Behind the Planet of the Apes

The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a “prequel” film, opens Friday. In anticipation of this sci-fi/action/drama, I rented the documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes (1998). And it’s very good; very informative. Roddy McDowall acts as host on this 120-minute long exploration of all things Planet of the Apes, and as you might imagine, it begins at the beginning with producer Arthur P. Jacobs acquiring rights to Pierre Boulle’s novel La Planete des Singes. (The French writer, who also authored The Bridge On the River Kwai, considered Apes to be one of his “lesser works.”) Rights acquired, the project was handed over to Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, who wrote at least 30 screenplay drafts. Apparently, he was pretty faithful to the novel, which focuses on apes living in an advanced technological city; they fly in high-tech helicopters and drive vehicles. Remember, though, this film was made in 1968, and Jacobs didn’t have the kind of budget that would have made these things possible. In fact, until Richard Zanuck of 20th Century Fox came along, no studio wanted to touch Planet of the Apes. Part of the reason was that up until this film was made, any time that an ape/gorilla/monkey was depicted on screen, it was often for laughs. It was a guy dressed in a ridiculous costume usually showing up in a B-grade film. The apes in Planet weren’t supposed to be crappy, funny or low budget.

As it has already been mentioned, the studio wasn’t convinced that the creative powers behind the film could pull off the apes; couldn’t make them look realistic enough to be taken seriously. To convince them otherwise, director Franklin J. Schaffner took $5,000 and shot test footage of Charlton Heston acting in a scene opposite a made-up Edward G. Robinson, playing the orangutan Dr. Zaius, and James Brolin, playing the chimpanzee Cornelius. This seemed to convince the producers that no one would laugh when they saw the apes, and John Chambers, a former military man who had a lot of experience with making prosthetics, was hired to build upon Ben Nye’s make-up designs. (BTW: Chambers also created Spock’s ears in the original Star Trek series.) By the time he had figured out exactly what would work, the actors were wearing full appliances on their faces and hands, and wigs on their heads. Kim Hunter, who plays Dr. Zira, said that the only part of her body that was not covered were her eyes. Furthermore, she explained that to make the appliances look “realistic,” she and the other actors had to make exaggerated facial movements.

Application of the pieces, in the beginning, took about five to six hours to apply. To keep these pieces from coming loose, actors were encouraged to eat soft foods, such as milkshakes, during their lunch hour. Speaking of eating arrangements, here’s an interesting bit of trivia for the sociologists: Despite the fact that some of the actors knew each other – Hunter was friends with Maurice Evans, who played Dr. Zaius – they never sat together. For whatever reason, actors always gathered with the actors who looked like they did. So chimpanzees sat with chimps; gorillas with gorillas. This strange occurrence mirrored what was going on in the film. In this ape society, there exists a very rigid social hierarchy with orangs as the politicians; chimps as the scientists and the gorillas as militia. Another, and final, challenge posed by the film was how to create the setting. Again, because of a limited budget, they couldn’t create the technologically advanced society that was depicted in the book, so production designer William J. Creber went the other way. Inspired by troglodyte caves in Turkey, they used a kind of spray foam and cardboard to fashion the dwellings.

Even though Planet of the Apes was made more than 40 years ago, the problems faced by Jacobs continue today. To get a studio interested in the film, he needed to get a celebrity, a “box office draw,” attached, and he found that person in Heston. This tall, handsome actor frequently found in Westerns had some of his biggest hits in the 1950s, including The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959). By 1968, he was 45, and taking a few more chances with his career. As he explains it in the documentary, this was a very physically demanding role. After his ship crashes on the planet, his character, Colonel George Taylor, who is accompanied by two other astronauts, has to walk across a barren wasteland. According to the documentary, temperatures on location were greater than 110 degrees F. Heston actually became ill from the extreme heat, and during the scene when he is suspended in a net and he shouts “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape,” he was suffering from the flu. He pressed on, though, and the powers-that-be thought that his hoarse throat added to his performance. The film also required that he disrobe completely – he said that the coffee girl admired his butt – and he had a considerable number of fight scenes.

Planet of the Apes proved very popular at the box office. Living in a world in which sequels, prequels and remakes are the norm, we hear that and immediately think: SEQUEL. But that wasn’t as common back in the 1960s. It’s interesting to learn that in the original screenplay, Nova (Linda Harrison), the mute bombshell that hooks up with Heston’s character, was supposed to end the film as pregnant. The powers-that-be decided that that wouldn’t work. Instead, they decided to end with the very famous scene that includes a **SPOILER **** horseback riding Heston and Harrison coming upon the remains of the Statue of Liberty. With such a post-apocalyptic, and shocking, ending the challenge was to figure out what would come next when a sequel was ordered. Naturally, everyone wanted Heston back, but he wasn’t interested. Or rather what he wanted was to die in the first five minutes. A compromise was reached – he would appear in the first five minutes, disappear, and then die in the end.

The second film in the series, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), welcomed a significant number of changes: Screenwriter Michael Wilson was replaced by Paul Dehn, the man behind Goldfinger (1964), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and The Taming of the Shrew (1967). (I know, right? What the hell?) The film got a new director. Replacing Schaffner was Ted Post, a director that should be known to Clint Eastwood fans. He helmed episodes on TV’s Rawhide (1959-66), Hang ‘Em High (1968), and after Apes, Magnum Force (1973). The film received a new composer. Composer Jerry Goldsmith, known well by Star Trek fans, was replaced by Leonard Rosenman. And even Roddy McDowall had a replacement. Since he was busy shooting another film, David Watson, a British actor, played Cornelius. As far as a synopsis goes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes moves beyond Col. Taylor, centering instead on John Brent (James Franciscus), the sole survivor of a rescue team looking for Taylor. He wanders into the Forbidden Zone, where he discovers an underground city in which mutant human survivors of the atomic bomb communicate telepathically. (They worship a giant bomb.) Franciscus was a regular TV fixture – looking over his filmography, I see that he was also in the truly horrible creature feature The Valley of Gwangi (1969), a cowboys meet dinosaurs created by Ray Harryhausen flick – and was cast primarily because he looked like Heston’s smaller twin. Kim Hunter returns as Zira; Maurice Evans as Dr. Zaius; and even Linda Harrison as Nova. A new bad guy arises in the form of General Ursus (James Gregory), a gorilla with serious anger management issues. (His military-looking costume will reappear in Tim Burton’s 2001 remake.) Since this second film made about five times its budget back, another sequel was ordered.

The third film, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) was swiftly followed by a fourth, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and a fifth, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). Paul Dehn resumed writing duties on Escape, and decided to take everything into a new direction. Instead of having another human being crashing on the ape planet, he had the franchise’s two most famous chimpanzees – Cornelius (McDowall) and Zira (Hunter) – getting into Taylor’s space ship and landing in the midst of human society. Another chimp, Milo (Sal Mineo), arrived with him, but he doesn’t last very long. Apparently Mineo didn’t care, because he hated getting into makeup. (This is the same reason that Edward G. Robinson didn’t play Dr. Zaius in the films.) Initially, the chimps are the toast of the town, until one government official, Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden), begins causing problems for them. They find refuge with a kind circus owner, Armando (Ricardo Montalban), but this film doesn’t have a happy ending. Anyone who has seen the trailer for Rise of the Planet of the Apes will hear that “Caesar” is the chimpanzee at the center of the story. Who is Caesar? At least in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, he is Cornelius and Zira’s baby, and he is the only one who survives exchanged gunfire. By the way, a new director, Don Taylor, was behind the camera on Escape. He worked mainly in TV, but he did give the world The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) and Damien: Omen II (1978).

Caesar (Roddy McDowall) and Armando (Montalban) return in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which again was scripted by Dehn. A more overtly political film, Conquest is set in the future. A plague has wiped out every cat and dog. Looking for replacement pets, humans turned to apes. At first these creatures were pampered but that love soon turned to hatred, and by the time that the film begins, apes are treated like slaves. Caesar leads the ape revolution against his oppressors. According to the documentary, the rebellion depicted in this film was inspired by the Watts Riots, an event that took place in August 1965, and one that “raged for six days and resulted in more than $40 million of property damage.” According to the Civil Rights Digital Library, this was “both the largest and costliest urban rebellion of the Civil Rights era.” Conquest is a violent and “dark” film, and is the only one in the franchise to earn a PG rating – all of the others were rated G. This probably shouldn’t be too surprising, though, especially when you look at which films proved most popular in 1972: The Godfather, Deliverance, Deep Throat, Last Tango in Paris, The Last House on the Left and so on. That said, the producers weren’t about to lose their core “family audience,” and the speech that Caesar delivers at the end of the film was actually changed; it was softened. Once the film wrapped, McDowall was called back in to record new lines. By the way, J. Lee Thompson was the one in the director’s chair. His previous work included The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Cape Fear (1962).

Thompson assumed directing duties again on Battle for the Planet of Apes, and Dehn was back, contributing the story. But for whatever reason, his work was augmented by the contributions of the husband and wife screenwriting team of John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington. They had previously written The Omega Man (1971), which had also starred Charlton Heston. (It really is a small world.) This film takes place 10 years later. Caesar is trying to bring peace between the ruling apes and enslaved humans, but factions on other side want nothing to do with this idea. Some notable “celebrities” joined the cast of Battle, including John Huston, wearing orangutan appliances to play the Lawgiver, and Paul Williams, also in orang make-up playing Virgil. Despite the fact that Battle made money, the studio decided not to make any more feature films. They did, however, crank out the merchandise, ranging from masks to lunchboxes. (George Lucas is often credited for mass marketing movie tie-in junk with Star Wars (1977), but apparently Planet of the Apes was way ahead of that game.)

Another film might not have been in the cards, but other, much smaller projects were. There was a short-lived TV series, Planet of the Apes (1974), that ran for 14 short episodes and starred Roddy McDowall as the chimpanzee Galen and Ron Harper and James Naughton as the two astronauts dealing with ape foes; an animated TV show, Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975-76), which returned to Boulle’s vision and let the apes fly in helicopters and drive around in trucks; and several made-for-TV films, including Farewell to the Planet of the Apes (1981) and Back to the Planet of the Apes (1981), which were actually just a few episodes from the TV series edited together.

Planet of the Apes wouldn’t be seen on the big screen again until the Tim Burton remake, or maybe it’s better to call it a reimagining since the characters sport different names and the scenario has been tweaked. Written by William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, this much reviled action/adventure stars Mark Wahlberg as Captain Leo Davidson, a pilot with the U.S. Air Force who crashes on a planet where apes rule over humans with an iron fist. The “man” in charge is Gen. Thade (Tim Roth), a human-hating, fanatical chimpanzee who takes charge of the gorilla and chimpanzee army. Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) is a chimpanzee who is sympathetic to Davidson and who helps him; she’s essentially Zira. Daena (Estella Warren) is the blonde object of Davidson’s desire. She is Nova. The main difference between this film and the 1968 original is the fact that there doesn’t exist any intellectual disparity between the humans and apes, and unlike in the original, humans can talk. So what allows the apes to rule over the humans? Sheer physical strength. (In reality, chimpanzee adults can tear off a human being’s arms.) In this film, chimpanzees seem to work well with the gorillas, and both serve in the military. In the original, there existed more social stratification. As a nod to fans, Linda Harrison has a cameo as “woman in cart,” and Charlton Heston plays Thade’s Father, Zaius. As innovative as were the appliances created by Chambers, Rick Baker improves upon them, making the apes look like actual apes. (Baker really is the go-to guy for apes. Look at his resume.) In addition, the actors move as apes do. During the end battle scene, the chimp army runs on all fours. With a budget of $100 million, Burton’s Planet of the Apes looks amazing, and it should. The director hired some of the best working in the business, including Philippe Rousselot as director of photography, Rick Heinrichs as production designer, Danny Elfman as composer, and Colleen Atwood as costume designer. Despite all of the venom spewed at this remake, it grossed $362 million worldwide.

This brings us to the current release: Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Rupert Wyatt, a Brit, directs, and writing partners Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (The Relic and Eye for an Eye) give us the screenplay. (Yes, this worries me a bit.) Rather than having an astronaut crashing onto a planet, this film takes a more “realistic” approach to the story. How might we have apes that could one day take over the planet? Genetic engineering, of course, and in this film scientists in present day San Francisco use this technology to enhance the intelligence of apes, specifically Caesar (Andy Serkis as a CGI chimp), who then uses the “serum” on his fellow apes. The result is a war for supremacy. Playing the humans in the film are James Franco, Freida Pinto, Brian Cox, and Tom Felton. In keeping with the precedent started by Tim Burton’s film, this one, too, is rated PG-13 for “violence, terror, some sexuality and brief strong language.” The running time is 105 min. I wasn’t quite sure how this film would be received, but so far so good. The film had a budget of $90 million, and has already earned $1.254 million at its midnight showings. And on Friday, it “overperformed” with $18 million. Box Office Mojo predicts it will earn $45 million this weekend. They may be right. Good word of mouth coupled with critical praise – it has been guaranteed “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes – could make this a box office champ, resulting in a sequel. Could we be witnessing the rebirth of the Planet franchise?

Back to the 120-minute-long documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes … I really enjoyed it. For someone who hasn’t seen all of the original films, it provides you with an interesting chronology and a lot of behind-the-scenes trivia, especially on Planet of the Apes. As for the subsequent films, you get a full synopsis, complete with what happens at the end. So, yes, there are spoilers. It saved me time, though. Before watching Rise of the Planet, I wanted to survey everything that had come before it, and this documentary did the job. I still plan on watching all of the original films; I just didn’t have a spare 10 hours in which to do it. Writers/directors Kevin Burns and David Comtois rounded up a pretty impressive group of interviewees for this documentary, including many of the actors, the directors on most, if not all, of the films, and even some of the producers. It was rather fortuitous to have had McDowall acting as “host” as he died about one month after the documentary was shown on American Movie Classics as part of its celebration of the 30th anniversary of the release of the Planet. It would be nice to see this “updated” to include Burton’s film and this new release, but sadly most of the people interviewed for this documentary are deceased. Just a few: Chambers (2001), Hunter (2002), Thompson (2002), Heston (2008), and Montalban (2009). Sad, really. I guess it’s a good thing they made this when they did!

Anyone curious about the Planet of the Apes franchise should check out Behind the Planet of the Apes.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

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Author: Julien R. Fielding

Julien R. Fielding has been reviewing films for more than a decade, and her favorite genres are sci-fi, horror, action, and animated. She authored the book, Discovering World Religions at 24 Frames Per Second, which is available for purchase through Scarecrow Press. Furthermore, she teaches religion at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. If you would like her to review your film, you can contact her at julien@jrfielding.com. DVDs can be mailed to her, care of Fieldingonfilm, to P.O. Box 6067, Omaha NE 68106. They will not be returned.

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