Origin of the Species: ‘Planet of the Apes’ from Page to Screen

[4 August 2014]

By J.C. Macek III

“I soon succeeded in convincing myself that well-trained animals might well…  become expert in all the human arts, including the art of cinematography.”
—Pierre Boulle

For a film column that focuses so heavily on movie chronology, it’s more than fair to ask just why The Next Reel never delved into an article about time travel or, at least, a film saga that relies so heavily on time travel that its very storyline becomes a cul-de-sac in time. Sure there are many to choose from; even Star Trek’s recent films constitute less of a “reboot” than a time traveling sequel to The Next Generation. But there is one temporal ring to rule them all… and by “them all” I mean human and ape alike.

This brings us, of course, to the saga in question: Planet of the Apes. It wasn’t long ago that the very mention of Planet of the Apes might evoke laughter from the common man of this planet, as the forgetful had relegated these films to the realm of either complete jokes or silly B-Movie sci-fi. While that description may apply to some films in the series, such a dismissal easily forgets the fact that the original 1968 film, Planet of the Apes, was a critically acclaimed artistic endeavor that had an Academy Award category specifically created for it.

This one film went on to spawn several sequels (creating the aforementioned cul-de-sac), two television series, a remake, a new series and a mountain of merchandise. Not bad for some laughable sci-fi ape movie, right?

Of course, the two most recent films in the saga, the reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and its sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) have each enjoyed a level of critical and box-office acclaim not seen for the franchise since the first film, thus silencing the laughing naysayers (who more than likely bellied up to the box office with the rest of us). Thus, Planet of the Apes rules film once again.

Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil, See no Evil from Planet of the Apes (1968)

Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil, See no Evil from Planet of the Apes (1968)

However, Planet of the Apes did not start as a TV show, nor did it start as a motion picture.

Planet of the Apes began its mythology as a novel. This novel wasn’t by Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke or any of the usual, expected sci-fi maestros, but by Pierre Boulle, a French engineer and secret agent(!) previously best known for his novel, Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai (1952). If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because that novel served as the source of David Lean’s immensely popular, multiple Oscar-winning film The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). The Bridge on the River Kwai was not Boulle’s first novel, nor was it his last, although for over a decade it stood as his most successful and best-known.

That is until 1963 when, after a series of successful novels, Boulle published La Planète des Singes, originally published in English as Monkey Planet. It would soon become better known by its literal title translation Planet of the Apes. Like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Planet of the Apes was packed with engineering marvels and intrigue. In this thrilling and satirical story, an astronaut (the sole survivor of a shipwreck on a planet in the Betelgeuse system) discovers that this planet is ruled by technologically advanced apes in a world very similar to Boulle’s own. Meanwhile, humans have been relegated to a savage subspecies featured in zoos and hunting safaris.

Spoiler Alert: The planet of the title is not Earth and when Astronaut Ulysse returns to Earth to warn his people, he is greeted by Earth’s own new master race of Apes.

Boulle’s novel was a roaring financial and critical success that alone could have kept him in bananas for life. Some of the financial windfall he received was from selling the rights to the novel to a little-known press agent named Arthur P Jacobs before the novel even hit stores (on any planet). Boulle, quite ironically, believed his novel to be unfilmable and thus had no qualms about unloading the rights for a film he would never see to Jacobs, who had set his sights on becoming a producer. The Frenchman was damned near right about the novel’s inability to be filmed, as Jacobs shopped his project to studio after studio and was rejected every time.

However, Jacobs found his success as a producer at Twentieth Century Fox and said success helped him to persuade the studio’s vice-president Richard D. Zanuck to put Jacobs’ dream project into pre-production. And there the film would stay as the notoriously hard-to-film movie was attempted again and again from various different angles.

The green lit script was written by no less a master than The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling. Serling’s screenplay was a more literal interpretation of the novel’s more technological society, but, true to the The Twilight Zone of his origin, the writer added a new surprise twist ending that turned the entire story upside down.

The problem that Zanuck, Jacobs and Fox faced was the fact that building a modern (or even futuristic) city of the Apes would have been a costly and daunting prospect, which proved to be out of the reach of their “stinking paws”. Thus, a new screenwriter named Michael Wilson was brought on board to revise Serling’s script into something that could be filmed affordably.

Wilson was a veteran screenwriter, famous for such films as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), who had found himself blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Thus, he remained uncredited on his works throughout most of the ‘50s and the early ‘60s. In spite of this, Wilson did prove to be an ideal choice for the rewrite, considering the fact that during his blacklisted years one of the best known films that he co-wrote just happened to be The Bridge on the River Kwai (his credit was added after the McCarthy scare had faded away). Working with director Franklin J. Schaffner, Wilson re-crafted the monkey planet into a pre-industrial society, thus opening the door to new architectural interpretations and reducing costs, to boot.

Fox had its producers, a revised script (with both Serling and Wilson credited), its director and even its star in Charlton Heston. However, the first version of Planet of the Apes committed to film was not based on Wilson’s rewrite, but on Serling’s original screenplay. Boulle was far from the only one who considered Planet of the Apes to be unfilmable. After all, this era far preceded that of CGI and many rightly feared that the “apes” in the film would look a lot like kids in cheap Halloween masks.

Thus, a short film was created to serve as a test scene to prove the film could be made. Heston played the astronaut (then renamed “Thomas”, but eventually to be named “Taylor”) while veteran actor Edward G. Robinson (who had co-starred with Heston in 1956’s The Ten Commandments) portrayed a more scientific and modern version of Doctor Zaius. For Zaius’ assistant scientist Cornelius, then-unknown actor James Brolin was cast and for Cornelius’ equally scientific love interest Zira, Zanuck brought in his real life girlfriend Linda Harrison. Although the latter three actors were covered in an early version of the ape makeup, it was enough to convince Fox that the film could be made.

That makeup, which allowed more realistic movements of the ape faces, was largely due to the talents of John Chambers who had previously created the pointy Vulcan ears for Star Trek’s Mister Spock. While Chambers remained for the main film, Robinson did not sit down in his makeup chair. Robinson dropped out of the project specifically due to the long time it took to apply the convincing makeup, leaving the door open for Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans to take his place. (Interestingly, Robinson’s final film was 1973’s Soylent Green, also a science fiction film starring Charlton Heston).

Brolin was only intended for the short and was replaced by Roddy McDowall in the role of Cornelius (kicking off a long association with the franchise). Harrison was similarly replaced as Zira by Kim Hunter. However, one shouldn’t feel too bad for Harrison, considering the fact that she was re-cast as Taylor’s mute love interest Nova (a human, not an ape) in the final film and the only makeup she had to wear was of the cover girl kind.

The film was shot in various untouched parts of Arizona and California (largely the Fox Ranch in Los Angeles) between May and August of 1967 and was completed for its final release on 8 February 1968. The notoriously unfilmable film was greeted to huge box office successes (achieving over $32 million against a budget of less than $6 million) and vast critical acclaim. This acclaim has continued throughout the decades and Planet of the Apes often still appears on lists of the best films ever made.

Spoiler Alert: Much of the lasting applause for this film (and the repeat business it enjoyed) was due to its ending, one of the Serling-penned moments that remained intact in the final version. In this ending, the title planet is not a strange Alien world that Taylor has crash landed on, but a post-apocalyptic Earth the entire time. The image of a defeated Taylor on his knees in front of the mostly-buried Statue of Liberty has become one of the most iconic endings of all time and a model for the surprise twist endings that followed it.

In addition to the story and ending, Planet of the Apes is memorable due to its unique costumes, score and especially that groundbreaking makeup. The film was nominated for Best Costume Design (Morton Haack) and Best Original Score (Jerry Goldsmith), but the one Oscar that Planet of the Apes won is one of the most surprising of all time (Marisa Tomei notwithstanding).

During the time of this film’s release, there was no Academy Award category for make-up, however when Academy voters saw Planet of the Apes a special Honorary Oscar was created and granted to John Chambers for his Outstanding Makeup Achievement. While that may seem like a no-brainer considering how convincing the makeup proved to be, special notice must be paid to another 1968 Science Fiction film which used realistic ape makeup on its actors.

That film was 2001: A Space Odyssey and it has been speculated and even argued that Planet of the Apes received the Honorary Oscar over 2001: A Space Odyssey due to the fact that the latter film’s makeup was so convincing that Academy voters believed the production had used real apes, not actors in costumes.

Only the Monolith knows for sure.

What was undeniably sure was the fact that Planet of the Apes was an astounding success. So much so that talk of a sequel had begun almost immediately. Fox was keen on the idea and began entertaining possible stories for the sequel. Boulle was amazed by the critical and commercial hit that his novel had spawned and penned his own follow-up called Planet of the Men (La Planète des Hommes). Serling’s own plans for a sequel were dismissed by the studio and Boulle soon found his Planet of the Men script meeting a similar fate.

It was associate producer Mort Abrahams who created the story that ultimately led to the first sequel. Taking cues from the first film’s shocking ending, Abrahams and screenwriter Paul Dehn crafted a Cold War, nuclear paranoia tale set in a post-Apocalyptic city underground that gave the film its title: Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

After Schaffner proved unavailable to direct due to his commitments to 1970’s Patton (and he took Goldsmith with him), Ted Post was brought in to fill the folding chair. Unfortunately, star McDowall was also unable to return to the role of Cornelius due to his commitment to directing his own film The Devil’s Widow (1970), thus actor David Watson stepped into the role behind the ape mask. While Hunter, Evans and Harrison all returned to their roles and James Gregory was cast as General Ursus (after Orson Welles turned the part down) the one thing that Beneath the Planet of the Apes lacked was its central lead.

The obvious choice for the film’s hero was Heston himself, and Boulle’s proposed sequel along with the script for Beneath the Planet of the Apes itself was heavily Taylor centric. The problem was that Heston had no interest in returning to the role. Zanuck, however, believed the character of Taylor was indispensable to the follow-up and wore Heston and his agents down until he agreed… conditionally. Heston would only return to the role of Taylor in a cameo and he insisted that he be killed off in the beginning of the film so that he could never be approached again for sequels. As the icing on the cake he had his entire salary donated to charity.

This change forced Abrahams and Dehn to rewrite their script as a focus for a different male lead. Television actor James Franciscus brought us the character of Brent, another Astronaut who was sent on a mission to find Taylor and the crew of the Icarus before meeting a similar fate to the elder explorer, that being a crash landing right back on the planet in the area known as “The Forbidden Zone”. This is convenient for Nova, considering the fact that Taylor mysteriously disappears right before her eyes in an optical effect far less expensive than the ape makeup.

Icarus Crashes in The Forbidden Zone

Icarus Crashes in The Forbidden Zone

Spoiler Alert: Of course that didn’t mean that Taylor was dead (yet). The writers cleverly kept Heston’s cameo, but broke it into two sections that bookended the plot largely surrounding a weird, post-apocalyptic cult of mutated humans who worship an ancient nuclear bomb capable of destroying an entire planet.

The Bomb and the Human Mutants who learned to stop worrying and love it.

The Bomb and the Human Mutants who learned to stop worrying and love it.

This, of course, is what it does at the hands of Taylor himself. That’s right, Heston loathed the idea of returning to the Planet of the Apes and then his character destroyed the entire Planet of the Apes. Heston blew up the Earth (which the closing narration calls “a green and insignificant planet”).

So the first sequel didn’t exactly have a happy ending!

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!

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/183974-origin-of-the-species-planet-of-the-apes-from-page-to-screen/