History, Legacy & Showmanship
Thursday, 08 February 2018 14:14

Something Better Than Man: Remembering “Planet of the Apes” on its 50th Anniversary

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“It’s hard to overstate the influence of Planet of the Apes on the sci-fi film genre. Until then, sci-fi didn’t get much respect, but the one-two punch of that film followed by Kubrick’s mind-blowing 2001 would cause critics and audiences to reevaluate the genre as something more than hapless earthlings trying to repel creatures with ray guns.” — Lee Pfeiffer, Cinema Retro editor-in-chief

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the golden anniversary of the release of Planet of the Apes, the science fiction classic starring Charlton Heston (The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur) and Roddy McDowall (The Black Hole, Fright Night).

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Papillon) and based upon the Pierre Boulle novel, Planet of the Apes also featured Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, James Daly, and Linda Harrison.

The popular film turns fifty this month, opening initially in New York before a staggered spring rollout across the country. [Read on here...]

The film turned out to be one of the most popular movies of 1968 and, with an assist that same year from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, helped to mainstream the often marginalized science fiction genre. (And contrary to claims in some film history books, Planet of the Apes and 2001 did not get released on the same date. Sigh…)

Anyway, for the occasion, The Bits features a Q&A with a trio of film historians, who discuss the film’s virtues, influence, and modern-day relevance.

The participants are (in alphabetical order)….

Jeff Bond is the author (with Joe Fordham) of Planet of the Apes: The Evolution of the Legend (Titan, 2014). His other books include The World of the Orville (Titan, 2018), The Art of Star Trek: The Kelvin Timeline (Titan, 2017), Danse Macabre: 25 Years of Danny Elfman and Tim Burton (included in The Danny Elfman & Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box, Warner Bros., 2011) and The Music of Star Trek (Lone Eagle, 1999). Jeff is the editor of Geek magazine, covered film music for The Hollywood Reporter for ten years, and has contributed liner notes to numerous CD soundtrack releases.

Jeff Bond

John Cork wrote and directed the documentary short Taking the Shot: The Films of 20th Century Fox (2010). He is the author (with Collin Stutz) of James Bond Encyclopedia (DK, 2007) and (with Bruce Scivally) James Bond: The Legacy (Abrams, 2002) and (with Maryam d’Abo) Bond Girls Are Forever: The Women of James Bond (Abrams, 2003). He is the president of Cloverland, a multi-media production company. Cork also wrote the screenplay to The Long Walk Home(1990), starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek. He has recently contributed introductions to new hardback editions of three of the original Ian Fleming James Bond novels: Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, and Goldfinger.

John Cork

Lee Pfeiffer is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Cinema Retro magazine, which celebrates films of the 1960s and 1970s and is “the Essential Guide to Cult and Classic Movies.” He is the author of several books including (with Dave Worrall) 40-Year Evolution: Planet of the Apes (included in the 2008 40th anniversary Blu-ray release) and The Essential Bond: The Authorized Guide to the World of 007 (Boxtree, 1998/Harper Collins, 1999) and (with Philip Lisa) The Incredible World of 007: An Authorized Celebration of James Bond (Citadel, 1992).

Lee Pfeiffer

The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited into a “roundtable” conversation format.

Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How do you think Planet of the Apes should be remembered on its 50th anniversary?

Jeff Bond: It’s still basically an iconic brand given the three recent movies. And when you look back at 1968, Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey were really the first American science fiction “A” movies — movies that were artistic successes, big budget, major productions that were about ideas. And Planet of the Apes created the first high-profile science fiction movie franchise that lay the groundwork for Star Wars and many other movies.

John Cork: Planet of the Apes is one of the most significant science fiction films ever made. It should be remembered as a high-water mark of American studio films of the era. It played during the spring of 1968, and in part because of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in early April, the dark satire and the underlying counter-culture message resonated forcefully with audiences. It also played in theaters simultaneously in some markets with 2001: A Space Odyssey, a much more hopeful and amorphous film, marking the year of their release as a zenith for science fiction in cinema. And, quite simply, it should be remembered for one of the greatest movie endings in the history of cinema.

Lee Pfeiffer: It’s hard to overstate the influence of Planet of the Apes on the sci-fi film genre. Until then, sci-fi didn’t get much respect, but the one-two punch of that film followed by Kubrick’s mind-blowing 2001 would cause critics and audiences to reevaluate the genre as something more than hapless earthlings trying to repel creatures with ray guns. There had been some “intelligent” sci-fi films prior to this, of course, but even the best often had hokey elements to them. The original version of The Thing and Forbidden Planet are generally cited as milestone films in the genre, and given the time period in which they were made, they were indeed major leaps forward in terms of gaining respectability for sci-fi movies. However, as beloved as these films are, certain elements creak with age and have not withstood the test of time the way the original Planet of the Apes has. There is nothing dated about it at all. It retains all of its emotional power and the social messaging seems as timely now as it did in 1968, which is actually a sad commentary on the world today.

Coate: Do you remember when you first saw the movie?

Bond: I saw it on television when I was in 5th or 6th grade and it was a big event, and I quickly caught up on all the films as they aired on television — I finally saw the original movie in a theater in college. As a kid, I think we were just crazy for the idea of gorillas riding on horseback shooting rifles. It was just a bizarre, amazing world with these talking, unforgettable simian characters. As I got older I became more and more entertained by the politics and ideas behind it.

Cork: I saw it in 1968. I believe it was in the summer because my Aunt Lois took me to see the film at a local drive-in. I was six years old. I was immediately captivated. We stopped by a convenience store on the way home and she got me a pack of the bubble-gum cards. My friend Grayson and I immediately began collecting them. The basic story was so simple, so clear that we could understand it, and understand the meaning of the ending. There are lots of films that one loves when one is six, but that don’t hold up years later. Planet of the Apes holds up brilliantly.

Pfeiffer: I saw it at age 11 with my father when it first opened at the Stanley Theatre movie palace in Jersey City, New Jersey. I think that the very concept made everyone skeptical that the premise of the movie would be anything other than ridiculous, though the advance TV spots did look intriguing. I primarily wanted to go because I was a major Charlton Heston fan. In those days, there wasn’t much major “buzz” on forthcoming films unless they were the subject of scandalous news stories like Cleopatra (Burton and Taylor plus a ballooning budget), Mutiny on the Bounty (Brando taking the hit for the film’s skyrocketing costs) and The Alamo (a murder on the set and political concerns about the script). Today, the word is out on most movies for better or worse before it even wraps. But in 1968, Planet of the Apes was a mystery to the average movie-goer. The enthusiasm that greeted the film in those first few days spread rapidly, bolstered by the kind of great reviews sci-fi movies rarely enjoyed. It suddenly became a “must-see” phenomenon.

Apes 35mm film clippingCoate: In what way is Planet of the Apes a significant film?

Bond: It was groundbreaking in its makeup effects — this was the first time what was essentially an entire alien, inhuman race of creatures had been created and put on film before and an entire civilization had been imagined, designed and made convincing on film. It was an idea that was immediately classic — you had distinctive, excellent actors bringing these simian characters to life and making them immediately memorable, and you had Charlton Heston as this iconic stand-in for all the best and worst in humanity, and one of the great shock endings in movie history. Plus a brilliant score by Jerry Goldsmith that is still one of the greatest, most experimental achievements in movie music.

Cork: Planet of the Apes works so well because of its brilliant use of irony, its pointed exposure of hypocrisy, its willingness to play every joke and absurdity completely straight. Few films can work both as straight science fiction and as mocking social satire. Planet of the Apes does both very well. It is without equal in this. It is a film that speaks to so much: the battle between science and religion, the racial unrest in America, the hubris of man.

The original film has these absolutely absurd problems with its premise. A bit of a spoiler here, but what astronaut would think that some random planet would have a breathable atmosphere, water, temperate climate, humans, Earth flora, horses, apes, and the exact same spoken and written language? The key moment comes when Taylor is wounded and captured. He looks over and sees gorilla hunters standing, smiling for a photo with dead human bodies at their feet. The camera is vintage 1800s technology. Period photos like this can be found with white men posing with the bodies of any number of indigenous peoples, or with escaped slaves, or lynching images. But this particular image had even more recent precedents: the shocking images of the French troops posing with the bodies of dead Algerians a decade earlier. That moment is the moment when you first hear the apes speak English, and it is so filled with meaning that most viewers instinctively understand that this film has something to say. And it is also significant that the first word an ape speaks is, “smile.”

This is a film that tells viewers that we are going to see our world reflected back at us through this thin premise of a planet ruled by apes, but the way the film reflects our world back is always chilling, always surprising, always thought-provoking.

Pfeiffer: The sheer intelligence of the screenplay by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling set it apart from most sci-fi movies. They had the benefit of working from an inspiring source novel by Pierre Boulle, who had written the book that The Bridge on the River Kwai had been based on. The screenplay provided old-fashioned cliffhanger thrills with wry social commentary, often in a humorous way. The film was released in 1968 amid the most contentious events America had experienced since the Civil War. The civil rights movement was in high gear, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated within a few months of each other. President Johnson, beleaguered by the growing anti-Vietnam War protests announced to a shocked nation he would not run for a second term. The Democratic Party had devolved into pure chaos and resulted in the nationally televised riots that defined their convention in Chicago that summer and allowed Richard Nixon to rise from the political graveyard and gain the presidency. We all know how that would end. Planet of the Apes was a finished film before any of these events occurred yet it seemed positively prescient by the time it opened. Suddenly a movie depicted white males as an oppressed minority, powerless to stop social injustice by rulers who had on blinders. There were also pleas to humanity about the insanity of nuclear war. It was pretty heavy stuff to contend with, but it spoke poignantly to people during that fateful year.

Aside from its social significance, Planet of the Apes was simply great filmmaking. The makeup by John Chambers was so incredibly good that he was awarded a special Oscar because the makeup category wasn’t in existence at the time. Chambers revolutionized the industry through his amazing achievement, even though it did cause one “casualty”: Edward G. Robinson had originally been cast as Dr. Zaius, but he had a severe reaction the makeup and had to drop out. He was replaced, of course, by the equally impressive Maurice Evans who gave the screen performance of his life. (Heston and Robinson would ironically work together a few years later on another cautionary futuristic tale, Soylent Green, which was Robinson’s final film.) I can’t fail to mention the innovative musical score by Jerry Goldsmith, who was simply a contract composer at the time, assigned by Fox to whatever film they instructed him to work on. He was a real asset to the studio during these years and his offbeat, chilling score for Planet of the Apes earned him an Oscar nomination.

A scene from Planet of the Apes (1968).

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