By Steve Vivona
Fox, Widescreen, $29.95
My introduction to "Planet of the Apes" and its sequels came in the late seventies when it aired during WABC's 4:30 movie here in New York. "Apes week" was something to look forward to, as much as "Godzilla Week" or "Monster Week."
As a child "Planet of the Apes" appealed to me because of its fantastic settings, great makeup and fast-paced action. I collected all the Mego dolls and playsets until that interest was bulldozed by "Star Wars," which dominated the rest of my childhood.
"Planet of the Apes," as conceived by author Pierre Boulle was a scathing social satire that like the best science fiction, hid behind its fantastic elements to comment about the times in which it was written. The screenplay by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson retained that element of satire but wasn't exactly subtle about it. And who better to deliver heavy-handed dialogue than Charlton Heston?
Astronaut George Taylor's hatred for humanity and its barbaric nature has caused him to sign on for a deep space expedition that will last hundreds of years, but thanks to faster than light travel, he and his crew will have aged only a few months. Taylor hopes that humanity will have evolved beyond its warlike tendencies into something better.
A malfunction causes his ship to stay in deep space for two thousand years and it finally crash lands on a barren planet light years from earth. Taylor and crew abandon their sinking ship (one female crewmember died when her stasis tube malfunctioned) and set about exploring their new home.
The trio come upon a pack of primitive humans foraging for food. By the looks of things, Taylor smugly intones, "We'll be running the place in six months." No sooner does he make that assertion when he is startled by blaring horns signifying a hunt. The humans scatter and Taylor is dumbfounded to see intelligent, fully clothed apes astride horses and closing in fast on the panicked humans.
Taylor is wounded by a gunshot to the throat and captured. He is brought to the laboratory of Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter), a kindly chimpanzee who is fascinated by the behavior of "primates" such as humans. She is fascinated by Taylor's attempts to communicate and believes he might be a "missing link" in simian evolution.
This draws the attention of Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), science minister and chief defender of the faith. Dr. Zaius warns Zira and her fiancee Cornelius (Roddy MacDowall) that their experiments border on heresy. Taylor soon escapes but when he is recaptured he intones those classic lines we all know so well. "Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!"
A human with the capacity for speech sends shockwaves through the ape society and Zira and Cornelius are soon accused by Dr. Zaius of surgically altering Taylor and giving him this capability. All the while Zaius hides a dark secret that he fears could destroy the foundations of ape society, setting the stage for the most famous shock ending in film history.
As stated before "Planet of the Apes" comments on all the hot button social issues of its day, contempt for authority, racial hatred, the difference in social classes, and of course, war. The best science fiction has always couched its social messages in fantastic elements, such as "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "1984," and "Star Trek." "Apes" is no exception but it has a tendency to beat the audience over the head with sixties catch phrases like, "Don't trust anyone over thirty."
Director Franklin J. Schaffner does a great job at keeping events moving at a brisk pace. His camera is by no means static and he has a tendency to zoom in on certain shots that are meant to shock the audience. Schaffner was aided in no small measure by a haunting, memorable score composed by Jerry Goldsmith.
Heston's role was a harbinger of science fiction films to come, including the sequel, "Beneath the Planet of the Apes," "The Omega Man," and "Soylent Green." Depending on who you speak with Heston is either the greatest actor who ever lived or the worst. I tend to enjoy his overblown acting style (which got worse as he got older) and I've always enjoyed him in this film.
Maurice Evans brings the requisite class to his role as Dr. Zaius as do Hunter and MacDowall (who made a career out of "Apes," appearing in all subsequent sequels but one as well as a short-lived TV series).
Fox's DVD presentation is light years ahead of any previous video presentation. The widescreen image is gorgeous (anyone remember Fox's hideous laserdisc?) The only major supplements are several trailers and a nice photo gallery. I'd recommend the excellent box set, "Planet of the Apes: The Evolution," which contains all five films and an excellent documentary hosted by Roddy MacDowall, which gives an exhaustive history of the saga.
In 1974 Fox re-released all five films as part of a marathon all-day showing exhorting audiences to "Go Ape!" It's time to do it again with this excellent collection!