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PLANET OF THE APES, 1968
Starring: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter and Maurice Evens
American Astronauts on a deep space mission travelling at near light speed crash land on a strange planet over 2000 years in the future. The Astronauts quickly discover that they are on some kind of topsy-turvy world where man is just a wild animal and apes are the masters of all creation.
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Planet of the Apes is one of those films that everyone knows about but for some reason few has actually seen. It’s an incredible classical film that has been parodied to the point of entering the public consciousness without individuals knowing how they know about it. Everyone, for example, knows the major twist at the end. Now if you didn’t know the twist and you were watching the film in a theatre 1968 it probably would have blown your mind. But I’ll get on to that later.
The film starts out with Taylor (Charlton Heston) giving us a monologue, by means of a final report that he is transmitting back to earth, explaining that he and his crew are on a deep space mission, travelling at near light speed and so due to the effects of time dilatation even though they have only been travelling for about six months in fact 700 years have gone by on earth. This is where Taylor makes the first of his quotes incredibly apt quotes about man. “Tell me,” says Taylor “Does man that marvel of the universe that glorious paradox that sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother, keep his neighbours children starving?...” This one line sets up so many things; the tone of the film the mood of the character and his opinions. It also forces us to wonder ourselves about his question. Taylor then joins his crew in deep sleep. As he does this the first of the awesomely eyrie music plays over the titles.
The titles end abruptly exploding light and blasting sound effects. The light turns out to be a sun and there are several quick shots of a desert and finally a river. The ship the astronauts are in has crash landed. The Astronauts, Taylor, Landon (Robert Gunner), Dodge (Jeff Burton) have to leave their craft and their deceased female astronaut behind. Here I must mention one of the things that strikes me about Planet of the Apes, something which makes it a classic and sets it apart from movies today. In any kind of film today the plot has to race along and get going at least within five minutes of the film starting. But in Planet of the Apes, the characters get time to come to grips with what has happened to them. Taylor explains to Landon in a macabre jokingly way that Landon may become the last surviving human due to the death of the last female. The men cross the desert for over 20 minutes in the film before they even come across any form of life, a small plant. The crew don’t even see any people until almost half an hour into the film and even then observe them eating grain for a while before a bizarre screeching noise is heard and the Humans start running. Now again if you were watching this film for the first time you would have no idea what was happening, you start hearing shots people are going down being captured in nets then suddenly you see that the people on horseback firing guns and throwing nets are in fact APES! Gorillas to be exact, over 30 minutes into the film. Any film today would have had them land right next to the primitive humans and be in Ape Central within 5 minutes. In a way this can be annoying even frustrating, watching this with a friend who had never seen the film a few years ago had him yelling at me every 10 minutes, “When are we gonna some apes!”
From here on the film is in my opinion a morality tale about many issues, animal cruelty, human rights, and the problems with allowing religion to rule a society, environmental concerns even questions about what really is consciousness. It is a tribute to Rod Serling’s script writing that none of these issues get confused or garbled together. Each comes out individually and is made clear without getting preachy.
The make-up is ground breaking for the 1960’s when most aliens/monster make-up was basically different coloured sellotape and sponge gaffer taped to an actor’s face. The make-up on the apes is remarkable, it allows the facial expressions of the actors to come through, every nose twitch and raised eyebrow.
The acting is faultless. Charlton Heston is amazing being a brooding character that never lets anyone get close to him in the style of heroes of the old west. Roddy McDowall is perfect as Cornelius the ape who is torn between his theory that man evolved from apes and his faith.
When 20th Century Fox first released this film I am sure they had no idea that they had a major franchise on their hands. Spurning four sequels, two short lived television series and a 2001 remake by director Tim Burton, Planet of the Apes proved very profitable for the company.
A little known fact, Planet of the Apes is based on a French novel by Pierre Boulle however the ending is very different. In Boulle’s version the planet of the apes is not earth at all and in the end the protagonist returns to earth to discover that a similar fate has befallen the people of earth. Boulle is even quoted as saying that the Statue of Liberty ending cheapens the story as a whole. Personally I place the ending of Planet of the Apes easily into my top five twist endings of all time.
Ultimately Planet of the Apes is one of those classic movies that you have to see at least once in your life for at the very least to gain a deeper understanding of that Simpsons joke in the episode where Homer is going to be sent into space. “We should be O.K. so long as they don’t send us to that terrible planet of the apes... wait a minute, Statue of Liberty. That was our planet! You animals! You blew it up! Damn you! Damn you all to hell!” Honestly Homer does it just as good if not better than Heston.