One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 43
By Laurence Lerman
“20th Century Fox Wants You To...Go Ape!” teased a 1974 ad campaign promoting the five films in the studio’s just-completed film series inspired by French novelist Pierre Boulle’s 1963 satirical sci-fi fantasia La Planète des singes, better known on stateside shores as Planet of the Apes.
I was 11 years old when the film festival was mounted, with posters and marquees adorning malls and film houses, and local TV commercials enticing audiences to spend nearly ten hours engaged with a saga of “Two Great Civilizations in an Epic Confrontation for Possession of a Universe Gone Wild!”
I never made it to the cinema for the festival—my dad had taken me to see the fourth movie in the Apes series a year prior and loved it, and taking in additional quartet of them was never going to be part of his plan. I ended up seeing the other films the next couple of years through a combination of TV premieres and a revival of the original that my father and I happily attended. but the opportunity to spend an entire day with the screen simians never materialized.
That all changed this month, when streamer HBO Max launched its own “Go Ape!” retrospective featuring the first five films in the media franchise that over the past half-century has yielded nine films, two televisions series (one animated), several comic books and novels and a galaxy of merchandising tie-ins. I myself was once the young, smiling owner of a 1975 Planet of the Apes lunchbox (and accompanying thermos).
So, this past July 4th weekend, I spent a couple of days sinking into the series (not all five films in a row, but close enough to each other that my wife raised an eyebrow).
Not having seen any of them in decades, my return to Ape City was alternately grand and disappointing. All of them provided some great moments and overall entertainment, yes, but the diminishing returns of the series over their relatively short five-year release were, as in many Hollywood franchises, also very apparent.
Still, each of the five Apes films, the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars of their day, achieved some kind of standing that differentiated one from another, beginning with the original, which remains far and away the best of the bunch.
Here’s a quick examination of the Planet of the Apes movies in all their allegorical, political and metaphorical glory.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
One of Hollywood’s most perfectly realized science fiction adventures stars Charlton Heston as a time-tripping space traveler who lands on some far-flung future world where intelligent apes are the ruling class and mute humans have slipped backward on the evolutionary scale.
Planet of the Apes’ credits are superlative across the board: robust direction by journeyman Franklin J. Schaffner; a carefully reconfigured adaptation of the novel by screenwriters Michael Wilson and Rod Serling; Oscar-winning makeup and prosthetics by John Chambers (the craftsman who was also responsible for Spock’s ears on TV’s Star Trek); strong acting, even in the form of Ape performers Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter as the articulate chimps Cornelius and Zira); an evocative score by the great Jerry Goldsmith—it goes on and on.
Planet is rightfully considered a cornerstone in the post-apocalyptic sci-fi-thriller cycle of the era that includes such faves as THX-1138 (1971), Silent Running (1972), Zardoz (1974), A Boy and His Dog (1975), Rollerball (1975) and Logan’s Run (1976). It also reinvented Heston as a dystopian, “last man on Earth” sci-fi star, an image he ran with in the popular The Ωmega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973. It also elevated him back to the top of the box office, which he hadn’t visited since he rode his chariot to victory in Ben-Hur (1959) nearly a decade earlier.
And Planet’s climax is still one of the best endings ever. No spoilers here, but if you’ve never seen or heard about the film’s final seconds, go tell it to the Statue of Liberty.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
Planet’s first sequel arrived a scant two years later, filled with so many different story strands that it’s not surprising this film’s wayward stranded space man (James Farentino) thinks he’s losing his mind. Most intriguing is Ape City’s social strata, with its police and military (gorillas); conservative leanings, religion and law (orangutans); and liberal thought, science and education (chimpanzees). Equally cool is the race of scarred human mutants who live beneath the surface of the desolated planet and worship a giant atomic bomb.
Serviceably directed by Ted Post, Beneath’s relatively short running time doesn’t allow it the opportunity to get comfortable, so most of the interesting ideas receive short shrift. And if you're looking for a nutty ending, the film's final minutes see dozens of mutants and humans shot down by an army of machine gun-toting gorillas Farentino meets a particularly bloody end and Heston does his bit for the suffering human race by activating the doomsday device and nuking the whole planet.
A hundred bucks says the newly formed Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) slapped a ‘G’ on this unexpectedly bleak and violent film in 1970, sight unseen, probably assuming it was simply more of what they’d seen in the original, which also garnered a surprisingly lenient ‘G’ rating. They must have thought the kids were going to love Chambers’ makeup. And rightfully so.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
In a Hollywood of diminishing budgets and lack of franchise maintenance, thank God for time travel and a story highlighting only three apes. With Escape, Cornelius and Zira manage to escape their exploding planet and travel back in time to early Seventies Los Angeles to enjoy SoCal’s trappings of “The Me Decade.” (The story actually served as an inspiration for 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where the crew of the Enterprise is doing much of the same in Eighties San Francisco.)
The apes’ adventures find them enjoying a modern fashion upgrade, charity luncheons with L.A. power wives, boxing matches, the Los Angeles Zoo and lots of red wine (or “Grape Juice Plus,” as Zira refers to it). The most pleasure and kindness they experience comes courtesy of a traveling circus owner (Ricardo Montalban), who manages to secretly save their infant chimp Caesar when everything begins to go wrong.
Oh, and if you’re unhappy with my use of the superlative adjective “funnest,” talk to my editor and try to remember that I’m talking about the Planet of the Apes films!
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1973)
Incorporating none-too-subtle references to the incendiary racial conflicts of the time (have they ever really subsided?), Conquest follows Roddy McDowell’s adult Caesar (that’s right, he plays his own son!) inciting an ape revolution in a police state that sees dark-faced gorillas and chimps serving as virtual slaves to a city of well-coiffed white humans. The film’s climactic insurrection contains the best simian thesping in the series when McDowell’s adult Caesar throws fuel on the fire as he declares the future of apekind to his defeated former masters:
“Where there is fire, there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch and consider and plot and plan for the inevitable day of man’s downfall,” he growls. “And then, I will lead my people from their captivity…and that day is upon you now!”
Burn, baby, burn!
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
Simply awful. This unimaginatively scripted tale of a victorious Caesar attempting to create a land where apes and humans can live alongside each other in peace was doomed from the moment its budget was cut to even less than that of the previous inexpensive Apes outing (a reported $1.7 million versus Conquest’s $1.8 million). Filmed primarily on the Fox Movie Ranch with very little in the way of set dressing and production values (a couple of treehouses, a nuked-out city backdrop, subgrade Mad Max-ish marauders and weaponry and a lot of bad mass-produced ape masks for the supporting cast and extras), the story never really gets going and is sidelined by a tragedy befalling Caesar’s young son.
The best Battle has to offer is a wraparound featuring John Huston as “The Lawgiver.” Huston’s trademark thick drawl has gravitas to spare—even if the man himself is cosmeticized and costumed as an outsized orangutan.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes was one of the last projects produced by Apes visionary Arthur P. Jacobs, producer of all five films, who died suddenly of a heart attack in 1973 at the age of 51, less than two weeks after the final entry was released to a poor critical and commercial reception.
But the end of the first Apes cycle marked the birth of another one—TV’s first Planet of the Apes series in 1974. A handful of adaptations over the past 30 years have led to the latest incarnation, a trio of big-budget box office hits from the past decade that include Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017). And the word is that a fourth entry is on the way and due in 2022, bringing the number of films in the Apes franchise up to ten.
Count me in for a binge festival when the quartet appears en masse on HBO Max or another streamer. Bananas, right?
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.