Recently, while going through all the books that I’ve collected over the years, I came across a copy of The Legend of Planet of the Apes: Or How Hollywood Turned Darwin Upside Down. It’s a book by a Scottish film critic named Brian Pendreigh and it takes a look at the Planet of the Apes film franchise, from the 1968 original all the way to Tim Burton’s now-forgotten remake. Though I couldn’t find a copyright date in the book, it was obviously written long before the Planet of the Apes franchise was rebooted and sent in an entirely new direction by 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
That’s okay, though. The three recent Planet of the Apes films all had moments of brilliance and Andy Serkis probably deserved an Oscar nomination for his performances in all three of them but they have also tended to overshadow the original Planet of the Apes and its sequels and, as this book points out, the first 5 films were actually pretty good. (Okay, okay — Battle of the Planet of the Apes isn’t great, even if it is entertaining. But I defy you not to cry at the end of Escape From The Planet of the Apes. Beneath the Planet of the Apes is wonderfully subversive with its abrupt and nihilistic ending. Conquest of the Battle of the Apes is probably even more relevant today than it was in the 70s.) While the majority of Pendreigh’s book focuses on the production of the original Planet of the Apes, he writes enough about both its sequels and the short-lived Planet of the Apes television show to make a convincing argument that the original franchise itself deserves to be held in higher regard than it often is.
It’s a good book, though I do wish Pendreigh had been a little bit less obvious in his loathing of Charlton Heston. Certain writers will never forgive Heston for not being a liberal. Heston, of course, was hardly the only Republican to be a star during the 50s and the 60s. John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, James Cagney (from the 50s onward), Robert Mitchum, and many others leaned to the right. However, John Wayne, Gary Coper, Robert Mitchum, and even Jimmy Stewart were largely associated with westerns and war films, two genres that were already considered to be thematically conservative. Heston, on the other hand, appeared in left-wing dystopian sci-films like Soylent Green, The Omega Man, and Planet of the Apes. While other Hollywood conservatives were supporting the blacklist, Heston fought to get Orson Welles hired to direct Touch of Evil. He appeared in film that were critical of capitalism and blind patriotism and fanatical militarism. He did everything that a left-wing actor was supposed to do but he did it while voting Republican and a lot of film writers will never forgive him for it. As a result, people far too often tend to act as if Heston’s films were good despite Heston when, in all actuality, Heston’s macho persona and his willingness to subvert it (or at the very least, his willingness to allow his directors to subvert it) is what made so many of his film memorable and important in the first place. One reason why the endings of both Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes continue to resonate after all these years is because they featured Charlton Heston, rendered helpless and driven mad.
Admittedly, when it comes to dismissing Heston, Pendreigh is not as bad as some. He acknowledges the importance of Heston’s performance to the success of the original Planet of the Apes. And yet, he can’t resist complaining about Heston’s later political activities or his admittedly pompous view of himself. Anytime an actor is quoted as saying something good about Heston, Pendreigh is sure to also include a quote from someone saying something negative. It’s a distraction that takes away from discussing the films. One gets the feeling that the author was deeply troubled by the fact that praising Planet of the Apes would require him to also offer up some praise for the film’s star.
But …. no matter! Regardless of however he felt about Charlton Heston, Brian Pendreich clearly appreciated the Planet of the Apes films and that genuine appreciation comes through in this book. In fascinating and rewarding detail, it explores the controversy of who, among the many people who worked on developing the film, deserves the credit for coming up with the original’s classic final scene. It examines the circumstances that led to Edward G. Robinson leaving the role of Dr. Zaius. It takes a look at the career of Pierre Boulle, who wrote the somewhat forgotten novel that led to the films in the first place. And it provides a fair look at what worked (and occasionally didn’t work) about the film’s sequels.
If you’re a fan of the original and its sequels, this book is a must-have.