From Time Travel to Sword and Sandal: 'The Planet of the Apes' Films They Almost Made

Love the Apes or hate them, you should see what they almost threw at us!

The Planet of the Apes saga has had its many ups and downs from the time of its inception in the 1968 film that spawned it (based, of course, on the 1963 Pierre Boulle novel). Planet of the Apes went from bestselling book to blockbuster, Oscar winning film, but then the saga started to slip into the Forbidden Zone when a series of mostly declining sequels and TV shows seemed to mark the death knell for the series.

Such ill-advised and b-movie sci-fi films as Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and the Tim Burton reimagining of the saga in Planet of the Apes (2001), not to mention two short lived TV shows with more detractors than fans, may have almost killed the franchise. But if you think those entries were a lot of monkey business, you should see the Planet of the Apes movies that were almost made… and many came damned near to fruition!

Don’t slip on that banana peel kids, let’s just GO APE!

1. Rod Serling’s Planet of the Apes II (1968 - 1969)

Most every fan knows that The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling had written the original screenplay that was later polished by Michael Wilson into Planet of the Apes (1968). Wilson’s changes were mostly due to the fact that Serling’s script was too close to Pierre Boulle’s original novel with technological apes in a post-modern society (all of which would have been prohibitively expensive to film). However, when Planet of the Apes became the monster hit that it was (critically and commercially), both Serling and Boulle stepped forward to offer their suggestions for a big sequel.

What was it about?

Serling actually came up with three bold ideas for the screenplay-to-be, each one hairier than the last. In Serling’s first version, Taylor (played in the first film by Charlton Heston) becomes a defender of humanity, deeming himself mankind’s last hope. Holing up in an abandoned city, Taylor fights off the remaining apes that dogged his trail and attempts to save humanity in this new bastion of (retroactive) civilization.

In the climax, the hero is given a chance to return to his own time (courtesy of a spaceship piloted by non-crashing human astronauts), but Taylor rejects this opportunity in order to remain and, he hopes, resurrect humanity. Hey, the man started out the first movie claiming he hated Earth anyway. Who’s surprised?

In the subsequent treatment, Serling has Taylor and Nova (played in the first film by Linda Harrison) finding an intact Earth ship and traveling through time to yet another, unrelated future (or past) to find that Earth is no longer ruled by apes… but perhaps something worse. The mind boggles at what this might be. Planet of the Giant Spider Soldiers? Planet of the Jerks? Planet of the Lizard People? Planet of the Never Ending Frat Party? Planet of the Barry Goldwater Clones? Planet of the Talking Tina Dolls Who Don’t Think They Like You? This is Rod Serling, after all.

Serling’s third idea also had Taylor finding yet another space ship (because apparently they grow on trees on Ape World if you know where to look) in which he and a band of intelligent humans take off to a completely different Earth-like planet that they are dismayed to find also is dominated by ruling apes. How much would you pay to see Heston go through the same exact same thing a second time and deliver lines like “Take your new stinking paws off me you alternate damn dirty ape!”, “It’s still a Madhouse! This, too, is a Madhouse all over again!”, “An additional planet where apes also evolved from men just like the last one? There's got to be the exact same answer.” or “Ah, damn you also! God damn you all to hell again!”?

Why was it never made?

Producer Arthur P. Jacobs who, at the time, held all cinematic rights to Planet of the Apes, deemed Serling’s first treatment to be unsatisfactory as it lacked the “visual shock and the surprise” of its predecessor (meaning, no half-buried Statue of Liberty to make audiences go “Hmmmmm!”). The subsequent two ideas were rejected outright (forever depriving us of seeing Heston at a Used Space Ship Dealer) and Pierre Boulle was contacted for his version of the sequel script.

What got made instead?

Eventually Beneath the Planet of the Apes was released in 1970 based on a screenplay by Mort Abrahams and Paul Dehn which barely featured Taylor at all. The concept of the Earth spacecraft being found was later reused to continue the series in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) in which Taylor’s own craft is refurbished by three intelligent apes who use it to fly back in time to then-present day Earth. The idea of other modern Earth astronauts finding the future Planet of the title was used ad nauseum throughout the sequels and spin-offs, including Beneath.

2. Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Men (1969)

But first, what about Pierre Boulle’s version? After all, the Frenchman did create the entire concept, did he not? He did and producer Jacobs contacted him for his own new contributions. The author was already toying with a few ideas that you may or may not really like.

What was it about?

Boulle’s own screenplay went even further than Serling’s in his depiction of Taylor as a defender and last hope for humanity. Perhaps noting Heston’s role in The Ten Commandments (1956), Boulle recast the surviving Taylor as something of a Moses character in his concept entitled La Planète des Hommes (or literally, The Planet of the Men).

Almost immediately upon rising from his knees before the half-buried Statue of Liberty, Taylor impresses a band of primitive humans (by shooting an angry cow… not kidding) and becomes their benevolent messiah, guiding them to a promised land called the “Kingdom of Men” where he and his friends plot to free slaves and rebel against their Ape overlords.

Luckily, there is no record of Taylor parting the Red Sea. The whole shebang ends with the apes reverting to primitive roles and humans enslaving and mocking them, much as the apes had done to Taylor in the first film.

Uplifting, no?

Why was it never made?

Much as he had Serling’s ideas, Jacobs (who preferred to start with big killer visuals -- like Lady Liberty’s last sunbath -- and then build the film around those major points) found Boulle’s script to be “uncinematic”. Further, although this was most assuredly a sequel to the first film and not to Boulle’s original novel, the author re-inserted his own original concepts into his sequel story with Taylor changing his personality completely to more closely resemble the novel’s protagonist Ulysse Mérou (as well as… well… Moses).

It also didn’t help that ape intelligence was treated as something that could be cured with a bonk on the head as opposed to the result of generations of evolution. Even Dr. Zaius and Professor Antelle regress to a primitive ape state of savagery in a remarkably short time (eventually being featured in circuses where they are fed sugar cubes).

What got made instead?

Associate producer Mort Abrahams came up with a story involving a creepy race of mutated humans who worship a nuclear doomsday weapon that the anything-but-messianic Taylor eventually uses to blow up the entire planet. Hiring Paul Dehn to write the screenplay, the duo fleshed out their story and (unbeknownst to Boulle) actually incorporated small elements of the Planet of the Men script into the movie that was eventually to be named Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

3. Paul Dehn’s Planet of the Apes Revisited (1970)

The key word of the above is “eventually”, as Beneath the Planet of the Apes started out as what John Cleese would have called “something completely different”. While the original film proved to be timeless, the second film was, even in pre-production, proving itself to be a reflection of its own time. By that I both mean the times of Cold War paranoia (the McCarthy era had only recently ended) and the times of cheesy sci-fi sequels.

What was it about?

Screenwriter Paul Dehn was a World War II veteran who was traumatized by the way that war ended, namely, the 1945 atomic bombings. This informed the concepts that led to a strange cult of telepathic mutated humans who worshipped the Alpha Omega Doomsday bomb (the very thing that was presumably mutating them with its radiation). Fashion models, these guys are not.

Taylor and Nova end up meeting this bizarre subspecies as an army of gorillas invades the Forbidden Zone intent on exterminating all of humanity. Luckily, the gorillas and mutants clash and are all killed in an underground explosion allowing Cornelius (played in the first film by Roddy McDowall) and Zira (played in the first film by Kim Hunter) to help Taylor and Nova return to Ape City to free the slaves and form a new order. (I can still hear Heston’s voice screaming “Let my people GO!” to an Ape Pharaoh).

This benevolent and happy future lasts and lasts for hundreds of years and also includes a half human/ half ape child implying that the new era that dawned between man and ape went a little bit further than mere “friendship”.

Why was it never made?

Origin of the human-ape hybrid?

Although the human / ape hybrid went as far as makeup tests, that idea was rejected due to the fact that the implication of bestiality threatened to cost the film its G rating (yes, back then studios actually wanted some action films to be rated G). Not to mention… it’s kind of creepy, isn’t it?

As for the rest of the script, nobody seemed to like it, especially Charlton Heston. In fact, Heston didn’t want to do the sequel at all and only agreed to appear in a cameo if his character could be killed off at the very beginning and his salary was donated to charity. Both Burt Reynolds and Orson Welles turned down roles in the film and Roddy McDowall was unavailable to reprise Cornelius due to his commitment to directing his own movie.

What got made instead?

Ultimately, Dehn completely re-wrote the screenplay to feature a new character named Brent, as played by James Franciscus. Brent was a complete Taylor clone, right down to his crash-landing in the Forbidden Zone, finding of Nova and donning of the Heston-esque loincloth. He didn’t have lines that were quite as cool, though.

Meanwhile, Heston agreed to separate his cameo appearance into two parts taking place at the very opening and the very ending of the film, provided Taylor would still be killed off and his money donated to charity.

In a case of almost literally throwing out the baby with the bath water, the happy ending (which actually showed a harmonious life for apes and humans hundreds of years in the future) was excised along with the hybrid child. In fact, not only does Taylor bite the dust in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (per Heston’s demand), but everybody else dies too at Heston’s hand.

Yes, Taylor blows up the Planet of the Apes thanks to that doomsday weapon. The guy who never wanted to return to the series to play the character who hated Earth and what it became takes everyone to hell with him as the planet explodes, thanks to Taylor (Heston).

Thanks a lot, Heston. Some guys you just can’t take to a party, man.

4. Rod Serling’s Planet of the Apes TV Pilot (1974)

Of course the series did continue, thanks to the aforementioned newby ape astronauts (including Cornelius and Zira) traveling back in time to 1973 A.D., mating and (quite unintentionally) laying the groundwork for the evolution of apes into the master race of Earth. And while Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) proved to be much better reviewed than the first sequel, subsequent entries into the series made less money and earned less acclaim. Soon 20th Century Fox pulled the plug on the film series.

Fox also obtained full rights to the Planet of the Apes adaptations and the studio quickly focused on creating a new television series with new characters in a previous timeline (still dominated by apes but with talking humans). But who, oh who had a brilliant enough mind to pen an engrossing pilot, had copious experience with brilliant episodic television and had an inside knowledge of Planet of the Apes?

If you answered “Rod Serling”, so did the TV show’s producers. If only that had lasted…

What was it about?

Arriving just after Taylor’s adventure astronauts Virdon and Kovak land on the planet in a completely different space ship (like I said, in Serling’s imagination, they’re everywhere), discover the wreckage of Taylor’s craft and then shoot the first ape they see in the neck. Nice guys.

The duo is soon captured and set to be executed unless the fix their ship and return to their own time (the new apes are “nice guys”, too). Meanwhile a group of renegade humans capture and plan to kill Galen (the ape the nice astronauts shot) and a gorilla named Zonda before the astronauts manage to talk the humans down.

Why was it never made?

Similar to his attempts to write a Planet of the Apes sequel, Serling’s drafts were rejected. This may have had to do with the similarities the two episodes shared with his original Planet of the Apes script and the strange continuity that placed it as both a sequel and a prequel. Also like the ill-fated sequel, other unproduced teleplays were commissioned such as Anthony Lawrence’s “A Fallen God”. Boulle was not invited to contribute this time.

What got made instead?

Fox and CBS opted for a more traditional and somewhat more family friendly pilot called “Escape From Tomorrow” (written by Art Wallace). Kovak was renamed Burke and was played by James Naughton, Virdon kept his name and was played by Ron Harper while Galen was brought to life by a returning Roddy McDowall (who had become the focal point of the film series starting with the third film).

The same crash takes place along with the duo’s team up with Galen and eluding of Ape authorities, but little of Serling’s vision was used. The show quickly became a standard 1970s “peril of the week” show that owed as much to TV’s The Fugitive (1963 - 1967) as it did to Planet of the Apes. The TV show was canceled after 13 episodes, leaving the final completed episode unaired for years.

The animated Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) fared no better and only 13 episodes were made of that program. Then again, someone must have rather liked the name of the show as it popped back up in pre-production years later.

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