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; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.
“La Planète des singes” (“Planet of the Apes”) was a 1963 novel by noted French author Pierre Boulle.
Boulle was born in France and studied engineering as a young man. He was working as a technician on British rubber plantations in British Malaya when World War II broke out. He quickly enlisted in the French army in Singapore, and when France fell to Germany, he fought with the French resistance in China, Burma, and French Indochina. During the war he was captured and subjected to endure forced labor; an experience he would later turn into the novel, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. “Kwai” would turn into a global best-seller and later an Academy Award winning film.
Several years and nearly a dozen books later, Boulle was observing Apes in a zoo when he noticed their human-like expressions and interactions. He began wondering what a society of apes would be like. He penned a novel about a team of astronauts who leave Earth out of dissatisfaction with human society only to find their way through space to a planet ruled by apes. Humanity there had devolved due to apathy, and apes had risen to the dominant species on the planet. After much struggle, the crew manages to return to Earth, but hundreds of years had passed and the same simian phenomenon had occurred here at home.
Boulle considered it one of his lesser works.
Arthur P. Jacobs
Thankfully, film producer Arthur P. Jacobs did not. He had read the book prior to publication, and bought the film rights before it even hit the stands.
Jacobs had been the head of a powerful public relations firm, representing such high-profile clients as Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, and Marilyn Monroe before he made the transition to movie producing in the early 1960s.
He was convinced that “Planet of the Apes” would make a phenomenal movie, so he aimed high and obtained the services of Rod Serling (of television’s “The Twilight Zone” fame) to do a script treatment. Serling was accustomed to using science fiction to mask sensitive issues that would otherwise face difficulty with censors or audiences, and that was exactly what Jacobs was looking for, here. He felt there were numerous societal issues that such a tale could comment on, and thought Serling was just them man to give voice to them.
The project was initially set up with Warner Brothers (with Blake Edwards being considered to direct), but estimations for the budget ran to $10 million, an exorbitant amount at the time. Warners put the project into turnaround.
After “Apes” was put in turnaround, Jacobs had trouble getting other studios interested. So he contracted a series of artists to do a series of conceptual drawings, illustrating what the film could be, visually. After employing seven different artists, he had compiled a 130 page portfolio of concept art to bring along on pitch meetings.
The answer he was getting was still “no”.
That is, until he attached a star to the project.
Jacobs approached Charlton Heston with Boulle’s novel and the portfolio of concept art.
Heston was an enormous star at the height of his popularity in the mid 1960s. A World War II veteran who turned his attention to acting after returning from service, Heston saw his breakthrough role in “The Greatest Show on Earth”, an iconic role as Moses in “The Ten Commandments”, and won an Oscar for his leading role in “Ben Hur”. At the time, Heston was even the head of the Screen Actors Guild.
Heston was impressed with the book and by the concept. He could see the massive potential in the film. The character of Taylor fascinated him as well. Taylor begins the film as a man who’s so fed up with humanity’s faults and frailties that he literally leaves the Earth, but essentially winds up being mankind’s champion, representing the species against the apes.
Heston took things one step further beyond accepting the role by recommending a director to Jacobs. He had just finished a film called “The War Lord” with director Franklin Schaffner, and he recommended him for the job on “Apes”. Jacobs agreed.
Jacobs had already produced a highly successful film for 20th Century Fox, (“What a Way to Go”, 1964) and was deep into production on a second film (“Dr Doolittle”, 1967), when Richard Zanuck took a meeting with him regarding “Planet of the Apes”. Zanuck had recently taken over at Fox from his father, and he saw the potential in the project. He had one major concern however.
Could they make the ape makeup believable enough that audiences wouldn’t laugh at it?
He advanced Jacobs $5,000 for a makeup test. Ben Nye, the head of Fox’s makeup department, created the makeup effects. Charlton Heston starred, and Edward G Robinson put on makeup and played Dr Zaius. James Brolin played Cornelius, and Linda Harrison, who was dating Richard Zanuck at the time, played the role of Zira (she would eventually play Taylor’s girlfriend Nova in the film). The test was impressive enough to convince Zanuck that it could be done. The movie was given the green light to proceed.
Fox was still recovering from the box office disaster of “Cleopatra” (1963), however. The budget needed to be brought down below $5 million dollars so that Zanuck wouldn’t have to take it to the Fox board for approval. Rod Serling’s script, following the lead of Boulle’s novel, featured a technologically advanced ape society, which would have been extremely costly to produce on film. So screenwriter Michael Wilson was brought in to rework the script with an eye on getting the budget down below $5 million.
Wilson was an Academy Award winning screenwriter (“A Place in the Sun”) who had been blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Due to his blacklisting, Wilson’s Oscar-winning screenplay work on “Bridge on the River Kwai” went uncredited (he was posthumously awarded his Oscar for the film in 1984).
In his pass on the “Apes” script, he set the ape society back to a more primitive state (primarily to achieve the goal of getting the cost of the film down), and worked in even more political content, based upon his own experiences, notably the tribunal scene.
“Apes” was greenlit in late 1966, and scheduled to begin filming in the Spring of 1967, which only left seven months for pre-production. Nye’s work on the makeup test had been successful, but the production knew they would need someone with more experience for the actual film. They put the word out, and found John Chambers.
John Chambers began his career as a medical technician in World War II, crafting prosthetics and appliances for facial reconstruction for wounded soldiers. After the War he took his skills to Hollywood, working on such high-profile television shows such as “The Munsters”, “The Outer Limits”, and “Lost in Space”. The year prior, it was Chambers who designed Spock’s ears for Star Trek.
The ape makeup needed not only to look like apes, however, it needed to let the actors facial expressions show through. Chambers also needed to work fast. He was given plenty of resources to work with though. $1 million, nearly twenty percent of the total budget, was dedicated to the makeup work. Up to 80 makeup artists, hair stylists and wardrobe people were employed. So many specialized artists were employed by the film that it caused a ripple effect through Hollywood – the shortage of makeup artists caused delays on other films.
New appliances would have to be molded for the actors every day. The molds were being used round the clock… 200 actors and extras needed makeup work of the course of the film. Initially the ape makeup process could take up to six hours on an actor, but with time, the team cut it down to three. Actors bided their time in refrigerated trailers between scenes in order to preserve their appliances. They had to use cigarette holders to smoke with and eat lunch looking in mirrors in order to get the food in their mouth. Many of their meals were liquified, as chewing was difficult, and would disrupt the makeup.
Chimps, who were sympathetic to man were made to look the most human. The Ape military were given frightening looks, while orangutan’s were given an aristocratic noble look. Reportedly, during breaks in shooting, a strange cultural phenomena occurred. Apes of like species would lunch and take breaks together.
In addition to landing one of the biggest stars of the day in Heston, “Apes” featured an impressive cast. The feeling was that in order to emote through the makeup, extremely talented actors would be required. Kim Hunter (Zira) was an Academy Award winner for “A Street Car Named Desire”, Maurice Evans (Dr Zaius) was a noted Shakespearian actor (Edward G Robinson passed on the role due to makeup demands), and Roddy McDowall (Cornelius) had been acting his entire life, getting his start at the age of 10.
Shooting began on May 21st, 1967. The opening trek through the desert was shot in Arizona and Colorado, while the majority of the movie was filmed in Malibu State Park in California, which at the time belonged to 20th Century Fox (“The Fox Ranch”). The ape city was constructed there, using urethane foam, a material that was new to film production at the time. The buildings would be sculpted out of pencil-rod metal, covered in cardboard, and then the urethane would be sprayed against the cardboard from inside the structure. All that was left was to pull the cardboard off, and the crew had a building that had a unique, sculpted look on the cheap.
“Planet of the Apes” tells the story of a team of astronauts returning to Earth after a 6 month mission at near light speed. Several hundreds of years have passed back home for them. With all four astronauts in cryo-sleep, they crash-land on what they think is an alien world. They soon discover that the native human inhabitants are primitive, lacking the ability to speak. Further, they’re hunted by the dominant species on the planet, apes.
Captain Taylor (Heston) is captured by apes, and sees his two surviving crewmen stuffed and lobotomized. He, however, manages to connect with a pair of ape scientists, Zira and Cornelius, by demonstrating his ability to talk. This completely upsets the worldview of the ape oligarchy, though. Their belief, supported by their religious scripture, is that man is an unthinking animal.
Taylor argues for his rights as a person to no avail. When he’s condemned to be experimented on, he’s saved by Zira and Cornelius, who flee with him and a freed female captive, Nova, into the “Forbidden Zone”. It’s there that Taylor discovers the shocking truth. One of the greatest “twist ending”s of all time: He’s been back on Earth the entire time.
But “The Planet of the Apes” was more than just an entertaining science-fiction film with a great twist ending. It was plainly loaded with sociopolitical commentary. Themes of race, religion and war abounded.
The world of the apes itself is a racially stratified militaristic society governed by a religious ruling class. Orangutans sit in power, quoting scripture and controlling laws and science. Gorillas fight and do menial labor, while Chimps are seen as the middle class.
The racial structuring, and the way the apes are seen to mistreat humans (who are considered inferior) are obvious commentaries on the state of race relations in America at the time. In the mid 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was seeing success, but at great cost. The multiple firehose scenes in “Apes” must have conjured images of actual news broadcasts for audiences. The language in the tribunal scenes arguing for Taylor’s rights being met by assertions that he was inferior must have struck chords as well. The film plainly illustrates the fallacies in racist thinking by creating a fictional situation where mankind itself was treated as certain races were at the time.
The Cold War was also still in full effect. “Apes” was released a mere 5 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and relations with the former Soviet Union were still tenuous. With America involved in the Vietnam war to stop the spread of Communism, nuclear hostilities were a frightening and tangible possibility. Taylor’s wailing at the film’s end implies a nuclear armaggedon occurred, giving the movie an unmistakable anti-Nuke message.
But “Apes” offers more than just the shocking twist in terms of military commentary. The film’s gorillas are war mongers, hunting a helpless, more primitive animal in the form of man. It’s not difficult to draw allegories between the Apes hunting humans, and America waging war on a small country with limited resources. A scene of the gorillas posing over a pile of human kills reflected images the country was seeing back from the war.
Though the chimps are awakening to the rights of humans, the war-hawk gorillas are backed by the politicians, paralleling the US government’s support of the military industrial complex, in spite of the growing distaste for the war by the American public.
“Planet of the Apes” was a financial success upon its release in 1968, grossing $32 million and placing in the top ten films of 1968.
It gave birth to a franchise that continued far beyond that year, however; one that is still going today. “Apes” spawned four sequels (“Beneath the Planet of the Apes”, 1970, “Escape from the Planet of the Apes”, 1971, “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes”, 1972, and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes”, 1973), a TV series (“Planet of the Apes”, 1974) an animated series (“Return to the Planet of the Apes”, 1975), a remake (“Planet of the Apes”, 2001) and a reboot (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, 2011), which will have a sequel of its own in 2014 (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”). The films have seen comic book adaptations and countless licensed merchandise. In fact, the massive merchandising surrounding the television show is often credited as one of the first campaigns to maximize the merchandising of a property, predating “Star Wars”.
Although there was no Academy Award for Best Makeup at that time (and there wouldn’t be until 1981), John Chambers was given a special Oscar by the Academy, saluting his achievement on the film. It was presented by Walter Matthau and a chimpanzee.
“Planet of the Apes” is a special film that not only tells an exciting story on the face of things, but speaks volumes worth of social commentary without eclipsing the entertainment. It features one of the most legendary endings of all time, set a new bar for makeup effects work and launched a property that is still going 45 years later.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”