Still astonishing that the two movies that rocked sci-fi to its core came out the same year. Initially beloved mostly by dopeheads 2001: A Space Odyssey quickly achieved ultra-academic status. But it’s difficult to ignore the fact that that Planet of the Apes had the greater long-term effect, given it spawned umpteen sequels and two sets of remakes.
You could also argue that the concept is even bolder than the Kubrick, not just man’s treatment of animals, but the idea of man being subject to a superior species, and inside an action-packed picture there’s plenty of time to digest the unimaginable and engage in debate about the nature of man. The elevator pitch might have been: “Take Hollywood’s strongest hero and torture him one way or another.”
Part of the movie’s genius is the unsettling opening, swirling, almost deranged, camerawork, a discordant score, the confident occupants of a spacecraft heading into the unknown finding the kind of unknown that fills them with dread rather than awe. Two thousand years into the future a spaceship doesn’t gently touch-down on a strange planet, but crashes into it, luckily landing in a lake, the three survivors escaping the sinking craft.
The audience knows a great deal more than they do, that the arid desert in which they find themselves stretches everywhere. But then they realize, with supplies that will last only three days, the soil here will not support life. But they are quickly upbeat when they find a small plant followed by substantial greenery. The sight of crucified figures on a hill is put to one side when they hear running water and rush to dive naked into a pool, confidence restored that they won’t die of thirst and should at least be able to eat vegetable matter.
The pool is a clever reversal. Usually open water is there for a female to disport herself. Now we’re seeing Charlton Heston’s bare backside. And another reversal: when clothes disappear it’s usually so a female has to come out of the water exposed.
But from the sight of the crucified apes, for the next seven minutes, their world is completely turned upside down. Chasing after their clothes they find inhabitants, automatically assumed to be inferior because they are mute and dressed like cavemen. But then the tribe hears a noise and panics. We see horses hooves, the tops of the flailing sticks used to beat prey out from the undergrowth, rifles, the natives, like dumb beasts, being driven into nets.
Then the first sight of an ape astride a horse wielding a gun. There can’t have been a more astonishing image, not even from the mind of Stanley Kubrick, in the whole of Hollywood sci-fi. Man is not just an alien in a world ruled by apes, but treated like an animal and only kept alive for scientific experiment. That man is rendered mute is hardly surprising because the apes don’t expect their captives capable of uttering an intelligent word.
From then on we’re in familiar and unfamiliar territory. There’s little more cliched than a captive trying to escape, success and failure the next beats. There’s little more cliched than a captive striking up a relationship with an imprisoned female, the pair contriving to achieve freedom.
Where this breaks new ground is that, in addition to making a connection with Nova (Linda Harrison), Taylor (Charlton Heston) woos a female ape scientist Zira (Kim Hunter) who tries to help him become accepted by her people. In the opening section, Taylor had opined, “somewhere in the universe there must be something better than man” but in the arrogance of humanity had assumed he be treated as an equal rather than an inferior.
So it becomes a duel of words. Taylor forced into being told how terrible humans are, and it’s hard to argue with the ape conclusion, while at the same time making the case for mankind, and especially himself, as a special type of species. There’s more than enough meat in the script, riddled with brilliant lines, to make audiences think deeply about the impact of man on the world. You could cast your mind back to the slaves of Spartacus (1961), trying to be accepted as equals, forced into revolt when that is denied. And to some extent that’s the imagined set-up here: Taylor will escape and establish some kind of resistance movement.
But that’s not what director Franklin J. Schaffner (The War Lord, 1965) has in mind at all. He’s been leading us by the nose to the most stunning ending in all of sci fi, and one of the most astonishing climaxes in the entire history of the movies, a shock wrung through with irony.
The movie is a supreme achievement, in springing its multitude of audience traps, turning the world upside down. Jarring soundtrack and discomfited camerawork add to the stunning images. The ape world is revealed as complex, filled with engaging characters.
Outside of Number One (1969), this is Charlton Heston’s best performance as he moves through a range of emotions, cocky, puzzled, confident, baffled, captive, pleading, arguing the case for humanity, before spilling out into straightforward heroic mode of escapee. For the first time ever Hollywood now had a genuine box office star to headline sci-fi pictures and Heston would carry the torch for The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973)
At every level a masterpiece.