Remembering 'Planet of the Apes' (1968)

“It is a story, and science fiction is only the pretext. I wouldn’t even know how to define SF…I think it’s the genre where you can deal with and imagine unhuman characters, but in my book my apes are men, there is no doubt. I believe it was triggered by a visit to the zoo where I watched the gorillas. I was impressed by their human-like expressions. It led me to dwell upon and imagine relationships between humans and apes.” — Pierre Boulle.

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Fast-talking producer Arthur P. Jacobs had been looking for a King Kong like story to bring to the screen when he found the next best thing, French writer Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel La planète des singes, or Monkey Planet, later renamed Planet of the Apes. Early in the project’s development Jacobs came up with a dazzling inspiration. Unlike the book, which mostly took place in an alien world, what if the main character was on Earth the whole time and both he and the audience didn’t know it? Jacobs took the story idea to the creator of TV’s The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling. A former Purple Heart recipient who had been wounded in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, the very anti-war Serling wrote an extremely serious, almost humorless screenplay set in a simian city that resembled 1950s New York and initially proved far too expensive for any Hollywood Studio to produce.

“Imagination… its limits are only those of the mind itself.” Rod Serling

After making the rounds and being soundly rejected by Hollywood executives, the ever-hustling Jacobs approached the forty-two year old former John Charles Carter, who upon deciding to become an actor had renamed himself after his mother, Lila Charlton, and his stepfather Chet Heston. By that time a well-established movie star, Charlton Heston was going through a political metamorphis. A lifelong Democrat, Heston had been shooting the historical drama, The Warlord, on location in Northern California in 1964 (the film was released in 1965). Each morning on his drive to work the Lyndon Johnson supporting Heston passed by a campaign billboard that pictured GOP nominee Barry Goldwater with the caption, “In your heart you know he’s right.” One day, it simply hit Heston that the sign was true, Goldwater was right! Heston still voted for Johnson in 1964 but was on his way to becoming a well-known champion of conservative causes. Although he later called Jacobs “a slippery character” Heston was intrigued by the Apes script and committed to the project almost immediately with the suggestion that Warlord director Franklin J. Schaffner be added the creative team. Not only did he smell a hit, but Heston also felt Apes could make a powerful statement about the flawed nature of man.

“As much as any character I have ever played, Taylor reflects my own views about mankind. I have infinite faith and admiration for the extraordinary individual man – the Gandhi, the Christ, the Caesar, the Michelangelo, the Shakespeare – but very limited expectations for man as a species. And that, of course, was Taylor’s view. And the irony of a man so misanthropic that he almost welcomes the chance to escape entirely from the world finding himself then cast in a situation where he is spokesman for his whole species and forced to defend their qualities and abilities – it was a very appealing thing to act.” — Charlton Heston.

With a bankable movie star as part of his pitch, Jacobs found Apes to be an easier sell. After expressing reservations about humans in monkey make-up being taken seriously by audiences, Twentieth Century Fox studio President Richard Zanuck, son of the legendary producer Darryl Zanuck, shelled out fifty grand to film a screen test showing Heston facing off against an intelligent ape, played by Charlton’s former co-star from The Ten Commandments (1956) Edward G. Robinson; the results were convincing enough for Planet of the Apes to be green lit. To save money the fictional Ape City became primitive, rather than the modern metropolis imagined by Boulle and Serling. Principle casting included former child star Roddy McDowall as the sometimes sarcastic, but ultimately well-meaning chimp archaeologist Cornelius. Kim Hunter, a previous Oscar winner for A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), whose career had slowed after being accused of having communist sympathies and being blacklisted, played McDowall’s soon-to-be mate, the empathetic animal psychologist Dr. Zira. When Edward G. Robinson could not handle the daily arduous Apes make-up process he was replaced by Shakespearian actor Maurice Evans as the orangutan Minister of Science and Keeper of the Faith, Dr. Zaius, Heston’s main adversary in the film, who had no compunctions about performing lobotomies on humans. And the beautiful twenty-two-year-old Linda Harrison, who at he time was dating and would later marry studio boss Zanuck, was hired to play Heston’s love interest, the mute, animal-like Nova.

I had never thought of this motion picture in terms of being science fiction. More or less, it was a political film, with a certain amount of Swiftian satire, and perhaps science fiction last.” – Planet of the Apes Director Franklin J. Schaffner

Blacklisted writer Michael Wilson, whose credits included another Boulle novel-turned-into-film The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), was brought in to add both political messages and some needed laughs to the script. The different ape species took on varying characteristics, the chimpanzees were depicted as both seekers of knowledge and pacifists, the orangutans became politicians and not surprisingly were portrayed as hypocrites, leaving the military operations to be carried out by the very threatening gorillas. In one of the movie’s most frightening scenes, the human hunting gorillas are momentarily hidden behind eight-foot-high swaying corn stalks, before both the audience and Heston get their first view of the menacing creatures on horseback (one possible explanation for their aggressiveness may have been that there were no female gorillas in the movie). When Heston’s astronaut character, George Taylor, was put on trial by the orangutans, Michael Wilson wanted the scene to resemble the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in 1951 where Wilson had given the impression that he was a communist sympathizer. Heston and Schaffner tried to lighten things up by suggesting the orangutan tribunal cover their mouth, ears, and eyes, imitating the famous 17nth Century Japanese monkey carvings: “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”; Heston later admitted the ape’s facial gesture scene was over-the-top and clichéd and was a bit embarrassed that it was left in the finished picture; he blamed the inclusion on Apes testing well in sneak previews and the producers not wanting to take a chance on changing anything.

“Masks are in the oldest tradition of the theatre and there is something exciting about reviving an ancient art.” — Roddy McDowall

Planet of the Apes was a difficult shoot for practically everyone involved. The early scenes that took place after the space ship crashed into what appeared to be a desolate planet were filmed in the Arizona desert; one of Heston’s doomed fellow astronauts fainted in the over-100 degree heat. The kind-hearted and very professional Heston helped his on-screen love interest Linda Harrison, still a novice at film acting, learn how to work the camera to her best advantage. Heston, who bragged about never being sick, spent a challenging summer getting clubbed, being dragged around by a leash, hanging in nets, being pelted with fruit, running through poison oak, and standing naked in front of the company during the trial scene; the happily-married star laughed when a coffee girl complimented him on his buns. At one point Heston came down with the flu, he made the most of it when in a very hoarse voice (fitting, since his character had been shot in the throat) he uttered what many considered the signature line of the film, “Take your stinking paws off me you damn, dirty ape!” Method actress Kim Hunter spent a lot of time studying monkeys at the Los Angeles Zoo, took tranquilizers each morning so she didn’t squirm out of the makeup chair, suffered through nightmares in which she was uncertain of her humanity, and got sick of joking crew members who kept offering her bananas. The illusion was so complete that after months of working together when Hunter greeted Heston in her natural, Homosapien form at Planet’s first screening he had no idea who she was. Before the film, Hunter and Maurice Evans were good friends but on the set in between shots the make believe chimps, gorillas, and orangutans only associated with their own kind. The English born Evans noted that after spending long hours in an orangutan mask laced with 180 proof alcohol he was too buzzed to drive himself home. On the other hand traffic came to a halt one day on the Pacific Coast Highway from the sight of a station wagon that had been commandeered by what appeared to be a bunch of gorillas. And the chain-smoking Roddy McDowall loved driving down the 405 freeway in his full ape costume, waving at the other motorists while stuck in traffic. Roddy also had fun at the expense of his old friend and co-star from Broadway’s Camelot, Julie Andrews, who was working on the Fox lot. Late one afternoon an exhausted Andrews, who was then undergoing psychoanalysis, returned to her dressing room and shut the door. What looked like a giant talking chimpanzee popped out from behind a cabinet, and gave the actress the fright of her life.

“The Forbidden Zone was once a paradise. Your breed made a desert of it, ages ago.”Maurice Evans, as Dr. Zaius in Planet of the Apes.

Planet of the Apes was very well received, spawned several lesser-thought-of sequels, and largely because of it’s surprise ending, generally credited to Rod Serling, was considered to be a classic by many critics and cinemagoers. In his later years Charlton Heston became the President of the National Rifle Association and to the chagrin of many of his liberal colleagues in Hollywood, some who lived in mansions with signs on their lawns that said “armed response,” proudly expressed the quite logical viewpoint that the Second Amendment which protected individual gun rights was the key element in the US Constitution, without it none of the other promised liberties would survive. His pro-gun sentiments seemed to be at odds with the powerful anti-war message of Apes. Looked at another way, with the remains of the Statue of Liberty on the beach, revealing that New York was destroyed by an apparent nuclear attack, the film’s ending perhaps indicated what would happen to America if she couldn’t defend herself.


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