The rise of the Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

News Terence Bowman 8 Aug 2011 - 15:00

With Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes proving to be the surprise of the summer, Terence looks back and charts the highs and lows of the franchise...

The incoming movie, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, starring James Franco, Andy Serkis and Freida Pinto, opens a new chapter in the history of one of the most successful science fiction film franchises ever.

While Planet Of The Apes is not necessarily as instantly recognisable a brand as other recently successfully rebooted franchises like Star Trek, James Bond or Batman, it is still a potentially lucrative property with a proven box office track record.

The original 1968 film, Planet Of The Apes, starring Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall, spawned four sequels, two TV series and a 2001 remake directed by Tim Burton and starring Mark Wahlberg.

The original Apes franchise was known for its use of the allegorical device of intelligent talking apes as a means of making social commentary on issues such as racial discrimination, animal rights, the legal system, religion and war, to name a few. The series’ penchant for social commentary goes right back to its original literary source material.

In 1963, French writer Pierre Boulle, author of the critically acclaimed novel The Bridge On The River Kwai, published a book titled simply Monkey Planet (or Planet Of The Monkeys, Ape Planet, or Planet Of The Apes, depending on the translation).

The novel tells the story of a French journalist sent on a space mission, who ends up stranded alone on a planet where apes are the masters, and humans the beasts. It bears more similarities to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels than it does to the film adaptations that would follow. Absurdist social satire is the order of the day, as the apes are depicted watching TV, driving cars and crossing busy city streets via a line suspended between two buildings while wearing business attire.

At the time, France had already lost its colonies in both Algeria and Vietnam to popular anti-colonial uprisings. France’s colonial power around the globe was in decline. Boulle’s fictional monkey planet had already seen a similar decline, having been taken over by its apes hundreds of years ago. Their revolution happened simply because that planet’s humans did nothing to stop the apes.

Taken in its historical context, Boulle's science fiction parable comes off as something of a satirical cautionary tale laced with a tinge of underlying xenophobia.

The novel set the stage for a basic concept of metaphorical and satirical social and political commentary that would, to one degree or another, inhabit the entire franchise in all its future incarnations.

Fortunately, when Hollywood adapted Boulle's novel to the big screen, they decided to forgo the Monkey Planet name and go with a title that would appeal to audiences over the age of five: Planet Of The Apes.

Veteran Hollywood producer Arthur P Jacobs optioned the movie rights when Pierre Boulle's novel was not even yet published. Jacobs then got 20th Century Fox interested in the film by attaching the then-apolitical Heston to the project. After that, Jacobs hired Twilight Zone creator, writer and host Rod Serling to adapt Boulle's novel for the screen.

Serling had already learnt on The Twilight Zone that you can get away with a great deal of social and political commentary and criticism on TV and in movies when you dress it up as fantasy or science fiction. Cue the entrance of social commentary in the Apes films.

Michael Wilson, a writer who had been blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy era, was hired to punch up Serling’s first draft, which the studio felt was a bit too talky and heavy-handed.

In the film version, only the very basic premise of Boulle’s novel and the names of most of the ape characters remain (for example, Zira, Cornelius and Dr Zauis). The French journalist becomes an American astronaut. For budgetary reasons, the apes’ modern day technological society became a more primitive Bronze Age society (that has still somehow developed blood transfusions, photography, repeating fire rifles, high pressure fire hoses and even brain surgery).

True to the allegorical nature of the book, Heston's naked trial scene at the hands of an ape tribunal, for instance, was a mix of allusions to the Scopes Monkey Trial and the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, with allusions to Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm thrown in for good measure.

Then there is, of course, that Cold War era ending, in which Heston discovers a half-buried Statue of Liberty on the beach. He realizes that he has been on a post-nuclear holocaust Earth the whole time. It was an ending that made the film, and transformed a simple gimmicky science fiction tale into a cautionary tale for its time.

Planet Of The Apes was released in 1968, and was a massive box office hit. Even in 1968, this meant that a sequel was inevitable. Heston wanted nothing to do with one, but did finally agree to a cameo role. After passing on scripts by both Serling and Boulle himself, Jacobs settled on a screenplay by British writer Paul Dehn.

Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (1970) follows the story of a rescue mission sent after Heston’s ship. The new astronaut (played by TV and B-movie actor James Franciscus after up and coming star Burt Reynolds reportedly turned the role down) searches for Heston, leading him underground. He encounters subterranean mutant humans who worship an atomic bomb. It turns out they are also holding Heston captive.

The apes soon follow, and then there’s a lot of fighting and shooting. Finally, a mortally wounded Heston activates the atomic bomb and blows up the entire world. Yes, the Apes movies were always kind of downer – the heroes are hunted and chased with no relief until the entire world is blown up.

All this in the second movie of a big box office franchise, no less. Imagine Iron Man 2, say, ending with Tony Stark, having been mortally wounded, deciding to blow up the world, and that’s that. It was a very different pop culture landscape in 1970, that’s for sure. Nonetheless, there we go. End of story. End of franchise. Well, not really.

Beneath The Planet Of The Apes came out in 1970, and was another huge hit. Fox decided it had the potential for a hit series of films on its hands, and ordered Jacobs to make another Apes movie, leaving him to figure out how to make a sequel to a movie in which the world was destroyed.

Luckily for Jacobs, Dehn was a clever writer. In the opening of the next film, Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (1971), we discover that three of the apes, Cornelius, Zira and the previously unseen Dr Milo, found Heston’s ship at the bottom of a lake, somehow repaired it, and got it into space just in time to avoid the destruction of the Earth, so that they could travel back in time to 1971. It's better not to think about that premise too much.

Hunter and McDowall reprise the roles of the apes Cornelius and Zira. The story of the apes in present-day human society mirrors much of the plot of Boulle’s original novel. Like the human in Monkey Planet, the intelligent apes are treated as celebrities and embraced by human society. As in the book, they are then eventually seen as a threat to civilization and hunted down.

In the book, the French journalist finally escapes the planet. In the third Apes movie, the ape couple are hunted down and killed. Yes. Killed. Along with their newborn baby, who is seen as the ultimate threat to the future of humanity. And you thought the end of the world was a downer ending. 

The scenes of the two protagonist apes’ deaths showcase the dark nature of the Apes movies. And Escape From The Planet Of The Apes is supposedly the comic relief ‘fish out of water’, lighter outing of the franchise.

Even so, the two main characters and their baby are shot and killed. Once again, imagine that happening in another big SF franchise. It would be like Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) ending with Kirk and Spock not saving the world, and then getting shot in the head. Only in the 70s.

The series would get darker still in Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972). As was suggested in the one ray of light at the very end of the third film, Cornelius and Zira switched their newborn intelligent ape baby with a ‘normal’ ape baby in a circus.

Twenty years later, now in the year 1991, apes have become slaves to humans. Everybody remembers that from 1991, right? The big fads were MC Hammer, stone-washed jeans and ape slaves. Not.

Caesar, the intelligent ape baby, has now grown up. He emerges from hiding and launches a revolution against his now crypto-fascist human overloads. This time the film ends with the overthrow of all humanity. There are a couple of sympathetic exceptions, but really, the real heavies of this movie are the humans.

It’s hard to miss the allusions to the African American experience in the history of the United States. This is especially true during the many slave uprising scenes. The images of cops in helmets, holding plastic shields while throwing tear gas into advancing apes, also brings to mind the tumultuous youth rebellion of the era. They even open fire into the crowd, just like at Kent State.

Caesar, as played by the same actor who played his dad, Roddy McDowall, is a simian Che Guevara. His final revolutionary simian victory speech, along with much of the violence of the first cut of the film, was toned down for the Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes’ domestic release.

The violence and the speech were considered too disturbing for US audiences, especially those in the younger target audience (the original cut with the violence and the speech intact was released internationally, and can also now be seen on the excellent Blu-ray edition of the Apes series).

Battle For The Planet Of The Apes followed in 1973. The least successful film of the series, both creatively and financially, it marked the end of the big screen Apes franchise. The story of the apes and their fledgling new civilization is still full of social commentary, most especially when it comes to the issue of the humans' place as second class citizens in the new ape world order. It also contains one of the most popular phrases of the entire series: “Ape shall never kill ape”. Spoiler alert: it’s a law that gets broken.

Two TV series, one live action and one animated, followed in the next two years.

In 2001, Burton’s remake was released to disappointing critical and commercial success. Other than the success of the 1974 live action TV series in markets outside North America, no subsequent Apes property has lived up to the initial success of Planet Of The Apes’ box office phenomenon of 1968-73.

Not surprising then, that Fox is giving the series another go. What is surprising is that they are effectively rebooting the series from the fourth film, Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes. Starting with a remake of the third sequel is an odd approach. Most audiences today are probably much more familiar with the 1968 original or the even the 2001 remake. It’s certainly a gutsy box office risk.

Who knows what will become of the social and political commentary that has become an intrinsic part of the Apes genre. The cautionary tale of nuclear armageddon seems to be gone in favour of what seems to be a cautionary tale of genetic engineering.

Social commentary today doesn’t play the way it did in the 60s and early 70s. Today, such undertones are often tempered with optimistic and upbeat endings, if they are there at all. So it seems very unlikely that Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes will end with Andy Serkis blowing up the world, or with James Franco and Freida Pinto getting shot in the head.

Without a similarly audacious downbeat ending or unflinching social commentary, it’s hard to say if, in fact, we will ever again witness a real Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.

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