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50th Anniversary: Planet of the Apes (1968)

by Eric Blume

Half a century ago two ultimate sci-fi classics were released. We've just revisted 2001 but what of the other hit? 20th Century Fox released the original Planet of the Apes directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and starring Charlton Heston at essentially the same time.  Revisiting the original film after decades of sequels and reboots provides some fascinating reveals... 

The pacing of the original film is languid by today’s standards.  The instigating action (spaceship crash, exit onto land, initial exploration) takes a good half hour, and there’s even an awkwardly extended skinnydipping scene with the three astronauts that almost plays like boring softcore gay porn.  From there we follow a long chase with a group of caveman-like humans, where the three guys run naked when their clothes are stolen… it’s a hoot. 

But on some level, the makers of this version knew what they had:  audiences had never seen advanced talking apes, and milking the first part of the movie for their entrance pays off.  The first sighting of the apes on horseback still has a shock and verve to it, even all these years and Apes movies later.  

Most of the remainder of the movie takes place in “Ape City” where Heston becomes prisoner and patient.  The set design for these locations looks cheesy nowadays, but I remember being in its thrall as a kid and it feeling like a complete and unique world. Heston’s cell is conveniently located across from another cell holding a preposterously sexy (and conveniently mute) cavewoman from the earlier tribe.  She serves no real purpose from a narrative standpoint other than to prove Heston’s hetero-virility, and the poor actress cast in this role (Linda Harrison) is required to make goo-goo eyes and dumbfounded expressions in unforgiving close-up, resulting in some gloriously unintentional giggles.

Roddy McDowall and Oscar winner Kim Hunter play the good-guy apes, and it takes a good while to get used to the “special effects” of the era.  For those accustomed to Andy Serkis and the mind-blowing effects in the current Apes series, it’s sometimes painful to watch what basically equates to rubber masks and limited facial movements that can feel out of sync with the dialogue.  

Basically, viewing this first film as a contemporary moviegoer, it’s a frustrating, sometimes silly, slightly boring viewing experience, mostly because we’ve made such colossal advancements in technology that allow the storytelling to soar in the new Apes films. 

But then why is the original still so oddly powerful? 

You couldn't say that Director Schaffner (who’d go on two years later to win an Oscar for directing Patton) is exactly "inspired"  here -- it’s standard-issue Hollywood craftsmanship. But, and this is no small thing, he does trust the material, and the basic material is fantastic.  At the heart of this tale are such clever and profound ideas:  reversing the positions of man and ape, linking to our similar genetic makeups, animal testing and captivity, the list goes on.  The chase scenes and escape are just action-movie filler.  What really holds us in this film is our unease with how oddly possible it feels despite, of course, being impossible.  There’s a primal pull still, 50 years on; how new and vibrant and original this must have all seemed in 1968, with Schaffner and his team holding you captive.  

Today The Planet of the Apes world is part of our cinematic lexicon and it continues to bring audiences in droves internationally.  It’s definitely worth a peek back at where it all started, because despite the technological limitations of the time, it holds up.

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Reader Comments (13)

Shut up!
Planet of The Apes(1968) is all a pleasure to watch: soundtrack, make up, acting, screenplay, everything... And that ending... I doubt the Andy Serkis version will be celebrated in the future like this one. Pretty different from the book for financial reasons(the book is also very good) and more a parable or a fantasy than really a science fiction.
The production has the funniest behind-the-scenes stories including the one when at one of the first test screenings, a woman walked up to Charlton Heston and asked him how he was. Heston had no clue who she was until she revealed that she was Kim Hunter. He simply hadn't recognized her as he hadn't seen her outside of her ape make-up.
And Ingrid Bergman was a big fan of the movie! Turning down the part of Zira was one of the greatest regrets of the star of Casablanca(1943). Much surprised at how well the finished film turned out, she later confided to her daughter Isabella Rossellini that in hindsight the film would have been an ideal opportunity for her to "disregard her regal bearing". She also regretted missing the opportunity of working with Charlton Heston.

April 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterGwen

Gwen -- wow. i love that story about Kim Hunter. haha. although maybe he should have recognized her anyway given that she was an oscar winning actress ;)

Eric -- i agree that the movie holds up well and has a kind of primal pull. I've seen it a few times and it's always sticky. Movies that rely on huge technological advances (like the modern well made reboot trilogy) always run the risk of not lasting because when technology is your main draw, it really CAN'T last since there will always be advancements afterwards that make you look dated or less than impressive to eyes in the future. (but i think the reason the new trilogy is good is they seem to have really focused on storytelling when they could have been lazier about that given their technological impressiveness.

April 12, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

The Ahí te from Goñdsmith is amazing.

April 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterZxM

former model linda harrison happened to marry richard zanuck [the head of 20th century fox] that same year so the role wasn't a total bust

April 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterpar

My problem with the computer apes is that I always thought the actors with make up more touching, convincing, "human". Even now watching this first movie, that in the opinion of some is the one that better captures the spirit of the moment in the country and in the world. And the themes religion x science, prejudice, racism, etc are timeless. All in a package of a Kafka-Hitchcock nightmare in a labyrinth. And the irony of casting Moses/Ben Hur in the side of the science and a menace to the ancient religious beliefs of that planet. The other choice for the main role was Burt Lancaster who won an Oscar playing a religious man.

April 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMelchiades

Bobby Draper made me love this.

April 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I've seen more than a few Baby Boomer Gay Men who have said that this was the movie when they realized themselves. I'm a Generation X'er myself, but, well, that GIF...!

April 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

I much prefer this original to any of the updates (those are fine but just so much CGI sleight of hand).

The effects might be primitive and the sets quaint but it feels fresh. Pompous blowhard that he might have been in private life Charlton Heston had incredible star power and was able to pull and hold the viewers attention so you stayed focused on his plight which put this above run of the mill sci-fi and both McDowell and Kim Hunter manage to convey a lot of emotion even hampered by their masks. The ending still has a kick even when you know its coming.

April 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Cal --- ♥️❤️

April 12, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I was obsessed with this original series as many kids were. I think the rubbery makeup still works because everything else is so persuasive, especially the actors, that it doesn't even really matter. Jerry Goldsmith's score is one of the greatest. Even today, you just get caught up in the sheer power of the storytelling, both technically and thematically.

Linda Harrison changed her professional name to Augusta Sutherland, under which she appeared in Airport 1975 as Gloria Swanson's personal assistant.

April 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

What everybody has said. This is a classic, not a boring movie by any stretch of the imagination. And the makeup is outstanding even for today standards.

April 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

Always have to love Chuck in a loin cloth.

April 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRosa Moline


Sorry, I had to.

April 13, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterjakey

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