The Beautiful and the Damned Dirty Apes: A History of The Planet...

The Beautiful and the Damned Dirty Apes: A History of The Planet of The Apes

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The Planet of The Apes movies occupy a curious netherworld of critical opinion. With each film, the budget was sawn in half, leading to a successive pattern of diminishing returns that led to a cheapening of its esteem. The spin-off TV show was quickly cancelled, further dulling the lustre and few people even remember the animated series that finally put the Apes to bed until a rude awakening in 2001.

However, for all their child-pleasing capers (the family-friendly G rating was a mandatory stipulation from the studios), the Apes movies deftly juggled important themes and arguments about slavery, free-will, nuclear war, vivisection, racism and oppression, and man’s innate capacity for cruelty. In pure storytelling terms, the circuitous plot links the first five movies (and the prequel Rise of The Planet of The Apes) into a pleasing, if relentlessly pessimistic, self-perpetuating full-circle.

Enormous box office successes in their early stages, they spawned a merchandising explosion later on in the wake of the Apemania of the mid-1970s, when all five films were screened in hugely popular “Go Ape!” marathons. 20th Century Fox licensed the Apes iconography to the highest bidders and made a fortune from books, action figures, comics, masks and toys. Amazingly, this is the same 20th Century Fox who later saw such little mileage in their own upcoming Star Wars toy line that they gave George Lucas the exclusive merchandise rights…

“No 2001, no Star Wars,” is a line Lucas often uses to praise Kubrick’s 1968 milestone. However, you could just as easily argue that without Planet of The Apes (released the same year as 2001), there would be no Star Wars. Apes was the film that took science fiction movies out of the drive-ins and into the mainstream theatres. Without it, it’s hard to imagine films like Logan’s Run, Westworld, Soylent Green or The Omega Man being green-lit.

So with the sun about to rise on Dawn of The Planet of The Apes, let us catch up on the story so far…
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PLANET OF THE APES (1968)

The one with that ending.

Arthur P Jacobs had been trying to film an adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel, La Planète des Singes since it came out, but sci-fi at the time was considered an unworthy, costly and slightly embarrassing genre, so there were no takers. Fox’s Richard Zanuck alone saw the potential. Charlton Heston too, deserves credit for taking on such a potentially idiotic property and playing it absolutely straight. It was Heston who recommended director (and future Oscar winner) Franklin J. Shaffner, and with talents like The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling and the formerly blacklisted writer Michael Wilson taking care of the script, this was mainstream entertainment of the highest pedigree.

That the film was an instant classic, packed with ingenious subtext, bold predictions, thrilling action and tremendous menace (the apes’ first appearance in the corn field is a master-class in suspense-ratcheting) was down to the great talents listed above (and let’s not forget Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie percussive score too). The most important name on the credits though is John Chambers. As soon as someone mentions the words Planet and Apes in the same sentence, the first image that pops into everyone’s head is that iconic ape make-up; an astonishing special-effects feat at the time. Chambers won a Special Achievement Oscar for his work on Planet of The Apes, and was later immortalised in Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning movie, Argo in which he was played by John Goodman.

Three astronauts crash land on a planet where talking apes rule the dominant society and humans are a mute, unintelligent sub-species. Taylor (Heston) upsets the hitherto unquestioned simian hegemony by being able to think and talk – “Take your stinking paws off me you damned dirty ape!” He is taken under the wing of two sympathetic chimpanzee scientists and escapes the city, only to discover that he hasn’t travelled too far through space after all.

Planet of The Apes is an allegorical masterpiece from its haunting, silent opening, through its many unforgettable scenes, right up to the most memorable final sixty seconds of any movie ever made. Having flipped the entire film on its head, it seemed that Taylor (Heston) had, as Dr. Zaius put it, found his destiny, and there was literally nowhere else to go. Try telling that to the accounts managers at 20th Century Fox…

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BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970)

The one without Roddy McDowall.

The first sequel begins where Planet of The Apes left off. Taylor and his dialogue-free love interest Nova (Linda Harrison) ride off into The Forbidden Zone to start a new life together. However, they are plagued by strange visions, and Taylor suddenly vanishes from view. Meanwhile, a new astronaut arrives from the early 1970s, on a mission to find Taylor and his crew.

Brent (James Franciscus) is as shocked to discover this evolutionarily topsy-turvy world as Taylor was, and he soon finds himself under the same protective chimpanzee paws as his predecessor. His arrival coincides with a surge in military extremism from the war-mongering gorillas, who want to invade the Forbidden Zone and rid the planet of all humans – “The only good human is a dead human!” The peaceful, intelligent chimpanzees oppose the war but the governing, law-making orang-utans, are cowed by the might of their generals. Don’t tell anyone…but it’s all about Vietnam. Shhh.

You’d think that Fox would have written a blank cheque for the sequel to one of its biggest ever hits, but costly flops like Star!, Tora! Tora! Tora! and Dr. Dolittle had drained their coffers, and so began the ‘apescalating’ practice of cutting the budgets and watering down the talents behind and in front of the camera. Dependable journeyman Ted Post took over from Schaffner, and John Chambers was reduced to putting masks on background apes to save money. Charlton Heston was eventually coerced into making a return appearance, on the proviso that his character be killed off.

The reduced budget did not mean diluted ideas, and Beneath is a brave and imaginative first sequel. The addition of telepathic mutants wearing fake skin, is a jolt out the blue but works well. The post-apocalyptic subterranean sets featuring St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the New York Subway are imaginatively rendered. Continuing the subversive nature of the first film, Beneath features the most downbeat ending to any kids movie I’ve ever seen. Purely so he wouldn’t have to make another sequel, Charlton Heston detonates the atom bomb worshipped by the mutants and the earth, “a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.” Fin.

ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971)

The one a bit like Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

The necessity to carry on a money-making franchise has led in the past to some bizarre and ridiculous decisions being taken, one guesses, at boardroom level. Despite Heston’s brainwave, a note was passed to scriptwriter Paul Dehn from Arthur P Jacobs that read, “Apes exist. Sequel required.” The result was an ingenious film sprung from compromise.

Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and his wife Zira (Kim Hunter) managed to fix Taylor’s spaceship before the planet was destroyed and have travelled back with Dr Milo (Sal Mineo effectively wearing a Star Trek red shirt) to present day 1973. As a result, only three ape costumes were required and no sets needed to be built. TV director Don Taylor – who later filmed Damien: Omen II – was hired to shoot quickly and cheaply, and his light touch helped the many crowd-pleasing comedy scenes when the two apes become international celebrities.

Yet far from being a cynical cash-in on the success of the previous movies, Escape is ground-zero for the rest of the series that will take us forward to the beginning of the very first movie. Tonally, it is one of the most intriguingly juxtaposed films ever made with half the movie being a hilarious fish-out-of-water comedy, then climaxing with horror and tragedy as our loveable heroes and their baby chimp are hunted down mercilessly by a government which fears that their offspring will lead to the downfall of mankind. Nonetheless, Escape is probably the most purely enjoyable film in the series and may well be one of the most “1970s” movies ever made.

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CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972)

The one where it all kicks off.

The social commentary of the Apes series had been largely put on hold during Escape, but it came back with a vengeance in the follow-up. To the delight of modern Inaccurate Movie Prediction connoisseurs, Conquest is set in cruel, dystopian…1991. In the early 1980s, as I’m sure you remember, a plague destroyed the world’s cat and dog population, leaving a huge gap in the domestic pet market. This gap was filled by trained apes which unlike cats, could also help around the house a little.

Flash forward to futuristic 1991 – which closely resembles the 2173 of Woody Allen’s Sleeper – and the apes have now been press-ganged into taking care of the country’s menial labours. Dressed as they are in Guantanamo Bay-style jump-suits, they are treated no better than slaves, but haven’t the intelligence to do anything about it. However the talking grown-up son of Cornelius and Zira, Caesar (Roddy McDowall, playing his own son), raised in secret by circus owner Ricardo Montalban, leads his ape brethren in an uprising against their cruel tormentors.

Commentating directly on modern-day racial inequality and oppression, Conquest is a seething, angry film that lets its resentment build and bubble until, as Sly & The Family Stone put it, there’s a riot goin’ on. Devoted Apes enthusiast Mark Kermode said in his biography, It’s Only a Movie, “I would argue that the seeds of the adolescent Marxist/Leninist leanings which I displayed in the mid-eighties were actually sown in the early seventies during a (screening of) Conquest of The Planet of The Apes at the ABC Turnpike Lane.” A Spartacus for the 1970s, Conquest ends with a victorious Caesar announcing before a fiery backdrop that “Tonight, we have seen the birth of the planet of the apes!”

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BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973)

The one where they clearly had no money left.

Battle for The Planet of The Apes is where the writers (newcomers John & Joyce Corrington) started struggling to tie this final film together with the original 1968 classic and everywhere you step, there are illogical landmines underfoot. No one is quite sure where we are time-wise – Apeologists reckon somewhere between 2003 and 2017 – or quite how apes took a sudden evolutionary leap and learned how to speak fluent English in less than 30 years. What is clear is that humankind were so upset about the uprising at the end of Conquest, that they started a nuclear war and laid waste to every major city on planet earth.

In a plot which may seem familiar to anyone who has read a synopsis for the upcoming Dawn of The Planet of The Apes, Caesar and his wife and son try to reconcile ape and human in this post-apocalyptic world, while a war-loving gorilla (Claude Atkins) vows to rain death on any humans he sees – and any ape who aids them. Moreover, apes and humans have to contend with radiated mutants living in ‘Forbidden City,’ and the scene is set for a climactic battle between ape, human and mutant, for domination of the planet.

Returning Conquest director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone) was mightily peeved to have had his budget stripped back even further – a meagre $1,700m – and the paucity of funds is obvious, from the A-Team style smoke-bomb explosions, to the non-existent mutant make-up. Without the giddy imagination of the first film, or the spleen-venting rage of Conquest, and with a budget that meant that the actors probably had to bring their own food, Battle For The Planet of The Apes is really only there to tie the whole thing together.

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RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011)

The one with James Franco.

You know what? Let’s pretend that Tim Burton’s “reimagining” never happened, shall we? I find that, as with the two Matrix sequels or Chico’s singing career, life is a richer experience when one imagines that they never actually happened. In summary, let us agree that despite a quantum leap in the realism of the ape make-up, in every conceivable way, from the casting (Mark Wahlberg in that gap between Three Kings and The Departed where all he could do was look blankly at things) to the nonsensical ending, the remake got it all wrong. The Planet this time wasn’t even earth so technically it has nothing to do with this list, but one thing Burton’s version did achieve was in dampening any enthusiasm for a new Apes movie. Put your hands up if you yelped with joy in 2009 when you heard that a new Planet of The Apes movie was coming out. Some of us cried.

In that context, Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of The Planet of The Apes must count as one of the most unexpected cinematic delights of the past 25 years. It was thrilling, moving, chilling, and for the first time since 1968, cutting-edge and ahead of its time. The ape effects, all Weta-designed CGI and performance-capture, were both astonishing and so lifelike that they didn’t interfere with the story. More than the special effects, the way that writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver developed this origin story, honouring the original cycle while taking bold new directions, was frankly miraculous.

James Franco gave one of the best performances of his career so far, Brian Cox and Harry Potter’s Tom Felton were hissable villains, John Lithgow was heartbreaking as Franco’s Alzheimer’s afflicted father and Andy Serkis’s CGI-rendered Caesar surpassed anything seen in Avatar. Rise made several judicious tips of the hat to the 1968 classic, while using Conquest as the blueprint for its main plot. In keeping with the original series, it used science-fiction entertainment to address modern-day concerns and in post-Aids/SARS/Bird Flu 2011, our greatest fear these days is the malevolent, incurable virus. The path of the deadly Simian Flu, taken around the world by unsuspecting plane passengers at the end of Rise, is what will lead us right through the night and up to the dawn…of The Planet of The Apes.