Planet of the Apes (1968)

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Writers: Rod Serling, Michael Wilson
Inspired by Pierre Boulle’s novel.

George Taylor: Charlton Heston
Cornelius: Roddy McDowall
Zira: Kim Hunter
Zaius: Maurice Evans
Nova: Linda Harrison

Pierre Boulle (most famous for Bridge Over the River Kwai) wrote a novel, the title of which has been translated in English as both Monkey Planet and Planet of the Apes. It provided the inspiration for the celebrated movie series, but, save for the fact that both novel and film concern a planet where talking apes satirize one ruled by a more familiar primate, La Planète des Singes actually bears little resemblance to the Twentieth-Century Fox production. No, that familiar series begins in 1968, with the screenplay by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson. If you haven't seen it or any of its many parodies, be forewarned of spoilers to come.

In the early 1970s, a ship launched, carrying four future colonists: three men and one woman. Due to some effect of space-travel, presumably related to the speed of their flight, centuries have passed since they left earth.

Something goes wrong. Lots of point-of-view shots of southwestern deserts follow, and the ship crashes in an inland lake. The token woman dies before getting a chance to deliver a line, and our three male astronauts hike until they find land, a forest, and feral hippies in torn clothing.

The hippies don't speak.

A horn blows.

The planet's true masters, apes who ride horses, arrive for the hunt.

Cynical Taylor has his throat injured, meaning he is unable to speak when he is taken to the architecturally unique City of the Apes. He spends a good deal of time trying to convince a sympathetic chimpanzee vet, Zira, that he can communicate, and he also tries to escape. We meet Zira's fiance, Cornelius, an archaeologist whose recent findings are leading him to question the apes' sacred scrolls, and Dr. Zaius, an orangutan high up the ape hierarchy, who appears to be aware that Taylor may be intelligent, and wants to conceal the fact.

Much occurs before our principals end up in the Forbidden Zone, the desolate area where Taylor first arrived. The site of Cornelius's previous dig reveals, to the shock of all, that, contrary to the ape dogma that humans have always been unintelligent brutes who spread ruin, a civilization of intelligent humans once stood in the Forbidden Zone. Zaius already had a pretty good idea of all of these things. Indeed, as Defender of the Faith, it appears that he and the other top monkeys have been concealing what they know about their planet's past, because they believe in some deeper truth which the sacred scrolls contain, and because they believe that the surface lies provide social stability.

Taylor muses about a "planet where apes evolved from men" before riding off with his feral human mate, Nova, searching for an answer.

"Don't look for it, Taylor," warns Zaius. "You may not like what you find."

He then orders the cave of the remains blown up to conceal the truth and save the apes' future, and lets Zira and Cornelius know that they will stand trial for heresy.

Taylor rides on down the shoreline to his destiny: the buried remains of the Statue of Liberty

"You maniacs!" he emotes, overacting shamelessly. "You blew it up! God damn you all to hell!"

The apes speak English, they ride horses, and the planet looks like earth, but Taylor needed the statue to realize that he's home. Of course, he doesn't realize it for the same reason most of the audience didn't; we were all playing along with the well-established conventions of pop-SF. Yes, most alien planets in movies (up to that point) look like Terran deserts, the natives speak perfect English, and if the fauna can occasionally be strange, the flora looks like it came from your local greenhouse. Rod Serling was, in fact, revisiting territory he'd crossed before. The first season episode of The Twilight Zone, "I Shot an Arrow in the Air," features a group of astronauts playing Survivor on what they believe to be a desolate alien world, and it certainly looks like every desolate alien world in every b-movie made to date. In the final frames, we realize they've somehow doubled back to earth, and have been wandering around the desert. In this case, we see not the ruins of Miss Liberty, but a road sign indicating the distance to Las Vegas, Nevada.

The success of the film led to a series and a phenomenon. It's passable adventure, touched with satire. It's also wildly inconsistent.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Director: Ted Post
Writers: Paul Dehn, Mort Abrahams

Brent: James Franciscus
Zira: Kim Hunter
Zaius: Maurice Evans
General Ursus: James Gregory
Nova: Linda Harrison
Mendez: Paul Richards
Taylor: Charlton Heston
Cornelius: David Watson

The first sequel is an interesting adventure, but it has a stitched-together quality and does not hold up nearly as well as the original. Reportedly, producers went through many versions of the script before they arrived at this one. Most of these earlier premises kept Taylor as the principal character, but Charlton Heston had little interest in reprising that role. In the end, he did some work on the project, but he only appears at the beginning and end. The human role is Brent, played by James Franciscus, who was sent on a rescue mission, along the same trajectory of Taylor's ship. Franciscus looks so much like Heston in this film that one wonders if the filmmakers hadn't considered simply having him play Taylor.

That business about the same trajectory presents a few problems. The original ship somehow got turned around and found its way back to earth, crash-landing. That's some trajectory to duplicate, but NASA does an excellent job, as Brent finds himself crash-landing in the Forbidden Zone a short distance from Nova, Taylor's mute mate from POTA.

History gets tampered with from the onset, thanks to the sloppy handling of dates. Taylor arrived in 3978. Brent arrives in 3855, some years earlier. Either one of the ship's chronometers has malfunctioned, or something is seriously wrong.

Brent meets Nova and proceeds to act like a stupid tourist, talking loudly at her in English and expecting she will understand him. He knows she has been with Taylor, because she wears Taylor's dog tag.

Continuity be damned! Taylor was mistaken for a feral human in the first film. The apes frequently stripped him naked. Now, he has a dog tag. Where was he hiding this thing? Up his ass? And if so, why did he not just produce it when he was trying desperately to convince Zira that he could speak?

A retroactive addition to history also occurs early on, with reference to the chimpanzee characters. Cornelius and Zira, far from being outcast heretics who face the charges, share a comfortable house (which Nova locates with ease) and maintain a very friendly relationship with Zaius. They've become the only people Zaius feels he can trust to maintain the scientific tradition during the period of gorilla rule. We could be charitable to the writers and imagine something happened on that three-day journey back to Ape City. Perhaps Zaius realized the value of those willing to face down authority on a matter of truth.

The handling of the gorillas gives one pause. Never mind that in reality, we now know that chimps are generally far less pacifistic than gorillas. In the original film, the society had a clear hierarchy based (at least in part) on skin colour, with pale orangutans (no darker-skinned orangs appear) at the top, Caucasian chimpanzee in the middle, and dark-skinned gorillas occupying the soldier and working classes. The Almighty created apes in his own image; but the only religious image we see, that of the Lawgiver, clearly depicts an orangutan. This simian racism appears to have been part of the original film's intricate satiric brew. But in this film the gorillas, representing the military, take control. In all subsequent films and incarnations (until the disastrous 2001 remake), gorillas will play the villains, hordes of dark, unindividuated monsters led by one evil demagogue. General Ursus even calls attention to possible real-life racial implications when he notes that the hated humans have fair skin.

And then there's the problematic geography. A three-day ride led the characters to Cornelius's archaeological site in the Forbidden Zone. Taylor and Nova rode an uncertain distance further before coming across the Statue of Liberty.

In this film, Brent and Nova enter a cave a short distance-- hours, at most-- from Ape City and find the Queensborough Plaza subway. From there, they walk to the underground city, deep within the Forbidden Zone. The geography does not make sense here. Furthermore, it seems very strange that, in centuries of civilization, the apes never noticed these remains of a previous civilization a few feet into a cave in the woods near their city.

The story seems a bit fragmented. The militaristic gorillas have taken power, and their leader, General Ursus demands a ride into the Forbidden Zone to face a mysterious tribe whom the gorillas believe threaten the food supply. They turn out to be human mutants, living beneath the Forbidden Zone, worshiping an atomic bomb. In a very real sense, the bomb did create them; radiation has remade them into a new image, with telepathic gifts to boot.

What they don't realize is that their bomb-god is a doomsday weapon. Taylor, who didn't really want to be in this sequel anyway, finally gets annoyed with everyone and detonates it, burning the entire planet to a crisp.

Of course, this ending precludes the possibility of sequels.... Right?

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

Director: Don Tayler
Writer: Paul Dehn

Cornelius: Roddy McDowall
Zira: Kim Hunter
Dr. Lewis Dixon: Bradford Dillman
Dr. Stephanie Branton: Natalie Trundy
Otto Hasslein: Eric Braedon
President: William Windom
Milo: Sal Mineo
Armando: Ricardo Montalban

The film begins with the arrival of Cornelius, Zira, and a chimp genius named Milo to earth in the mid-1970s. A gorilla kills Milo at the zoo where they’re taken; humans also learn that these apes can speak. Initially, humanity welcomes them, and Cornelius and Zira become celebrities. This portion of the film plays as a kind of comedy, and it is somewhat amusing. Only after humanity learns that they come from the future, and that Zira is pregnant, do we become nervous. The film then becomes an unevenly-paced thriller. American government decides that killing them may prevent the future domination of the earth by apes,. A circus owner, Armando (Ricardo Montalban) helps them escape. We think all the apes, including the baby (named Milo) are dead at the end, but we learn in the last scene that Zira switched Milo with a normal infant chimpanzee, and Milo remains with the circus.

The most-discussed change to continuity, or at least credibility, involves the fact of the apes in space. In the first two films, the apes had developed neither internal combustion engines nor electrical power. Taylor’s paper airplane baffles them. They dismiss out of paw the idea that a ship could fly from another planet.

Yet, somehow, in the three days or so after we last saw them in Beneath…. (though I suppose Milo could have been working earlier), they locate Taylor’s ship, salvage it, repair it, and launch it into orbit, only to have the effects of earth’s destruction take them back into history.

And speaking of history.... The first film clearly established that the apes do not have an accurate account of their planet's past. Now, Dr. Zaius (and, we can presume, others among the orang elite) know that the Sacred Scrolls aren’t entirely truthful. He knows that humans once dominated the earth, and created the Forbidden Zone. He admits he has been expecting an intelligent human to show up, some time, and he has dreaded that day. He has some foreknowledge of what Taylor will find when he rides off along the shoreline. But Zaius' knowledge is that of a tiny elite. The Scared Scrolls themselves present a world where “the almighty created the ape in his own image” and where humans were always savage brutes, incapable of speech and reasoning.

Suddenly, in Escape…, Zira and Cornelius are quoting from Sacred Scrolls which retell an accurate history of earth in the centuries between the mid-twentieth and late fortieth centuries. They know that humans once ruled the world, and have always known it, even though the discovery came as a shock to them at the end of POTA. The story, in any case, goes as follows:

A plague killed all dogs and cats. Humans took apes as pets and began to breed them for intelligence and anthropomorphic characteristics. This took centuries. During this time, the apes became slaves.

Eventually, a gorilla named Aldo said "no" to his human masters, and incited the apes to rebellion.

We’re left uncertain as to whether the nuclear war which devastated so much of the future earth even was an entirely human affair, or if the apes themselves were involved—a notion which destroys much of the original movie's thematic point.

While the first and second films were both made as though they would be the last, Escape… was always intended to kick off a couple more, which would show the history of which Cornelius and Zira are suddenly aware.

Except that retcons in the final two films demolish the timeline provided in Escape.....

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Director: J. Lee Thompson
Writer: Paul Dehn

Caesar: Roddy McDowall
Governor Breck: Don Murray
Lisa: Natalie Trundy
MacDonald: Hari Rhodes
Aldo: David Chow
Kolp: Severn Dardan

This movie takes us to the west coast in the 1990s, when governments tend towards totalitarian and apes have been enslaved after a plague wiped out dogs and cats in the 1980s. Milo, now called Caesar, rides bareback in Armando's old-time circus. Armando alone, of course, knows that the chimp can speak.

We're deep in retcon territory already. According to Escape....'s history, centuries separate the animal plague and the ape revolt. Now, in roughly a decade, humans have adopted apes, enslaved them, and bred them to look or more-or-less like the advanced simians from Planet of the Apes.

Of course, one might argue that these retcons make sense; by travelling in time, Zira and Cornelius created a new timeline. Significantly, we meet a gorilla named Aldo-- possibly the Aldo referenced in Escape...'s history lesson. Since Caesar, and not he, will lead the revolution, it seems likely we are seeing a new timeline. It is, however, insanely far-fetched, even for a series about talking apes. The new version of history requires us to accept a good deal of history and evolution occurring in a very short time.

In any case, Caesar leads a rebellion, delivers a speech, and the Planet of the Apes begins as the twentieth century ends.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

Director: J. Lee Thompson
Writers: Paul Dehn, John William Corrington

Caesar: Roddy McDowall
Aldo: Claude Atkins
Lisa: Natalie Trundy
Virgil: Paul Williams
Kolp: Severn Dardan
Mendez: Paul Stevens
Mutant on Motorcycle: Andy Knight
The Lawgiver: John Huston

The cheapest and sloppiest of the original five films, Battle... ends the series. In the decade since the ape revolution, World War III has occured-- which might explain the very twentieth-century debris in Beneath...., if this were not so clearly a new timeline. Caesar, in fact, will return to that very theme, positing his new society as a jonbar point, from which might spring a better future than the one his parents knew.

For Caesar has led surviving apes and humans into the wild and established a small society. Most of the apes have even learned to speak.

Aldo, demoted from historical ape hero to gorilla villain, and who insists on being called "General," leaves school in a huff because he cannot write as well as Caesar's ten-year-old son. We also meet the ancestors of Beneath...'s mutants, with whom the apes go to war.

Again, we have some kind of retcon happening, whether it involves a new timeline or some missing history. These mutants (and their leader, the first Mendez) live on the west coast; POTA's were situated on the east. It has been suggested (most prominently by Marvel Comics, whose ape series is discussed below) that the mutants moved to the original movie's Forbidden Zone, taking their doomsday bomb-god with them. If it had been at the site of a nuclear strike, the story might have ended there.

We also learn that "ape shall not kill ape" has been established by Caesar as the great law, even though that was supposedly written by the Lawgiver, who lives centuries after this time. Of course, this may not represent much of a change; the Lawgiver may be another in the long line of historical and religious figures who receive the credit for tenets long established.

The idea that Caesar's parents remembered one possible future is raised at the conclusion, and the film seems to confirm that things can work out. The epilogue takes us to the time of the Lawgiver, who has been telling the film's tale to a society where apes and humans are equal, as evidenced by the ability of an ape and a human child to tease each other without social or racial hierarchies affecting their bratty play.

Planet of the Apes: the TV Series (1974)

Galen: Roddy McDowall
Alan Virdon: Ron Harper
Peter Birke: James Naughton
Zaius: Booth Colman
General Urko: Mark Lenard

In 1981, an American flying saucer launched and ended up in the distant future earth, now ruled by apes.

As with Marvel's comic book (discussed below), the show took the basic elements of the movie series and reimagined them. We have astronauts from the past, subservient (but sentient) humans, a sympathetic chimpanzee (Galen), an evil but stupid gorilla (General Urko. He was originally called "Urso," but the actor reportedly had difficulty saying this word through the gorilla makeup. Or maybe it just sounded too much like "asshole"), and an executive orangutan (Zaius)

It's difficult to fit this show into film continuity. In the first episode, Zaius refers to the "stories" of past human astronauts, which the ape leaders covered up. On the other hand, the pre- publicity stated that the adventures took place in an earlier era, when humans, while slaves, could still talk. I suppose this could take place in the new timeline established when Cornelius and Zira travelled to the past (if one interprets this as having happened), but then it's odd that Virdon and Birke would not know that earth was destined to be dominated by apes. That this is the future earth shocks them nearly as much as it did Colonel Taylor.

Of course, if the story does take place in a new timeline, and Taylor and Brent arrived again to a world of enslaved humans, a very different outcome might have resulted, and the earth might not have been destroyed. But then, presumably, neither would Zira, Cornelius, and Milo have travelled back to 1974 to start the new timeline.....

Only 14 episodes were filmed, and only thirteen of these were originally aired. Pairs of episodes resurfaced for years, combined into TV movies, and some can still be purchased in these two-packs, entitled things like Return to the Planet of the Apes.

Planet of the Apes: the Animated Series (1975)

Bill "Blue Eyes" Hudson: Richard Blackburn (Tom Williams in early episodes)
General Urko: Henry Corden
Zira: Philippa Harris
Cornelius: Edwin Mills

The cartoon takes all the familiar elements and even some of the names, and tells a tell of astronauts time-traveling to earth in 3810. It departs wildly from the films and TV series, however. This Planet of the Apes, like Pierre Boulle's, resembles twentieth-century earth, complete with movie theatres, internal combustion engines, and other sophisticated technology. This would appear to be a different version of future earth-- though Marvel will later fold it into a single timeline and, I suppose, this could be what was happening elsewhere on earth.

In any case, the show lasted and unlucky 13 episodes, marked by Filmation's trademark ridiculously limited animation.

The Comics of the Planet of the Apes

Despite the series' fascination for many kids, POTA took awhile getting to the comic books. Gold Key adapted Beneath the Planet of the Apes in 1974, but otherwise did not touch the series.

In 1974, Marvel Comics began publishing Planet of the Apes, in "Giant Size" black and white format. By then the first movies had appeared on television, and a newer, younger audience was discovering them. Each issue began with an adaptation of a movie segment. In the middle, articles, features, and interviews related to the series and the phenomenon.

The final part of each issue featured Marvel's remarkable reimagining of the POTA world. It featured the familiar elements: a fugitive human (Jason), a sympathetic chimp (Alexander), an evil gorilla (Brutus, the chief of police and the head of a Ku Klux Klan- like "Ape Dominance" movement), a wise orangutan (the Lawgiver, no less), and a group of mutants-- who, however, were wildly different from the ones in the film. A ruined human city receives the name "Forbidden Zone," while the apes themselves have a capitol city that uses the weird architecture of the first film. Other touches included a band of wanderers from Europe, whose human and ape members live in relative harmony, a rustic riverman named Steely Dan, an intelligent though mute gibbon, and a strange race of multi-eyed creatures.

Presumably, this took place at an earlier time. Presaging the TV series, Marvel-POTA's humans speak, though they are subservient to the apes. A year is never given; either this is early in ape history and the Lawgiver (if this is the same one mentioned in the films) lied about humanity's innate bestiality, or Marvel has simply reimagined the basic premise without reference to the film's timeline. Perhaps, this takes place in the alternate reality started by Caesar.

The magazine lasted until 1977. In 1975, Marvel started publishing the serial movie adaptations in standard comic form and in colour, under the title Adventures on the Planet of the Apes. Apemania was dying by then, soon to be eclipsed by Star Wars, and this comic did not last long.

Adventure produced POTA titles in the 1990s. The oddest of these is Ape Nation, a mini-series which combined Planet of the Apes with the Tenctonese of Alien Nation.

Before leaving the Apes behind, Marvel published a timeline (Planet of the Apes #11, 1975), which has since been reprinted online, often with various fan additions. This tries to reconcile the movies, the TV series, the cartoon, and Marvel's own comic books into one single timeline. Of course, they must ignore most of the history mentioned in the first two films, and they play fast and loose with geography and chronology-- but it's not a bad effort.

The actual twenty-first century thus far has witnessed no ape revolt. It did, however, see millions of dollars spent on Tim Burton's adaptation, which has great special effects, stunning make-up-- and an unbelievably lame script. More successful was 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and its sequels, which return to the beginning as both prequel and reimagining.

Special thanks to John Crocker, John Clute's SF: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Toronto: MacMillan, 1995) and of course, the Internet Movie Database.