Those Damned Dirty Apes!

Article by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2000


This article appeared in Issue 20 of Frontier, the Australian science fiction media magazine, as well as the opening chapter in the book "The Planet of the Apes Chronicles".

Beware the beast man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him, for he is the harbinger of death.

Planet of the Apes box artThe Planet of the Apes Chronicles, edited by Paul A. Woods

In the months leading up to its February 1968 release, studio executives at Twentieth Century Fox nervously awaited audience response to their latest science fiction film, fearing that it would be laughed out of the theatres by skeptical audiences. After all, in comparison to MGM's upcoming sci-fi epic "2001: A Space Odyssey", their offering was closer to high camp than serious storytelling.

A planet where apes evolved from men?

Fortunately, the pessimistic prognosis of the studio execs never came to be, and instead, "Planet of the Apes" went on to become an audience favorite that year. Like "The Sixth Sense" of last summer, "Planet of the Apes" created a stir among the movie-going public that year with its stunning twist ending, an iconic scene that has been immortalized in the popular consciousness. Sensing that they had something truly unique in their hands, the studio commissioned a number of sequels, a series of five films that formed the "Planet of the Apes" movie franchise and helped pave the way for a two television series and a loyal following of fans around the world.

Planet of the Apes

I left both Earth and the 20th century without regrets. Wasn't it Marshall that said that modern man is the missing link between the ape and human beings. I'm nagged by a question... what, if anything, will greet us in the end of man's first journey to a star? A journey that began with tranquility and beauty, and will end where?

Planet of the Apes logo

The first film detailed the adventures of Taylor (Charlton Heston) and two fellow astronauts who crash-land on a seemingly barren planet while on an interstellar mission. Though their total trip time has only been eighteen months, nearly two thousand years have passed back on Earth as a result of a relativity-type effect. They quickly discover that they are not alone on this alien world, and that the evolutionary ladder has been turned upside down, with mute humans being hunted by talking apes. After surviving a hunter's bullet, Taylor is taken into Ape City where he is caged like an animal and the subject of 'animal psychology' experiments.

Get your stinkin' paws off me, you damned dirty ape!

The climactic and sobering finale of the Planet of the Apes

Fortunately, Taylor is befriended by Nova (Linda Harrison, seen more recently in "Cocoon"), a mute but fetching human woman, and catches the attention of chimpanzee scientist Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and her archeologist fiancé Cornelius (the late Roddy McDowall). Zira and Cornelius are shocked to discover that Taylor is unlike any other human they have seen, possessing both intelligence and the power of speech. Despite attempts by Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), the head of the Ape Assembly, to protect the status quo by having him destroyed, Taylor escapes, and rides off into the sunset with Nova. It is here that the "Planet of the Apes" makes its earth-shattering and sobering revelation-- Taylor finds the upper half of the Statue of Liberty on a deserted beach, proof that he had returned to Earth and the 'upside-down' world he found was a result of man's own folly.

You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! Damn you all to hell!

It was thanks to "Fantastic Voyage" that the first "Planet of the Apes" was actually able to break out of development hell and committed to film. Heston and producer Arthur P. Jacobs had a difficult job in convincing Twentieth Century Fox to green-light an adaptation of French author Pierre Boulle's novel "Monkey Planet". The resistant studio execs believed that being able to portray talking apes convincingly was not only beyond the abilities of the special effects technology of the time, but would run the risk of making the studio the laughing stock of Hollywood. Even a short five-minute screen test of Heston and Edward G. Robinson (who co-starred with Heston in "The Ten Commandments") in 'ape gear' failed to change any minds. However, all that changed when "Fantastic Voyage" delivered a bountiful box office, and studio head Richard Zanuck was convinced of the financial viability of the sci-fi genre.

How in hell did this upside-down world get started?

Issue 20 of Frontier Magazine

With a budget of $5 million to work with, Heston and Jacobs began production, using a screenplay adapted by the late Rod Serling ("The Twilight Zone") and Michael Wilson ("Lawrence of Arabia"). As opposed to directly transcribing Boulle's story, which featured a planet inhabited by apes in a modern-day setting, the script placed the apes into a more primitive setting. This not only served as a means of reducing the film's budget, but it also fit with the added element of nuclear holocaust, which provided a profound sense of emotional resonance to the film.

You know what they say... human see, human do.

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

Indeed, it was the apocalyptic aspect of the story that struck a chord with audiences, and it was startling enough to help them ignore some of the less-than-spectacular aspects of the film. For example, critics of the day derided the film for the use of silly visual gags (such as three orangutans pulling a 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' routine when Taylor speaks in his own defense), Heston's wavering performance (including his cringe-worthy "It's a mad house... a mad house!" exclamation), and the inability of Taylor to recognize that he was back on Earth sooner (after all, he saw the mute humans stealing corn, he would have noticed a 24-hour day, the apes rode on horses, and English was the language in use). None of these mattered to audiences at the time, as they had spent the past two decades living in fear of nuclear annihilation since the start of the Cold War, and still remembered the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis only six years prior. However, the anti-nuclear message was not the only sociopolitical subtext to be found in "Planet of the Apes". Given that 1968 was probably the most tumultuous year of the Sixties, with the world in a state of momentous political and social change, the year of "Planet of the Apes" release was significant.

Don't try and follow me... I'm pretty handy with this.
Of that I'm sure. All my life I've awaited your coming and dreaded it.

Taylor (Charlton Heston) confronts the upside down world

The children of the Baby Boom were coming of age in a much more dynamic and confused world than the relatively stable and prosperous Fifties that they had grown up in. The conflict in Vietnam had escalated in January of that year during the Tet Offensive, feeding a growing anti-war sentiment both in the United States and around the world. Russia invaded Czechoslovakia to put down the 'Prague Spring' democratic movement. The dream of 'Camelot' died with Senator Robert Kennedy's assassination in a Los Angeles hotel. The civil rights movement mourned the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which triggered a summer of looting in several major U.S. cities. The Chicago National Democratic Convention was interrupted by hundreds of anti-war protesters... and so on. Between the start of 1968 and the end of the decade, no corner of the globe was untouched by political unrest and social upheaval.

You've been too much with humans... you lie like they do.

The original poster for Planet of the Apes

Taking into consideration the cultural context in the film was made, it is not surprising the number of subtle allegories that can be found in "Planet of the Apes". The most prominent was the civil rights movement, with the film recontextualizing the darkest elements of African American history into the plight of a white man on a planet run by apes, subjugated by ape-centric laws and social mores. Later films would develop this subtext further, as in "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes", in which a simian underclass violently overcomes the yoke of human subjugation. Race-related class distinction was also in evidence in the first film, as it presented an ape society where the paler orangutans held the high-ranking positions of power, while the darker-skinned gorillas did the more menial tasks in ape society, which included the fighting of its wars. The growing chasm between the Baby Boom and their parents was also in evidence here, dramatized by the progressive attitudes and values of Zira and Cornelius contrasted to the staunch conservatism of Dr. Zaius. All in all, "Planet of the Apes" was a cinematic statement of the times, reflecting the climate of instability and discord of the late Sixties.

How about a kiss, doctor?
But you're so damned ugly!

A Sci-fi Franchise is Born

Nova (Linda Harrison) and Brent (James Franciscus) explore Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Buoyed by a record box office take of $26 million, Twentieth Century Fox commissioned a sequel, which was easier said than done-- after all, how could they top the final scene of the first film? Not surprisingly, the script for the second film went through a number of incarnations, which included one with Taylor returning to the Twentieth century, another with him escaping into deep space only to land on another ape-infested planet, and yet another where he helps mankind become the dominant species once again. Unfortunately, there were some other bumps along the way, including Heston not wanting to reprise his role, a reduced budget, and the departure of the film's original director.

If you are caught by the gorillas, remember one thing?
What's that?
Never to speak!
What would I have to say to a gorilla?

Ursus (James Gregory)

Nevertheless, "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" debuted in 1970, with Heston playing Taylor once again, though only briefly. This time, the story followed the adventures of Brent (James Franciscus), an astronaut who crash-lands in the Forbidden Zone after following Taylor's original trajectory. Nova, Zira, Cornelius, and Dr. Zaius are back, and the story revolved around Brent journeying into the ruins of New York City, where he finds a cult of atom bomb-worshipping mutants who have captured Taylor-- they pray to 'the Almighty Bomb and the Holy Fallout', and religiously advocate the concept of mutually-assured destruction (MAD).

The only good human... is a dead human!

Charlton Heston dies in Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Meanwhile, a war-mongering gorilla named Ursus (James Gregory) is about to launch a pre-emptive strike on a rumored human habitation in the Forbidden Zone, providing the film with a heavy-handed Vietnam War allegory (including a laughable scene that featured left-wing chimpanzees protesting 'No more war!'). And though the film was decidedly inferior to the original, it didn't stop audiences from packing the theatres, especially in light of the film's chilling ending, which had a mortally-injured Taylor detonating a nuclear weapon that immolates the entire planet, forever ending the war between humans and their ape successors.

In one of the countless galaxies in the universe lies a medium-sized star. And one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.

Despite the destruction of the world and the death of its main character, the "Planet of the Apes" franchise continued the following year with "Escape from the Planet of the Apes". With some deus ex machina plotting, the story continues in present day Earth (1973 Los Angeles to be exact) with the arrival of Cornelius and Zira, who escaped the destruction of the Earth in the year 3955 by piloting Brent's spaceship and traveling back through time.

We think we have all the time in the world... how much time does the world got?

What made this sequel a standout among all the "Apes" sequels was how it inverted the story of the first film, with intelligent apes being persecuted by man. When it is learned by the military that Zira's unborn child will ultimately usher in the downfall of man in the future, their reaction is similar to that of Dr. Zaius in the first film, who wanted to pre-empt the threat that Taylor represented. Despite the best attempts of the military, Zira's baby does survive and is raised by a kind circus owner (Ricardo Montalban, better known as Khan in "Star Trek II"), setting in motion a time loop much like the one in "The Terminator".

The 1972 installment "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" then picked up the action in the year 1991. Since the events of the prior film, much has changed on Earth. A space-borne plague has killed all cats and dogs on the planet, while also stimulating mental development of the lower primates. At first, humans use primates to replace their lost pets, but eventually they find them useful for menial labor, which ultimately creates a slave class. Zira's baby, now 18 and named Caesar (played again by McDowall) initiates a rebellion after seeing the cruel and inhumane treatment of his primate brethren at the hands of their human masters. The rise of the "Planet of the Apes" had begun, using images that spoke to the racial intolerance and violence that plagued modern-day American society.

I was told how you chose your own name Caesar. But every Caesar must have its Brutus, ape! And now Ape City is about to lose its king.

The franchise finally came to an end in 1973 with "Battle for the Planet of the Apes", which brought the film series full-circle, showing humanity's last gasp in a world devastated by nuclear war in the year 2001. This time, the action focused on the efforts of Caesar and a human friend (Austin Stoker) in warding off a last-ditch effort by mutant human survivors to eradicate the ape threat. Though this final film was greeted by some well-deserved audience ennui (due to the anemic story and paltry $1.8 million budget), it provided some continuity that set-up the elements in the first two films, making it a worthwhile effort for "Apes" purists.

Apes on the Small Screen

Burke (James Naughton) and Virdon (Ron Harper) of the TV series

Though there would be no more films after "Battle for the Planet of the Apes" came and went in 1973, general interest in the "Apes" franchise was still high enough to convince TV execs to commission a couple of short-lived television shows.

"Planet of the Apes" debuted on CBS in the fall of 1974, picking up the story approximately midway between the events of the fifth and first films. This time around, a time warp hurls two astronauts, Virdon (Ron Harper, who also played Uncle Jack on "Land of the Lost") and Burke (James Naughton, seen recently playing Ally McBeal's father), into the year 3085, where they discover an Earth overrun by intelligent apes. Befriended by the chimpanzee Galen (McDowall again), they travel through this upside-down world, trying to find a way to return to their own time. Unfortunately, the writing and special effects of the series suffered from the lower budgets and shorter time-lines endemic to television production, and it was never became a decent ratings grabber, and CBS pulled the plug after only thirteen episodes.

All knowledge is for good. Only the use to which you put it can be good or evil.

Despite its short life span, the television series became a cult favorite among "Apes" fans, who pointed to the eighth episode ("The Deception") as a shining example of the show's potential. In this compelling episode, while hiding from a gorilla army, Burke inadvertently wins the heart of a blind female chimpanzee, who is unaware that he is human. The show also featured Mark Lenard (who played Sarek in the "Star Trek" franchise) as a series regular, playing the gorilla warlord Urko. Though the individual episodes have not been seen since the mid-Seventies, they were repackaged into five TV movies, with each movie combining two episodes, and can be seen from time-to-time on late night television.

"Return to the Planet of the Apes" was the name of the Filmation-produced animated series that ran for a thirteen-episode run on NBC between 1975 and 1976. Unlike the live-action series of the prior year, this new series completely reinvented the franchise. This time, three astronauts from the present day (1975) are hurled into the year 3979 AD, and crash-land on an Earth ruled by intelligent apes. However, the apes in this series were much more advanced, possessing the modern conveniences of automobiles, movie theatres, and airplanes. In a similar plot to the first film, they are captured and befriended by two chimpanzee scientists, Zira and Cornelius. Additional film cues are seen when the three astronauts find a mute woman named Nova and hook up with another astronaut-turned-time-traveler named Brent.

And though this animated series suffered from the lackluster animation typical of Filmation productions (think "Scooby-Doo"), the tone and writing of the show remained true to the intent of the first film by providing a unique perspective on human problems, while expanding upon the universe that it introduced.

Apes in Popular Culture

Planet of the Apes, the musical, as seen on The Simpsons

Since the mid-Seventies, neither hide nor hair of the "Planet of the Apes" has been seen in any official capacity, other than the occasional re-run on late night television or the 1998 release of the 30th anniversary collection of re-mastered films on video. Despite its conspicuous absence and significant changes in the sociopolitical environment (such as the end of the Cold War), the popularity of the "Apes" franchise has continued to grow, making it a permanent fixture in the pantheon of popular culture. Over the years, references to "Planet of the Apes" have been spotted in a number of interesting places, including:

Future Apes?

Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, and Charlton Heston at the 30th anniversary

The possibility of a remake of "Planet of the Apes" has been the source of much speculation and rumor mongering since the early Nineties, as the highly-prized project has been bandied about Hollywood, passing from one director to the next. In late 1993, the project was first announced by a producing team that was headed up by Oliver Stone ("Any Given Sunday"). The script they had, scribed by Terry Hayes ("The Road Warrior"), featured a scientist trying to solve a genetic disease that is causing babies to die of old age as soon as they are born. Somehow, by manipulating his mitochondrial DNA, he is able to travel back in time, where he discovers an ape-dominated society trying to pre-empt man's evolution.

Despite having a script in hand and a producing team at the ready, the "Apes" remake sat in development hell for the rest of the decade. Over the next six years, a number of high-profile names were attached and then removed from the "Apes" project, including Arnold Schwarzenegger ("End of Days"), James Cameron ("Titanic"), Australian director Philip Noyce ("The Bone Collector"), Chris Columbus ("Bicentennial Man"), and Roland Emmerich ("Godzilla").

Another script appeared in 1995, written by Sam Hamm ("Batman") which took an approach closer to Boulle's original novel. Like the Hayes script, it starts off with babies dying of old age as soon as they are born, only in this case the cause is a virus unleashed by the crash of a mysterious spaceship in New York harbor. NASA scientists eventually track the spaceship to a distant planet, and send a manned mission in a bid to find a cure. It is there that they discover a world similar to modern-day Earth. However, this planet is ruled by intelligent apes, which have based their entire culture on intercepted television broadcasts from Earth. Fortunately, it seems that this dubious idea has been scrapped also.

Last summer, yet another screenwriter, William Broyles ("Entrapment"), was brought in to write a script, only this time with an emphasis on making the new film more teen-friendly (which means stacking the cast with 'actors' such as Freddie Prinze Jr. and Leonardo DiCaprio). At the same time, Twentieth Century Fox also announced that the film would finally debut in theaters in the summer of 2001. Despite such rosy declarations, the "Apes" project continues to move forward at a crawl, with the latest news being that Tim Burton ("Mars Attacks") has been tapped to helm the film. Alas, this may not be the last of such announcements.

The Legacy of the Apes

I'm a seeker too. But my dreams aren't like yours. I can't help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be.

It has been over three decades since "Planet of the Apes" stunned audiences with its grim portrayal of a world devastated by the scourge of intolerance and paranoia. While some pundits may deride the franchise for its vacillating quality and its gradual decline into camp, a number of the sobering themes found in the "Apes" films still ring true today. The Cold War may be over, but man's ability to inflict pain and suffering on his neighbor continues to be demonstrated, whether it be in Los Angeles in 1992, the former Yugoslavia for the bulk of the Nineties, or to this day in Chechnya. Like the hellish nightmare presented in the "Planet of the Apes" films, the planet of man is a world where the ideals of the few are often silenced by the madness of many.

Images courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.


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