Sunday, July 25, 2021

And Now For Something Completely Different


Is it just me or has the world gone crazy?

Hi Keebah and hello, movie lovers.

Because the world seems to have gone completely topsy-turvy lately, I decided to spotlight a flick which takes place in a world that has also gone completely topsy-turvy.

Released in 1968 with a script by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, "Planet of the Apes" is a certified classic. It's also one of the few science fiction films I genuinely like. Forget all the remakes, reboots and "re-imaginings" that make up this "film franchise"; the original remains the best, even after 53 years.

Charlton Heston, in one of his best roles, is Taylor, an astronaut leading a special mission "in the not too distant future" (1972). Just before he joins his crew in hyper-sleep, Taylor makes his final log entry. He's been gone six months by normal calculations, but the team has actually been away 2,000 years-- if  Dr. Hasslein's theory their mission was sent to prove is correct. As they make their way back to Earth, Taylor hopes mankind has improved in their absence.

While on auto-pilot, the space ship gets off course or runs afoul of some unexplained phenomenon and crash lands on an uncharted planet in an unknown solar system. That's not all: the only female crew member is dead and their vessel is sinking into the ocean. Taylor, Landon (Robert Gunner) and Dodge (Jeff Burton) abandon ship and via rubber raft paddle ashore to safety. They hike for days on a rocky, barren and parched landscape, until they stumble upon what appear to be scarecrows--and a water fall. While the guys strip down and go swimming, they're observed by primitive humans. Mute, they roam around in herds looking for food and shelter. When the crew follows them to a green pasture, Landon remarks, "We got off at the wrong stop." Taylor, however, is more optimistic: "Relax, in six months we'll be running this place."

From left to right: Taylor (Chuck Heston), Landon (Robert Gunner) and Dodge (Jeff Burton) survey the "Planet of the Apes."

Not so fast. Suddenly a huge army of hunters arrive and all hell breaks loose. As the humans scatter to avoid capture, guns are fired and clubs are used to bash in skulls. Leading the attack are gorillas--on horse back, no less.

Dodge is immediately killed. Landon and Taylor are separated in the melee. Trying to out run a gorilla with a net, Taylor is shot in the neck and falls off a cliff. His unconscious body is dumped in a cart alongside other captured humans.

When he wakes up, he's is in a lab staffed by walking, talking chimpanzees. Taylor's wounds have rendered him temporarily unable to speak, but he quickly realizes--to his disbelief--that on this planet, apes are the dominant species. Society is broken down like this: gorillas handle the military, chimpanzees are the professional class and orangutans head the government and church. Their main religious texts are "The Sacred Parchments", written by the Law Giver over a thousand years ago. Humans, on the other hand, are pesky beasts either to be hunted for sport or used for scientific experiments.

Because he's more advanced than his fellow captives, Taylor attracts the attention of Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter), an animal psychologist and brain researcher. She nicknames him "Bright Eyes" and marvels at his eye-hand coordination. "I wonder how he'd score on a Hopkins Manual Dexterity Test!" she exclaims. Later on, Zira brings a female human (Linda Harrison, later dubbed Nova) into his cage, hoping the two will mate.

Less impressed is Dr. Zira's fiancee' Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), an anthropologist, and Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), head of the Science Academy and Defender of the Faith. After the humans get into a fight in their outside pen, Taylor is wounded again and taken inside. He grabs Zira's paper and pencil and writes her a message. Stunned by what she sees, the doctor takes Taylor to her home.

Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) debate evolutionary theory while Taylor looks on.

Taylor writes out his story to a shocked Zira and Cornelius. The couple have a hard time believing he's from another planet or that his crew walked across what they call "the Forbidden Zone", but Taylor persists. Zira then begins to wonder if Heston is "a missing link", causing Taylor to write, "I am NOT a missing link!"

"Touchy, isn't he?" Cornelius remarks.

Still, Zira thinks Taylor could help Cornelius prove his theory that apes developed from "a lower order of man." Her fiancee' isn't so sure; see, Cornelius recently headed a dig that went too far into the Forbidden Zone. That aroused the anger of the Science Academy and ever since the chimp anthropologist has tried to avoid controversy. Getting involved with Taylor or suggesting that a human culture could predate ape culture could cause them real trouble, as Cornelius reminds Zira: "We both have fine futures, marriage, stimulating careers. I'm up for a raise!" Then Dr. Zaius arrives and demands Taylor be sent back to his cage.

Soon after, two gorilla officers arrive to take Heston off to be gelded. Taylor manages to over power the guards and escape. In a chase through Ape City, he stumbles upon a funeral service where the minister says of the deceased, "He always said he never met an ape he didn't like." Later on, at a museum, Taylor finds Dodge stuff in an exhibit. In an outside market, he's pelted with vegetables by the horrified citizens while gorillas manage to string him up in a net. That's when he shocks the crowd by growling, "Get your stinkin' paws off me you damn dirty ape!"

A hearing is called. Presiding is James Whitmore as President of the Assembly and James Daly as Minister of Animal Affairs. Dr. Zaius is there, too, along with Cornelius and Zira. Taylor attempts to  defend himself, but the presiding judges dismiss him at every turn. They also refuse to allow Cornelius and Zira to explain their evolutionary theory, putting their hands over their eyes, ears and mouths in a "Hear no evil/Speak no evil/Say no evil" tableaux. The climax of the trial occurs when the humans captured at the same time as Taylor are reassembled. Taylor instantly recognizes Landon, but Landon has been lobotomized, reduced to a speechless, zombie state. Screaming "You bloody baboon!", a furious Taylor rushes to attack Dr. Zaius, but he's caught, bound and carted away.

The President of the Assembly (James Whitmore, center) and his justices refuse to monkey around with Cornelius' radical theories.

Things look pretty hopeless until Zira arranges for Taylor and Nova to escape. With the help of her nephew Lucius (Lou Wagner), a hippie chimp, Taylor over powers cigar smoking pen keeper Julius (Buck Kartalian, a former pro-wrestler). Later joined by Cornelius, they travel by caravan to the Forbidden Zone, where Taylor offers to help Cornelius identify the artifacts at his dig. A posse of gorilla soldiers and Dr. Zaius soon follow. After taking the doctor hostage, everybody goes into the cave, where Taylor identifies false teeth, glasses and a heart valve. The find that really clinches Cornelius' theory, however, is a talking doll. Dr. Zaius, of course, remains unmoved.

In return for releasing Dr. Zaius, Taylor demands horses, food and weapons; his plan is to "follow the shore line" and leave  Ape City far behind. Dr. Zaius warns Heston "he might not like what he finds" out in the Forbidden Zone--and, in one of the best endings in movie history, he doesn't. Falling to his knees in the surf, an anguished Taylor screams, "You finally did it! You blew it up! Damn you all to hell!"

"Planet of the Apes" was a critical and box office smash. It earned Oscar nominations for Morton Haack's costume design and Jerry Goldsmith's Best Original Score. John Chambers won a special Oscar for his make-up effects, which are better realized than any CGI. Four sequels followed, along with a TV series, a cartoon show and a comic book. "Mad Magazine" parodied the series in "The Milking of the Planet that Went Ape", with illustrations by Mort Drucker, my favorite of "Mad"s talented "usual gang of idiots".

What makes a movie a classic? The script and the direction must mesh. The casting and the acting have to be expert and compelling. If there are special effects, they must move the plot along, not over power it. Timing has a role, too. "Planet of the Apes" was released when Hollywood and the US were under-going great changes; had the flick been released earlier or later, its impact may have less powerful. It's an imperfect science at best, but it's clear "Planet of the Apes" had all the ingredients necessary, and then some, to achieve classic status.

Some more tidbits? "Planet of the Apes" was based on Pierre Boulle's novel Monkey Planet. In the novel, the apes are more technologically advanced than in the film. It was star Chuck Heston who suggested scaling back the tech stuff, which also made the film less expensive to shoot. Fans of the flick often sight the influence of "The Twilight Zone" episode "People Are Alike All Over" (where an astronaut from Earth is put in a zoo on Mars). One more side note: my mom hates "Planet of the Apes" and everything with it; she wouldn't even let my brother Joel get a "Planet of the Apes" mask! When I ask why she hates the series so much, she always says, "Because I just do!" 

A trio of gorilla soldiers smile for the camera.

So movie lovers, please always remember, and never forget, anything can happen in science fiction and help me SAVE THE MOVIES.