Back when I was in high school and college, a local TV station (KTLA channel 5, I think) would periodically run all five Planet of the Apes movies in one week. I developed a great deal of affection for this particular franchise, despite the obvious flaws in most of the sequels. In honor of the new box set available this past week, I am launching a special, semi-official theme week that I’m calling Simians in the Springtime.
Even before Star Wars, the Apes movies blazed the trail for shameless marketing and tie-ins. Every thing you could buy with a Star Wars logo on it, action figures, lunch boxes and games, you could buy a similar Apes-related item a decade earlier. I don’t believe that there ever any Planet of the Apes collectable glasses at Taco Bell, but for virtually everything else under the sun, the apes got there first.
As with most film franchises, the first film is the only one that really justifies its existence. Rather liberally adapted from the novel by Pierre Boulle, the iconic status of Planet of the Apes is a light in which the four sequels can only hope to bask.
For those too young or too stoned at the time to remember, the story revolves around a misanthropic astronaut named Taylor (Charleton Heston), who crash lands on a strange planet in which the evolutionary ladder of primates is turned on its head. Intelligent apes rule over mute, primitive humans. In this culture, orangutans are the political and spiritual leaders, gorillas are the soldiers, and chimpanzees are the scientists and intellectuals. Two sympathetic chimps named Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) befriend him and protect him when his power of speech threatens the apes’ religious dogma.
The film deftly uses the role inversion to comment wryly on human foibles. The ape spiritual leader, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), doggedly attempts to crush any suggestion that apes and humans are related in any way, which makes the evolved human Taylor an abomination to be destroyed. It’s mildly ironic to see Charleton Heston standing up for evolutionary science, since Heston has appeared in some pro-creationist television shows in more recent years.
For his part, Heston is given plenty of scenery to chew and the movie exploits his iconic status. It’s not his subtlest performance or even one of his best, but it fits the movie and the role perfectly. However, it is Roddy McDowall who is the heart and soul of this film series. The amount of humor, emotion and humanity that he is able to force through John Chambers’s revolutionary make-ups through four films is just amazing.
The spotty qualities of the four sequels notwithstanding, Planet of the Apes earns a high place among films of that time for its surprisingly witty script, astute casting and the groundbreaking technology behind the illusion of the talking apes.