Planet of the Apes: The Legacy Collection
April 5, 2006
Franklin Schaffner, Ted Post, Don Taylor, J. Lee Thompson,
Starring: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, Linda Harrison, James Franciscus, Sal Mineo, Ricardo Montalban, Natalie Trundy, Don Murray, Claude Akins, Severn Darden, Paul Williams, ,
“Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” And with those words, Planet of the Apes (1968) entered our popular culture and became one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. It is more than an exciting action film; Apes is also a potent social and political commentary that was something of a revelation for its time. It went on to spawn four sequels, two T.V. series and a remake. It was based originally on a novel by Pierre Boulle called Monkey Planet. Producer Arthur P. Jacobs bought the rights to the book despite the author’s poor opinion of it and even less belief that it would make a good movie.
Three astronauts awake after a long trip through space, their spacecraft having crashed on a mysterious planet that resembles Earth. Taylor (Heston) is their leader and gets his crew out of their ship before it sinks in a body of water, effectively leaving them stranded on the planet for good. They make their way through a harsh, barren, rocky landscape and discover water and vegetation only to encounter a primitive human race. Their discovery is cut short as the humans flee from an unseen foe, scattering like scared animals.
The film cuts quickly and zooms in on the source of their distress: apes on horses with guns! It’s a shocking edit that is jarringly effective and creates a visceral impact. Taylor soon finds himself a prisoner in this upside down world, destined to be experimented on by Dr. Zeus (Evans) who believes, “that the only good human is a dead human!” With the help of Dr. Zera (Hunter), a sympathetic animal psychologist and her colleague, Cornelius (McDowell), they help Taylor escape only to discover a devastating secret about the ape civilization.
Like all truly great works of science fiction, Planet of the Apes uses its futuristic trappings to comment on contemporary society. At the time of its release, Vietnam and the civil rights movement in the United States was heating up. When Taylor first encounters the apes, they systematically round up and slaughter humans, dumping their bodies en mass in shallow graves reminiscent of the genocide of Native Americans and the Khmer Rouge’s brutal atrocities in Cambodia. The surviving humans are treated like animals, kept in cages and paraded around—which makes one think twice the next time they go to a zoo.
The film was a huge hit and the studio wanted a sequel but where to go after its stunning apocalyptic finale? Eventually, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1969) was made with a reluctant Heston in a glorified cameo and a reduced budget (because the studio was in trouble at the time). The film picks up right off where the original ended with Taylor heading off into the Forbidden Zone. However, he mysteriously disappears. Enter our new astronaut hero, Brent (Franciscus) who is sent out to rescue Taylor but crashes on the planet. He uncovers an underground race of mutants who possess a nuclear bomb.
Franciscus resembles Heston but doesn’t quite have his gravitas. The make-up effects on the extras is pretty shoddy and exposes the film’s reduced budget. There is the cool image of the New York City skyline buried but it doesn’t equal the Statue of Liberty money shot at the end of the first Apes film. Beneath was a much more obvious commentary on the Vietnam War and the corresponding civil rights movement in the United States.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) was made despite Beneath’s obvious conclusion to the series. It posits that Taylor’s crashed aircraft from the first movie was salvaged, repaired and sent back in time to his Earth with three apes on board just before the cataclysmic finale of Beneath. They are taken into custody and studied like common animals until they reveal that they can talk.
Escape is basically the inverse of the first film’s formula with the apes being in the minority trapped in a strange, hostile world. Cornelius and Zira become media celebrities. She ends up getting pregnant and the government tries to stop it and so the two apes become fugitives. Throw in Ricardo Montalban, a traveling circus, and you have a pretty silly movie.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) is an even darker film set in the future where an oppressive police state has enslaved the ape population. Caesar (McDowall) is the child of Cornelius and Zira and he becomes a servant to the tyrant Governor Brown. This gives him a front row seat to the abuses of power and plants the seeds for becoming a revolutionary, the simian equivalent of Malcolm X as he leads an uprising of apes. It’s a good-looking film that stands out from the others with a much more radical message: freedom by any means necessary. It is also, arguably, the most political of the apes films.
The final installment, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) was originally intended to be an even darker film than Conquest (if that’s possible) but the studio wanted to make a kid-friendly science fiction movie. The film takes place after the ape revolution with Caesar and his group of survivors trying to rebuild after a nuclear war. The apes start making their own laws and we can see things heading towards the way the world was in the first Apes film. Alas, Caesar is no longer a hardcore revolutionary but a benign healer. Battle ends up ending the series with a whimper instead of a bang.
20th Century Fox released these films previously on DVD box set and has double-dipped with a new version of Battle that integrates ten minutes of additional footage back into the movie. Also, all five films are now fully in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen, newly digitally restored, with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mixes (only the first movie had been given this treatment in the 35th Anniversary edition).
The first Apes film features two lackluster audio commentaries. The first is by legendary composer, Jerry Goldsmith, and the second by actors Roddy McDowall, Natalie Trundy, Kim Hunter and make-up artist John Chambers. Both commentaries could benefit from some extensive editing. There is way too much dead air that one has to sit through to get to the few interesting tidbits of information. The DVD producers should have edited down these commentaries to only the scenes in the movie that are actually commented on.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes has been released in its extended T.V. cut, which had only been available in Japan and Europe on laserdisc. This cut is considered by some fans to be superior to the theatrical release as it contains new subplots involving the mutants and the nuclear bomb from Beneath.
There is a whole DVD devoted to a comprehensive, feature-length documentary entitled, “Behind the Planet of the Apes.” Hosted by Roddy McDowall, it takes a look at the entire Apes saga from the films to the cartoon and T.V. series with an emphasis on the first (and best) film. The documentary does a fantastic job examining the challenges that the filmmakers faced making the first film, from convincing a studio to bankroll such a risky project to a shortened shoot schedule and a rising budget. Fans of the Apes films will be delighted to see all the major players from the films back for new interviews done exclusively for this documentary. For example, it’s hilarious to see Ricardo Montalban pontificate solemnly and without a hint of irony about the social and political commentary of the two Apes films he did.