Planet of the Apes (1968)

Charleston Heston, Linda Harrison, Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, and Lou Wagner in Planet of the Apes (1968).

Last week, I attended Metro Cinema’s special event to preview their 2018/19 movie season. We were treated to a poster auction, trailers for upcoming movies, and a reminder/appeal about the Metro’s non-profit status and the need for donations to keep the programming going and the venerable Garneau Theatre operating. (Donate here!)

The night’s pièce de résistance was a free screening Planet of the Apes (1968), remastered to mark the movie’s 50th anniversary this year.

As a child, I watched the short-lived television series and possibly a cut-for-television version of the film. I didn’t remember the plots, but I have a strong memory of being fascinated by the make-up for the apes. They looked incredibly realistic at the time. The makers of the original film were impressed by their own work, too. As the opening credits rolled, I noticed that the credit for “creative make-up”, by John Chambers, who went on to win an Academy Award for his work on this film, comes up before the name of the director of photography (Leon Shamroy).

The fact that the movie opens with cast and crew credits reminded me that I was watching an old film made with the conventions of the day. Recent movies typically drop the viewers into the world in which the movie’s story takes place. You feel like a fly on the wall, or like an extra Avenger.

I wondered if movie-goers in 1968 felt that the opening credits distanced them from the action. That’s how I felt. The title cards seemed to announce that I was about to see a capital-F Film, and not that I was about to be immersed in an experience. I sat back in one of those weirdly comfortable bouncy seats at the Garneau and settled in for an evening of aloof meta-viewing. However, the music jarred me out of my comfort zone, and I became caught up in the movie’s stranger-in-a-strange-land story. I also took a lot notes.

  • The jarring, Oscar-nominated original score was composed by Jerry Goldsmith . It hinted at the orchestral sweep of his previous work on Star Trek, but for Planet of the Apes, he created a 12-tone composition that conveyed the sense of something highly structured breaking down. The violins hit some very high notes that prompted several audience members at the screening I attended to cover their ears. I grimaced through it, predicting Charlton Heston‘s acting style in the movie, but my eardrums felt like they’d been stabbed. The score prepared the audience to accept that this movie was not going to be like a sweet YouTube video about inter-species friendships!
  • I’ve seen the last scene of this movie many times, but I did not recall, or maybe I did not see, the beginning. The story begins with captain George Taylor (Heston) preparing to return to Earth after a six-month mission in deep space. Time would have passed more quickly on Earth due to relativity effects, but the ship is knocked off course. They’re displaced in time (2,000 years have gone by on Earth) and space (their instruments show that they’re not even in the same star system as Earth). They splash down onto a planet that’s half lakes and half hoodoos. The interruption of the ship’s trajectory and the impossible landscape answered a question I had long harboured about the movie: how did they not realize that they had landed on Earth?
  • Taylor and two other crew members, another white man, Landon (Robert Gunner), and an African-American man, Dodge (played by Jeff Burton), survive the crash-landing, only to be captured by the apes. Dodge dies in captivity. I don’t know if it’s the first instance of a black character in a science fiction film to be the first to die, but it’s got to be an early contender. Perhaps the filmmakers were dodging the prospect of showing an African-American man being enslaved. The film blithely treats slavery as a metaphor without having to deal with the actual history of American racism and slavery.
  • While Dodge is the first of the ship’s survivors to die on the planet run by apes, he is not the first of the space crew to die in the movie. That dubious honour went to Stewart, the only female crew member. She doesn’t utter a line; in fact, she is never shown to be conscious! Stewart was in a version of hypersleep when we first see her. When Taylor tries to wake her later, he finds her to be an aged corpse.  (Dianne Stanley, who played the young Stewart, wasn’t even given an on-screen credit, but at least we know who she is. No one knows the name of the 80-year-old woman who played the dead Stewart.) This is not the last mention of Stewart. Landon, the mild-mannered intellectual, mourns her death and even builds a pyre after they land. The tough-talking Taylor tells him to get over it. Stewart’s name is brought up again later in the film, when Taylor explains to another human captive that Stewart’s role on the mission “was to be the new Eve.”  So Stewart’s character trajectory  in the film went from sleeping womb to dead crone to an object of grief.
  • Stewart isn’t the only female human in Planet of the Apes. There are many women among the human slaves. Taylor takes a shine to one particular woman, Nova (Linda Harrison) who happens to be young and beautiful. Alas, like all the humans, she cannot speak, so never mind the Bechdel-Wallace Test: human women say nothing at all in this movie! To Taylor’s credit, he isn’t thrilled by that. He tells Nova: “You’re not as smart as Stewart, but you’re the only girl in town.” Apparently, all the other human females on the planet are too unattractive to even exist.
  • There is one remarkable female character in Planet of the Apes: Zira, played by Kim Hunter. She’s an outspoken behavioural scientist who believes that humans are intelligent beings, the Jane Goodall of the planet of the apes. Zira encourages her shy husband, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), who found evidence to support his theory that apes evolved from humans. I remembered McDowall because of his role as an ape called Galen in the television series, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a female character take the lead in the movie. However, since Planet of the Apes is a topsy-turvy world, there is a tacit message that seeing a woman taking a lead in science would be as remarkable as hearing an ape talk. However, Hunter’s performance sweeps suspicious about the writers’ intentions aside. She gets you on board with her personal and political struggles as quickly as you could relate to the humans and their more basic existential struggle.
  • Meanwhile, Heston doesn’t play Taylor as a sympathetic figure. He’s a disaffected hardass who speaks mainly by yelling through gritted teeth. The performance lacks all subtlety, but makes for some very memorable scenes (“Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”).
  • The movie managed to include a reference to the generation gap. Zira and Cornelius enlist their nephew, Lucius, to break Taylor out of jail and escape to Cornelius’s archeological dig. When Taylor tells Lucius to stay and guard the horses, the lad bristles: “Always giving orders, just like every other adult.”
  • I did not expect the astronaut skinny-dipping scene. Ah, the 60s!

Watching Planet of the Apes in its entirety led me to a new appreciation of the last scene. Knowing it was coming didn’t diminish its power. It was the culmination of an adventure which took the protagonists from a hopeful mission to a hopeless reality. The ruling ape regime practices segregation, enslaves workers, allows religion to override science, destroys knowledge, mongers war, and buries the past. In the end, the greatest symbol of American openness and liberation is broken and buried. No one is interested in making America great again. No one, except an anachronism, can even remember it.

Spoiler! This is the last scene of Planet of the Apes (1968).

Planet of the Apes (1968) was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, who also directed some of the best-known films of the 1970s, including Papilion (which, like Planet of the Apes, is getting 21st century reboot). Screenwriters Michael Wilson and Rod Serling adapted the story from Pierre Boulle‘s novel.

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