Planet of the Apes: Charlton Heston is terrific as the misanthrope enslaved by simians in this landmark Sci-Fi classic

Planet of the Apes(1968), starring Charlton Heston and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, is one of the most influential Sci-fi movies ever made. The film that spawned several sequels and reboots was adapted from Pierre Boulle’s 1963 French novel, La Planète des Singes, and portrays a futuristic society in which Apes are the dominant species and humans are the slaves.

“I can’t help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man.”

George Taylor (Charlton Heston) in Planet of the Apes

It’s with this thought that Astronaut George Taylor embarks on his journey into outer space. Taylor- as played by the one and only Charlton Heston in all his marble-monumental, bombastic, sardonic glory in Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes(1968) – is a self-confessed misanthrope; he’s had his fill of humanity, and its wickedness: man making war against his brother, men keeping their neighbor’s children starving, men making love without any love, etc. etc.; and in the (then) future of 1972, he decides to leave earth for good. He volunteers for a lengthy space mission along with three other astronauts, Landon (Robert Gunner), Dodge (Jeff Burton) and Ms. Stewart (Dianne Stanley), hoping to find a better world and a better species that might be an improvement on the selfish, self-destructive race of men. But Taylor gets more than what he bargained for: After travelling for one and half years in space at the speed of light- which makes it about 2000 years from the time they have left earth – Taylor’s spacecraft crash lands on a lake in an unknown planet. Taylor, Landon and Dodge manages to escape the craft, but Ms. Stewart is already dead, due to some chamber malfunction. The planet that the threesome find themselves on looks and feels a lot like earth, though they couldn’t find any signs of humans. The men travel through desolate wasteland, coming across eerie scarecrow-like figures and a freshwater lake with lush vegetation. As the overjoyed astronauts goes skinny-dipping, they discover that their new home is inhabited. There are other humans, but they are mute, and dressed in barely-there animal skin rags. These primitive humans steals the astronauts’ clothes and shreds them, forcing the three to cover themselves with whatever is left over of their clothes. Worse, they would soon come to realize that, on this planet, evolution has favored the apes, who have developed into the walking, talking, thinking rulers of a society where tolerance is minimal, and superstition is valued over science. Humans are treated like animals on this planet- hunted, enslaved and scientifically experimented upon.

Soon, Taylor and his fellow astronauts come under attack from the apes: an army of armed gorilla- dressed in black, riding horses and armed with primitive guns- raid a cornfield where the humans are gathering food. Taylor is shot in the throat as he and the others try to escape. Dodge is killed, while Landon is rendered unconscious. Taylor is gagged and caged along with other primitives, and taken to the ‘Ape city’ – where Taylor gets to see for himself this new society in which Apes (who speak English by the way) run the show. Within this ape society, there is a distinct social structure, based on species. The chimpanzees are the scientists and thinkers, the orangutans are the politicians, and the gorillas are the warriors. Taylor’s life is saved by Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter), a psychologist, who along with her fiancée Cornelius (Roddy McDowell), harbors some radical views regarding humans and the evolution of the Apes- a dangerous thing to do in a society driven by theocracy, and which consider humans as vermin. Taylor is rendered temporarily mute due to his neck injury, but even limited by speech, he does his best to convince Zira that he is an intelligent species who has come from another planet. Intrigued, Zira, along with a reluctant Cornelius, decides to engage with him more; much to the chagrin of their Minister of Science (and defender of faith), Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans)- who harbors extreme hatred towards humans, and orders that Taylor be castrated. Realizing that his predicament is going to be worse than death, Taylor attempts to escape, but is caught and brought back,; but amidst all this chaos, his voice suddenly comes back, and he manages to speak for the first time- delivering the most memorable line “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!“, and shaking the very foundations of the Ape Society, as this is also the first time a human has talked in the history of the Ape civilization. The incident comes as a shock for the apes- except for Zira, who’s overjoyed to be proven right regarding her theories on humans in general and Taylor in particular.

But Zira has her hands full. She has to prove the veracity of her theories about Taylor in front of an Ape tribunal, led by Zaius; failing which Taylor will be lobotomized and she would be condemned for heresy. Zira enlists the help of Cornelius in defending Taylor at the tribunal’s hearings; but the hearings proves to be a hoax, as the Ape superiors have already made up their minds about Taylor. They are in no mood to let either Taylor speak, or accept any of the theories put forward by Zira and Cornelius. In the end, Zaius is given custody of Taylor, and the tribunal moves to proceed against Zira and Cornelius on the charge of heresy. During his interrogation of Taylor, Zaius let it slip that he totally believes Zira’s theories about him, but Zaius is determined to destroy Taylor anyway; that’s unless Taylor informs him about the whereabouts of his fellow intelligent humans. Taylor realizes that Zaius is a phony and a hypocrite, and nothing that he says is going to have any effect on him. Taylor catches a lucky break when Zira and Cornelius, with the help of Zira’s young nephew Lucius, manages to free him from prison. Zira and Cornelius plan on taking Taylor to the forbidden Zone, a region marked out of bounds by Ape law, and, where Cornelius had clandestinely unearthed some proof about the existence of a non-simian civilization in a cave. Taylor insists on taking his mute female companion, Nova (Linda Harrison) along on the mission. When the group arrives at the cave in forbidden zone, Cornelius is intercepted by Zaius and his soldiers. Taylor holds them off by threatening to shoot Zaius, who agrees to enter the cave to disprove their theories. Inside, Cornelius displays remnants of a technologically advanced human society pre-dating simian history. Taylor identifies artifacts such as dentures, eyeglasses, a heart valve, and to the apes’ astonishment, a child’s talking doll. Zaius admits he has always known about the ancient human civilization, but realizing their potential for violence and self-destruction he chose to keep it hidden. Not satisfied with what he has already found, Taylor wants to travel further looking for answers. Ignoring Zaius’ warning: “You may not like what you find!“; and bidding farewell to Cornelius, Zira and Lucius, Taylor rides off with Nova. Eventually, he does find answers to the origin of the “Planet of Apes” and the reason for his current predicament- in one of the most famous and shocking twist endings in movie history.

When producer Arthur P. Jacobs bought the rights to Pierre Boulle’s novel for a screen adaptation; and agonized endlessly during its long gestation period, he may not had any idea what an influential and epoch-making motion picture he was involved with. The film would span sequels, spinoffs, comic books, TV series, a remake and even a very successful reboot. But at that time, no studio in town would touch a film which had spaceships and talking monkeys. Even after Jacobs enlisted a major star like Charlton Heston for the film, the project could not get greenlighted anywhere. The film finally came about thanks to a successful test video created by Jacobs with Charlton Heston and the supporting actors- in full simian makeup- enacting some scenes from the film. It proved that convincing-looking Ape makeup effects can be created without them appearing to be tacky or campy. Additionally, the success of the Sci-fi thriller “Fantastic Voyage”, convinced the studio brass that there was a market for Sci-fi pictures. Still, the budget was kept at a modest $6 million, which meant that Boulle’s original story, which featured a planet inhabited by apes in a modern-day setting had to be altered to place the apes into a more primitive setting. Boulle’s novel is a satire in the tradition of Voltaire that mocks humankind’s anthropocentric theory of the universe from which human beings derive their sense of importance, and is laced with the kind of harrowing ironies that Boulle was famous for. The initial script written by Rod Serling stuck closely to Boulle’s source material, so Jacobs hired Michael Wilson- who had already adapted Boulle’s “Bridge on the River Kwai” (in collaboration with Carl Foreman)- to do a re-write. Wilson, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, added the elaborate scenes of tribunal hearings, aggressive interrogations and witch-hunts that’s featured in the film. While the final twist that implicitly depicts a nuclear holocaust seems to be the idea of Serling- whose “Twilight Zone” regularly featured such endings, the Race-related class distinction portrayed in the film- where the paler orangutans held the high-ranking positions of power, while the darker-skinned gorillas did the more menial and violent tasks in ape society- seems to be a reflection of the civil rights movement that was sweeping the country at the time. Additionally, the apes treat the humans as chattel that can be disposed off at will- like it was the case with the slaves in Antebellum south.

“Planet of the Apes” was released just a few months before the release of Stanley Kubrick’s seminal Sci-fi masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey”; while the tone of the two films are completely different- the former being very much an old-fashioned Hollywood fantasy adventure that was designed to appeal to all sections of the audience, especially families and kids, the latter was a highbrow art film that broke all existing technical and narrative forms of cinema. But from their differing perspectives and ambitions, both films take a look at the same question(s): how did we originate?; and what will become of humanity?; and each film provides the answers in its own way. Like all great Sci-fi films, Planet of the Apes is allegorical, and makes critical commentary on the contemporary state of human society- commenting upon everything from race, religion, class-divisions, hypocrisy, tyranny, and keeping with the 60s zeitgeist, a distrust of the older generation. The film contains all the ingredients we expect from a film of this genre- action, adventure, fantastical futuristic settings, strange creatures, props, etc. but again in the tradition of best Sci-fi it’s the human element that’s paramount. The writers have managed to distill this very dense source material into a clean, one-line human narrative- a misanthrope’s comeuppance for his hatred of mankind; and his reconstruction and resurgence as a lover and liberator of humanity. Keeping with this theme, the film begins in the dark, outer space, and ends on the bright, seashores of planet earth- in front of the statue of Liberty. So whatever weirdness that’s going on in the film at any point, the filmmakers never lose sight of this plot line and sticks with it till the end; which explains why, despite its overall esoteric nature, the film was so successful.

Apart from being philosophical, creative, absorbing and scary, It also helped the film’s box office prospects that it is a magnificent visual (and aural) experience; from the emerald lake at the beginning to the threatening sea-shore at the end, with the breathtaking vistas of Utah, Arizona and California filling up the middle portions, the film, lensed by Fox’s veteran cinematographer Leon Shamroy, is a visual treat all the way. But the film’s greatest achievement is in its art direction- the design of the ‘Ape city’ is simply wonderful – costume design and makeup- for which John Chambers won the film’s lone Oscar. The makeup was the key to film’s success, if the simians weren’t believable, then the film would have been laughed off the screen. Thankfully, the apes look like advanced simians, and not just men in monkey suits; making them believable enough that we accept them. Jerry Goldsmith’s avant-garde score is one of the major highlights of the film. Till then he had mainly scored for War films, but with this film, he finally go the perfect vehicle for his talents. Goldsmith’s task was to help create the illusion of a completely unfamiliar alien culture through his soundtrack, and he chose to compose the music using looping drums, making the orchestra to imitate the grunting sounds of apes, having horns blown without mouthpieces, and instructing the woodwind players to finger their keys without using any air. He also used steel mixing bowls, among other objects, to create unique percussive sounds. This truly create a unique and ominous underscore, especially in the opening scenes when the astronauts are travelling thorough this unknown planet. For his innovating efforts, Goldsmith was nominated for an Oscar.

On Charlton Heston’s recommendation, Jacobs hired Franklin J. Schaffner to direct Planet of the Apes. Schaffner was not a well known director at the time, and had made movies on a much smaller scale; but he had directed Heston in “The Warlord”; and Heston was a keen promoter of directors he admired. After this film, Schaffner would make only big pictures and would go on to great acclaim making Oscar winning or nominated epics like Patton and Papillon. Schaffner’s direction is a mix of the traditional and the avant-garde; like a traditional Hollywood spectacle, this one has a sense of near-epic grandeur and scope, with a classically structured narrative. Schaffner spices it up by using some dizzying camerawork and jump-cuts , especially in the opening scenes, when the spacecraft crash lands in the lake, and then the three astronauts are traversing the desert wasteland. Of the three major action scenes in the film, the first two – the raid in the cornfield and Taylor’s attempted escape inside the ‘Ape city’ are dynamically staged. The final action scene set in the forbidden zone is rather restrained and tame- perhaps, Schaffner was (rightfully) expecting the twist ending to be the grand conclusion for the film. One of Schaffner’s great achievements is not letting the film slip into camp- with talking monkeys and a hero dressed in nothing more than a loincloth for the majority of the film, the film had a good reason for being laughed off the screen. Neither did Schaffner allow the film to become too serious that one loses the fun. He perfectly balance the irony and the philosophical nature of the film’s subject matter with the demands of delivering an exhilarating, crowd-pleasing entertainer. This is very well reflected in the performances of the actors as well; Roddy McDowell- who would soon come to be identified most with this ‘Ape’ franchise- and Maurice Evans gives compelling performances; even buried under layers of makeup, they give a distinct personality and verisimilitude to the roles. But the scene-stealer for me is Kim Hunter- most famous for playing “Stella” opposite Marlon Brando’s “Stanley” in “A Streetcar named Desire”. She’s simply delightful in the film; a truly entertaining presence; mixing broadly-defined simian body language with very subtle facial tics and affecting a quirky manner of speech, she brilliantly expresses the curious mix of whimsicality and seriousness of the character. Being covered in makeup from head to toe does not stop her from going all out for the role; she uses whatever she can, like her eyes, her forehead and her hands to convey emotions ranging from wonder, fear, intrigue, anger, outrage, love and even lust.

But it’s Charlton Heston who’s the real driving force of the film. He was one of the great champions of this project right from the get go, and stuck with the film throughout its long development process. On first glance, the film (and the character) looks to be a misfit for Heston who usually plays revered historical characters in serious melodramatic epics made by directors of the caliber of William Wyler and Anthony Mann. But on a closer look, one can spot the similarities that links “Taylor” to Moses or Ben-Hur. After the trio of spectacular, and spectacularly successful epics – “The Ten Commandments”, “Ben-Hur” and “El Cid” – which positioned Heston firmly as the go-to-guy for playing heroic, larger-than-life, mythical characters, his career hit a slump in the mid 1960s, when the gigantic roadshow epics that made him a star started losing their appeal. It also didn’t help that Heston, who held the center stage in those trio of films with emotionally charged, towering performances was forced to play rather toned down, bland characters in ensemble dramas, where the stakes weren’t that high, and the stake were split up among multiple characters. Films like 55 Days at Peking, Khartoum, Agony and Ecstasy and Major Dundee were all good (to great) films in their own right; helmed by well respected auteurs like Sam Peckinpah and Carol Reed, but they just didn’t pack the same emotional wallop or the exhilarating dose of “Heston heroism” that the audience expected from him after those landmark triumphs. Then there was the fact that the concept of heroism itself was changing- in a counter-culture, politically charged climate of the late 60s, the traditional clean-cut heroes were not considered hip enough by the audience. By then, Audiences had started preferring the flawed heroes of Bonnie & Clyde or Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid. Hence, the character of “Taylor” – which mixes the traditional heroism of Moses and Cid, with character flaws like misanthropy, cynicism and pompousness, in a classy, epical yet avant-garde, futuristic setting – was a godsend for Heston; this turned out to be the perfect role at the perfect stage of his career; it would appeal to the audience who admired his heroism in those old-fashioned epics, as well as allow him to connect with the new counter-culture audience; not to mention, a vast, untapped section of Sci-fi fans who were just becoming a demographic to be reckoned with.

In a magnificent, emotionally rich, energetic performance, Heston plays Taylor as a sort of ‘existential hero’, who leaves earth having lost all faith in humanity, but then lost in an unknown planet, he wants to start all over again as a human being- with his new found love and female companion “Nova”; dressed in animal skin rags and chain together in a cage, he plays “Me Tarzan, you Jane” with her. After a long time he makes love with someone he actually loves, and comes to value the human companionship she provides. Heston is really tender in these sequences; loud, but still tender, as he’s in the opening monologue he delivers in the pre-title sequence. Other times, he’s a human dynamo: his energy and his acting dialed all the way up to11. He fights, yells, snarls; he is violently treated- caged, dragged, and hosed with powerful jets of water. He runs barefoot through hills, mountains, plains and the streets of a splendidly designed ‘Ape City’; he is chased by gorillas on foot and on horseback, and pelted with stones and humiliated in every way by the inhabitants of the ‘Planet of the Apes’. Heston moves through all this dressed in the barest of essentials to cover his modesty; he’s deprived of even that during scenes of “McCarthy” like hearings, when he’s stripped fully naked- though seen only from the behind. We have seen him in minimal clothing in some portions of his portrayal of Ben-Hur and Moses, but here it’s for almost 95 percent of the film. Indeed, It takes a special kind of actor to appear dignified and heroic, throughout the length of a film, even when he’s dressed in rags and surrounded by actors in Ape makeup. The success of this film opened up a new artistic frontier for Heston; he would graduate from a star of historical\biblical epics to a star of Sci-Fi\disaster movies. He was such a larger-than-life, mythic presence that only the past or the future could accommodate him. He would never be convincing as a normal character grappling with the issues of the present.


3 thoughts on “Planet of the Apes: Charlton Heston is terrific as the misanthrope enslaved by simians in this landmark Sci-Fi classic

  1. Many thanks, Mank! This is an excellent overview. Glad you mentioned 2001 as well. I’ve always loved science fiction, and these two films had perhaps the great impact on me (at the age of eleven or so) of all the SF films I’ve seen.


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