Why ‘Planet of the Apes’ is One of the Greatest Movies Ever Made
Here’s my tribute to the 1968 science fiction classic starring Charlton Heston!
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Most movies people will see only once. Good or bad, they’re not enough to get excited about to warrant further viewings.
Then there are great movies that people go out of their way to see a second time, maybe a third time. Maybe they’ll buy the DVD.
But then there are those movies that seem like miracles to film lovers… movies that never get old.
Some get better with each viewing, some remain at about the same enjoyment level. The original Planet of the Apes, written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, and directed by Pierre Boulle, is just such a movie.
Planet of the Apes is magical, and not in a genre kind of way. It’s magical because it’s a sci-fi movie, released in the late 1960s, with a totally absurd premise, starring campy Charlton Heston, that works beautifully, on every level, from beginning to end. This movie should’ve come and gone. It should’ve been fleeting entertainment that everyone forgot about by the time the next decade rolled around. But it hasn’t been forgotten, not in the least. And it lives on today as a staple of classic science fiction.
Before the movie was even made, the filmmakers made some important choices.
First, they decided to get actual actors to play the main ape characters. For example, they didn’t need to hire Academy-Award winning actress Kim Hunter to play Zira. They could’ve easily gotten a minor actor for that part. The audience can’t even see her face, after all, but the filmmakers knew that a great actor needed to be behind that make-up to convey the necessary emotion and feeling.
Second, the studio paid for a make-up test to ensure that the makeup on the various apes wouldn’t be laughed at. The Academy-Award winning make-up in this movie is astounding for the time, and it still holds up beautifully today. If the make-up had been of a lesser quality, it definitely would have hindered the film.
Third, the studio nixed, for budgetary reasons, ideas of making the apes a highly futuristic, intellectual group, and instead went in the direction of making the apes’ headquarters a primal society, filled with knowledge but lacking in imagination. This quality makes the movie more accessible.
Fourth, they hired strong writers. Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, co-wrote the screenplay, and thus we have a science fiction piece about ideas. Planet of the Apes swims in thought-provoking ideas, as opposed to wall-to-wall action, and this development makes the film all the more fascinating.
One of the most important qualities to the film is the unhurried pace.
This movie takes its time to tell the story. The three time travelers escape from their sunken space shuttle and walk across an empty desert, desperately searching for a living thing. It’s almost excruciating to witness how long it takes Heston and Co. to find the apes.
The build-up is as important as anything else in the movie. If the three men crash landed and stumbled upon the apes on shore within seconds (like the beginning of Escape from the Planet of the Apes), the drama would be cut in half.
The journey to the apes is a classic set-up, with the mystery only belittled by the actual title given in the opening scene. We know that apes are coming, but when? The suspense is palpable.
There’s an action scene that follows that marks the beginning of the rest of the movie, and then the movie quiets down, presenting this new universe that Taylor has found himself in, and presenting the conflict that he’s going to have to find his way out of. We’re afraid of the apes at first, but then we’re introduced to Zira and Cornelius, two apes more concerned with human “animals” than the ongoing evolution of intellectual apes, and the movie gets pushed to a special place of ideas.
This movie is interested in the story it’s telling. It’s interested in delving into themes of racism, social class standing, misunderstanding, fears of the unknown. And every actor recognizes the richness of the material being explored here, so that there is never a performance wasted.
The third act of the movie is the most thrilling, bringing Taylor closer and closer to the truth of this new planet, his “destiny” so to speak. The final scene, one of the famous endings in movie history, is remarkable maybe more for its downbeat nature than anything else. While Planet of the Apes isn’t necessarily an uplifting movie by any means, the end is really depressing. The credits roll not on music but on the eerie sound of water crashing onto a beach. The end is brilliant and leaves the audience with a lot to think about, as opposed to leaving them with an easy way out with their brains turned off.
The casting in Planet of the Apes is crucial.
It’s really hard now to think of anyone else in the four main roles. While Charlton Heston is famous for roles in The Ten Commandments, Touch of Evil, and Ben-Hur, for which he won an Academy Award, he has never been more loved than in this movie. He could have treated this role and this movie as B-level entertainment. He doesn’t; instead, he brings realism, emotion, and intelligence to an everyman role that works as one of the great heroes of the movies.
Kim Hunter is so warm and gentle as Zira, who takes a great interest in Taylor from the get-go. She is the ape we most identify with because she is the only one to take Taylor seriously as a potentially special kind of human being among the others. She also has a kind of motherly quality to Taylor that gives her an infectious quality. And Ms. Hunter is just fabulous.
Roddy McDowall is the perfect companion to Hunter, playing a character who brings a little bit more of a questionable attitude to the whole situation involving Taylor. He knows that prying too far into research on Taylor could mean bad things for him and Zira, and so he takes a stance somewhere in the middle, where he is loyal to Zira but leery of Taylor’s theories and requests.
And then there’s the tremendously frustrating character of Dr. Zaius, played marvelously by Maurice Evans, who we know has more information about the history of his race than he lets others believe. His scenes with Taylor are some of the juiciest of the movie, because there’s so much for both actors to play. Taylor is assured but unable to make a difference, while Dr. Zaius has all the power but is unwilling to go against his own fears.
Planet of the Apes is sensational entertainment that never gets old. The joys and power of the film could never be repeated, as its lackluster sequels and abominable 2001 remake proved (although Escape from Planet of the Apes, the second sequel, is fun). It’s a film that was made at the perfect point in time with the right actors, the right filmmakers. It’s a film that allows the audience to be engaged on both a purely escapist level and an intellectual level.
It’s one of the great thinking man’s science fiction films, it’s one of the best movies ever made, and it’s one worth watching again and again!
Brian Rowe is an author, teacher, book devotee, and film fanatic. He received his MFA in Creative Writing and MA in English from the University of Nevada, Reno, and his BA in Film Production from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He writes young adult and middle grade suspense novels, and is represented by Kortney Price of the Corvisiero Agency.