Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Animal Planet

One of the great examples of social commentary masquerading as (highly entertaining) sci-fi, the striking 1968 film Planet of the Apes spawned four sequels, a primetime TV show, a Saturday morning cartoon and a remake. It continues to captivate people even now thanks to its unusual concept.

The film was adapted and somewhat simplified from a French Pierre Boulle novel called Monkey Planet, in which a message was found floating in space and read by the couple who found it. It detailed the exploits of an astronaut who finds himself in a flip-flop world in which apes are the ones in charge and humans are mute, naked savages. (Note the hooty cover of this book depicts the nude female form, something that would not do for the cinema, then or now!) The astronaut finally manages to get home only to be greeted by a gorilla, the evolutionary trick having duplicated itself on Earth as well by then. It is then revealed that the couple reading the missive are, in fact, chimpanzees themselves! The film would discard some of this plotline, but include its own legendary twist ending.

Planet of the Apes stars Charlton Heston as a cocky, misanthropic astronaut who crash-lands with his crew on an unfamiliar planet after experiencing a long period of suspended animation. His crew begins with four members, but one doesn’t even survive the flight, thanks to a faulty sleeping chamber. I can remember being horrified as a child when the lovely, blonde female astronaut was put to sleep only to be discovered later as an ossified corpse! (The later animated series kept a female astronaut as part of the team, though she was quickly kidnapped by beings called The Underdwellers. In case anyone is interested, the female astronaut in Apes, Stewart, was played by a pretty actress named Dianne Stanley, who only did three movies ever, all in unbilled parts. She’s only seen onscreen fleetingly, but, in order to mask her early demise, was featured in some of the promotional shots like this one.)
The surviving astronauts have to scramble to evacuate their ship, which has landed in a huge lake. Taking what they can before it sinks, they inflate a raft and row to shore. As they embark across the stiflingly hot, seemingly unpopulated terrain, they debate (sometimes belligerently) about where and when that are, what type of men they are and life and its meaning. The craggy, canyon-filled scenery in this part of the film is staggering to behold. At one point, they see odd scarecrow-like assemblages that indicate that there could be life on the planet.
After spending several days alone in the stark, arid desert, the scarecrows lead them into a lush, green area and they are surprised to find a sizeable and idyllic pond with vegetation and loads of clean water. They immediately strip down (I always like this part!) and go for a refreshing skinny dip. Though there is really no visible frontal nudity, there’s quite a bit of flesh on display in this segment and the dark-haired astronaut (Robert Gunner) has close to my favorite body type. I always thought he had a Sean Connery-esque quality.
Initially, it seems as if they’ve stumbled onto a sort of primitive paradise, a welcome respite from the technology that has ruled their lives. Soon, though, they find out the hard way that there are other humans in place there. The native inhabitants have snatched away their bright white spacesuits and torn them to shreds. They're even more surprised to find out that the humans on this planet are treated like so much game by the ruling authorities, an articulate civilization comprised of gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees! In a chilling sequence, horns are suddenly sounded and gorillas on horseback sweep in and either kill or collect as many humans as they can. The astronauts and the newfound people scatter and run like frightened beasts in the face of nets, whips, guns and the like. Survivors are loaded into cage-like wagons while the slaughtered humans are piled or strung up like so much meat as their hunters pose for posterity.
Heston is injured in the throat (left unable to talk) and captured by the apes, then taken to a barbaric laboratory where he catches the eye of kindly chimp doctor Kim Hunter. Hunter has never seen a blue-eyed human and promptly calls him “Bright Eyes.” She is startled to see that he seems to understand it when she speaks (in contrast to the other humans who seem incapable of registering much cognitive thought.) She tentatively nurses him back to health while fending off opposition from her superior Maurice Evans who would like nothing more than to geld and permanently mute or lobotomize Heston.
Despite the hovering threat of castration, he is placed with a female human he'd seen previously during the hunt, Linda Harrison, who gives Heston comfort despite the fact that she can barely communicate. (When you look like she does, words aren’t really all that necessary!) By the way, I LOVE this photo of her, offering a beguiling smile to someone out of camera range. I don't believe this expression is seen in the finished film.

With the reluctant assistance of her boyfriend and coworker Roddy McDowall, Hunter begins to communicate with Heston and learns of his origin. She develops an affinity for him, causing great personal risk to herself and McDowall. Heston repeatedly defies his captors and tries to escape, but is thwarted at nearly every turn by the society that treats him like an animal or worse. His inability to speak makes it doubly hard for him to convince anyone of his position.
During one of his escape attempts, he is hunted down and strung up in a net (but not before taking a whirlwind tour of the ape settlement in which he, and we, are shown a series of vignettes showing the apes in their daily lives.) Finally, when placed in this vulnerable position, but so desperate and angry at his circumstances, he growls out one of the cinema’s most memorable lines, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” He winds up as the subject of a trial in which he is stripped naked (because of his stench) and treated like nothing more than an animal who’s been trained to perform a trick or two.

Heston had many fine qualities as an actor and a specimen of man, but I can’t get very worked up over his rear view. For one thing, and it’s probably part of his physicality as a mistreated, humiliated, tentative prisoner, he never stands up straight in order present his body effectively. Nonetheless, this scene actually caught the eye of Jacqueline Susann and caused her to push for him to play Robin Stone in the upcoming movie The Love Machine, based on her best-selling novel! He turned the rather seedy part down (not that he didn’t do plenty of other crap movies in the ‘70s.)

Throughout his ordeal, similarities to many real-life instances of social injustice including racism, repression of free speech, suffocating religious dominance, suppression of truth and others are discernible. There are barely disguised allusions to black slavery, Nazism and the unrest during the civil rights movement. This is tempered by bits of, sometimes corny, humor. (There’s a recurring affinity for redoing human phrases with new simian qualities such as “Human see, human do!” and at one point, the triad of orangutan judges at the trial effect a see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil pose.) These elements were deliberately included to try to tone down the overriding severity of the piece.
Despite the small doses of humor, an atmosphere of oppression and helplessness dominates the film and it is incredibly bleak and even depressing at times. However, thanks to sincere performances, exceptional music, stellar cinematography, thrilling chase sequences and an overall commitment to the concept, it all comes across beautifully. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is an uneasy, atonal, at times shocking, composition. I’m a John Barry fan, but his score to The Lion in Winter should not have won an Oscar over Goldsmith’s revolutionary work in Planet of the Apes. Much imitated since, it was jarring and strange at the time. Apart from his many other triumphs, Goldsmith would also later write one of my favorite opening credit themes for a film; one that also featured three wayward, threatened astronauts, Capricorn One.

Heston begins the film with a necessarily obnoxious level of superiority, but is soon taken down a peg or two (or three!) and serves as the audience's liaison between the world it knows and this bizarre upside-down one in which callousness and uniformity rule the day. Yes, he overacts in some scenes (his big laugh in the desert and exclamations of “It’s a madhouse!” in the laboratory come to mind), but he was just the rock solid, macho, internally and externally strong presence that the film needed. He was always the producer’s first choice for the role, but Marlon Brando (no…) was considered as a back up and Rod Taylor (who might also have been quite fine) was tossed around a bit, too.
This production still caught my attention for two reasons. One is that he is wearing only a pair of little brown briefs as he sits to look over his script. (He wore these in some of the “nude” scenes at the watering hole.) The other is that he is shown next to lighting equipment and a truck. It really drove home to me how challenging it must be for an actor (any actor) to try to portray wonder, awe, fear, desperation and so on because of savage, unfamiliar surroundings while an entire crew is directly in front of him with lights, camera, clapboards, cigarettes, bottles of cola, ham sandwich, you name it! We only see the parts the camera allows us to see. The performers have to ignore all the extraneous distractions and deliver the goods.

Hunter is ingratiating and interesting in her role. She, like all the other actors portraying simians, had to undergo three or four hours of makeup and took great pains to learn how to properly emote through all the prosthetics. She was, of course, an Oscar-winning actress for her role in A Streetcar Named Desire, but only won the role of Dr. Zira when Ingrid Bergman turned it down. (Can you imagine?!) Incidentally, Bergman greatly regretted doing so later when she saw how successful the film was and how delightful Hunter was in it. She felt that the part would have expanded her range and helped shake off some of the regal characteristics she’d become associated with. (This line of thinking was something she continued, though, when she turned down the Dowager Empress role in Murder on the Orient Express in favor of the dowdy missionary schoolteacher part, winning an Oscar in the bargain!)
Second-billed McDowall is a terrific counterpart to Hunter and turns in one of his most enduring performances, though he doesn't appear until nearly 45 minutes into the movie. He and Hunter enjoyed terrific chemistry despite the heavy makeup and developed a special type of kiss. He also made sure to find ways of showing affection for her through touch at various points in the movie. Apart from one film (Beneath the Planet of the Apes) he missed out on due to his directing of the movie Tam-Lin, he would appear in practically every other incarnation of the concept. (He was intended to play a sort of Leonardo Da Vinci inspired character in a remake starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the project was stalled and changed so many times that he finally passed away before it could be done. The property was later picked up and “re-imagined” by Tim Burton…) Evans is excellent as one of the deceptive and distrusting leaders of the apes. The role was intended for Edward G. Robinson, but the actor didn’t feel physically up to the demands of having to endure all those hours of makeup (not to mention the fact that the actors portraying simians all had to have their food liquefied and ingested through a straw!) Robinson and Heston would later work together on Soylent Green, Robinson’s final film. Evans had enjoyed a long, successful acting career on stage and in films, but may be most recognizable to audiences of a certain age for his role as Elizabeth Montgomery’s warlock father on Bewitched! Evans’ cohorts are played entertainingly by several solid actors including James Daly, Woodrow Parfey and James Whitmore.

Harrison, who often gets a lot of heat for winning her role as Heston's love interest through her relationship to studio head Richard Zanuck, is nonetheless suitably emotive and exceedingly attractive in the part. (In fact, she was pregnant with his child during the arduous filming and would soon after marry him and bear two children all together.) She speaks no dialogue at all and doesn’t even grunt or cry, somehow managing to convey all the necessary feeling facially and with her expressive physicality. Her rawhide bikini gives Miss Raquel Welch’s from One Million Years B.C. a run for its money. Through her marriage to Zanuck, she was to be given the role of Roy Scheider’s wife in Jaws, but the head of Universal had already promised the part to his wife, Lorraine Gary! (Hooray for Hollywood!) As a consolation prize, she was granted a part in the all-star Airport 1975 as Gloria Swanson’s assistant. Choosing to bill herself as Augusta Summerland in a bid to change the direction of her career, she ultimately wound up doing little outside of the occasional role in her husband’s (eventually ex-husband’s) projects. Though she was associated with the project from the start (including testing the monkey makeup with James Brolin!), there were points along the way when both Ursula Andress (wowza!) and Yvette Mimieux were considered. I think it sort of adds to the aura of the film that she is practically an unknown entity apart from it.

Lou Wagner, who arrives late in the film to play Hunter's eager nephew Lucius, later played the obnoxious teenage stargazer in Airport who debates trajectory with Dean Martin. He’s unrecognizable, of course, but the voice is a bit of a giveaway. He would later find steady work on CHiPs as the nerdy equipment technician who assists (and is occasionally exasperated by) the series’ leads Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox.
Gunner, who plays Heston's combative, handsome and ill-fated crewmate, was seemingly never heard from again after this landmark film! It’s strange that such a wild success never led to more work for him in the movie business. In fact, though Jeff Burton (the black astronaut) stayed busy for another few years with small roles in TV and movies before disappearing, all of Heston’s fellow space travelers are played by people who are largely unfamiliar (as is the case with Harrison as well), making it easy for the audience to accept their presence at face value rather than focus on who the star is playing the role.

This was one of the first film franchises to really zero in on cross-marketing including countless types of books, toys, Halloween costumes, comic books, etc… Later, in 1977, Star Wars would ramp it up even further, but in ’68 this was still a fairly unusual practice (but a successful one!) Some of my favorite toys as a kid were the Mego action figures, 8” high, poseable dolls (for lack of a better term!) usually based upon superheroes or television characters. A line of Planet of the Apes figures was introduced, though Heston’s likeness was not offered, meaning that there was just a generic “Astronaut” figure in an inauthentic blue suit. Fraidy cat that I was, the ape figures scared me and the only one I had, I had to play with only in the daytime! Ha!

It's an unforgettable motion picture, especially for those who were around upon its premiere when its attributes were startlingly different. Despite a few flaws in logic and in its dated references (there is a nod to the Vietnam era slogan, “Never trust anyone over thirty”), it remains a compelling piece of filmmaking. It’s ending, which I have not revealed here, but which most everyone seems to know by now, is given away on the covers of every DVD sleeve! What gets into people? The movie is always going to be a first time view for someone… Why spoil it?


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