By Tim Pelan
Oh my God. I’m back. I’m home. All the time, it was… We finally really did it.
You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!
George Taylor (Charlton Heston)
Back in the eighties, there was a comic strip in role-playing magazine White Dwarf called “Travellers,” based on the space opera RPG. During a tense situation, our plucky band of adventurers whip out a diagnostic tool called the “Jerry Goldsmith Knock-ometer”—a sliding scale of peril and dread detection. A very apt descriptor for the music maestro’s influence on many a scary film moment. One such incident that still sends the hairs on the back on my neck straight up is his weirdly disturbing music cue (The Hunt) for the grand reveal in Planet of the Apes of just how upside-down a situation Taylor (Charlton Heston) and his fellow fallen astronauts find themselves in: the zoom-in reveal of gorillas on horseback, driving them and the loincloth-wearing “savage” humans encroaching on ape land through a tall field of green corn into waiting traps. It’s a powerfully disturbing piece, utilizing discordant Stravinskyesque woodwind figures, gorilla hoots, cuica drums and a ram’s horn. Goldsmith’s score for the film ranks at no.18 on the AFI 100 years of film scores. Not much to my mind can touch the shock and primal horror of battle-dress wearing primates riding down humans to this disturbing music, beating through the crops with large sticks and driving them into nets, gunning them down, then carrying off kicking and grunting children whilst comrades pose for a photographic memento over their fallen cull. There’s a lot of nonsense talked by so-called “fans” of genre fiction (mainly films, especially Star Wars, Marvel and DC) about keeping politics out of good storytelling. Planet of the Apes is a great precursor of sliding political allegory into genre storytelling, and with images and horror stories in the news of ICE personnel physically separating migrant children in America from their parents, it is just as pertinent and multi-layered today as it was in the sixties, with its then thorny issues of race relations and the underlying threat of nuclear armageddon.
Apes takes its time in getting to this reveal, however, as the three stranded astronauts trek across the unworldly landscape, backlit specks against the too big horizon, the sun blazing and flaring into the lens. As Paul Bullock writes, Goldsmith’s score helps sell “Franklin J. Schaffner’s masterpiece… an exemplary example of world-building, using landscape, culture and music to create a world that feels entirely alien, but also entirely believable.” Goldsmith’s music expands the strangeness and other-worldliness of the beautifully barren, forbidding environment, dwarfing the once proud astronauts. “It is Goldsmith’s tentative, echoing, uneasy music that takes us off Earth and someplace “not here,” states Let’s Not Talk About Movies. Let’s not understate the incredible contribution of DoP Leon Shamroy’s use of the 2.40:1 CinemaScope format either. The 20 minutes or so opening segment employed hand-held Arriflex cameras on location around Utah’s Lake Powell and Arizona’s Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, pack mules helping lug the load around the barely explored landscape. American Cinematographer wrote, “The ghostly, shimmering patterns produced by refraction and reflection of the direct sun rays between the elements of the lens create a bizarre effect that adds mightily to the visual mood.” The first act plays out a difficult balancing act of presenting Taylor’s cynical personality whilst still making the audience care about his predicament. He didn’t volunteer for the space programme out of ego: “Somewhere in the universe there must be something better than man,” he muses. This was the tagline for the film’s original one-sheet, featuring an image of Orangutan Simian society supremo, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans).
Heston was specifically cast to subvert the previously established (many times by him) myth of western dominance. Here, in the apes’ world, he’s on the back foot. During one point in the chase through Ape city when he briefly escapes captivity, the POV shifts from that of Taylor to that of the Simian citizenry—handheld, frenetic, chaotic, shattering the peace; a wild thing disturbing their civilized day. The actor was drawn to the sophistication of the script, but perhaps primarily to a part, hitherto rarely seen in science fiction films, that he could get his teeth into. “Planet of the Apes offered an acting role,” he told Cinefantastique in 1972. “Taylor, the misanthrope who is physically fleeing earth because of his contempt for man as a generally unsatisfactory animal. He finds himself thrust into the ironic situation of being the only reasoning human being in the anthropoid society, where he is forced to defend the homo sapiens, whom he despises. This is a very interesting acting situation… Taylor is one of the very few characters in science fiction in which there is actual change.”
Pierre Boulle wrote the original story, adapted for the screen by Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame, and redrafted by Michael Wilson. Wilson had previously contributed to the script of another Boulle story, David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai, writing under a pseudonym due to the blacklist. Kwai was in part inspired by the Frenchman’s experience in a Japanese labor camp in 1943. He had worked on rubber plantations in Malaya before joining the Free French forces. The Apes script toyed for a while with a sophisticated level of technology for the Simian society, as in Boulle’s Swiftian satire, but streamlined ideas to save on the budget. The ape society became semi-advanced with rudimentary technology, living in simple “stone” buildings designed by William Creber, resembling a Turkish system of cave dwellings in the Goreme Valley. Another inspiration was the work of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. Two large statues of the ape “Law-maker” figure from Simian history were made for the city set but ultimately unused. One found its way to Sammy Davis Jr.’s garden, who declared Apes to be the best film on race relations he’d ever seen. The film took five years from producer Arthur P. Jacobs acquiring the rights and touting the property around various studios, until its release by 20th Century Fox in 1968. Much like George Lucas with visionary artist Ralph McQuarrie, Jacobs employed artist Don Peters to draft 100 concept illustrations of such images as apes hunting humans in Sikorsky helicopters, tanks, and also that final iconic image. The concept art helped convince Heston also to come aboard.
In Boulle’s story, the human explorer Ulysse Mérou escapes from the Ape planet and returns to Earth, to find that here too apes are now the dominant species. The idea that Taylor should discover the strange world has landed on is, in fact, his own Earth in the far-flung future (thanks to the fictional Hasslein’s theory of time dilation), was based on a Twilight Zone episode with a similar premise by Serling, entitled I Shot an Arrow into the Air. Serling’s work went through over 30 drafts. He credits Wilson with the final dialogue, but the script retains the essential thrust of his work. “The singular greatest evil of our time is prejudice,” he told the L.A Times in 1967. “In almost everything I have written there is a thread of this. Man’s palpable need to dislike someone other than himself.” That applies to the stagnant Ape society as well, Dr. Zaius stamping on the research of Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Zira (Kim Hunter) into the human “missing link.” “Why must knowledge stand still? What about the future?” Zira’s nephew Lucius (Lou Wagner) protests.
Prejudice and caste permeate ape society as much as inter-species “relations.” Dr. Galen and Zira discuss a “quota system” for resources, a coded reference to restrictive immigration, education and employment practices which denied opportunities to many American Jews for a time in the US. A peculiar effect manifested itself during meal breaks on the set–gorilla performers (the workers and soldiers), chimps (professionals) and orangutans (intellectual elite) would gravitate unspoken each to their own kind.
Hunter recalled napping on location at Point Dume, Malibu, California, scene of the climax at the caves (actually a set; there are no caves at the beach) and having to lay prostrate to avoid damaging the prosthetic appliances, created by make-up wizard John Chambers, an ex-army medic who specialised in repairing wounded soldiers’ faces and creating prosthetic limbs (he also created Spock’s ears on Star Trek). Hunter’s subconscious was aware of the make-up; in her dream, she felt she was literally chimpanzee from the neck up, but couldn’t look down over the appliance to see if the rest of her was human. “I woke up and I was shaking.”
Chambers maintained a high level of control over the make-up on Apes, training his staff to get the process down from six hours to three. “I felt there were areas I had to maintain director and camera control. We had to confer if I felt the shot was not good for the make-up. If the acting or the shot, no matter how good it was, wasn’t done properly for the make-up, it would have to be redone. There were very few faults on the first one [Apes film] because I was on the set every day.” Chambers’ dedication was rewarded with an honorary Oscar for make-up (only the second such award given at that time) after lobbying by Jacobs and Fox head Richard Zanuck.
On aspect of the film that is glossed over is the fact that Heston and the apes all speak English. An original sophisticated idea of Jacobs which would have been interesting to see developed was that the apes would speak in a distinct simian language. Taylor, temporarily rendered mute by a throat wound during the hunt, would absorb their syntax, until he spoke back to them. As they began to converse more, they would gradually all speak English. Although the shock value of “take your stinking paws off me, you damn, dirty ape!” would have been rendered less effective.
When Taylor escapes with Cornelius, Zira, Lucius and Taylor’s new mute mate Nova (Linda Harrison) to examine the archaeological dig at the caves, Heston’s image as a viral defender of western values is again subverted; no longer holding “Khartoum” or some US Army outpost against “primitives,” he defends the last pathetic deteriorating artefacts of a failed race, “much like man” (the chump—wait’ll he sees what’s around the corner). “Beware the beast that is man,” Zaius warns him, urging Cornelius to read from the sacred scrolls. “He alone kills for sport, or lust, or greed.” The words strike a chord with Taylor, who at the film’s opening upon his wondrous space ship mused if mankind, long since left behind, still waged war against his brother, while letting his neighbor’s children starve.
The infamous reveal of man’s folly was shot on 3 August 1967 at the cliff-walled Zuma beach, where William Creber’s team had erected a half-scale partial model of the head and torch of Lady Liberty. Taylor and Nova hove upon the shattered remnant of man’s once-proud dominance of the Earth on horseback, the blackened spikes of the crown foregrounding the imminent surf-pounding primal release: “Oh my God. I’m back. I’m home. All the time, I was… We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”
Creber actually shot the head-view shot himself, as 69-year-old DoP Leon Shamroy refused to climb the 70-foot scaffolding supporting it, as did Assistant director William Kissell. Heston argued for the full force of his amended final lines (an original stunned “My God,” was all that was written in the script) in the face of a potential Production Code violation. He wrote in his journal, “It’s surely acceptable in the context of the speech? Taylor is literally calling on God to damn the destroyers of civilization.” Shaffner shot several variations (in one Heston gets shot riding off into the sunset by a gorilla sniper), and Heston got his way, thank God.
The overall reveal managed to remain a secret, whilst various people liked to lay claim to the idea of the Statue of Liberty being discovered by a shocked Taylor. Serling always believed it to be his idea—Jacobs liked to tell the tale of how he and originally mooted director Blake Edwards came upon the concept after noticing the statue adorn a mural on the wall of Burbank’s Yugo Kosherama deli, near the Warner’s lot. According to him, they both chimed “Rosebud” (not “Eureka”?). As you can see from the earlier link to Don Peters’ concept art, it was actually his idea way back at the beginning of the process. His Lady Liberty concept art features in the 1972 Apes issue of Cinefantastique. America’s hopeful huddled masses reduced to a mute band of rag-wearing scavengers–subversive, shocking and singular, many films have shot a SURPRISE! arrow into the air, but none have landed with such a sickening thud as this entropic reveal.
Written by Tim Pelan. Tim was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
In the video above, Roddy McDowall’s home movies from Planet of the Apes.
Based on Pierre Boulle’s novel La Planete de Singes, the original Planet of the Apes was one of the most iconic films of the 1960s. Starring Hollywood stalwarts Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowell, the movie captivated audiences and sparked a franchise. Now, five decades after its theatrical release, Jonathan Rinzler tells the thrilling story of this legendary Hollywood classic, a film the book’s author thought would be impossible to make. With a foreword by Fraser Heston, Charlton Heston’s son, The Complete Making of the Planet of the Apes is an entertaining experience that transports readers to the elusive alternate earth ruled by apes. Rinzler draws on material from a variety of sources, including early publications and interviews, Fox and Warner Bros.’ studio archives, and records from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
April 1968 American Cinematographer featuring Planet of the Apes.
The ultimate documentary: Planet of the Apes 50 Years Later.
Cinefantastique vol. 2 no. 2 (Planet of the Apes special issue).
Screenwriter must-read: Michael Wilson & Rod Serling’s screenplay for Planet of the Apes [PDF1, PDF2, PDF3]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes. Photographed by Larry Prather © APJAC Productions, Twentieth Century Fox. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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