Planet of the Apes (35th Anniversary Edition) Review

1968 was a key year in the history of Science Fiction cinema. The genre had been in abeyance since the heyday of monster movies – SF and Horror hybrids – in the 1950s and it seemed that the advances made in literary SF by Philip K.Dick and Isaac Asimov, among others, would not be replicated on screen. Suddenly, however, seemingly from nowhere, a glut of Science Fiction movies began to dominate cinema screens. The most important one, of course, remains Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film which is still delighting and baffling viewers in roughly equal measure, but mention should also be made of Roger Vadim’s own erotic odyssey Barbarella and the Alain Resnais’ brilliant speculation on the emotional effects of time travel, Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime. But the most popular SF movie of the year and the one which remains most purely enjoyable was Planet of the Apes, an intelligent and exciting film which demonstrated that even the most outlandish adventures in the genre were not necessarily just for kids.

Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, author of Bridge on the River Kwai, the film takes place in the year 3978 when a spaceship crew, bound for Earth in the early 21st Century, lands on a mysterious planet which is much like their home. The crew, led by Taylor (Heston), a rugged cynic, investigate the desolate environment and discover that beyond the desert is a forest and a lush meadow, inhabited by non-speaking humanoids. Suddenly, out of the forest comes the sound of a horn and the bewildered crew find themselves, along with the natives, being hunted down by apes on horseback. Taylor, who is initially unable to speak due to a wound in his throat, is captured by the apes – who can not only speak but are obviously the dominant species - and taken to a scientific research centre run by Dr Zira (Hunter), a chimpanzee who is fascinated by human behaviour. His attempts to speak are taken by her as an attempt to mimic the behaviour of the apes and she believes that he might represent some kind of missing link – apes believe that they evolved from humans. However, her fascination is not shared by the government minister for science, Dr Zaius (Evans), who seems all too eager to have Taylor castrated, lobotomised and forgotten.

It can’t be emphasised enough how brilliantly, elegantly simple this concept is. A classic reversal, it offers up so many subtexts and ironies that it’s hard to know where to start. In showing us our society – or at least, our society in relatively primitive times – backwards, the film comments on many controversial themes – social exclusion, class conflict, slavery, evolution, religion and the right of science to interfere with what is seen as the natural order. To show one class deliberately subjugating another was political dynamite back in 1968, when race riots in America reminded everyone that the land of the free wasn’t free for everybody. There are deliberate references to the Scopes trial in the courtroom scene where Zira is accused of heresy and, by implication, blasphemy – “God made apes in his own image”. The way that a dominant class is able to set its own social agenda is constantly referred to, not only in the treatment of the humans but also, more subtly, in the inter-species divisions. The orang-utangs are the elders of the race, the lawmen and the governors. The chimpanzees are the liberal humanists with most sympathy for men. The gorillas are the warriors and police. It’s Dr Zaius, a brilliantly clever and highly respected orang-utang, who represents the highest rank in society with, consequently, the most to lose if man is shown – through Taylor – as being capable of speech and independent thought. Zaius is a great character, never entirely sympathetic but entirely recognisable and it is he who recognises the danger of Taylor’s quest for answers both to the ape society and to the man himself. At the end, as Taylor goes off to make the awesome discovery which is probably the most famous twist ending of all time, Zaius warns him, “You may not like what you find”.

Spoilers for the end of the film. If you haven’t seen the film please go down to the review of the disc

The ending, brilliant sleight-of-hand which has the unfortunate effect of making Taylor seem very slow indeed, is significant to the character of Dr Zaius. He knows exactly what his heritage is and how Earth has been destroyed by mankind. His attitude comes from knowing the destructive potential that mankind has and has always had, and he mirrors Taylor’s own doubts about man’s future – “Does man, that marvel of the universe...still make war against his brother ? “ If Taylor were an ape, he would surely be Zaius rather than Cornelius. When he says he has always dreaded Taylor’s arrival, I think it’s a double edged remark. On the one hand, he dreads someone knowing the truth. But on a deeper level, he dreads what it might mean for society if mankind is ever allowed back in charge. Zaius, a difficult and spiky individual, is the rationalist and the prophet of doom who has many valid reasons to believe that ‘Man’ is a bad thing. In comparison, Zira and her fiancé Cornelius (McDowall) come across as the wishy-washy liberals, the George McGoverns of a society where Nixon has complete control. They are likeable and ‘nice’ but they don’t seem to have an ounce of political savvy and only Cornelius’ initial doubts about whether Zira’s findings should be made public suggest that he’s aware of the prevailing orthodoxy. Zira in particular behaves with a lack of maturity and reflection that belies the implication that she is a respected psychologist. I realise that these two characters are included to make the apes seem more shaded and sympathetic but, personally, I find Dr Zaius a much more complex and interesting figure.

The twist ending to which I referred is revealed in one of the most famous and enduring images in cinema history. It’s so impressive that Fox, in their previous release of this film, stuck it on the front cover and gave it away to anyone who hadn’t seen the movie. As an image, it’s perfect. The top of the Statue of Liberty with the torch still vainly in the ascendant, is a brilliant metaphor for the destructive impulse of mankind; that monument to the best that mankind could aim towards now dwarved by the actuality of their self-destruction. But in narrative terms, the twist is actually quite obvious very early on. It’s a planet very much like Earth, complete with humans and apes who speak perfect English. Surely it’s difficult for anyone as intelligent as Taylor obviously is to come to any conclusion other than that it’s Earth in the distant future. That’s a criticism of the plotting, by the way, and not the writing or direction, both of which are exceptionally good. The photography of the barren locations in the first half hour is some of the most evocative in American film and, as I stated above, the final image is unforgettable. If one wanted to quibble then it's true that Schaffner overdoes the use of the zoom lens for emphasis and I'm not over fond of the frequent shots from way overhead. But that's personal taste and not necessarily a fault with the film.

What makes Planet of the Apes particularly impressive is the high standard of the writing and acting. Rod Serling rarely did much of note for the cinema - the typical standard being the awful Assault On A Queen - but he struck gold here along with Michael Wilson, who wrote the final draft. The dialogue is literate, sometimes a little overemphatic but often very witty. The acting is another way in which the film breaks new ground. Previous SF films tended to be cast from what might kindly be described as the lower echelons of the acting community. The likes of Robert Horton, a pre-spoof Leslie Nielsen and Gene Barry wandered woodenly through pre-fabricated sets with fixed looks of something approaching vague interest on their faces. Here, we have Charlton Heston in the lead role, which is a great improvement. Although Heston has alienated many people with his politics, when he tries he is a damn good film actor with a magnetic presence and a natural authority which is essential for roles like Taylor. He effortlessly dominates the first third of the film - the other astronauts don't bring much to the party - and his ability to perform fairly dangerous stunts without the aid of a double results in some visceral action scenes. His opening monologue is a touch flowery and delivered with a tad too much smugness but this does at least make it all the more satisfying to see him dragged about and beaten senseless. To be fair, however, Heston does bring as much conviction as he can to the role and few will forget him spitting "Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" Heston, as usual, raises his game according to who he's working with and this means that his scenes with Maurice Evans are particularly good. Evans was a renowned Shakespearean actor who rarely ventured into films and he gives Zaius everything he's got. I like the way he doesn't play for sympathy, only subtly shifting his ground when Cornelius and Taylor present him with the doll that cries "mama". Kim Hunter is adequate as Zira but I find her delivery rather too saccharine and the conception of the character is very sentimental. As for Roddy McDowall, he's become linked more than anyone else with the "Apes" series and he certainly makes a good impression here, but the character is very limited in range and doesn't allow him to show what he can do. However, in mitigation of him and Hunter, it must be said that it was apparently very difficult to get any kind of facial expression across under the bulky make-up.

That make-up is one of the keys to the film's success. Had it been unconvincing then the film would have been a disaster. In fact, the make-up by John Chambers, who won a special Oscar for the film, is clever, witty and detailed and it works beautifully. When you watch the screen test with Heston, Edward G.Robinson and James Brolin, you can see how bad the make-up could have been in the wrong hands - Brolin looks more like a mummified vampire than an ape. The work of John Chambers, along with the bizarre yet effective music by Jerry Goldsmith and the sheer professional skill of Franklin J.Schaffner - an erratic director then on a hot streak with this film and Patton - makes the film work beautifully in a way which represents the very best of Hollywood craftsmanship. For all the political and social subtexts, the film works primarily as one of the best SF adventure movies ever made and if you are willing to go along with it then it's a great ride.

The Disc

This isn't the first time that Fox has released Planet of the Apes in Region 1 but it is certainly the best release of the film so far. Along with a fine transfer we get a very nice selection of extra materials which make the second disc more than worthwhile.

The film is presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Unlike the original release, this time it has been anamorphically enhanced. It's a very good transfer in which main pride of place goes to the superbly defined colours which are extremely striking, especially the various browns of the first half hour and the rich greens of the hunting scene. The image is reasonably detailed and there are few problems with artefacting or excessive grain. No print damage is visible either. There's an occasional lacklustre moment and the blacks could have been more solid but overall this is a very good restoration.

There are two main English soundtrack options; Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 Surround. Speaking for myself I would have liked a mono option to replicate the original soundtrack. As it happens, these 5.1 remixes are barely worth the trouble, with few separations and everything directed towards the front. Hardly any action from the rear speakers either and the .1 LFE doesn't exactly shine. Overall, this is a clean and respectable track that isn't likely to impress anyone and I think Fox would have been better sticking to the original mono. There is also a French stereo track and a Spanish mono track.

The extras on the first disc are two commentary tracks and a text commentary. The latter is very interesting indeed. It's written by Eric Greene, an "Apes" anorak who seems to know everything about the film that you wanted to know and quite a bit that you probably didn't. The first is a disappointment. Very enjoyable and packed with bits of trivia you can bore your friends with. In contrast, the first commentary track is a disappointment. It features contributions from Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, Natalie Trundy and John Chambers and is interesting as far as it goes but it's full of long gaps of silence and runs a total of 40 minutes at most. There's very little information that isn't contained in the documentary on the second disc. Personally, I would have preferred to have Charlton Heston given free reign to reel out some of his enjoyable anecdotes in the way that he does on the Ben Hur commentary. The second commentary is better. It's an isolated score track with Jerry Goldsmith filling in between cues with some fascinating information. He's very affectionate about the film and even more affectionate about the director, with whom he worked on several occasions - notably Patton, Papillon and The Boys From Brazil. This is presented in Dolby 2.0 Stereo. There are no subtitles for the two sound commentaries.

The second disc contains all manner of material. How interesting it is will depend on how keen you are on the "Apes" films but there's no denying that the disc is packed full of material. Most of it has been seen before in one way or another but it's nice to have it all in one package.

The main extra feature is the 1998 documentary Behind The Planet of the Apes. This has been much discussed elsewhere but it's worth repeating that it's quite simply a model of how such things should be done. Filled with good interview footage, amusing stories, behind the scenes clips and aptly chosen moments from all the five films, the TV series and the cartoon, this is the definitive document about the movies. Anyone who is interested in how films are made should find plenty to interest them here. Regrettably, it's not subtitled but it is presented in a very good transfer with fullscreen interviews interspersed with letterboxed film clips. The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo.

The documentary was released on its own by Image back in 2000 as a 2 disc set and most of the second disc of that set is contained here. This is real fans' stuff and while it's nice to have it, you won't necessarily want to watch it more than once.

Firstly, we have what is called a "1967 NATO Presentation". This is basically a ten minute trailer which was presumably meant to enthuse potential exhibitors to book the film. Exactly what NATO had to do with it is a mystery. There's a great bit at the end when we see the actors without their make-up. It rather reminded me of those Super 8 home movie digests of films that you could buy back in the 1970s. This is in non-anamorphic 2.35:1 and is in pretty good shape although the colours are a little washed-out. Secondly, there is an original featurette from 1968 which is brief but quite amusing to watch. This is presented in fullscreen with a thoroughly daft narration. Thirdly is something from 1972 called "A Look Behind The Planet of the Apes". This runs 15 minutes and is in mediocre condition. I suspect this was made for the first TV showing of the original film. It also covers the first sequel and has some footage from the making of Escape From The Planet Of The Apes and Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes, which reminded me of why I never want to see those misbegotten projects ever again. The narration is very bland but I do love the interview with Roddy McDowall in full make-up. No subtitles are offered on any of these featurettes.

"Don Taylor Directs Escape From The Planet Of The Apes" not very interestingly and "J.Lee Thompson Directs Conquest of The Planet Of The Apes" very briefly. Both of these features are making-of footage with no context or narration. Taylor emerges as irascible, to put it mildly, while Thompson is obviously an old-school English gentleman. Both of these are fullscreen presentations. "Roddy McDowall Home Movies" is a collection of on-the-set 8MM footage shot by the actor. This is good fun despite being silent (apart from a music track) and gives you a good picture of what was obviously a happy set. This runs about 20 minutes as do the "Planet of the Apes Dailies and Outtakes", which are also silent. The "Planet of the Apes Make-up Test" has a melodramatic narration and was intended to sell the idea to a sceptical 20th Century Fox. It's very interesting to see the film in embryo like this with conceptual art replacing special effects and exterior scenes. Most revealing is that the apes were originally intended to have a highly developed technology until it was decided that this would be too costly. This is in non-anamorphic 2.35:1.

The second disc also contains trailers for all five films in the series along with a teaser trailer for Planet of the Apes. All of these are presented in anamorphic widescreen. There is also a montage of theatrical posters for the film and two text reviews presented in still images which you can navigate through. Both of these are, as you'd expect, laudatory and Richard Schickel's is unintentionally amusing as he expounds on how his four year old daughter taught him how to appreciate the film. We also get some costume design sketches, a stills gallery, a look at some original Apes merchandise and Apes collections which have to be seen to be believed. If you have a DVD-ROM drive then the disc offers you a Chronology of the Apes.

As stated elsewhere, the film offers subtitles in English and Spanish but none of the extra features are subtitled.

Forget the sequels, none of which are worth a damn, and treat yourself to the original and best Planet of the Apes. Yet again, as in their superb Studio Classics range, Fox have demonstrated that - when they bother to try - they know exactly how to best present their great movies on DVD. Highly recommended, despite my reservations about the soundtrack.

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