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Those Damn Dirty Apes: Our Guide to 40 Years of “Planet of the Apes,” Part 1

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By Matt Singer

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of one of the most well-remembered, metaphorically rich, penny-pinching, bare-chested, temporally impossible movie series of all time, IFC News looks back at “Planet of the Apes” and all its ape brethren. Stay tuned for installments two and three in the upcoming weeks.

Please note: Most “Planet of the Apes” films have a “shocking” twist that everyone at this point already knows. However, if you have somehow extricated yourself from forty years of pop culture references, by all means be wary of SPOILERS ahead.

02112008_planetoftheapes2.jpg“Planet of the Apes” (1968)
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner


Three Earth astronauts from the 1970s crash land on a mysterious planet

in the year 3978 after thousands of years in suspended animation. After

days roaming a desert wasteland they stumble on a primitive, non-verbal

human civilization and then a society of intelligent apes. Captain

Taylor (Charlton Heston) is captured by the apes; within their Ape

City, he encounters the kind scientists Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and

Zira (Kim Hunter) and the powerful and paranoid Dr. Zaius (Maurice

Evans). Cornelius and Zira befriend Taylor and help him escape his

captivity. Taylor and his chosen mate, Nova (Linda Harrison), ride off

into the sunset of the Ape Planet’s “Forbidden Zone”…

Until! …they chance upon one of the most iconic final shots in

all of cinema, the ruins of the Statue of Liberty. A crestfallen Taylor

realizes he is, in fact, on Earth, one that has apparently been

destroyed by an unrevealed cataclysm. Drag.

Metaphors of the Apes: The elaborate ape makeup, by John

Chambers — who was rewarded with an Honorary Academy Award for his

impressive efforts — is all there to quite literally mask a story

about racial prejudice in 1960s America. Obviously the apes enslave the

humans (who, in an ironic role reversal, are all white-skinned) but

even within the simian society there is friction and persecution; Zira,

for instance, notes how Dr. Zaius, an orangutan, looks down his nose at

the chimpanzees, who are disallowed from taking part in the ape


People Forget: that Charlton Heston’s Taylor is a total dick.

Granted, he’s treated poorly by Dr. Zaius and the rest of the apes, but

that’s no excuse for the poor manners he frequently displays throughout

the film. He flies off the handle with alarming speed; any bit of bad

news is liable to send Heston into a sweaty, profane frenzy (“You cut

up his brain, you BLOODY BABOON!”). The fact that the embittered Taylor

is an astronaut, that great symbol of 1960s optimism and heroism, only

enhances his status as a surprisingly dislikable protagonist, one we

often side with on the basis of species loyalty alone. That said…

Charlton Heston’s a Friggin’ Badass:

You have to love a movie star who isn’t afraid to look like a douche.

Taylor isn’t just brutal to his enemies; he’s not even civil to his

friends! When his fellow astronaut plants a symbolic flag in the

Forbidden Zone, the cynical Taylor — who took this doomed mission to

try to find something in the universe “better than man” after becoming

disillusioned with society — mockingly laughs at the gesture. I’m

talking cackling-like-a-madman laughter. Later, when Cornelius tells

him to stop holding Dr. Zaius at gunpoint, the grumpy human shoves him

aside and yells “Shut up!” (despite the fact that Cornelius has risked

his own freedom to give Taylor his). Cornelius, someone should have

told you: nobody messes with Chuck Heston when he’s got a rifle.

After 40 Years, It’s Easy To Seem Dated:

Cornelius and Zira’s nephew Lucius (Lou Wagner) gets to spout all sorts

of hilarious youth movement slogans, as if Ape City had its very own

Haight-Ashbury. “How are you feeling?” Taylor asks him after the final

battle. “Disillusioned!” he replies, “You can’t trust the older

generation!” The racial component of the film still works; the hippie

ape, not so much.

Continuity Boo-Boos: As

author Eric Greene observes in his text commentary track on the “Apes”

DVD, Taylor should have been clued in to the fact that he’s on Earth

well before he spots what’s left of Lady Liberty. Why else would the

apes speak English?


“Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1970)

Directed by Ted Post


After Taylor disappears into a bad special effect in the Forbidden

Zone, another astronaut from his time conveniently crash lands on the

Planet of the Apes looking for him. Our new hero, Brent (James

Franciscus) hooks up with Nova, then completes a checklist of Taylor’s

activities from the first movie: he rides horseback with Nova, gets

captured and brought to Ape City, receives help from Zira and Cornelius

(now played by David Watson), loses his clothes, walks around in a

loincloth, receives a bullet wound that requires a bandage, realizes

that a)he’s on a world full of talking gorillas and b)the world is, in

fact, the Earth, and so on. Later, Brent and Nova find the remnants of

New York City in the Forbidden Zone, and along with them, a race of

telepathic mutants who worship a massive nuclear weapon called the

Doomsday Bomb. Our heroes reunite with Taylor and all three escape just

as the ape army, led by Dr. Zaius and General Ursus (James Gregory),

attack the mutants’ lair…

Until! the apes

kill Nova and Brent and mortally wound Taylor. After Dr. Zaius refuses

to help him, Taylor activates the Doomsday Bomb and destroys the entire

world out of spite. Good to see Taylor hasn’t mellowed since the last

“Apes!” After the screen fades to white, a somber narration informs us

that the earth “a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.” And you

thought “The Empire Strikes Back” was a depressing sequel.

Metaphors of the Apes:

“Beneath” largely discards the previous film’s racial component and

instead depicts a twisted version of religious fanaticism. Though the

apes’ religion was discussed in the first picture, here it is given

more screen time, and paired with the mutants and their intensely

creepy bomb-based religion. In a truly disturbing sequence, Brent and

Nova are forced to endure a mutant worship service (“May the blessing

of the bomb almighty, and the fellowship of the holy fallout descend on

us all!”). At the heights of the scene’s delirium, five mutants peel

off their faces, revealing the fact that they all look like Darth Vader

without his mask on, and begin to sing in harmony to their “almighty

and everlasting bomb.” In a movie that is, to that point, mostly a

harmless rehash of its predecessor, this chilling scene portends just

how dark the ending will get.

People Forget:

how much James Franciscus looks like Charlton Heston. The uncanny

resemblance is almost certainly the reason the mediocre actor — whose

convulsions during his mental interrogation by the mutants is downright

Shatnerian — landed the role.

After 40 Years, It’s Easy To Seem Dated:

“Beneath” marks the series’ slow backslide into low-budget hell, and it

already shows in the more elaborate sequences, where extras no longer

wear the full compliment of John Chambers’ makeup and instead try to

sneak by with cheap-looking ape masks. If you freeze-frame the scene

where Ursus delivers his speech to the ape council, you can have a lot

of fun spotting the bad applications. It’s sort of like trying to find

a guy in a crowd with a bad toupee.

Continuity Boo-Boos:

Ooh, boy, there are a lot of them. First, the entire notion that the

government would send a rescue mission to find a ship that’s been

tossed thousands of years into the future is totally preposterous. Even

if Brent found Taylor, what would he do with him? Plus, Brent’s ship

tells him he’s landed in the year 3955, 23 years before Taylor! Most

amusingly, Brent knows to follow Nova because she’s wearing Taylor’s

dog tags. The only problem is Taylor doesn’t wear dog tags in the first

movie and in the flashback scene conveniently added to explain their

existence he nonchalantly pulls them out of his loincloth. So, what,

his loincloth has pockets?

Charlton Heston’s a Friggin’ Badass:

Heston didn’t want to return for another “Apes” and he only agreed on

the condition that his part was limited to about fifteen minutes of

screen time and he got to die so he wouldn’t be asked to come back

again. But apparently that wasn’t assurance enough for Heston that Fox

wouldn’t drag him back if they developed another sequel. So what does

he do? He kills the entire planet along with his character. “It’s

DOOMSDAY! The END of the WORLD!” he sneers at Zaius in a bat-shit

crazed whisper. His final words as Taylor: “Bloody bastard!” You would

have thought there could be no further “Apes” movies, but, as we’ll see

soon, not even Heston could kill this series.

On to Part 2!

[Photos: “Planet of the Apes,” and “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” Twentieth Century-Fox, 1968 and 1970]

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Lane 69: Filthy Cars

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