Classic Movie Review: Planet of the Apes (1968)

Posted: August 9, 2014 in Drama
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planet of the apes

George Taylor (Charlton Heston) and his fellow astronauts, Landon (Robert Gunner) and Dodge (Jeff Burton) take off with a female astronaut Stewart (Diane Stanley) to test theories about time in deep space.  They fall asleep and wake up to discover they’ve crash landed in an ocean on some planet in the year 3978.  Stewart dies at some point while they were sleeping, and Taylor, Landon and Dodge barely make it out of the spaceship before it sinks.  They make it ashore, and traverse a huge desert where nothing can grow.  They’ve got three  days to find food, or they die, they find a flower, then some weird looking scarecrows and finally trees and a flowing stream of water.  The astronauts make it to a corn field where they see some mute prehistoric humans. Taylor thinks he’ll be running this planet in no time.  But then things grow eerily quiet, there’s gunfire and creatures on horseback.  The humans all instinctively run, the creatures hunting the humans are gorillas, and they mean to kill every last human they see.

Taylor and Landon survive the hunt, but Dodge does not.  Taylor is shot in the throat during the hunt, and loses the ability to speak. taken to Ape City where he’s given a blood transfusion, and survives.  Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) is a chimpanzee animal psychologist who is fascinated by Taylor’s attempts to speak.  Her boyfriend Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) is a chimp archeologist, who’s done some interesting digs to find out about the origins of the simian society.

Taylor communicates to Zira and Cornelius through handwritten notes, a human who can communicate is a direct threat to the order of the society that Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) Chief Science Officer and Defender of the Faith has built.  Zaius orders that Taylor be neutered, immediately.  Taylor learns of the plan and escapes the cage where he is kept, after a long chase, just when all seems lost for Taylor, his voice comes back and he cannot be killed now because he can speak.

Taylor is given a show trial, and remanded to Zaius’ custody where he promises to spare Taylor if he outs his talking human colony.  Taylor says there are no others and faces certain death.  Does Taylor die at the hands of Dr. Zaius?  Does Taylor ever find out more about this strange planet where apes rule over mute men?

I will probably be taken to the woodshed by some of you who read this review, and who don’t think this movie is a classic, but let me explain.  I first watched this movie on tv in the 1970’s, when I was around five years old, to my five year old mind, gorillas riding around on horseback hunting humans was the coolest thing ever.  As I got older, I understood the many complex issues discussed in this movie, nuclear war, evolution, the tension between faith and science (very timely these days) time travel, animal experimentation, even the cruel treatment of animals in captivity.  The trial of George Taylor was similar to the Scopes trial, with apes arguing over evolution instead of humans, there was even a social pecking order in the ape world, with orangutans having most of the powerful government functions, chimps doing the scientific work, as it were, and gorillas doing the military work.  All these facets in the story and the fact that the screenplay was co-written by Rod Serling, the genius behind The Twilight Zone made this movie endlessly entertaining and fascinating.  The other co-writer Michael Wilson, co-wrote such classics as Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai, The iconic line “Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape”, comes at such a pivotal point in the movie, and is so perfectly delivered by Heston, that the viewer cannot help but cheer that line. The script is not perfect however, most notably regarding women, the female astronaut is killed before ever leaving the ship, Nova is mute, and once Taylor talks to her, he says some incredibly sexist things to her. The strongest feminist voice belongs to Zira, who in a lot of ways is not only Cornelius equal, but superior to him, prodding him to act when he is too timid.

The acting especially by Heston is superb, he doesn’t play his usual epic hero, like Moses in the Ten Commandments or Ben Hur, in this movie he is an anti-hero, much in keeping with the times, the turbulent 1960’s.  Heston’s character George Taylor didn’t like people much, he didn’t even like his fellow crewmembers, he thought he had all the answers, in other words, he is a character in search of a comeuppance, and boy does he ever get one.  But as the last intelligent member of humankind, the viewer can’t help but root for Taylor despite all his shortcomings. Gasp! Heston even mouths liberal platitudes during the film, quite convincingly, I might add. Roddy McDowell was still feeling his way in this movie, he has some good lines but he plays the chimp Caesar with much more command in the later movies. Kim Hunter gives an exceptionally strong performance, I just realized that when watching it now, she is the one who moves the story along, and she has some of the best lines, including a comedic one to Heston.  She played Stella in Streetcar opposite Brando, so obviously she can act. Maurice Evans was also superb as Dr. Zaius, the tension was palpable in the scene between him and Heston in their scene alone in Zaius office. Sadly, Linda Harrison was little more than eye candy in her prehistoric bikini.

The direction was eye-catching by Franklin Schaffner, who directed Patton and the Boys From Brazil, another favorite of mine.. Schaffner adds many unique touches to this film, The plane crash in the beginning of the film, grabs the viewer immediately, the chase scene that ends up with Heston speaking is gripping, how he waits till the last possible second to show the apes in the hunt scene to get the full shock value is amazing, and of course the last scene is one the most iconic in movie history.

The makeup by John Chambers was revolutionary, and won an Academy Award.   The music by Jerry Goldmith was a creepy mix of futuristic and primitive, but it fit the movie to a tee.  Goldsmith was nominated but did not win an Academy Award.

Lots of people will talk about the CGI in the new Apes movie, but CGI for all its technical accuracy can seem cold and soulless to me at times, the 1968 version of the Apes were real performances by really talented actors with a really provocative script and visually compelling scenes, in other words a classic.

Planet of the Apes The original doesn’t monkey around with CGI.

 

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