Spawning four sequels, two remakes and two television series, 1968’s Planet of the Apes clearly tapped into something deep within our collective fears, but in a different way than say, Jaws or Alien. Turning the idea of human superiority on its ear and poking at our own prejudice and hypocrisy, the film called into question the idea of the “Western hero.” Charlton Heston hams it up at times, but for the most part he provides the necessary machismo and cynicism, as well as an everyman sense of vulnerability at the appropriate moments.
1. The film is based on the 1963 satirical novel, La Planète des singes by Pierre Boulle—who didn’t think it could be a film. He had been inspired by watching apes in a zoo (some of the actors did the same to prepare for their roles). Producer Arthur Jacobs (Goodbye Mr. Chips, Doctor Dolittle) secured the rights and hired Rod Serling (“The Twilight Zone,” Requiem for a Heavyweight) to write the script. Serling introduced cold war and nuclear war themes, as well as the film’s final scene which Boulle didn’t like. (In the novel, the Taylor character [Ulysse] leaves the planet with Nova and their child. They fly back to Earth—where it is 700 years later than when Ulysse left, only to find it being ruled by intelligent apes.) The film concept was then pitched to Charlton Heston who (obviously) liked it.
2. Planet of the Apes was repeatedly pitched to all the major studios, but Jacobs had hard time selling it. Heston recommended Franklin Schaffner (Patton, The Boys from Brazil), who had directed him in The War Lord. Head of 20th Century Fox, Richard Zanuck finally agreed to finance a make-up test to see if talking apes could be taken seriously—the studio’s main concern. On March 8, 1966 the test was filmed with Heston, Edward G. Robinson as Dr. Zaius, James Brolin as Cornelius and Linda Harrison (Nova) as Zira. (Harrison—Miss Maryland—was married to Zanuck but still had to meet with the director to get the part of Nova.) Though the make-up test was considered successful, the studio didn’t give the go ahead until six months later. Meanwhile, Fantastic Voyage opened and was a hit, giving Jacobs an argument that science fiction with unusual concept could do well.
3. The opening scene was the last scene shot, August 10, 1967.
4. Michael Wilson (It’s a Wonderful Life, A Place in the Sun, The Bridge on the River Kwai) was brought on to rewrite Serling’s script, which was deemed too expensive to film. Wilson had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era and during that time, wrote scripts under the code name John Michael. The Bridge on the River Kwai was nominated for and won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, but because Wilson (and co-writer Carl Foreman) were both uncredited, Pierre Boulle (who wrote the novel) received the award. Wilson was awarded the Oscar posthumously in 1984. Academy Award winner Kim Hunter (Zira) (A Streetcar Named Desire), was also blacklisted during the 1950s.
5. The spaceship landing was filmed on the Colorado River at The Crossing of the Fathers. Because a crash would have been too difficult and costly, footage was filmed from airplanes and in water to give the sense of a crash—but in the end, not enough footage had been shot. The effects artist and editor took bits of what had been filmed, reversed, repeated and inverted them to construct the sequence. It gave sense of crashing, so audience could feel part of the action. Thirty-three years later, Tim Burton’s version began filming in the same area.
6. It was Charlton Heston’s idea for the crew to have beards—he felt hair would continue to grow while they were in suspended animation. The film is mostly shot from Taylor’s point of view; the audience is expected to identify with him and feel what he does. The first act of film sets up Taylor’s character, creating the difficult balance that would allow the audience to feel ambivalent about Taylor, while still caring about his predicament.
7. Stewart’s (whose character was originally a male) corpse was an elderly woman made up to look dead.
8. The spaceship was designed by Academy Award winning Art Director William Creber (The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, The Greatest Story Ever Told) and Illustrator Mentor Huebner (Blade Runner, King Kong, Dracula ). In a continuity flaw, the ship’s hatch is seen open before Taylor gives the command to open it.
9. Director of Photography Leon Shamroy (South Pacific, The King and I, Cleopatra, tied with Charles Lang for the record of most [eighteen] Academy Award nominations for Cinematography), said cinematography is an emotional art. His camera work as the astronauts (at the time a symbol of American accomplishment and progress) begin walking shows them lost and dwarfed by the vast barren landscape; the framing emphasizes their powerlessness. Filming in the desert was supposed to take three days but ran over schedule. Jacobs thought the long build up in King Kong helped set up the necessary suspense and used it as a model for this film. Setting up the isolation and desolation in the desert were key to establishing the mood and themes; he got an extra three days of shooting approved. The desert heat was so brutal that many cast and crew, including the director, fainted.
10. Jeff Burton (Dodge) was a Los Angeles probation officer and did mostly television roles (“Dragnet, Batman, Bewitched, McCloud”). Robert Gunner (Landon) only appeared in a handful of films and television (The Jackals, “The Green Hornet”)—Planet of the Apes was his last film.
11. The waterfalls were filmed at the 20th Century Fox Ranch in Malibu, CA; the watering hole where the astronauts swam had been created for Doctor Dolittle. A cornfield was grown especially for the film. Schaffner wanted it six feet high and was worried it wouldn’t be ready in time to shoot, but in only ten weeks, it grew to eight feet. The script had the human women topless; the MPAA wouldn’t approve it for the final picture.
12. Jacobs enlisted Variety columnist Army Archerd (along with several other journalists) to play an ape, ensuring publicity for the film.
13. One draft of script had gorillas as the most powerful of the ape race, but Michael Wilson shifted the story toward an allegory about racial prejudice, so the darkest gorillas became menial workers, while orangutans (lightest) controlled the politics. Chimpanzees were in the middle. During lunch breaks, actors self-segregated; chimps sat with chimps, gorillas with gorillas, etc. Wilson had at one point written in baboons, the lowest race of apes (baboons are monkeys) as oppressed. They were going to participate in a civil rights protest and carry signs: Baboons Unite, Freedom Now and Down with Discrimination.
14. Roddy McDowall (Cleopatra, The Poseidon Adventure, Fright Night ), also an acclaimed photographer, appeared in four of five Planet of the Apes films and in several POTA television series. The actor seemed to enjoy frightening people by donning an ape costume—he famously scared both Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett. McDowall also lost a seemingly certain Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role as Octavian in Cleopatra when he was mistakenly submitted in the wrong category (Best Actor). The Academy claimed it was unable to fix the error as ballots had already gone to the printer.
15. There are no female orangutans or gorillas in the film.
16. Make-up Artist John Chambers (Blade Runner, Halloween II, “The Munsters, Lost in Space”), who started out doing facial reconstruction and making prosthetics for wounded veterans, designed the ape makeup in four months. He wanted the make-up to allow for maximum facial movability and expression. The ape appliances were made of lightweight foam rubber and new appliances were needed for each actor, each day. Chambers created a school to train make-up artists for the film. At the time, there was no Academy Award category for make-up, so Jacobs and Zanuck wrote to Academy president Gregory Peck and lobbied for a special award for Chambers. A screening for academy members was held and Chambers got his Oscar—presented by Walter Matthau and a tuxedoed chimpanzee. Chambers also created the Spock ears worn by Leonard Nimoy in “Star Trek.” McDowall and Hunter spoke of the daily make-up sessions which required over three hours (at a minimum); McDowall said he got to the point where he could fall asleep while being made up.
17. Two eight foot statues were made of the Lawgiver. Jacobs asked Zanuck for one for his backyard and he got it. Sammy Davis Jr. had one in his home for many years. Davis told Jacobs Planet of the Apes was the best film about black-white relations he had ever seen.
18. Wilson wanted the trial scene to be “Kafka-ish,” a nightmare of mad logic and playful paradox. There are conflicting stories about who came up with the hear, see, speak no evil shot. It was done as a joke and not meant to be in final cut. Some of the actors and possibly even the director wanted the trial scene cut entirely, feeling it was too over the top and cliched.
19. This was Charlton Heston’s first nude film scene. He utters a line adapted from George Orwell’s Animal Farm (“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”), “Some apes, it seems, are more equal than others.”
20. The final scenes were shot at Point Dume, Malibu. Heston actually shaved his beard there. Escape from the Planet of the Apes was shot around the other side of the rocks. A scene with a pregnant Nova was cut. The score by Academy Award winning composer Jerry Goldsmith, was nominated for Best Original Score for a Motion Picture (not a Musical).
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