Planet of the Apes (Special Edition) Review

Sometimes the biggest gambles can pay off the most, generating oodles of income for the studio that financed a risky project. A 1960s example of this is Planet of the Apes, which began life as La Planète Des Singes, a novel by author Pierre Boulle. His name was previously famed for writing The Bridge on the River Kwai, which was transferred to the big screen earlier that decade. After producer Arthur P. Jacobs read the novel, a Hollywood talent who had enjoyed a couple of recent successes, he seized the film rights and work began on adapting the science fiction tale of a planet ruled by advanced apes.

Jacobs hired screenwriters Michael Wilson and Rod Serling to create a believable and engaging story from the source novel, and in doing so changed and added to some of the concepts. In the novel, a work that Boulle himself deemed one of his lesser achievements, the apes were evolved enough to manufacture and operate various machinery such as cars and planes – an idea Jacobs disproved of and soon cut from the screenplay. Instead, the two screenwriters and Jacobs fashioned a world where the apes were more advanced than their prehistoric counterparts, such as possessing the ability to speak and read, but didn't yet possess the savvy of mankind when it came to designing and creating new technologies.

After completing the screenplay, various studios immediately rejected Jacobs, mainly due to the fact that to create a realistic ape civilization very advanced makeup and effects would be needed – and that not only cost a lot of money, but also required immense talent. John Chambers, a recent Hollywood migrant who had served in the Second World War as a plastic surgeon and prosthetics guru, was recruited to try and prove the studios wrong. Not only did he have to create ingenious prosthetic masks and ape makeup, but he also had to keep the cost down. Director Franklin J. Schaffner and star Charlton Heston then saw the potential of the film and jumped onboard the bandwagon that was slowly gathering momentum; even more so when Twentieth Century Fox granted the filmmakers $5000 to prove their worth and create a short film that could prove the adeptness of the makeup. It ran for 10 minutes and as well as showing off the impressive makeup designs, it also served as a plot outline and teaser for the film…which went down a storm at Fox and led to them giving the film the green light and close to a $6 million budget.

When NASA astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) and his crewmembers' ship crashes onto a barren planet, the three survivors not only lose a fellow astronaut but are also faced with a long trek across foreboding and mountainous terrain, in search of any life that may exist. After eventually finding lush green forests, they stumble across a collection of people that appear to be human, yet are surprisingly mute and seem content on wearing dirtied rags. Soon, to their horror, a wave of horse-mounted creatures come running towards them, intent on capturing as many as possible – by any means. The astronauts soon see that these creatures are in fact apes with weapons, and in the process of fleeing Taylor gets shot, one of them is captured and the other is killed.

Taylor awakes to find his injury attended to by the ape Zira (Kim Hunter), an 'animal psychologist', but the effect of being shot in the neck takes away his power of speech. But, he still manages to show Zira and her husband Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) his human intelligence through writing and gestures. After trying to convey the fact that he doesn't come from this planet and is in fact an astronaut from Earth, the government – led by Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans) – are afraid of what he is capable of and regard him as a danger to their society. Slowly Taylor, along with his mute companion Nova (Linda Harrison) try to uncover the truth about the planet he now inhabits, aided by the rebellious Zira and Cornelius…

Since the film's release in 1968 it has been bandied around as a classic and a revolutionary slice of science fiction entertainment. I have to agree. 35 years ago the Western world was in chaos – stuck in the Cold War, fighting an uncertain enemy in Vietnam, showing the painful growing pains of society trying to be fair and equal – and cinema's response was to mirror these problems on the big screen. Under close inspection, Planet of the Apes becomes not only an exciting and engaging action film with science fiction elements, but also a revealing glimpse into '60s society and its prejudices. When Taylor is first discovered and captured by the apes, he brings about a xenophobic reaction – there's no real reason for them to fear him, save for the fact that they've never seen him before. Taylor is a good metaphor for the Capitalist/Communism battle of the '60s and '70s, where two very different sets of people collided.

It’s also a film that strikes out against establishment – Dr Zaius and the rest of the government run a tight regime where little leverage is given; the people must strictly abide by the laws and 'Sacred Scrolls' in order for their civilization to continue. When Taylor escapes and begins causing uproar, Zaius and his peers fear rebellion and the people becoming accustomed to a different way of life. Again, parallels can be drawn from this and a dictatorship such as the 20th century Nazi regime, and Hitler's intent on shielding his people from the truth of his actions. Schaffner and the screenwriters portray the majority of the apes as cold-blooded creatures, such as the hunters (who pursued Taylor and the other 'humans' at the start of the film) and Zaius, with only a very small number of apes willing to help this stranger in their midst. Zira and Cornelius become the protagonists, along with Taylor and Nova, as they strive to surpass the cloud that covers the real truth about their planet.

Charlton Heston delivers a solid performance as Taylor, becoming the flag-waving American who just wants to go home. Sliding nicely between the usual action hero mould and someone with deeper issues and worries, Heston manages to be incredibly watchable and powerful throughout. Starting off wearing the American flag on his NASA suit proudly, he soon finds himself beaten and starved, dressed in rags and faced with a much larger problem than he first imagined. Similarly, Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall (as Zira and Cornelius respectively) deliver note-perfect performances as the amicable apes that follow their hearts – and scientific desires – to help the stranded human. They not only form a rebellious image for the film, another popular feature of '60s and '70s living, but also create warm and, ironically, human characters.

The rest of the cast, including Maurice Evans as the malevolent Zaius and beautiful Linda Harrison as the intriguing Nova, adds to the atmosphere and essence of the film excellently. Although the majority of the cast may be behind ingenious makeup (for that day and age, although still nowadays it puts some modern effects to shame), they are still able to convey emotion successfully and do not come over comically at all – a fear that the studio originally had.

Schaffner's direction and the screenplay prove that good storytelling can be the strongest aspect of a film, from the opening, terrifying sequence as the hunters stalk the humans to the final set-pieces as Taylor becomes aware of his fate. The director would go onto see success with Patton, but Planet of the Apes is one of the best showcases for talent around – mixing effects, storytelling, action, characters and a shocking sting in the tail into a wholesome film that possesses great replay value and the constant impact of Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing score. Forget the four sequels that followed and Tim Burton’s 2001 're-imagining' – this original is the real deal and the term "Men in Ape suits" just doesn’t even come close in defining one of cinema's true classics.

The Disc
Originally released on a barebones edition and available also as part of a 5-disc boxset with the sequels, Twentieth Century Fox have finally released an edition worth owning – available back in February on R1, this R2 special edition is a direct port of that Anniversary Edition.

The menus are animated excellently, with Goldsmith's score playing in the background whilst clips from the film decorate the screen. They are very well designed, slick and stylish, and are easy to navigate.

Planet of the Apes is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and the transfer has been anamorphically enhanced. The image, although possessing occasional signs of print damage, is sharp and vibrant throughout and exhibits only very few flaws – such as edge enhancement raising its ugly head, albeit very rarely. On the whole this is an excellent transfer and for a film made in 1968 this is proof that DVD can give inspiring results again and again.

Two soundtracks are included on the disc: firstly Dolby Digital 5.1 and secondly, a new addition to the Planet of the Apes DVDs, DTS 5.1. Both have their flaws, which will be explained later, but overall the DTS soundtrack has a slight edge. Now, as has been debated for many months, a blind test on say 100 people may not be a convincing win for DTS, but some people – myself included – do notice extra power and bass on DTS mixes, with this being another example. However, the rear and LFE channels are so infrequently used that it sounds like a glorified Stereo mix. But, and this is the important part, the front channels are enveloping and deployed excellently; plenty of channel separation and all dialogue is crisp and clear. In summary, the audio could have been remastered to a greater degree, but for a film that is over 35 years old the soundtracks present aren't bad.

Being a two-disc special edition, there are features present on both shiny platters. The first disc contains two audio commentaries – one by composer Jerry Goldsmith, the other by actors Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Natalie Trundy and makeup artist John Chambers – and a text commentary by Apes expert Eric Greene. The first audio commentary focuses on the music in the film, obviously, but serves a lot of insight for those with an interest in the field. The second audio commentary's ensemble nature allows for numerous anecdotes, although there are periods of silence that soon begin to grate. Nevertheless, they both serve repeat viewings of the film well – and so does the aforementioned text commentary, but some viewers may dislike having to read the information off the screen in a subtitles-esque fashion.

Moving onto the second disc, four different categories are on offer. Beginning with 'Exploring the Apes', the icing on the cake is 'Behind the Planet of the Apes', a comprehensive documentary that clocks in at 127 minutes long! Featuring interviews with surviving cast and crew (it was made in 1998, incidentally only a few months before host Roddy McDowall's death) and also mixes in on-set footage and copious amounts of background knowledge and insight. Beginning with focus on the first film, it goes on to examine the following four sequels and their individual impact on cinema throughout the '60s and '70s. Apes expert Eric Greene, whose text commentary can be found on the first disc, is interviewed a few times in the documentary; his resemblance to an ape is actually quite startling.

The 10-minute makeup test that Fox based the film’s green light on is included in full, which stars Heston alongside Edward G. Robinson. 20 minutes' worth of McDowall's 'home movies' is an interesting extra in as much as it is free from audio (save for the film's soundtrack playing in the background), yet it also manages to show the viewer what it was like behind the scenes on the film – clips of McDowall's lengthy makeup sessions are shown, as are shots of his fellow crewmember’s relaxing between takes. A selection of dailies and outtakes, running for around the same time and again presented without audio, are worth a quick look, although I'm not sure how many people would want to remain for the duration.

A rather puzzling featurette, '1967 NATO Presentation', is included and serves as a glorified trailer and introduction to the main players in the film. 5 minutes of EPK footage, 'Planet of the Apes Featurette' from 1968 adds little, and neither does the 1972 featurette 'A Look Behind the Planet of the Apes' – the latter focuses on the first four Apes films, yet simply touches on what was explained in detail in the 127-minute documentary that I mentioned above. For those viewers interested in short behind the scenes raw footage, then 'Don Taylor Directs Escape from Planet of the Apes' and 'J. Lee Thompson Directs Conquest of the Planet of the Apes' should keep them happy.

The second section, moving away from 'Exploring the Apes', is 'Publicity' – six trailers (two for the original film, plus one for each of the sequels), two textual reviews (from Life Magazine and The Hollywood Reporter) and a gallery of theatrical posters that marketed the film.

The third section, 'Galleries', merely contains a costume gallery and an assortment of production photographs.

Finally, the fourth section, 'Ape Phenomenon', focuses on the promotional side of the films (in the documentary it is mentioned that Planet of the Apes was the first franchise to kick-start toys and other tie-ins): 'Ape Merchandise' is a look at the various toys released, and 'Ape Collections' is a gallery of the costumes and props used in the films.

Tim Burton’s recent stab at re-imagining the Apes universe may have been enjoyable, but Franklin J. Schaffner's 1968 original is most certainly the real deal and is unparalleled. Bursting with action and more resonant social issues, Planet of the Apes is a deeper film than many realise – something that repeat viewings help to clarify. Finally presented on a DVD that is commendable for such a classic film, Twentieth Century Fox have ensured that technically the film is sound (save for a few flaws in the audio department, explained above) and the array of extras is very pleasing. This wholeheartedly gets my seal of approval, and I must emphasise how worthy this title is of a place in everyone’s DVD collection.

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