'Planet of the Apes': THR's 1968 Review

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The 1968 poster for 20th Century Fox's 'Planet of the Apes.'
'Planet of the Apes' is that rare film that will transcend all age and social groupings.

On March 27, 1968, Fox brought Planet of the Apes to Los Angeles for its opening day at the Beverly Theatre, where moviegoers lined up "around the block" and grosses "smashed all opening day marks" at the location. The Hollywood Reporter's original film review is below: 

By its appeal to both the imagination and the intellect within a context of action and elemental adventure, in its relevance to the consuming issues of its time, by the means with which it provides maximum entertainment topped with a sobering prediction of the future of human folly, 20th-Fox's release of Arthur P. Jacobs' production, Planet of the Apes, is that rare film which will transcend all age and social groupings, its multiple levels of appeal and meaning winning response in similar kind if not degree at each. 

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner with an unfaltering ability to invest the basic fantasy with credibility while bringing the deeper implications into relief, and benefiting from a finely crafted Michael Wilson-Rod Serling screenplay adapted from the novel by Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes stars Charlton Heston, in whose performance man the individual and man the symbol are uniquely conjoined. Planet of the Apes equals gargantuan box office. 

Wilson and Serling introduce us to astronaut Heston and his space crew 2,000 years in space from their launching from Earth as they prepare to put down on an unidentified planet. Heston closes his tape recorded final report with words which will ironically apply to him alone. "You who are reading me are a different breed," he muses, closing with the hope that the intervening years have served to squash both man's ego and the wars which have picked his history. Thereupon, begin the adventures which will humble this embittered cynic, an unlikely Adam upon whom will rest the future of man's dominion and destiny. 

The female among his crew, the link to a future, dies in the landing. Another crew member, Jeff Burton, is slaughtered when the astronauts and a herd of human animals, mute natives, are captured by an army of gorillas, the apes having evolved as the rulers of this planet. Humans are considered the lower beasts of prey. Burton is stuffed for the wildlife exhibit in the museum of natural history. The last crewman, Robert Gunner, is subjected to a clumsy lobotomy, while Heston, suffering a neck wound which makes him as mute as the other herded homo sapiens, is caged for future vivisection and gelding. Through the intervention of Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall, chimpanzee scientists exercising a simian equivalent of humanitarianism, Heston is temporarily spared and given an Eve, Linda Harrison, to bunk with. 

Surprise Ending

McDowall, an archeologist, and Miss Hunter, a behaviorist, believe that Heston's exceptional mimickery of higher intelligence provides the missing link to prove their theory of evolution, a thesis which is branded heresy by Maurice Evans, an imperious orangutan who is one of the chiefs of state, who condone human genocide as a means of subduing the menace of man's anti-social tendencies. To silence both Heston and the blasphemous chimps, a trial without rights is conducted by James Whitmore, Evans, James Daly and Woodrow Parfrey. In a final attempt to silence Heston, Evans, who knows his story to be true, offers Heston his life if he will recant his story of a civilization in which man reigns supreme. Ultimately Heston finds proof of a higher human society and embarks in search of a new Eden in a surprise ending which brutally questions the ability and right of contemporary society to prevail on its current course. 

Eminently successful on its primary level, the film has its weaknesses in the crowding of allegorical meanings. At one time or another the film deals with race relations, war and pacifism, church inquisition, senate investigation and suppression of thought, sexual myth, the credibility gap in official statements of position, the selective deductive processes of historians, the generation gap, blind allegiance to the status quo, the imperative right of dissent, social structure and the caste system. 

As a means of mirroring the totality of civilization in the totality of another, this is certainly defensible. Dramatically, it is cumbersome. Since the film sets up an anti-war stance at the outset and builds to an overwhelming symbolization at the climax, a number of the tangential commentaries might have been sacrificed toward the unity of that theme, which in fact encompasses a good many of the other problems alluded to. 

Dialogue Appropriative

The dialogue is appropriative, again as it need be in paralleling the two civilizations. Human cliches are constantly rephrased in simian terms. As this usage gives indication of a process of natural selection in banality, it makes for sharp irony, good laughs and points well underscored, but there are also paraphrases which are ludicrous of themselves. At different moments, Planet of the Apes is Swfitian social satire, allegory, straight-faced science-fiction and spoof, the latter, it seems, an error. Lenders include the Bible; Will Rogers ("I never met an ape I didn't like."); Animal Farm ("Some apes are more equal than others."); Milton ("The proper study of apes is apes."); and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Me, Tarzan. You Jane.).

There is even a visual pantomime of the "see-hear-speak no evil" trio, which could possibly be justified by the information we learn in the surprise ending, but seems more like the screenwriters imposing a contemporary gag reference at the sacrifice of another period, locale and logic which has been carefully fabricated. 

Such undue emphasis has been placed visually and verbally on elapsed Earth time in the opening minutes of the film, that many will quickly guess the surprise. However, the following envolvements and the ingenuity of the ending should still maintain the final punch. 

Heston and the mute Miss Harrison are they only players with human features who prevail throughout the film. The creative simian make-up designs by John Chambers, executed by Ben Nye and Dan Striepeke, are therefore a major contributor to the film's success. While the make-ups realistically simulate ape features, they have been devised so that the projections converge at the natural creases of the face, insuring maximum mobility and animation. Even more outstanding are the individual personalities devised within each species and the allowance for individual tics and expressions of character for each of the leading players, the doleful eye droop and slack jaw of Evans' orangutan, the quizzical eyebrow arch and compassionate smile of Miss Hunter, the nervous nose twitch and youthful excitability of McDowall. 

Acting Superb

Heston, performing in the buff for the greater portion of the footage, is outstanding in the classic situation of a man pitted against the elements, and, in this case, left to reinstate vestigial human virtues in an animal kingdom that man himself has perverted. He is introduced as an otherwise successful drop-out from humanity who must endure to create that better world for which he had long before despaired. The force of Heston's personality is equal to the assignment, but it is the strength of the actor's ability which invests it with understanding and dignity. 

Miss Hunter sensitively projects the essence of curiosity, hope and compassion which lubricate progress and understanding in the most restrictive eras, while sustaining the suggestion of liberal patronization, timidity and superstition with which even the most kindly approach those who appear different.

McDowall's is an individual and (pardon) very human characterization as the farsighted youth who is ready to compromise, rather than make waves. His scenes of momentary jealousy and humorously smitten smoochery are a mastery of the make-up for extra effect where another actor might have succumbed to restriction. 

Evans is excellent as the benign defender of what's best for the populace. He states the case against man with an eloquence that defies argument, and executes his belief with the self-righteous conviction traditional with the misguided and the misguiding. 

Lou Wagner, an Actor's Studio student seen in a Christmas production of Heidi two years ago, is the teenage rebel chimp who aids Heston's escape at the initiation of the local anti-vivisection league, another of those quirky references which is more ludicrous than humorous. Wagner's performance is brightly comic, well developed and likely to spark a special measure of identification among sub and post-teens. Whitmore, Daly and gorilla-guard Buck Kartalian are expert, while Miss Harrison is an attractive and believable Eve without backtalk. 

Shamroy's Work Soars

Leon Shamroy's Panavision and DeLuxe Color cinematography is a soaring achievement, literally as well as figuratively. Schaffner employs sweeping, desolate aerial shots and barren long shots which desolate the men in the early sequences of the splash dive of the craft and the search by the three survivors for life forms.

Though not the least of their contributions, L.B. Abbott, Art Cruickshank and Emil Kosa Jr. create some excellent effects of sudden electrical storms and luminous radiation overcasts. The time taken to document the details of the landing, the swim for survival and the men's confrontation with this strange world, actually the Lake Powell and Colorado River wilderness of Utah and Arizona, is well spent. So is the native sequence, and a nude sequence which adds to a sense of primitive realism, while establishing characters and setting up the situations which follow. Hugh S. Fowler's editing, particularly in blending the aerial pull-outs and dramatically composed land shots in movement, is perfectly paced. 

The abstracted village setting of the ape colony by Jack Martin Smith and William Creber, with set decoration by Walter M. Scott and Norman Rockett, is a fine realization of fancy and the logic of parallel development, and features innumerable touches which parody contemporary artifacts within a primitive style. 

Music Among Finest

Jerry Goldsmith's score employs unusual instrumentation to achieve effects that are at once primordial, suggestive of electronics, symbolic and yet still melodic above the undercurrents. Chavezian in its percussive moments, chimes tolling, distorted echoes reverberating, it makes exceptional use of pizzacato strings and piano, in keyboard solo and struck from within. Its effect is to suggest the echoes of a world bereft of past life, desolate beyond the crest. Avoiding electronic cliches and adapting to the complex demands of the action and the moods, it deserves rank among the finest of its genre. 

Sound recording by Herman Lewis and David Dockendorf, costume design by Morton Hack and hairstylings by Edith Lindon are consistent with the top quality work put forward from every department. — John Mahoney, originally published on Feb. 5, 1968.

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