Before “Star Wars” Cornered the Science Fiction Franchise Market, There Was “Planet of the Apes”

To my second favorite movie saga of them all …

Joel Eisenberg
Jan 12 · 13 min read
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Roddy McDowall (left) as Caesar, and Andy Serkis (mo-cap) as Caesar in the “Rise” trilogy

Several years before “Star Wars” rocked my world in 1977, and decades before I devoted minimally one post weekly to my all-time cinematic obsession, another science-fiction franchise owned my attention.

“Planet of the Apes” was based on the 1963 novel by French writer Pierre Boulle, author of “The Bridge Over The River Kwai.” Originally published as “La Planète des singes” in France, and known as “Monkey Planet” in the U.K., the original novel differed substantially from the feature films that followed.

La Planete Des Singes (1963)

The plot of Boulle’s novel is best summarized as follows, edited from Jinn and Phyllis, a rich couple traveling in space, find a mysterious manuscript encased in a glass bottle. The manuscript was the testimony of Ulysee Mérou, who recalled his traveling from Earth to the planet Soror, where he encountered a harsh and highly-civilized ape culture that suppressed his primitive fellow-humans. Mérou escaped back to his own planet, only to find a similar fate awaiting him there. The final chapter of the book has Jinn and Phyllis refuting the story as nonsense, the reason being that they themselves are, in fact, chimps, and Jinn, having been partly educated on Earth, knows such humans do not exist.

The shock ending may not have had the same flair as the Statue of Liberty at the end of the ‘68 film, but the inspiration for that all-time classic denouement was certainly seeded.

The First Wave

For the purposes of this section, I define The First Wave as the original five films, and the two television series that followed. My judgment was based on the years between product, as there was little distance between the final feature film of the period — 1973’s “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” — and the subsequent 1974 and 1975 television series. (Further, I will frequently refer to the collective monkey species discussed herein as “apes” for the sake of simplicity.)


  1. “Planet of the Apes” (1968)

In 2001, the 1968 film version of “Planet of the Apes” was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. “Planet of the Apes” was a major success upon its release, earning $32.6 million domestically.

Starring Charlton Heston as astronaut George Taylor, Roddy McDowall as archaeologist Cornelius — who would go on to star in all but one of the First Wave “Apes” films (and the 1974 live-action series) — Kim Hunter as animal psychologist Zira, and Maurice Evans as Dr. Zaius, the plot concerns Taylor and his surviving crew of Landon (Robert Gunner) and Dodge (Jeff Burton), crash landing on an unknown planet following a malfunction during light speed. As they escape, Taylor notices the ship’s time clock: November 25, 3978, approximately two millennia after their departure in 1972. They explore their new surroundings and discover that apes are the dominant species, while humans are mute, subject to experimentation and hunted. Taylor is shot in the throat and the three survivors are captured. Landon is enslaved and lobotomized. Dodge is killed and becomes a museum display, while Taylor is set to mate with the caged Nova (Linda Harrison). Taylor escapes, and he has regained his power of speech. When the apes realize “the animal” can speak, Dr. Zaius perceives him to be a grave threat to ape civilization as the possible leader of mutinous humans. Zira helps Taylor escape and a final confrontation with Zaius sets the stage for Taylor’s leave with Nova, on horseback. As they ride, he slows his horse in the stead of the Statue of Liberty and realizes he has been on future earth all this time, a nuclear war having brought the world to this point.

“Planet of the Apes” won a Special Oscar the following year for John Chambers’ groundbreaking makeup, and shortly after the film’s release 20th Century Fox, the film’s studio, began preparation for a sequel.

Note: Rod Serling. creator of “The Twilight Zone,” penned an early draft of the screenplay, which formerly blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson was subsequently asked to rewrite. As suggested by director Franklin J. Schaffner, the ape society was made more primitive than that in the novel to reduce costs. The Statue of Liberty twist ending was created by Serling and retained as originally written.

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2. “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1970)

“Beneath the Planet of the Apes” was not nearly as critically or commercially well-received as its predecessor, but it was nonetheless considered a commercial hit with a $19 million domestic gross. As McDowall was directing “Tam Lin” in Scotland, David Watson replaced him as Cornelius in this sequel, which saw another astronaut, Brent (James Franciscus), crash land near Ape City. When his Skipper dies, Brent encounters Nova, riding alone on the same horse she had once shared with Taylor. Brent notices Nova wearing Taylor’s dog tags, and together they embark on a quest to find him. In their journey, Brent meets Cornelius, Zira and the talking apes. Zira takes to him as another civilized human from Taylor’s time. Brent re-embarks with Nova, and comes across a group of mutants worshipping the atomic bomb. As the other apes hunt him and eventually find him in the mutant realm, Brent reunites with Taylor. The mutants pit them against each other; the spell is broken but to end the madness Taylor activates the atomic bomb.

The world, as we know it, is destroyed.

“Beneath the Planet of the Apes” is generally considered, with the final film of the original five, “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” as the weakest of the series. Still, another sequel was in the offing.

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3. “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” (1971)

The question arises, “Where do you go once the world is destroyed?” It seems Zira and Cornelius (a returning McDowell), along with Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo), managed to escape the nuclear calamity by traveling back in time to 1973 in Taylor’s ship, which they had found and raised. The world is shocked at the presence of these talking apes, who — in a clever reversal of the original film’s primary conflict — are looked upon as threats to humanity. Ultimately, Zira becomes pregnant and in order to save the human race, the baby is targeted for assassination by one Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden), who convinces the President of the United States (William Windom) to have the baby terminated, while sterilizing Cornelius and Zira. The two apes are killed on a ship trying to save their baby, and Zira throws her child overboard as she dies. The twist is a small circus owner, Armando (Ricardo Montalban) has switched the baby with another, and promises to raise him as his own.

The last words we hear from the baby chimpanzee: “Mama … mama … mama.”

In my opinion, “Escape From the Planet of the Apes” nearly matches the first film in power and originality, and it remains my favorite of the First Wave sequels.

The film earned $12.3 million domestically.

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4. “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972)

I am also a big fan of the next sequel, “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.” Baby Milo has now become Caesar (McDowall), a slave in a society of slave apes. Dr. Hasslein’s fears from the last film have very nearly come true, but the apes pose no present threat. Once again, however, it is discovered that one has the power of human speech. Caesar is soon exposed as the child of the late chimpanzees Cornelius and Zira. His father figure, Armando (Montalban), has died in an effort to save Caesar from being discovered … and Caesar initiates the apes' revolt that begins the Planet of the Apes.

We are now back to square one. The only difference: Humans can also speak.

Domestic box office gross: $9.7 million.

And … another sequel beckoned.

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5. “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (1973)

“Battle for the Planet of the Apes” is a case-study of the law of diminishing returns. Widely considered the nadir of the series, the film saw an adult Caesar living with his wife, Lisa (Natalie Trundy), and their son, Cornelius, named after his own father. Caesar’s faction lives peacefully among the humans. However, Caesar strives to keep the peace between his pacifist apes and a warring group led by General Aldo (Claude Akins). When Aldo accidentally kills Caesar’s son, the pacifist leader sets to takes his revenge.

Toss into this mix a race of mutants who serve no purpose at all, and you have a film series that has lost its legs. The film earned just $8.8 million at the domestic box office.

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  1. “Planet of the Apes” (Live-Action) 1974 TV Series

However …

All was not lost. The following year, “Planet of the Apes” made its way to the small screen. Roddy McDowall returned but this time played a new character, Galen, a sympathetic chimpanzee who joined with astronauts Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) and Pete Burke (James Naughton), who themselves were hurled 1,100 years into the future and landed in the world of apes. Galen had come to question whether humans truly were, indeed, an inferior species, and their adventures took off from there.

The show was not a mainstream success, airing only 14 episodes before being combined and syndicated as new feature films for television.

Personally, I enjoyed the series, finding it generally well-written and produced. But the fatigue for live-action “Apes” was clear.

The television version of “Planet of the Apes” aired from September 13, 1974, to December 20, 1974.

2. “Return to the Planet of the Apes” (1975 Animated TV Series)

Surprisingly, it wasn’t over yet. A short-lived animated series, “Return to the Planet of the Apes,” aired the following year. An interesting cross between the original Boulle novel and the films, this series nonetheless has been largely forgotten.

It was interesting, however, to view the ape characters in the setting of Boulle’s creation: a world of advanced technology

Regardless, “Return to the Planet of the Apes” only aired one season — 13 episodes — and it finally appeared that this time, the franchise was dead.

First Wave Merchandise

Following the release of the first film, and continuing through the airing of the animated series, “Planet of the Apes” was heavily merchandised.

The merchandising continues today, of course, but what is particularly fascinating about ancillary “Apes” is when “Star Wars” was released by the same studio (20th Century Fox) in 1977, 20th was caught with their proverbial pants down. They had no clue that merchandising for this new ready-made franchise-in-the-making would be so in-demand.

They had to catch up, but it remains curious how they did not learn a lesson from “Apes” consistently-selling product.

And that was the key for 20th Century Fox to not yet give up. The merchandise continued to sell.

The Second Wave

20th Century Fox realized that though it had a dormant franchise on their hands, there was still movement in certain markets. For many years the studio’s top executives discussed returning “Apes” as a new series of films.

When transpired, at first, it was disappointing.

“Planet of the Apes” (2001 Remake)

Amid much fanfare, director Tim Burton’s new “Planet of the Apes” was released in 2001. Basically a remake of the original, with a new twist ending that was a) expected, and b) didn’t quite work, the film was saved somewhat by its special effects, costuming (which was nominated for a BAFTA) and makeup. Mark Wahlberg played astronaut Leo Davidson and … you know the rest.

Still, the film was a sizable box office hit, earning $362.2 million worldwide.

There were still legs in this beast, after all.

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The Third Wave

To my mind, the “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” trilogy — inclusive of its two follow-ups, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “War for the Planet of the Apes” — may be the finest science fiction film trilogy of them all, second only to the first three game-changing “Star Wars” films.

They did not return to the well. They fleshed out the well, reinvented it, and put it all back together in a three-part masterpiece, using modern motion capture technology and a heart-wrenching “performance” by Andy Serkis as Caesar at its center.

It remains one of the high crimes of movie awards season that Andy was not recognized with, at the very least, a special Oscar for this trio of performances.

  1. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011)

Motion capture technology and Andy Serkis’ majestic performance aside, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a revelation. Showcasing the beginnings of the apes uprising — though the film included some callbacks to the original films — “Rise” was a new beast entirely. Taking place in our modern world, a substance designed for Alzheimer’s research and brain repair led to advanced intelligence in a chimpanzee again named Caesar (Serkis). Caesar is taken in by scientist Will Rodman (James Franco), who raises him. When Ceasar attacks a particularly aggressive dog owner, he is taken from Rodman and caged with other apes. Caesar escapes, reveals his power of speech, and leads an uprising.

Written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, as directed by Rupert Wyatt, cliche aside this creative entity took what was old and made it new again.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a monster critical hit and a substantial commercial success, earning $481.8 million globally on a $93 million budget.

The franchise was back, and bigger than ever.

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2. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014)

My favorite “Apes” film of them all and, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest of all science fiction films. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is set ten years after the events of the last film, and focuses on Caesar’s efforts for his people to live peacefully among the human survivors of a plague that had threatened to destroy humanity. Nothing is so simple, however, and what ensues is yet another resonant masterwork of social commentary.

Matt Reeves took the director’s chair for this one, and Mark Bomback joined Jaffa and Silver as writers.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” was the most commercially successful of the franchise, earning an astounding $710.8 million worldwide.

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3. “War for the Planet of the Apes” (2017)

Very nearly the equal of its predecessor, Silver did not participate in this one but the creative crew was largely the same. The storyline continued. SPOILER: Caesar dies at the end, and the promise of a true co-existence with the humans seems more in-reach than ever before.

The film earned $490.7 million globally, a respectable number for sure but a substantial drop from “Dawn.”

From there, nothing new was in development; the story had been told.

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But …

Everything old is new again? We may have thought it was over, but the following year Rod Serling’s unused screenplay was turned into a top-selling graphic novel.

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Shortly thereafter, potentially great news hit the internet:

Apparently, “Planet of the Apes” is evergreen. We really are going back to the well. Yet again.

Here’s to more great films ahead.

Thank you for reading.

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Joel Eisenberg

Written by

Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. The Oscar in the profile pic isn’t his but he’s scheming. WGA and Pen America member.

Writing For Your Life

Honest, practical advice on the writer’s life for both aspiring and experienced authors and screenwriters, and an uncensored forum for provocative thought.

Joel Eisenberg

Written by

Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. The Oscar in the profile pic isn’t his but he’s scheming. WGA and Pen America member.

Writing For Your Life

Honest, practical advice on the writer’s life for both aspiring and experienced authors and screenwriters, and an uncensored forum for provocative thought.

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