Planet of the Apes: The Legacy Collection (1968-1973)

Whitney Strub

Planet of the Apes: The Legacy Collection oscillates wildly between the delightful and the agonizing; but the rewards more than offset the pains.

Planet of the Apes: the Legacy Collection

Director: Various
Cast: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter
Studio: 20th Century Fox
First date: 1968-1973
US DVD Release Date: 2006-03-28
Amazon affiliate

If the test of a science fiction film's lasting relevance is its evolving applicability to sociopolitical circumstances, Planet of the Apes ranks among the best. When released in early 1968, its brutal gorilla law enforcers evoked memories of Bull Connor's Birmingham police as they sprayed Charlton Heston's dissent away with high-powered water hoses; by the end of that year their repressive behavior elsewhere in the film paralleled that of the Chicago police at the Democratic National Convention. Today, orangutan Dr. Zaius' position as Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith sounds like something the Bush administration has added to the FDA or CDC, and the film's theme of religion obstructing the scientific pursuit of knowledge has never seemed so relevant.

The other films in the Apes series bear their own messages, and the best way to unpack those themes is to watch the entire series in quick succession. Planet of the Apes: The Legacy Collection facilitates this process, collecting all five feature films and an accompanying documentary into one convenient package. Plowing through it can be exhausting � like the Star Trek movies, the Apes films oscillate wildly between the delightful and the agonizing � but the rewards more than offset the pains.

Best-known by far, the first entry needs little recounting. Astronaut Charlton Heston, catapulted two thousand years into the future, lands on a strange planet on which apes dominate humans. That the planet might be closer to home than he realizes is well known today, but the film's iconic final image nonetheless retains a potent visceral charge. Its political messages are overt but slyly clever; it's easy to find it tame compared to its contemporaries like Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, but in terms of social effects, I'd wager Planet of the Apes carried a greater impact. While Wexler's landmark film was seen mostly by critics and members of the decaying New Left, Apes surely instilled a subversively critical approach to authority in thousands of children out for a Saturday matinee.

Then, of course, there's Heston: less actor than sheer presence, he elevates the film's stature through his mere being. When he bellows, "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape," the authority in his voice makes clear why the NRA wanted him for its public face even despite his earlier stance in support of gun control. To be sure, Heston and his character represent the apotheosis of pre-feminist male chauvinism, treating mute companion Linda Harrison as a lapdog plaything; when threatened with emasculation his eyes widen, but they need not: this guy is all phallus. The film never suffers for Heston's alpha-male machismo, though, perhaps because it so clearly invites queer readings -- even apart from extratextual thoughts of his earlier faux-hetero performances as Ben-Hur and Michelangelo, Heston spends nearly as much time naked here as Jane Fonda did the same year in Barbarella, and his sweaty, scantily-clad performance seems almost, almost aware of its camp component.

If the first Planet of the Apes is easily the best in the series, on any level � textual richness, narrative creativity, filmmaking quality (the realistic ape costuming, though since surpassed, was groundbreaking in its day) � other entries offer some competition. Unfortunately, one must slog through Beneath the Planet of the Apes to reach these contenders. The second film reeks of Roger-Cormanesque rush-production hackwork, cutting budget corners on everything from sets (it was filmed on sets still standing from the first film, as well as some from Hello, Dolly!) to time spent plotting (it's basically a tepid remake, minus the excitement) to casting (James Franciscus plays the poor man's Heston, another astronaut sent out after him). A vision of New York City as underground wreckage feebly attempts to recapture the thrill of the predecessor's closing image, while Heston himself appears bored to the point of catatonia in a cameo.

The box set's Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound is on regrettably piercing display in a scene of telepathic screeches, and Beneath is the type of movie where an underground cult of humans inform Franciscus that talking out loud is "a primitive accomplishment" that they "use when we must" . . . nine minutes before they engage in a spoken dialogue scene. Even a startlingly violent and apocalyptic conclusion (in a G-rated film -- the MPAA was a bit less protectionist in 1969!) can't save this turkey, which never should have surfaced.

After that fiasco, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a welcome turn toward social parody, as two sympathetic chimp scientists travel back in time to early-'70s Los Angeles. Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter (who won an Oscar for playing Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire) pull off surprisingly resonant performances, and scenes with him attending a boxing match and her speaking before a feminist group provide clever fun. Paul Dehn's script is full of sharp dialogue, a robust supporting cast (including Ricardo Montalban, Sal Mineo, and even M. Emmet Walsh in a brief early role) helps, and a scene with chimps on the lam through the oil fields of south LA makes for a bizarre parallel to similar scenes in Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song that same year (1971). Another grim conclusion adds emotional heft.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes continues the momentum, envisioning 1991 as an oppressive police state. A plague eradicated all dogs and cats, and after humans adopted apes as pets, the primates' role quickly became closer to slaves. McDowall stars as Caesar, the son of his earlier character, who leads an ape revolution. Journeyman director J. Lee Thompson too often jabs his camera at scenes, and the editing is equally hamfisted (Caesar's transition into revolutionary leader happens so fast it's incoherent), but not even an unintentionally offensive equating of the film's only significant black character with the apes ("You, above all people, should understand" their servitude, he's told; later he agrees, prefacing his soliloquy, "I, a descendant of slaves . . .") can halt the film's momentum.

Scenes with Caesar leading fellow apes in the planning of social disruptions may well have inspired quite similar scenes in Fight Club. The final ape revolt is jarringly captivating in its violence, and Caesar's closing speech, delivered before a backdrop of raging flames, is pure faux-Shakespearean grandiloquence. It's also a rousing call to arms, and in its own clumsy allegorical way Conquest is more sympathetic to the participants of the uprisings in Watts, Newark, or Attica than anything else coming out of Hollywood at the time.

Alas, Battle for the Planet of the Apes concludes things on a dismal note, with another dreary conflict between ape and man. A year before his dazzling turn as Noah Cross in Chinatown, John Huston was somehow roped into a pompous narrating role as the simian "Lawgiver", and McDowall sleepwalks through another turn as Caesar. The new DVD includes ten minutes of footage cut from the original 1973 theatrical version, but all it does is elongate the misery.

The films are largely devoid of extra features, aside from some mundane commentary tracks on the first one from composer Jerry Goldsmith, MacDowall, Hunter, and the makeup artists. Most of what they have to say is covered more effectively in Behind the Planet of the Apes, a 1998 documentary that rounds out the box set. With engaging anecdotes about producer Arthur P. Jacobs, the source novel by French writer Pierre Boulle, first screenwriter (and Twilight Zone creator) Rod Serling's adaptation, budgetary struggles, and various other facets of the series (which was continued by two short-lived television series), Behind is surprisingly enjoyable and informative -- how else would one know that Edward G. Robinson was slated to play Dr. Zaius in the first film but withdrew because the makeup sessions were too strenuous? Film scholar Eric Greene, who wrote the book Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture, shows up to help decode the series' thematic elements, such as the class structure of the orangutan/chimp/gorilla hierarchy.

It's not quite clear what prompted this box set now rather than, say, five years ago, when it could have cashed in on Tim Burton's remake (ignored here). Perhaps only when it's marketed as a unified entity will consumers bother with the minor entries in the series. At any rate, when the Apes quintet is on � which it is more often than not � it makes for thoughtful, compelling science fiction. When it's not, well, at least it's not Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.