Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Classic Movie Review: Planet of the Apes
As I’m not in the habit of keeping the lid on a secret movie ending that’s 45 years old, I suggest you stop reading now if you’ve never seen and don’t know the ending of Planet of the Apes. If you also don’t know what Rosebud is or that Holly Martens faked his own death, then you need to go back to school. Also, Janet Leigh is killed in the first 40 minutes of Psycho. I mention these things because they are such well-known and deeply engrained plot points of famous movies that it’s virtually impossible to have a discussion about them while maintaining the secret.
Somehow, almost impossibly, Franklin J. Schaffner directed what is essentially a low budget science fiction yarn into a cultural milestone. Planet of the Apes hasn’t grown into a highly regarded “great” film per se, but it’s one that is seared into the memories of anyone who’s seen it, never minding the increasingly ludicrous sequels that followed in the 70s.
It’s a damn good thing that the ending is so shocking and that the film is full of memorable scenese involving the dramatic reversal of the roles of man and apes because they overshadow the innumerable logical flaws in the story. For one thing, the astronauts Taylor, Landon, Stewart, and Dodge know they are on a one way mission traveling light years away from earth while (theoretically) their home ages two millennia to their own 18 months. What exactly would be the scientific purpose of such a mission even if those on board have their own personal reasons for leaving? Why would any government spend such money sending a manned craft so far with no possibility of discovery for the rest of humanity? Also, it’s pretty convenient that the apes speak the same language as Taylor, especially after 2,000 years of evolution and no apparent cultural connection to humans. Oh, and the writing system hasn’t changed, either. This is something of a movie shortcut because Pierre Boule’s original novel has descriptions of Zira teaching the Taylor character (he’s named Ulysse in the book) to speak the ape language.
The technological state of the apes is also contradictory. They are an essentially agrarian society similar to human beings of the first millennium C.E., yet they have developed firearms and a camera? And their scientists, Cornelius and Zira (Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter), have the beginnings of evolutionary theory, ape psychology, and neuroscience. These juxtapositions aren’t necessarily impossible, but they are oddly jarring. It seems screenwriters Michael Wilson and Rod Serling didn’t put much thought into how a society evolves. Serling was a master of creating whole worlds and short stories in the space of a 25 minute TV show with “The Twilight Zone,” so the guy knew how to condense information and make leaps of logic.
Although it’s a sci-fi B-movie by most of the day’s standards, Schaffner did get away from Hollywood for a great deal of location shooting. To capture the lifeless desolation of the planet where the astronauts crash land, they went to the American west. Schaffner’s eye for grand landscapes was magnificent. You get a sense of true isolation in the long sequence of the three astronauts searching for life on the strange new planet. Any use of sets looks confined to interiors once Taylor reaches the ape village. Everything else is opened up and makes the film feel slightly more expensive than others of its kind. Keep in mind the “Star Trek” TV series was running concurrently and was extremely low budget and not highly regarded. Science fiction was generally given short shrift in the 60s.
It’s hard to consider most of Planet of the Apes objectively because I grew up on this movie. Charlton Heston grinds and growls his way through his dialogue. Is he overacting? I just can’t tell anymore. His two iconic lines: “Get your stinking paws off me you damned dirty ape,” and “You blew it up! Damn you all to hell!” have been so widely parodied, copied, mimicked, and referenced that I have no idea if they’re dramatically effective or not.
The content of this cautionary tale is really what drives it and what keeps people coming back to it. It’s truly meant as a stinging rebuke to the Cold War and the nuclear age when humanity developed the technology to destroy itself. Taylor’s hubris blinds him from seeing himself and the rest of humanity in the behavior of the ape society. To his eyes they are nothing but primitive and barbaric (ironically the same way the ape characters view humans), but they are transparently a reflection of human society at an early developmental stage prior to the Enlightenment. Their Keeper of the Faith is Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), who is also the head of the Ministry of Science. The elders see no contradiction in terms there. Taylor also misses out on the class and social divisions within ape society. Though they profess to be an order above man – a species they view as one to destroy and devastate land before moving on to new fertile ground, and isn’t that exactly what all human societies have done throughout history? – they are neatly split among gorillas (the soldiers, police, and guards); chimpanzees (doctors and scientists); and orangutans (philosophers, scholars, and elders). I didn’t spot any gibbons, so I guess the lesser apes didn’t survive.
The element that most struck a chord with me this time was Jerry Goldsmith’s score. It is unlike any other musical score for a Hollywood film up to that time (at least to my knowledge). I’m not much of a movie music historian, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that his music for Planet of the Apes helped begin a new era in writing atonal and avant garde scores for big studio productions. His use of odd instrumentation seems to have heavily influenced Hans Zimmer and is a huge contribution to the sense of disorientation that Taylor experiences in an upside down world. In this relatively early film work from Goldsmith you can hear the early workings of what would eventually become the eerily beautiful melodies of films like Alien and Poltergeist.
Something about Planet of the Apes obviously touched something in the American public, at least enough to generate a franchise, toy action figures, a TV series spinoff, an animated series, a reimagining and, most recently, a franchise reboot. It was one of the biggest box office successes of 1968 and has, for one reason or another, remained firmly planted in the American imagination.