Lauren Bacall in Young Man with a Horn (1950)
Lauren Bacall in How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
For 20th Century Fox, the late 1960s were defined by a dangerous succession of mega-flops (Hello, Dolly! and Doctor Dolittle) and smash successes (The Sound of Music) that teetered and tottered the studio into the possibility of financial ruin. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and based on Pierre Boulle’s novel of the same name (the novel is also known as Monkey Planet), Planet of the Apes is one of 20th Century Fox’s crowning franchises and if there is one essential among the eight Apes films, the original 1968 version starring Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, James Daly, and Linda Harrison is the one. The film’s origins began with producer Arthur P. Jacobs purchasing the rights to Boulle’s novel and a successful screen test that involved Edward G. Robinson, James Brolin, and Linda Harrison in ape makeup to ascertain whether or not they could look convincing. The screen test was successful and what followed was a curiously entertaining science fiction film that continues to fascinate and enthrall.
George Taylor (Heston), Landon (Robert Gunner), Dodge (Jeff Burton), and Stewart are four astronauts are returning to Earth after an 18-month voyage. Due to the theory of relativity’s tenant of time dilation, they have actually been away for 2,006 years and the year is 3,978 CE (meaning that they launched in 1972) when they crash-land on an unknown planet. They - except for Stewart, who is killed by an oxygen leak - traverse through a desert but soon encounter a group of mute humans, including Nova (Harrison), who are raiding a cornfield. Then, riding on horses and firing their rifles, a band of armored, talking apes attack and capture or kill whoever they find. Taylor loses track of his fellow astronauts and is shot in the neck, rendering him unable to speak. We learn that a religious simian culture built upon a caste system dominates this planet - gorillas are the police, military, and laborers, orangutans assume white-collar jobs, and chimpanzees are intellectuals. Animal psychologist Zira (Hunter) and fiancé Cornelius (McDowall) take an interest in Taylor, who appears more intelligent than the other human subjects. Their findings - the eureka moment occurs when Zira notices Taylor can write - land them in trouble with political and religious authorities such as the president of the Assembly (Whitmore) and Dr. Zaius (Evans).
For those who have never seen or looked into a Planet of the Apes film before viewing the original (like yours truly), Planet of the Apes is a pleasant surprise. This is a film that assumes an incredible balance between unfettered entertainment and philosophizing. Yes, the filmmaking has dated somewhat and Planet of the Apes has elements of 1960s camp - take the golden simian idiom “Man see, Man do”, for example. The clash between science and unwavering religious dogma is expressed in the tension between Zira and Cornelius against the simian religious-political apparatus. This is a pro-science, pro-evolution film that refuses to celebrate the single-minded intolerance of the simian authorities. All the messaging contained in Planet of the Apes is slightly heavy-handed, but we find ourselves heavily invested in the fates of the humans and two chimpanzee scientists, which allows audiences to forgive the somewhat overbearing presentation. Some have examined Planet of the Apes as a civil rights allegory in the midst of a sociopolitically chaotic year in the United States.
In a counterintuitive coincidence regarding Planet of the Apes' religious criticisms, Charlton Heston - whose wooden acting style proves iconic for religious epics such as the title character from Ben-Hur (1959) and Moses from The Ten Commandments (1956) - is the star of this film. His style doesn’t quite work for Planet of the Apes but it isn’t a complete misstep. Then again, none of the acting performances are quite noteworthy (Linda Harrison’s character of Nova serves little narrative function other than for titillating purposes, though this is what the original novel does as well). This is a film where immersing one into the ideas that the narrative presents is paramount - even though the plotting, characterizations, and believability of the events unfolding are a bit cockamamie. It might be a one-sided contestation of ideas, but how these ideological conflicts are presented reflects upon the cultural battles that defined the 1960s and 70s and extends into the present day. The final frames of Planet of the Apes have ascended into pop culture lore even for those who have never consumed a single minute of the Apes franchise. For those unaware of the bleakness of the ending and what it contains, it might remind some of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias.
John Chambers’ makeup for the apes remains groundbreaking and thoroughly convincing almost a half-century following the film’s release. In a 1972 interview from horror/fantasy/sci-fi film magazine Cinefantastique, Chambers recalled his desire, “to invent a manner of makeup which allowed the dialogue to sound natural - and not as though it was coming from a cavern somewhere inside the ape’s body”. Chambers also wanted the final product to not be a distraction - not overly grotesque, not beautified - and also be expressive, exuding personality. With hours of experimenting with prosthetics and clay sculptures, Chambers achieved an effect that looks unquestionably genuine (and plays better during the film than its appearances in film stills) and accomplishes all he hoped for. For his incredible achievements, Chambers would be conferred an Honorary Academy Award as the Academy had not yet created an annual category for makeup artists and hairstylists.
Legendary film composer Jerry Goldsmith - who Franklin J. Schaffner is most associated with - unleashes an unconventional score. And “unconventional” is an understatement. Goldsmith is acclaimed for his fearlessness in combining acoustic and synthetic elements in so many of his scores and his work in Planet of the Apes is as contemporary as many film scores can be. He employs several unorthodox techniques throughout which include (and are not limited to): the use of an electric harp, cuíca, stainless steel mixing bowls straight from Goldsmith’s kitchen, and shofar, several uses of mutes, horns blowing without mouthpieces, frequent dissonant passages, use of the Echoplex, bass clarinet fingering the notes but not blowing, piano providing complicated atmosphere-setting ostinatos, head-spinning syncopations that would make any musicians with no sense of rhythm ill, and atonality. Motifs are largely non-existent and even for the most trained ears, this is a score nigh impossible to lend a complete analysis to (my most trusted sources on film scoring have expressed how they needed to flip through Goldsmith’s writings and his personal score to even be close to understand this work… a luxury not available to me). For its experimentation, Goldsmith’s score to Planet of the Apes is rightly iconic and works in the context of the film.
1968’s Planet of the Apes remains surprisingly fresh for those who have never delved into another Apes film. It is more than a novelty and it is certainly not as campy as many might suspect. The thoughts regarding religion and science that it summons remain relevant; the foundations of its filmmaking - with the exception of moments where the camera rapidly zooms in and out - are fantastic. Richly entertaining and alternately thought-provoking, Planet of the Apes - along with its fellow 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey - serves as a course correction for science-fiction films following a decade where science-fiction, as a whole, nearly abandoned exactly what makes it so captivating.
My rating: 8.5/10
^ Based on my personal imdb rating. Half-points are always rounded down.
Yes. The tempo of a walking horse, universally recognized.
Lana Turner in Ziegfeld Girl (1941)