led by Zaius. They try to deny his humanity and dignity, but he rose to the occasion and we cheered him on.
Planet of the Apes was not some dry, intellectual exercise. It was a fantastic and exciting adventure film with splendid cinematography, set designs and make up. Sure, the make up by John Chambers is primitive today but it was revolutionary back then and Chambers justifiably won a special Oscar for his work in creating convincing talking apes.
The film stood apart from other juvenile sci-fi films of that era thanks to its smart script (by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling—yes, that Rod Serling) and direction by Franklin J. Schaffner. Originally the script by Serling lacked much of the ironic humor of the final film and the ape society was considerably more advanced as in Boulle’s book. After undergoing several rewrites, it was Schaffner’s idea to have the ape society be more primitive in order to save money. This ploy worked since the primitive society a more alien and inhuman look. Thus, it was a true shock for audiences back then when Taylor discovered the truth about the world. SPOILER: Is it a spoiler for a 50-year-old film to state that he was on a post-apocalyptic Earth all along? His discovery and reaction is one of the greatest moments in film cinema and the final shot of Planet of the Apes is still iconic to this day.
A major driving force for Planet of the Apes and its sequels was producer Arthur P. Jacobs, who helped guide the franchise into a successful film series. After the huge success of Planet of the Apes, naturally more films followed, which turned into prequels of sorts. They were hit and miss in terms of quality, but they were entertaining and logically progressed the Apes saga.
Before Star Wars changed our lives, Planet of the Apes served as a prototype of a branching cinematic franchise with extensive merchandising including wonderful toys, books, clothing, games, comic books and TV shows (which could be considered canon in the ape saga).
The popularity of Planet of the Apes dimmed after some time, especially after Star Wars entered our pop culture consciousness. However, it still has its fans and its core concept still works as seen with the recent trilogy of Planet of the Apes films (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes). This recent trio is considered one of the greatest film trilogies of all time and nicely sets up the initial premise of the very first Planet of the Apes film. At this point, the Apes saga will continue to fascinate fans for ages to come.