Planet of the Apes (1968)

Franklin J. Schaffner | 1hr 52min

Before we see any of the creatures promised in the title Planet of the Apes, we spend a good thirty minutes wandering around a mysterious landscape of dunes, waterholes, and open fields inhabited by mute humans. Charles Heston leads the way as George Taylor, an astronaut from 1972 and captain of a space crew that has crash landed on an unknown world some two thousand and six years into the future. Its environments and civilisations are built slowly and thoroughly, and besides the use of some clumsy camera zooms that insist on pushing our attention in the most obvious directions, Franklin J. Schaffner’s majestic style of epic filmmaking is well-suited to the material. It is when we first see the rustling stalks of corn and an army of apes on horseback bursting through the vegetation that Planet of the Apes moves into truly exciting territory though, whisking us away to a city of prehistoric stone structures and non-human primates.

The introduction of the apes thirty minutes into the film, riding through the corn field on horse back while the humans scatter like animals.

This entire set is an impressive feat of production design for Schaffner, cleverly combining elements of caveman civilisations and modern technology to craft a world that can’t be placed in any familiar time. Rudimentary labs, courtrooms, churches, and streets carved from rock become a playground for his boisterous narrative of chases and escape attempts, though the apes themselves who are in control of it all possess a far greater intelligence than those that Taylor is familiar with. There is a similar integration of primitive and contemporary sounds in Jerry Goldsmith’s discordant score of exotic percussion and orchestral instruments, hauntingly underscoring the environment’s otherworldly qualities.

Tremendous design of Ape City, carved from stone like some advanced caveman civilisation.

The culture that has evolved here is also one that has been thoroughly tipped on its head. The re-invention of popular monkey-centred idioms that place humans in subservient positions can be somewhat glib at times (“Man see, Man do” is one notable offender), but otherwise this subversion of status is one that Schaffner cunningly incorporates all through the structure of this upside-down civilisation. Hunters take proud photos with their human game, theories abound that apes evolved from “dirty” men, and most fascinatingly, cultural conflicts between faith and science are a constant point of contention between different factions of the city’s inhabitants. In these parallels, Schaffner makes his point bluntly but powerfully – the advanced intelligence of any species does not make them inherently special, but rather exposes their ties to their primitive, evolutionary roots.

Schaffner uses his marvellous sets to create frames and dividers in his images, each one building on his characters’ relationships.

Then again, perhaps there is a single inherently human quality that separates one genus of primates from another. Schaffner paces his narrative well in his final act leading to this discovery, transforming Planet of the Apes into a western of sorts in which a band of allied apes and humans venture across a harsh desert to uncover the “Forbidden Zone”, where it is said one can find evidence of a pre-ape civilisation. The warnings of the apes’ religious leaders fall on deaf ears, describing man as a “harbinger of death” who makes “a desert of his home.”

As Taylor trudges along an empty beach towards what he believes is his freedom, Goldsmith’s eerie score continues to play beneath with a nervous anticipation. The discovery that they eventually reach at the other end is simply gut-wrenching, not just because of the anguish that reverberates through Heston’s voice, but Schaffner’s framing of the shot itself, slowly bringing those iconic spikes on the Statue of Liberty’s crown into view from behind, before we cut to a wide and realise the full, bleak context. There are no close-ups or frantic cutting to be found here at all. In a few stark, simple shots, humanity’s desire for ultimate dominance is uncovered as the trigger for its own destruction, the pieces of this mystery fall into place, and Schaffner effectively immortalises Planet of the Apes as an immortal touchstone of cinema history.

A gut punch of an ending, and an immortal image of humanity’s lost hope.

Planet of the Apes is currently available to stream on Disney Plus, and to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

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