Origin of the Species: 'Planet of the Apes' from Page to Screen

Humankind once laughed at The Planet of the Apes -- until it became a critically acclaimed artistic endeavor and had an Academy Award category created for it. Now who amongst us is laughing?

"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)

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

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.

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!

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