Origin of the Species

'Planet of the Apes' from Page to Screen

by J.C. Macek III

4 August 2014


Meanwhile, Genetic Mutations Quietly Perpetuated Themselves in TV and Comic Book Offshoots

The real killer of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, however, wasn’t Heston or the Doomsday bomb, but a reduced fiscal allowance. Fox had faced several under-performing big budget films, all of which had exclamation marks in the titles: Star! (1968), Hello, Dolly! (1969) and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) the losses of which prevented the sequel from having the $5 million budget that it was originally slated for and, theoretically, prevented the film from being called “Beneath the Planet of the Apes!”

While many of the same makeup techniques originated for the first film were kept for this initial sequel, the budget further demanded that cost reducing techniques be used. Thus many non-speaking ape roles were realized with the use of inexpensive rubber masks. This change was not lost on critics or audiences.

Although the film made almost $19 million at the box office (against a final budget of $4.6 million, up from its slashed budget of $2.5 million), its critical reception was not nearly that of the first film. Beneath the Planet of the Apes remains a critical failure even today.

That’s okay, right, considering the fact that the ending prevented the possibility of any further Planet of the Apes films… right?


Fox demanded another sequel (even as it reduced the budget once again), which was music to Jacobs’ ears (not to mention those of his accountant). Jacobs sent Dehn a telegram reading “Apes exist, Sequel required.” and thus a new sequel went into pre-production.

To accommodate the reduced budget (which was just over $2 million) Dehn and director Don Taylor inverted the entire concept. Instead of three astronauts from the not-too-distant future crash landing on a monkey planet in the far future (due to time dilation), “Secret of the Planet of the Apes” was to feature three apes from the far future who rocketed back in time to 1973. No more were the humans strangers in a strange land. Now the Apes had to contend with modern-day humans.

The back story involves Cornelius (the returning McDowall) and Zira (still played by Hunter) along with a new character named Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo, hoping to recharge his career… albeit unrecognizably) salvaging Taylor’s ship the Icarus as the second half of Beneath the Planet of the Apes played out. During a test flight when the planet is destroyed (thanks again, Heston, that’s where I keep all my stuff!) the trio pilots the ship through a time warp (thanks to the shockwave of the explosion) and crash land on a lovely California beach.

And thus the cul-de-sac in time is established. The film, renamed Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) during production, managed to re-capture the wonder and surprises of the first film as well as the critical acclaim that the 1968 feature enjoyed. This is an especially noteworthy feat considering the reduced budget. The smaller price tag also made the ultimate haul of just over $12 million look like another big success for the franchise. Also like the first film, much of the acclaim and repeat viewings had to do with the sequel’s surprise ending.

Spoiler Alert: This third film stands as the true core of the Planet of the Apes franchise and proves to be the key to the entire saga. While Beneath the Planet of the Apes showed the ultimate bitter end of the ape world, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is truly the beginning of the Planet of the Apes. The initially silent Cornelius and Zira (who fear what the humans might do if they learn the future of Earth) are treated like celebrities once it is revealed that they are as intelligent as modern day mankind (as back-handed a compliment as that may be). That is until the US Government discovers that Zira is pregnant with Cornelius’ baby, which rightly causes the fear that Earth may one day become a “monkey planet”.

Zira and Cornelius flee to take shelter in a circus run by a sympathetic man named Armando (Ricardo Montalbán), but their refuge proves to be short lived as the couple and the infant they are protecting are all gunned down However, in the final moments of the film we witness Señor Armando caring for a small chimpanzee who begins to speak. Thus Zira and Cornelius’ baby (named “Milo” after their fallen friend) survived after all and the deceased infant chimp we saw was a decoy from the circus.

The critical response and respectable (compared to the budget) box office of the third film prompted Fox to ask for yet another sequel the very next year. Of course the budget was slashed once again to $1.7 million, but that didn’t prevent McDowall from returning to the series once again.

Roddy McDowall as the warlike Caesar from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Roddy McDowall as the warlike Caesar
from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

In the J. Lee Thompson-directed Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) McDowall portrays the son of his previous character Cornelius. This now-grown son, renamed “Caesar” (instead of “Milo”) by Armando who raised him, finds himself in a world where Apes have replaced dogs and cats as pets and ultimately house slaves in the “future” year of 1991.

Caesar’s shock and anger over the treatment of his contemporaries (and, indeed, ancestors) leads directly to the “Conquest” of the title and further went on to help inspire the 2011 reboot of the series known as Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Spoiler Alert: The title makes the ending a foregone conclusion, right? Caesar has trained the apes in the art of combat and they rise up and take over, even executing the former slave masters. Or, at least, that’s how the film originally ended. In a revised ending (that helped preserve the film’s “G” rating), McDowall’s voice can be heard declaring magnanimity in victory, urging his apes to “put away our hatred” and declaring that “Tonight, we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!”

With a box office take of under $10 million, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes made the least amount of money of the franchise thus far, but was a hit with African American audiences who saw the film’s metaphors and parallels quite clearly. Although better reviewed than the second film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was far from a success with critics, especially compared to the previous film and the 1968 saga opener. This is in spite of the fact that the fourth film was also written by Dehn.

Still, Fox saw more earning potential in the Planet of the Apes franchise and another sequel was surprisingly ordered. With the budget slightly increased to $1,710,000 and the return of director J. Lee Thompson Fox pushed to at least equal the fourth film’s successes. Dehn also returned to write, but after creating the story, he pulled out due to health concerns. John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington took over as writers, largely due to the success of the film they had recently written The Omega Man (1971), also a post-apocalyptic science fiction film that starred, you guessed it, Charlton Heston.

Taking place over a decade after the Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) is told from the point of view of the future (2670 A.D.) in the voice of “The Lawgiver” of the apes, surprisingly played by John Huston. As the story flashes back to the time of Caesar (again played by McDowall) we also see a plethora of additional recognizable faces such as Claude Akins, France Nguyen, Natalie Trundy, Severn Darden, Lew Ayres and Paul Williams.

The star-studded cast wasn’t quite enough to save Battle of the Planet of the Apes, whose small budget wasn’t enough to create the epic that director Thompson envisioned. Nor did the script endear Thompson to the project (in spite of a final “polish” by the returning Dehn). The entire film plays out as if the hearts of the cast and crew are, quite simply, not in the Battle of the Planet of the Apes and the need for a “G” rating (surprising in hindsight) makes the title “Battle” fall far short of the “War is Hell” clash that many might have expected after the prior film’s finalé.

A series of deleted scenes (restored for television and extended versions) make this film a bit more epic, twisting the cul-de-sac into another loop. As it stands it did lay the groundwork for the 2014 film Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which is good because its legacy as the final Apes film is otherwise tainted by the fact that this is the worst reviewed and least financially successful of the entire franchise (earning under $9 million).

Two weeks after the release of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Arthur P. Jacobs died.

Upon his death, Jacobs’ production company sold all rights to Planet of the Apes to 20th Century Fox, which took that opportunity to sell the broadcast rights of the first three films to CBS. Ironically, this move would help to bring about one more of Jacobs’ dreams, though he did not live to see it.

As early as 1971, Jacobs had the idea of creating a television series based on Planet of the Apes but the success of the movie series meant that the TV idea would have to wait. Once CBS began airing the early films in the series to large ratings, the potential for a hit TV show was easily seen. Thus, CBS ordered 14 episodes of the new series (also entitled Planet of the Apes) and production began.

Taylor (Charlton Heston) vs Zaius (Maurice Evans)

Taylor (Charlton Heston) vs Zaius (Maurice Evans)

McDowall returned to the franchise to portray Galen (possibly an ancestor of Cornelius and Caesar, considering the show was set almost one thousand years before the events of the first film). Booth Colman was cast as Councillor Zaius an analogue (and possible ancestor) of the Dr. Zaius character from the first two films and Mark Lenard (known for portraying Spock’s father on Star Trek) was brought in to play the insane military commander General Urko. Rod Serling was even brought back to write the first two episodes of the series… however, those two episodes never aired and Serling was sidelined once again. Perhaps this is where the program’s troubles started.

Planet of the Apes debuted on 13 September 1974 in a radically different form than the one Serling had prescribed, although the pilot did resemble the first film in many ways. Astronauts Virdon and Burke (played by Ron Harper and James Naughton, respectively) survive yet another space ship accident on the planet where apes evolved to rule men and soon team up with a sympathetic ape played by McDowall. The sameness of the plot(s) wasn’t what killed the series (nor was it Heston and his bomb).

Instead, the real killer of the Planet of the Apes series was a couple of teams of old men hanging out with young men. Don’t go ape, it’s not as creepy as it sounds. CBS was so confident in the ratings potential of the Planet of the Apes show that it scheduled its new Sci-Fi prize opposite NBC’s ratings powerhouses Sanford and Son (1972) and Chico and the Man (1974). The latter show debuted on the very same day as Planet of the Apes’ first episode, but had one hell of a lead in. Although ostensibly appealing to different audiences, the Planet Apes couldn’t fight Sanford and Son or Chico and the Man and the show was cancelled before the 14th and final episode aired.

The show did find a second life as a series of telefilms (episodes reedited and repackaged as TV Movies). When ABC-owned stations syndicated the telefilms, McDowall was called back to portray Galen once again, this time to film host segment wrap-arounds featuring an aged Galen looking back on the events of each double-episode.

While this was the last filmed part of the Planet of the Apes mythos for many years, the TV show did spawn a series of novelizations. A UK company produced a series of comic strips for the “Chad Valley Picture Show Planet of the Apes Sliderama Projector”. Finally and perhaps most interestingly a seven issue series of comic books called El Planeta de los Simios was created and released in Argentina, featuring the further adventures of Galen, Burke and Virdon. Argentinians know a good thing when they see it and know how to keep it alive.

Another source might have provided a more likely comic book adaptation, as the year after the live action TV series made its flash on CBS, an animated series was created by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises for the third of the big three networks, NBC (whose shows had killed the previous series). Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) was a typical cartoon series for the time, featuring largely static characters with moving mouths and limited animation.

Like many of the later Planet of the Apes projects, budgetary restraints prevented much more than what viewers ended up with. That lack, coupled with the fact that the premise of more past Earth astronauts crashing on the same future planet, may have contributed to the fact that only one season of 13 episodes was produced.

Looking back upon the series, Return to the Planet of the Apes had quite a lot more going for it than it has been given credit for. The limited animation was enhanced by lavish, colorful backgrounds and lighting effects that may have been lost on the Saturday Morning Cartoon audience of 1975-76 (many of whom were watching on black and white cathode ray tube televisions). The scripts were intelligently written and continued from episode to episode (sometimes with cliffhangers), creating an ambitious continuity and an exciting story arc. This too was lost on many audience members as NBC tended to air the episodes out of sequence.

Finally, although Return to the Planet of the Apes did take many cues from the movie series (the mutated cult of humans from Beneath the Planet of the Apes make another appearance here and the military costuming is very similar to that of the films), the animated series is probably the closest to Boulle’s original vision of a technological ape society. Apes drive cars and fly airplanes and even live in modern-to-futuristic cities. The show looks and sounds much better on DVD than it would have through the old rabbit ears, but Hi-Def arrived a couple of decades too late to save Return to the Planet of the Apes in the ratings.

The original franchise was kept alive in some spinoff media and a ton of merchandising. This survival proved to be particularly on the gridded page. The initial comic adaptations began as soon as the first movie was released back in 1968… but in Japan. The first English-language adaptation was produced in 1970 by Gold Key Comics and Marvel Comics published the first ongoing series of Planet of the Apes comics from 1974-77. In fact, Planet of the Apes comics have been produced almost nonstop around the world between 1968 and the present, including the aforementioned Argentine comics and those original Japanese Manga.

This was, of course, far from the real end of the Planet of the Apes (Heston’s trigger finger notwithstanding), but for many years the cheapness of the later films in the saga as well as the two television shows caused Planet of the Apes to be considered something of a silly joke for those who forgot the impact of the original film and novel. Thus, Planet of the Apes “survived” primarily in a series of imitators, spoofs and reruns. That is until Fox resurrected the franchise not once, but twice, thanks to some clever new ideas.

Those chapters and much more will be discussed next time in the exciting pages of The Next Reel. Watch this space for more! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read some comic books from Argentina. See you, apes and humans, in The Next Reel!

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