Remembering...Planet of the Apes (1968)

Next week sees the coming of yet another entry in the expansive Planet of the Apes franchise with the July 11 release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  In honor of the series, I will be writing an article a day looking back on each film in the series to date (yes, including Burton’s remake and the 2011 reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes).  Where better to start than with the original classic that started it all…

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Everyone knows the ending to Planet of the Apes.  You know it, I know it, that kid who happened to glance at the DVD cover in your grocery store knows it.  It’s what the movie is remembered for.  Well, that along with a handful of memorable lines and those damn, dirty ape costumes.  But how well do you actually know the movie?  When was the last time you actually watched it?  Could you read the plot back to me?  Do you remember the names of the characters, or the conflicts that happen during the movie?  My money says that most people who watch the movie only retain the iconic moments and the twist ending, discarding the rest somewhere in the back of their mind.

Pictured: A scene discarded in the back of our minds.

Pictured: A scene discarded in the back of our minds.

People get so caught up in those aspects of the movie that they often overlook the whole creationism vs evolution thread.  At its core, it’s a story about two rational scientists vs a society of religious morons who refuse to listen to reason in fear that it will contradict their ancient beliefs.  A whole article could be written on the ethics of this film, and how it shows the dangers of religion without reason and so on and so forth.  But looking even beyond that one can dig up some interesting aspects that I think often get overlooked, namely this film’s connection with the rest of the series.

When watching the credits, there’s one name that pops out among the rest to science fiction audiences.  Sure, director Franklin Schaffner would go on to direct the pulp film The Boys From Brazil and the WWII classic Patton, but it’s in the writing credits that the real interest lies: Rod Serling.

The face that gave nightmares a reason to exist.

The face that gave nightmares a reason to exist.

Rod Serling is the mad genius responsible for one thing that defined his entire career, because let’s be honest, what else do we remember him doing other than The Twilight Zone? (Night Gallery doesn’t count because you don’t know what that is).  It turns out that because of his success with The Twilight Zone, he was asked to write a screenplay adapting the novel La Planète des singes by French author Pierre Boulle.  Didn’t know Planet of the Apes was based on a book?  Well now you do.

Apparently Serling took to the source material like apes to bananas because he wrote over 30 revisions of the script in a month until he was satisfied with the end result.  Serling’s version of the tale stuck fairly closely with the source material, which envisioned the apes living in a futuristic society with flying contraptions and modern clothed apes.  The studio brought in screenwriter Michael Wilson to do one final revision to the script to bring the budget down to something more manageable for the time, which essentially meant devolving the apes to riding horses and living in caves.  Wilson is also responsible for much of the heavy-handed political and religious overtones that pervade the movie, and the movies from then on out became known not just for their sci-fi elements, but also for their timely commentary.

Early concept art for   Planet of the Apes   (1968)

Early concept art for Planet of the Apes (1968)

Despite this, the finished film is positively oozing with Serling’s influence, which is essentially a two hour long Twilight Zone episode.  The story opens with a hero longing for a world free of man’s war-making and animalistic tendencies then throws him into a world where man are the beasts and apes are the evolved species.  The ending brings about a conclusion as pessimistic as it is ironic, as our hero realizes that as he has been forced to defend the honor of our species, they have done themselves in through the reasons he initially hated them.

The downbeat ending would become a staple of the Planet of the Apes franchise, as each installment tried to work some cautionary tale relevant to the times into its woodwork.  The film is also as terrifying as it is enthralling, showcasing stuffed men put on display in museums, apes posing for pictures in front of piles of dead humans they had recently shot down for sport, and apes performing experimental brain surgery on people.  In fact, even by the standards of the year the movie was released, it’s surprising that it got away with the tame G rating despite these horrors and even a smattering of nudity.  But somehow the film has survived for over 40 years while continuing to be known as not only one of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made, but a family movie to be handed down to our children.

You know, for kids!

You know, for kids!

In a way, it’s comforting to know that something like this isn’t considered too harsh for some children.  Despite its heavy religious and political commentary, it is just a sci-fi tale with people in monkey costumes after all.  Strip those elements away and you still have something to shock and enthrall the younger audience, who just as they’ll be frightened of it, will love it because it strengthens them and makes them think.  There’s nothing more satisfying than talking with a kid who’s seen some classic yet terrifying film, and hearing them relate everything they loved about it.  Planet of the Apes may not be a children’s movie, but it certainly makes a great experience for the family to enjoy and talk about afterwards.  And that’s what Rod Serling was best at anyway: telling horrific fairy tales that we keep coming back to anyway.

Planet of the Apes was never meant to have a sequel, but the film was a smashing success.  And we all know what Hollywood loves to do with smashing successes.  The question is, how do you followup an instant classic with an ending as shocking as that?  With telepathic mutants, of course!