With Rise of the Planet of the Apes coming out in August, I figured why not go ahead and review the original Planet of the Apes films. No, I don’t mean the terrible Tim Burton film. I’m talking about the old school sci-fi series from the early 70s. For the next five days, I’ll be reviewing each installment of this landmark series of monkey-centric Let’s start at the beginning with 1968’s Planet of the Apes.
The plot of Planet of the Apes is pretty well-known. Arrogant earthman takes off from Earth, goes through some sort of time portal, and crash lands at some point in the far future. Our “hero” finds himself on a planet where all the humans are mute savages and society is dominated by equally arrogant, talking apes. (“A planet where apes evolved from man!?”) Eventually, the Earthman reveals that he can speak, he escapes captivity, and — accompanied by his mute concubine — he enters what the Apes call the forbidden zone. And, once in the forbidden zone, he discovers “his destiny” as old Dr. Zaius puts it.
It’s difficult to review a film like the original Planet of the Apes because the film itself has become a part of American culture. Even if you’ve never seen the film, you feel as if you have. Whether you’ve seen the famous ending or not, you know that it features Taylor (Charlton Heston) on his knees in front of the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, raving and cursing while the mute and confused Nova (Linda Harrison) watches. Everyone understands the significance of such famous lines as: “Take your stinking paws off of me, you damn, dirty ape!” and “Goddamn you all to Hell!” regardless of whether they’ve actually seen them delivered.
Of course, it can be argued that the fact that the film has become such a part of our culture is proof of the film’s quality. However, I would argue that the proof of the film’s quality comes from the fact that it remains a watchable and entertaining film despite having become such a part of the culture. It says a lot that a film can stay enjoyable despite being respectable.
Why does the film still work despite the film’s main selling point — the surprise ending — being neautralized by the passage of tinme? A lot of the credit, I think, has to go to the apes themselves. Even under all that makeup, Roddy McDowall as Cornelius, Kim Hunter as Zira, and especially Maurice Evans as the iconic Dr. Zaius all manage to create interesting and intriguing characters who just happen to be apes. Before long, you forget about the makeup and instead, you’re more interested in seeing how Zaius is going to handle this latest challenge to his society.
That challenge, of course, comes from Charlton Heston. Everyone is always quick to make fun of Heston as an actor and it’s true that his range was limited. Frequently, the men he played came across as the type of chauvinistic, pompous heroes that were never quite aware of the fact that everyone was secretly laughing at him. And it is true that Heston has several of those moments here in Planet of the Apes. Even his famous final scene is, to be honest, almost painfully over the top.
And you know what?
In this film, it works perfectly. I don’t know if an actor has ever been more perfectly cast than Charlton Heston was in Planet of the Apes. In the role of Taylor, Heston basically spends the entire movie acting like a complete and total pompous ass. Whether he’s recording a “fuck you” message for Earth at the beginning of the film or if he’s arrogantly dismissing Zaius before entering the Forbidden Zone, Heston comes to epitomize every single thing that we tend to dislike in our fellow human beings. As played by Heston, Taylor is the perfect clueless hero and a lot of the film’s perverse pleasure comes from watching this paragon of masculinity and superiority repeatedly humbled.
And that, ultimately, is why Planet of the Apes remains a watchable film so many decades after it was made. Good satire never goes out of style.