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.