Long before the Star Wars juggernaut rumbled into town in 1977, Planet Of The Apes was itself a true sci-fi phenomenon.
Although Hollywood had delved into the genre before, resulting in such films as Forbidden Planet, The Day The Earth Stood Still and Fantastic Voyage, none of them had quite the same impact as director Franklin Schaffner’s Apes. A box-office success, it spawned a wealth of merchandise, from bubblegum cards to action figures, two television shows (one live-action, the other animated) and a string of sequels and prequels.
It’s fascinating to think that this long cinematic lineage sprang from a few loose ideas taken from the book La Planete des singes by the French writer Pierre Boulle – a book even its author didn’t regard particularly highly. Yet thanks to a mixture of great writing and filmmaking, and a dash of luck, Planet Of The Apes became one of the most important science fiction films of the 1960s.
The Apes franchise’s long history is explored in colourful and exhaustive detail in Planet Of The Apes: The Evolution Of The Legend, written by Joe Fordham and Jeff Bond. Bond and Fordham are two writers separated by the Atlantic – the former a resident of Ohio, the latter from the UK’s southeast – but they’re united by a mutual affection for the Apes series, and it certainly shows throughout the book’s 250-plus pages.
We start, logically enough, with the Apes origin story; how Boulle was inspired to write his source novel after a trip to the zoo shortly after the Second World War, and how that book in turn stirred the imagination of an American movie producer named Arthur P Jacobs. It’s easy to forget, now that Hollywood pretty much specialises in selling larger-than-life images to the rest of the world, that science fiction was still a risky proposition in the 1960s. Sci-fi films rolled out of Hollywood from time to time, but the genre was generally regarded as the stuff of low-budget B-pictures and pulp magazines.
Jacobs, therefore, faced an uphill battle when he tried to sell the idea of a Planet Of The Apes movie to major studios. Thanks to Jacobs’ tenacity, and his major coup of getting producer Blake Edwards and hotshot genre writer Rod Serling on board, the project finally began to gain some traction in the mid-60s. And with Charlton Heston attached as its star, Planet Of The Apes began to look less like a wild flight of fancy and more like a picture with a chance at major box-office success.
Even then, Apes faced a tough path to the silver screen. Both Boulle’s book and early screenplay drafts described a technologically advanced city of apes – something that would have been nigh-on impossible to reproduce without the budget spiralling out of control. Then there was the difficult task of realising the story’s talking, gun-wielding apes. How could you realise them in a way that wouldn’t have audiences flopping into the aisles with laughter?
Across 45-or-so of its 256 pages, the book plots the first Planet Of The Apes film’s circuitous course to the screen, each page profusely illustrated with concept art, behind the scenes photographs and production stills. There are interviews with numerous crew members, including production designer William Creber, who was responsible for so many of the movie’s memorable moments – including the arrow-shaped ship that takes Heston’s character to the titular ape planet.
Planet Of The Apes was, of course, only one chapter in a long saga, and what’s most impressive about The Evolution Of The Legend is that it retains the same level of detail and research as it travels, movie by movie, through the series’ history. There are wonderful sketches of the eerie, phalic-looking bomb in Beneath The Planet Of The Apes. The effect of ever decreasing budgets on subsequent features is explored; commendably, the series never lost its intelligence or power to shock, even when the financial backing dwindled. Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972) was so chillingly violent that it was cut for a PG rating, and an unedited version didn’t appear until 2008.
Even when we get to the point in 1973 where the Apes franchise has reached its temporary end, we’re barely halfway through the book. There’s a section devoted to John Chambers, the makeup designer who created all those unforgettable ape effects in the first five movies. There’s a chapter devoted to the series’ music, created by such legends as Jerry Goldsmith, Danny Elfman and Lalo Schifrin, the latter responsible for the live-action TV show’s theme. Another chapter deals with all the merchandise, action figures and spin-offs.
After a brief pause to look over the Apes projects that never quite made it to the screen – including an aborted star vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger – we’re led into the Apes of the 21st century: Tim Burton’s disappointing 2001 reboot, and the franchise’s effective rebirth with Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and this year’s Dawn.
The Evolution Of The Legend is an engrossing read, not just as an account of one Hollywood film franchise, but also as a snaphot of how the film industry has changed as a whole. We see not only the handover from prosthetic makeup effects to digital performance capture, but also a change in the very balance of the movies. The original Planet Of The Apes was led by a broad-chested American superstar, Charlton Heston. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes didn’t need a star of that magnitude to sell it to audiences; its star was arguably Caesar, beautifully acted by Andy Serkis, clad in digital makeup. Hollywood’s attitude to high-concept effects movies and sequels has changed, too; where the budgets of the first run of films steadily dropped, the budget for 2014‘s Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes was more than $70m higher than its predecessor.
If one thing’s remained unchanged, it’s our fascination with the apes’ stories, and the grim, quirky and sometimes sad insights they afford into our own society. As a tribute to an enduring and unusually intelligent series, Planet Of The Apes: The Evolution Of The Legend is a fittingly thoughtful, even essential volume.
Planet Of The Apes: The Evolution Of The Legend is out now, published by Titan.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.