Planet of the Apes 1968 | 2018

Review by Ninni Radicini
June 20, 2018

In 1968, in cinemas arrives Planet of the Apes, whose narrative development is such as to rise above the science fiction genre to which it is ascribed. It is derived from the novel La Planète des singes, by the French writer Pierre Boulle, published in 1963 (he is also the author of the novel The Bridge on the River Kwai, also this basis for the screenplay of the eponymous film). To inspire him was the observation of the behavior of a gorilla in a zoo. The year after the book was translated into English with the title Monkey Planet, then changed to that used for movie.

The intention of making a film adaptation of the book was advanced, in January 1965, by the producer Arthur P. Jacobs, with the hypothesis that the director was Blake Edwards (who in 1961 had directed Breakfast at Tiffany's and in 1963 The Pink Panther). The complexity in the definition of costumes and masks for more than 200 actors and extras contributed to prolonging the start time of the filming of about two years, which started on 22 May 1967, with a budget of $5,800,000, 30% of which used for costumes and masks, whose application to the performers also involved a significant part of the film's production time. The first screening took place at New York, 14 February; the widest distribution, even at international level, since 3 April.

During an interplanetary mission, a space aircraft with four astronauts on board (three men and a woman) falls into an unknown planet. From the departure (14 July 1972), traveling at a speed close to that of light, for them eighteen months have passed. But the distortion of time is such that, when the commander Taylor (Charlton Heston) induces himself to a deep sleep - already happened to others -, on Earth is 23 March 2673. Waking up (except for the woman) as a result of ditching, the three astronauts enter the mountainous and desert hinterland looking for some form of life and water. They can not do anything else because the spacecraft is sunk and they are catapulted into another temporal dimension. Before leaving the spaceship, Taylor read the year on Earth: 25 November 3978. Even if they had the chance to leave again and returned to Earth, they would have mistaken them for «something falling from a tree», as Taylor tells one of his two colleagues, Landon (Robert Gunner) and Dodge (Jeff Burton).

«We are 320 light years from Earth, in a planet that orbits around a star in the constellation of Orion», had first told Taylor. In an unexpected way they find vegetation and a cascade of water. Shortly thereafter they see a group of human beings in primitive conditions and unable to speak. But they are not the only inhabitants... The planet is dominated by evolved monkeys, with a social organization that recalls the human-terrestrial one. They have scientists, priests, reference texts. Primitive humans are persecuted, subjugated and subjected to scientific experiments. Landon and Dodge are captured: the first is reduced in vegetative condition; the other inanimate and exposed. Taylor, wounded and initially unable to speak, is being cared for by two scientist monkeys - Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) - with whom he manages to communicate (first writing, then verbally). But unlike them, who treat it benevolently, others, higher up the hierarchy, including the Doctor Zaius (Maurice Evans), consider it a danger...

Also destined for experimentation, Taylor is freed with a stratagem by Zira and Cornelius. Both believe that Taylor is the demonstration of the presence on that planet of a human civilization prior to that of the apes, of which Cornelius found finds in the "Forbidden Zone", the area in which the spacecraft crashed. Zira, Cornelius, together with their nephew Lucius (Lou Wagner) and Taylor, decide to go there, pursued by a group of gorillas under the command of the Doctor Zaius. In the archaeological settlement, Cornelius shows a series of objects to the Doctor Zaius, whom Taylor regards as belonging to an individual similar to the human-terrestrial one, including a doll capable of pronouncing the word «mother». It should be a definitive proof of the accuracy of Cornelius's theory, but neither does this seem to find the consent of the Doctor Zaius, who, shortly thereafter, mentions to Taylor the reasons for the hostile attitude towards him...

Together with Nova (Linda Harrison) - a girl from that group of prehistoric humans - he will begin to skirt the area of the "Forbidden Zone" until he discovers the truth about the planet he crashed into. In front of them, on the beach, there is the gigantic bust of the Statue of Liberty. The planet in which its interplanetary aircraft has crashed is the Earth, returned to prehistoric conditions after an atomic conflict. The final of the movie is one of the most sensational in the History of Cinematography: spectacular in its scenographic majesty and ideal from the narrative point of view as it represents the answer to every question that the protagonist and the spectators find in the course of the plot. A shocking warning to the public during the Cold War period.

The film (112min) was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, director of other popular and critically acclaimed films, including Patton (1970, Oscar for Best Picture, Director and Best Actor for George C. Scott), Papillon (1973, with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman), The Boys from Brazil (1978, with Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck). He had previously directed The Best Man (1964, with Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson) e The War Lord (1965, with Charlton Heston and Richard Boone), for which he was considered one of Hollywood's new talent.

The part of the Doctor Zaius had been initially proposed to Edward G. Robinson, but the complexity of the mask to be modeled every day was considered a necessity too tiring. The screenplay was edited by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, former author of the series The Twilight Zone. The ending can be considered as a reworking of an idea used in one of the episodes of the first season (I shot an arrow into the air, 1960). John Chambers had the honorary Academy Award for Best Makeup in 1969 (the specific category was established in 1981). Morton Haack (Best Costume Design) and Jerry Goldsmith (Original Soundtrack) had a nomination.

In the film a distortion of Darwin's evolutionary theory is theorized, with a subdivision between the gorillas described as warriors, the chimpanzees - pragmatic and rational - and the orangutans, who have an aptitude for sociality (although in nature they have opposite characteristics). The plot, contextualized in the science fiction genre, grafting a thriller component, is developed with sociological, scientific, religious, political references, even with ironic inserts consistent with the narration («If this is the best of the population, in six months we are in government», Taylor says to the other two astronauts, when he sees primitive humans for the first time).

Charlton Heston plays the character Taylor characterizing in a remarkable way the complex personality, in an unusual setting in his filmography, until then, in discontinuity from his previous heroic characters, who had made him famous (an example above all: Ben Hur). Taylor is an independent, a maverick, an "easy rider" of the Space. Unlike the other two surviving astronauts, trained on traditional values and trust in scientific progress, Taylor is "negative" - as Landon tells him. But his "negativity" is neither inertia nor hypocrisy, it is the disillusionment of everything around him, so much so as to reply to Landon's consideration by saying he is convinced that somewhere in the universe there must be something better than human being.

He is surprisingly complementary to the youth counterculture of the 1960s, to which he refers in a couple of exchanges of opinion with Lucius. While Taylor is shaving his beard, Lucius asks him why he is doing it, appearing to him, a monkey, incomprehensible. Taylor replies that when he left Earth only the boys of his age (Lucius) let their beard grow. Then, just before venturing into the "Forbidden Zone", Taylor tells Lucius not to trust anyone above the age of thirty. A free, idealistic, non-conformist personality, Taylor/Heston can only go forward, like the protagonists he interpreted in Major Dundee (also known as Sierra Charriba) and The Omega Man. If he encounters an obstacle then he faces it, not to realize his own project but to be able to keep going, because for those like him there will always be another frontier to reach.

* Ninni Radicini (Sicily) has written and published various articles on Germany (political-electoral-historical area). Articles on other topics have been published on various periodicals. He also published reviews and book prefaces. Co-author of the book Contemporary Greece 1974-2006 (La Grecia contemporanea 1974-2006) (book only in Italian edition).

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