I’ve always loved the Planet of the Apes franchise, ever since I was a kid. It’s like Doctor Who; it’s been around throughout my entire life in some iteration or another. Recently Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was released on DVD – I missed it at the cinema, but I snapped it up as soon as it came to DVD. And what a great film it is! In fact, it was so great it made me want to go back and watch the original film series, and the subsequent TV series.
Last night, for the first ever, I finally finished the TV series. I’ve had the entire collection since it was first released on DVD over ten years ago, and thought I’d watched most of it, but it turns out I only saw the first disc (first four episodes). So silly of me. But anyway, getting ahead of myself. What follows are a few thoughts on the series as whole, as it existed from 1968 to 1974.
The one that started it all. Based on the novel La Planète des Singes (The Monkey Planet) by Pierre Boulle from 1963 (which, of course, is also the year Doctor Who began), this is one grim little picture. But it did bring science fiction to a larger market – at this point, such films were usually relegated to Saturday mornings for the kids. Pretty much every element of this film works. From Charlton Heston’s embittered George Taylor, a man so disenchanted by humanity that he only joined NASA because he believed there had to be something ‘out there’ better than humanity, all the way through to the clever physical depiction of the apes. Of course you can tell they’re actors in prosthetics, but the performances are so nuanced and believable that you totally find yourself immersed in to the culture shown on film. And, of course, there’s that cliffhanger ending. It’s so expertly done. Not once during the entire course of the film do you suspect that Taylor is actually on Earth in the distant future (at least on first viewing with no previous knowledge of the series – if you’ve only read the book, then that would help sell the surprise somewhat since in the book it is indeed an alien world), but then we come to that most-shocking of endings where Taylor comes across the burnt and decayed remains of the Statue of Liberty and realises that humanity did it – they finally destroyed the world as he knew it. ‘Damn you. Damn you all to hell!’ What’s even more impressive about this ending is that there is almost no way it’d be able to be done effectively these days – such an ending would, in some way, be leaked by somebody. But back then, in 1968, secrecy in the film industry was so much easier. And this film is all the better for it.
Such was the resounding success of the first film that the studio execs immediately wanted a sequel. They had a few problems; the first film was not written with a sequel in mind, and Charlton Heston was not an actor who did sequels. Yet it would be inconceivable to not have Taylor return in the second film, especially because of the way the first had ended. Fact is, anybody going to see Beneath would be expecting the continuation of Taylor’s story. That they got around this is a testament to their incredible creativity, with Heston only agreeing if Taylor was killed off. Which they promptly did. Although not on screen. Due to the nature of the narrative Taylor is only seen at the beginning and the end of the film, with the main narrative taken up by Brent’s story, another astronaut from the early ‘70s who had followed Taylor’s flight path to see where the man had disappeared – and, boy, did he find out. Now, I’m sorry, but I have to say I find James Franciscus a much better actor than Heston, giving a much more subtle performance. It helps, I think, that he’s not made to be mute for a large chunk of the film. This one is quite surreal, but it does feel like a natural progression from what came before. Even to the point where the main apes all return, too, although Cornelius in this instance is not played by Roddy McDowall – the only Apes film not to feature him in the lead ape role (and that includes the TV series, in which he was also the starring ape). It’s when Brent reaches the ruined city in the Forbidden Zone that things get really surreal and, on some level, quite disturbing. There he meets another offshoot of the human survivors of the atomic war that all but destroyed the world. Whereas most humans devolved into almost-savage mutes, the humans in the ruined city have evolved into powerful telepaths with frightening powers. They convince themselves that they are enlightened by their worship of the Bomb (which includes some of the strangest scenes ever, wherein they sing All Things Bright and Beautiful during a worship service, fake skins removed, and lyrics changed to emphasise the worship of the atomic bomb that stands behind the alter of their church), and their refusal to engage in violence and killing – instead they use illusion as a weapon and, when that fails, they telepathically force humans to kill each other. It is all very shocking to watch at times. It really doesn’t hold back in showing the horror of the situation. The final moments of this films are almost more shocking that those of Planet. For here we see these evolved humans decide that if they can’t defeat the apes they will kill them with the bomb – an act that horrifies Taylor after the destruction he’s already seen. And so, Brent already dead, and Taylor dying, he decides that the only way is to end it all. Literally, wipe out all life on the world. Not exactly sure how setting off just the one bomb does that, but it does. Taylor launches the atomic bomb and Earth is destroyed. Such a bleak ending, only enforced by the final narration; ‘In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.’
This film is very clever, and I’m not entirely sure the makers of it even realised how clever they were being when they came up with a way to tell a third story when the second saw the Earth destroyed. The answer to the problem of how to make a third film and continue the story is, on the surface, a very simple one. Have three apes travel back in time, mere moments before the Earth is destroyed. This creates two wonderful things; great comedy and commentary. Seeing Cornelius and Zira interact with ‘modern’ America is such fun, offering both broad comedy strokes and a wonderful commentary on the stupidity of the sex-war that was so prevalent in Western society at that time. But it’s not all fun, the film soon turns as grim as one comes to expect in an Apes film, when news reaches the humans, and the US President, that the apes escaped a world that was destroyed by humans and gorillas. What started as a nice comedic film, a much needed change of pace from the grimness of the previous two films, turns into some quite dark. Paranoia starts to creep into the story, through the character of Dr Hasslein – an advisor to the president. It’s a great performance, one that could have easily simply become that of antagonist; the film villain, but instead Eric Braeden brings such complexity to the role and you realise that, for all his posturing, you can’t help but agree, at least, in part with his concerns. He honestly believes he’s doing the right thing, that someone has to save Earth’s future, and that’s him! Unfortunately this saving of the future produces some of the darkest moments when he hunts down Cornelius and Zira on to a decommissioned naval ship, and both apes are shot. But not only them; Hasslein coldly kills their newly born baby, Milo, thus ensuring that super-evolved apes will not rise to dominate, and ultimately, destroy the Earth. Such a dark ending was thankfully undercut this time around – I suspect that the studio and writers had enough of bleakness by this point – and we learn that baby Milo is alive and well, swapped with the first chimpanzee born in a circus, and soon to be named Caesar – remember that name, it will become very important to this series. And, in saving the baby’s life the producers of this film series do something that was quite unknown in popular science fiction films of the time, a parallel timeline is created, and the future Taylor visited in the first film is overwritten. But to what extent? Keep reading.
In some ways this is my favourite of the original four films, but I can’t honestly pin down why. It’s darker than the rest, dealing with slavery and oppression, showing some of the worst examples of humanity this series have ever explored, and it features a tour de force performance from Roddy McDowall as Caesar. The make-up continues to impress – even though it’s the same actor in chimpanzee make-up, not once do you believe it’s the same character as that seen in the previous three films. The make-up is subtly different, helping to convey that Caesar is the son of Cornelius, and McDowall’s performance is nuanced enough to convince that this is not the ape we’ve been watching thus far. The scenes where the apes are conditioned to obey humans is truly horrible, taking the concept of animal experimentation to the next level, and you can really feel Caesar’s pain at witnessing such torment for his less-evolved fellow apes. The one issue I take with this film is that, at per the series norm, we only ever see three types of apes. Chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans (although the last less so in this film). This may have been acceptable in the first two films, as there’s no reason to believe other apes survived the atomic war, that somehow only these three breeds of apes were able to survive and evolve. There’s no reason given for this, but you can accept it because it was a believable future. But now we’re in 1991, almost twenty years after the time of the last film, and the rise of the apes is happening in a way that only just resembles the story told by Cornelius in the previous film. Just because Cornelius and Zira travelled back to the past, the future is altered. Only in small ways at this point, but enough that events on Earth are happening more quickly. Perhaps they were the carriers of the disease that eventually led to the plague which wiped out all dogs and cats? Certainly such a plague would have happened, this was an established fact, but in this film it all happened in the eighteen years gap between films, decades, if not centuries, before it was supposed to happen. As a result, humans begin training apes to replace their lost pets, and this intense and cruel training is enough to convince Caesar that a revolution is needed. Unfortunately, due to the ever-decreasing budget, we only see this revolution happen in one small part of one city in the United States, but dialogue is uttered to remind us that this small revolution will spark many others across the world, until the Earth becomes a planet of apes. It’s such a wonderful reversal of fortune for humanity, but Caesar has seen enough in his short life to know that not all humanity is evil, and he’s determined to make the future a better one for all. A decision with has irrevocable impact on the future we saw in Planet. And this is probably why I love this film so much. Coupled with Escape, Conquest drives forward some very innovative (for the time) science fiction ideas.
So, the final chapter of the original Apes film. It’s a bit of poor ending, really, with the budget at an all-time low, but still it does allow for a more personal story after the madness of Conquest. It’s hard to correctly gauge how much time has passed in between films, but long enough for a full-on nuclear war which destroyed all the major cities across the world. The apes, of course, used that to their advantage and rose to power. Only in this future humans and apes work together; sure, they’re not equals, but neither are slaves, although the bias of power and affluence lies with the apes. It’s easily the weakest of the five films, but it proves to be very important since almost all of the main dramatic beats of this film (and indeed Conquest) are used for the recent reboot series. It’s hard to believe that the little skirmish in this film can be called a battle for a planet, but that’s what the title says, so that’s what we have to accept. I imagine many similar skirmishes happened all across the globe. Of course, as one comes to expect for an American film series, the only action we ever see takes place in America (or the remains of America), which doesn’t help with the concept of the whole planet is under ape control. Certainly, other than the line in Conquest there is nothing in these films to suggest that the apes are even aware of how big Earth is. Minor gripe, and something one comes to accept when watching any form of American science fantasy. And so to the final moments of the film. It seems that Caesar succeeded, at least to some degree, for the Lawgiver is teaching not only apes, but humans, extolling in them the need to live in peace. Which nicely leads me to…
The premise of the series is essentially the same as the films; astronauts from the near future arrive in the distant future to find the Earth dominated by apes. In this case the humans, Allan Virdon and the rather gorgeous Peter Burke (James Naughton), hail from 1981, almost mid-way between Escape and Conquest, and the future they arrive in is quite different from that seen in the first film. For the longest time I, and I know many others, thought this series was in a different continuity to the films, but having watched it all in sequence I have come to conclusion that it is, in fact, a continuation of the timeline created by the arrival of Cornelius and Zira in 1973 in Escape. All official merchandise states the time is 3085, almost nine hundred years prior to the time Taylor visited in Planet, however I don’t think it is. There is much on screen evidence to suggest that Burke and Virdon had arrived in roughly the same time period as Taylor, only things are no longer the same due to Caesar’s role in history. For one thing the clothes and caste system among the apes is identitcal to that of Planet, and central city looks exactly the same, and add to the that the appearance of Dr Zaius, a character from the first two films. All of this strongly implies roughly the same setting as the first two films, albeit a revised timeline when humans are no longer mute and savage, just a species who survived an atomic war and forgot much of their history, ala the seeds set in Battle. Humanity is ruled by the apes, but not in the manner seen in the first two films. They’re far from equal, but they do add to the society in which they live, to varying degrees. So, yes, the chronometer on Burke and Virdon’s ship did read 3085 but it is stated that it is also broken by time they crash. Now as a series it’s pretty much your typical formulaic fantasy-based TV series of the ‘70s, carrying with it the usual charm and story-types, but it’s eminently watchable. The characters really make up for any story shortcomings. The guest cast, in particular, Mark Lenard as the gorilla Urko, is fantastic and believable. Urko develops well over the course of fourteen episodes, although he only appears in eleven of them, and although a pretty aggressive and short-tempered individual, he’s also incredibly funny when he’s befuddled by the events around him and the intelligence of his betters – which includes so many, especially the three leads, which includes Roddy McDowall once again, this time as chimpanzee Galen (no doubt a cousin of Cornelius – Galen seems to be related to a lot of the other guest characters!). I should also point out that Mark Lenard is best remembered among fantasy fans for his role as Sarek, Spock’s father in Star Trek, which is fair enough, but it’s worth remembering he played the role of Urko more times than he appeared as Sarek (a total of only seven times). The series does suffer from a common problem in serialised TV, in that the main characters, especially Allan Virdon, has the most amazing skill set ever. He just seems to be able to do everything, whatever the relevant episode needs in fact. Fishing, building hand gliders, curing malaria, horse racing… the list goes on. I may be a bit biased by the fact that Pete Burke is played by the superior actor, and definitely better looking, James Naughton (sorry, a bit shallow of me, perhaps, but Naughton was a dashing young man back in his day and I can’t deny that). He has a wonderful line in physical wit and a great charm in his performance that carries even the weakest episode. It’s a shame the series never continued past fourteen episodes, as towards the ends it started to break out of the usual formula a little, and started to tell some really fascinating stories, introducing a lot of grey areas of morality among the apes.
This little retrospective look at Planet of the Apes would not be complete without a mention of the rest of the saga. For a short while there was a cartoon series called Return to the Planet of the Apes but, although I saw it at the time, I have only a vague recollection of it and it’s yet to be released over here properly so I’ve not had a chance to re-watch it. The Apes seems to always exist over the years, be it in comics or some other kind of merchandise, so it was no surprise when in 2001 a new version of the film was made by Tim Burton. It’s not especially well regarded these days, but I have to confess I still rather enjoy it. It’s sufficiently different from the 1968 version to stand on its own, and owes more to the Pierre Boulle novel than the original film did, being set on an alien world and not a future Earth. The ape make-up is obviously a vast improvement, but the cast work it well and pull in some great performances. The ending is fun too, playing on the original shock ending of Taylor finding the Stature of Liberty, only in this case Mark Wahlberg’s hero returns to his own time only to find Washington now controlled by apes, with the Lincoln Memorial now a memorial for the main ape antagonist, General Thade. It seemed to beg a sequel, but one never materialised until 2011 when the Apes universe was rebooted with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a re-telling of the original series but this time from the chronological point of view of Earth, instead of starting in the future. It makes sense, since the shock revelation of the 1968 film would never work now – the Apes films are far too well known. As mentioned earlier, both Rise and the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes take quite a few of their narrative beats from Conquest and Battle with the story of Caesar and his leading an ape revolution. This is the reboot the series needed, the fresh breath of life. Dawn was a blockbuster success last year, and the next film in the series is scheduled for release next year, although currently it remains untitled. Let me go on record, though, as saying I believe it will be called War of the Planet of the Apes… Stay tuned to find out if I’m right!