Planet of the Apes (Ultimate Collector’s Edition) - The Original Films Review

Planet of the Apes was a phenomenal science-fiction achievement, a film which, despite numerous minor flaws. has etched itself a place in cinema history, not least for its iconic final image – as potent a visual depiction of mankind’s appetite for self-destruction as any in the genre. Its success as a work of art is that of a one-off. Every sequel, remake or imitation has failed for a multitude of reasons but the principle one is that they can’t capture the serendipitous combination of wit, intelligence and suspense that came together in 1968; a year when Hollywood science-fiction was perhaps at its zenith.

You can read my thoughts on the original 1968 Planet of the Apes in my review of the R1 Special Edition here.

There’s no obvious reason why Planet of the Apes should work quite so well as it does. The director, Franklin J. Schaffner, was a solid craftsman but his earlier films show more aptitude for the intimate than the epic and his later ‘big movies’ tend towards the impersonal. The screenwriters Rod Serling and Michael Wilson had more than their fair share of disasters – Serling’s reputation had nose-dived in the wake of the abysmal Assault on a Queen - and the science-fiction genre itself had been in the doldrums since the heyday of the monster movie ten years before. Fox’s success with Fantastic Voyage seems to have influenced their decision to finance the Apes movie, along with the commitment of Charlton Heston, and their investment paid off handsomely – nearly forty years on, it remains a major money-spinner for the studio. It’s hard to point to reasons why Planet of the Apes is such a success but its so much fun to watch, so suspenseful and intellectually stimulating that its just about a perfect SF movie. Its certainly the highpoint of Schaffner’s career and also, I would suggest, Charlton Heston’s.

Heston seems to have agreed with this view and his protectiveness towards the film and the role he played made him reluctant to take part in a sequel. It’s not difficult to see why. Back in 1968, sequels were not de rigeur for major studio films and those that were made - Return to Peyton Place is a good example – were cheapjack productions made without a great deal of care. After a good deal of bargaining, he agreed that he would appear in a sequel but only for limited screen time and so it is that he makes three appearances in Beneath the Planet of the Apes; in a repeat of the ending from the first film at the start, ten minutes in, and during the climax. His absence as hero does considerable damage to the film, leading many Apes aficionados to consider it one of the weaker entries in the series. One of the problems is that you can see that the script is written to feature Heston as Taylor and that the revisions (to introduce a new character played by James Franciscus) don’t make dramatic sense. More seriously, Franciscus lacks screen presence and charisma so he never gains the sympathy of the audience. This problem dogged the actor throughout his career and led to him ruining a number of otherwise promising movies.

However, there is still a lot to enjoy in Beneath, as long as you reduce the expectations with which the first film will have left you. It’s certainly episodic to a fault but there are some wonderful ideas floating around courtesy of screenwriter Paul Dehn, whose first Apes film this was. Dehn was a waspish, fiercely intelligent writer who was a successful film critic before writing screenplays and his wit enlivened a variety of films including Goldfinger and Murder on the Orient Express. His view of Ape society is considerably more cynical than that presented in the first film. The three castes are shown in a withering light – gorillas are mindless warmongers, orang-utans are cold sadists and chimpanzees are ineffectual liberals – while the newcomers to the franchise – mutants who live underneath the Ape city – are religious maniacs who worship a nuclear bomb. His jaundiced social comments are very entertaining and result in some lovely asides – Dr Zaius and General discussing dissenters in an Ape steam room – and some nice political references – the insane and meaningless invasion initiated by the Gorillas, the talk of a ‘holy war’, anti-war chimpanzees demonstrating on the roads and the gung-ho martial speeches which come straight from a Vietnam War fundraiser.

It’s also interesting as a science-fiction movie because it deals with a couple of staples of the genre. The effects of radiation which have resulted in the mutations is an old favourite, linked here to the development of telepathic powers. We also have the idea of the second world beneath the visible one; a dichotomy which served the genre well during the post-Apocalypse movies of the 1970s. As a portrait of a future society, it has distinct limitations, presumably due to the budgetary constraints - the supposed ruins of New York are all too clearly a mixture of blown-up photographs and the leftover sets from Hello Dolly. But there’s a rousing battle climax, some witty dialogue and, best of all, NRA chairman Chuck Heston playing a seedy anarchist who gets to initiate Armageddon.

Beneath The Planet of the Apes made money, albeit not as much as its predecessor, and Paul Dehn was sent a famous telegram – “Apes survive: Sequel required”. Given that the ending of the film had been deliberately designed to preclude the possibility of any more sequels, Dehn had a problem. But his solution was ingenious – a time-travel movie in which Zira and Cornelius (along with the soon killed Dr Milo) return to the earth in 1973. Exactly how they do this is never explained (presumably they use the rescue ship in some way) and the idea that the apes who still don’t have television or wireless communications have the resources to cope with time travel is ludicrous. But nevertheless, Escape From the Planet of the Apes is an intelligent and funny film which offers some piercing social comments about prejudice while giving Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter their best chances to develop their characters. Indeed, McDowall – who was absent for the first sequel due to his directing Tam Lin in Ireland – is brilliant in this instalment, throwing away his funny lines with élan and firmly establishing the fact that the apes have, by now, become the heroes and humanity (with a few exceptions) the villains.

Predictably, the apes are first feted as media celebrities and then hunted down as social outcasts by a fearful establishment. This allows for considerable backstory to be provided in order to explain how apes became dominant in the first place. Cats and dogs having been killed in a freak plague, human beings instead took apes as pets. But the pets soon became slaves and once the cruelty towards the apes went too far, the apes rebelled leading to nuclear holocaust and a new society for the survivors. The leader was a unique creature, a talking ape who, we discover, was the offspring of Zira and Cornelius. Having established this, a nasty German scientist, well played by the usually wooden Eric Braeden, arranges for Zira’s child to be aborted when he finds out she is pregnant and then, when he fails, has them shot. It all ends in tears – the downbeat ending having become the norm for the Apes movies – but a final twist demonstrates that the baby is alive and well.

There’s a cutesy element to Escape which I find irksome, a sense in which a bitter pill is being somewhat over-sugared. Kim Hunter’s smug delivery of her dialogue doesn’t help, although her performance improves in the second half when slightly strained social comedy gives way to drama. The filmmakers have sometimes talked about their subtle social commentary in this film but it’s all really very obvious – the determination to suppress the other, the cool sadism of science, the two-faced pragmatism of an uncomprehending government. There are some nice human characters – Bradford Dillman’s zoo vet, Ricardo Montalban’s engagingly overplayed circus owner – but mostly it’s a story of the few against the many. As such, it can hardly help being emotionally affecting but the mobilisation of half the National Guard against two unarmed apes seems a little unlikely even in early seventies America. Don Taylor’s direction has enough pace to overcome such implausibilities however and even the lengthy swathes of plot exposition don’t slow the movie down too much.

Some people think Escape is the best of the sequels, possibly because it’s the one with the least SF elements and a nicely conventional chase movie structure. Genre fans, however, have begun to talk up Conquest of the Planet of the Apes as the best follow-up, because it creates a reasonably convincing, if low-budget, future world. Made for a ridiculously small amount of money, it was largely shot in LA’s Century City development, a fact that becomes increasingly apparent as the film goes on. The single set does at least allow for a certain visual coherence as director J. Lee Thompson goes for simple colour coding and a predominance of red and green. It follows the story of Escape by concentrating on Caesar (McDowall), the son of Zira and Cornelius, who has been raised by Montalban in his circus. Twenty years later, for reasons unexplained they have to go to the city and Caesar’s vocal protest at some police brutality towards some slave apes leads to all manner of trouble. His owner is killed and Caesar begins to fulfil the prophecy of his parents by leading a violent ape rebellion against their human masters.

There’s a lot of social comment here, most of it delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and Thompson and Paul Dehn seem to be making a deliberate anti-slavery statement. The final battle between apes and armed police is fashioned after the 1965 Watts Riots – a civil-rights protest in Los Angeles during which 34 people were killed and 1,110 injured. Caesar is portrayed, during the second half of the film, as a black militant while Don Murray’s corrupt, vicious governor is clearly modelled on the likes of George Wallace and Lester Maddox. The society is hysterically brutal towards the apes – most of the outrages seem to go back to those reported in the 19th Century Deep South – and, as with the previous film, it’s impossible not to be on the side of the apes even when they on the rampage. For those of you with an SF bent, you might want to consider a major paradox here – it is inferred that the apes inherited the power of speech from Caesar but he is shown here to have inherited his ability to speak from his parents. A possibility is that the events of Escape have successfully changed the future, making the last two films of the series take place in an alternative timeline. But I’ll leave you to mull that one over.

What’s missing here, along with any real political complexity – we need an LBJ figure to straddle the two positions – is a sense of humour. Dehn’s wit seems to have vanished somewhere along the line and the film trudges along in a grim vein that makes it something of a chore to watch. It’s a dark movie – Bruce Surtees did the doom-laden cinematography – and the most violent of the films, even in this re-cut version that Thompson was forced to produce after some disastrous previews, and while this is appropriate to the theme it seems oddly out of place in a series of films that were, up to this point, basically science-fantasy, complete with lie detectors straight out of “Star Trek”. There’s also a rather horrible ending in which Caesar adopts an abrupt character change and mouths some bland liberal platitudes to ensure that 20th Century Fox were not seen to be releasing a film which was unambiguously calling for militant black revolution.

Conquest looks like a masterpiece, however, compared to Battle For The Planet of the Apes. Paul Dehn having finally thrown in the towel by this point, his story was written up by the dread hands of the Corringtons who had previously mangled Richard Matheson’s marvellous “I Am Legend” into The Omega Man. It’s a total mess which tries to tie up a lot of loose ends from Beneath and Conquest and ends up as a muddle. The first half hour contains some amusing incidents and demonstrates how the three castes of ape are becoming distinct from each other but once Caesar and two companions enter the ruins of New York (which has been destroyed shortly after the ape uprising) it descends into chaos. There’s a potentially epic battle scene towards the end which is badly muffed by being disorganised while the ending is pure liberal mush. One could also raise questions; how have the apes developed quite so fast when only a period of a few years has passed since Conquest; how did they survive the nuclear blast unscathed; why does the destroyed city look nothing like Century City and a lot like New York?

There’s a pervasive sense of desperation hanging over every moment of Battle. The very low budget is obvious in both special effects and production design although the rural locations manage to hide this for some of the time. Casting is also very weak with Claude Akins and Lew Ayres very much representing the second eleven. It’s also a very short film with a lengthy flashback (narrated by an embarrassed John Huston in the worst make-up of the series) filling in the first five minutes. Despite this, it still manages to be a very tedious experience to sit through.

The trajectory of the Apes series is an inexorable downwards curve from the glory of Schaffner’s film to the banalities of Battle. But some factors remain constant – the excellence of Roddy McDowall, even in the most difficult circumstances; John Chambers’ ingenious ape make-up; strong music scores by the likes of Jerry Goldsmith, Leonard Rosenman and Tom Scott; imaginative cinematography. Science-Fiction fans remember the series with affection and even the worst of the films manages to be more interesting than Tim Burton’s utterly misbegotten attempt to re-imagine Planet of the Apes in 2001.

The Discs

All five films in the R2 Ultimate Collector's Edition are identical to the versions released previously in the UK. Naturally, the best by far is the original film in the splendid 2-disc edition which originally came out in 2004 and was reviewed by my colleague Richard Booth here.

The remaining four films are all presented in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratios and have been anamorphically enhanced. The best transfers are those for Beneath and Escape, both of which are full of crisp detail. There is a certain amount of print damage on both but artifacting is at a minimum and the colours are excellent. Conquest is a little dark and muted; possibly deliberately but this makes for a rather dingy viewing experience. There's also more artifacting visible here. Battle has similar problems but more dirt and scratching.

The sound mixes for the films range from the acceptable to the poor. Beneath has been remixed into something which is allegedly Dolby Surround but sounds more like two channel mono to me. Escape is the best, offering the original mono track faithfully and clearly reproduced. Conquest is murky and sometimes features slightly muted dialogue in another Surround mix which simply plays around a bit with the music and occasional sound effects. Battle sounds worst of the lot with a Surround remix that obscures some dialogue and doesn't add anything of value.

The bulk of the extras are featured on the 2-disc edition of the first film. Otherwise, each movie is accompanied by some mediocre cast biographies and theatrical trailers for all the films along with a 'cross promotion' trail that isn't worth your time.

Consumers may wish to note that the R1 set contains remastered versions of each film along with an extended version of Battle For the Planet of the Apes.

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