How Beneath the Planet of the Apes Nearly Buried The Franchise

How the insane Beneath the Planet of the Apes almost buried the series after two movies.

“In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.”

With the original 1968 Planet of the Apes a huge smash at the box office — it arguably saved 20th Century Fox from going bankrupt — a meeting took place that included studio head Richard D. Zanuck, producer Arthur P. Jacobs, associate producer Mort Abrahams and Fox production exec Stan Hough. At some point the idea came up: why not make a sequel? As we’ve stated elsewhere, sequels at the time were not the big business they are today. But Planet of the Apes had clearly struck a nerve with audiences, and the open-ended nature of the movie’s ending offered the possibility of more material to explore. So the decision was made to produce a second movie. Then came the hard part: where would chapter two take the story?

Planet of the Apes ended with Charlton Heston’s George Taylor on his knees at the water’s edge in front of a half-buried Statue of Liberty, having realized that he had been back on Earth all along. The obvious question was: what lay along the coastline beyond that Statue? The first writer tasked with answering that riddle was Rod Serling, who had co-written the original movie’s script and come up with its classic twist ending. But most of his ideas — which primarily involved Taylor finding old technology that he uses to wage war on the ape society, or having Taylor and Nova board a spaceship and travel even further into the future — were rejected.

Next up was Pierre Boulle, the French author of the novel on which the first film had been based, but who had never written a screenplay before. His idea, titled Planet of the Men, had Taylor and his son, Sirius, re-educate the primitive humans of Earth and lead them in a victorious uprising against the apes, which would for some reason cause the simians to regress back to savagery. A third script, strangely titled The Dark Side of the Earth, seemed to combine elements of both Boulle and Serling’s ideas but went nowhere.

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It was at that point that Abrahams met screenwriter Paul Dehn, best known at the time for writing the definitive James Bond picture, Goldfinger (1964). Dehn suggested having Taylor and Nova explore the ruins of New York, which were presumably buried near the Statue of Liberty, while Abrahams came up with the idea of telepathic, mutated human beings living in those ruins and protecting themselves with their mental abilities. Dehn’s first draft, Planet of the Apes Revisited, featured many ideas that made their way into the final film, such as the mutant society worshipping an atomic bomb and a fascist gorilla leader pushing to expand the ape civilization into the Forbidden Zone.

With the first film’s director, Franklin J. Schaffner, committed to making Patton, Don Medford was hired to take on what was eventually retitled Beneath the Planet of the Apes. But the picture was nearly dealt a death blow when Charlton Heston refused to reprise the role of Taylor. A desperate Zanuck struck a deal with the actor in which it was agreed he would only appear in the movie’s opening scenes before being killed off, with the rest of the action centering on a second astronaut who had followed the trajectory of Taylor’s ship in an effort to find him. The role of that second spaceman, Brent, was originally offered to Burt Reynolds. When he passed, it went to TV actor James Franciscus, who eventually did his own rewrite of the script to beef up Brent’s rather thin character.

At some point Medford exited as well — possibly because Zanuck slashed the budget of the movie from $5.5 million (a little less than the original) to just under $3 million, making it even more difficult to create the visuals that Dehn and Abrahams had envisioned in their script. Enter Ted Post, who had directed more than 700 television shows along with the 1968 Clint Eastwood Western Hang ‘Em High. With Post, Franciscus and Heston on board, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans and Linda Harrison returned respectively as Zira, Zaius and Nova, although Roddy McDowall was directing a film elsewhere and was replaced by David Watson as Cornelius. Orson Welles was offered and passed on the role of the gorilla general, Ursus, so it went to James Gregory. Then Zanuck and Heston threw one more bomb into the works — literally.

Zanuck wanted to end the franchise with Beneath, so Heston came up with an idea: Taylor would not die at the beginning of the movie but disappear, only to resurface at the end as a prisoner of the mutants. As war between the apes and mutants reaches its peak, a disgusted, mortally wounded Taylor would hit the button on the mutants’ bomb — rechristened the Alpha-Omega bomb and capable of destroying the entire planet — and blow everyone and everything, including the series, to hell. That was quite different from Dehn’s original, more optimistic ending, in which Taylor, Nova, Brent and the chimpanzees survive the war and we flash forward 50 years later, when both species are living together in peace (a test makeup for a half-human/half-ape child was even developed, but dropped due to the bestiality aspect).

Production began in February 1969, and the continually revised script opened with Taylor and Nova in the Forbidden Zone as they approach the ruins of New York and fall prey to hallucinations caused by the yet unseen mutants, with Taylor eventually vanishing. Nova, wandering by herself, comes across the wreckage of the spacecraft containing Brent, who sees she is wearing Taylor’s dog tags and hopes she can lead Brent to him. Instead they run afoul of the apes, although Cornelius and Zira help them escape capture once Brent convinces them he is a friend of Taylor’s.

As Zaius and Ursus prepare to lead a gorilla army into the Forbidden Zone, Brent and Nova get there first and encounter the mutants, whose underground society is governed by Mendez (Paul Richards). After being interrogated, Brent is invited to attend a mutant church service, where they reveal the true, skinless features that they hide behind normal-looking masks, the product of centuries of nuclear radiation. Brent is then imprisoned alongside a defeated Taylor, but the two break out just as the ape army invades the ruins and begins slaughtering the mutants. The film’s final moments see Brent, Nova, Ursus, Mendez and Taylor all shot and killed, with a dying Taylor falling on the button that blows up the world.

There’s no question that with its mishmash of half-baked ideas, lack of strong characterization and clear budgetary issues (lame-looking pullover ape masks were used in some crowd scenes and are glaringly obvious), Beneath represents a steep drop in overall quality from the magnificent Planet of the Apes. But considering that the picture switched leading men and directors, not to mention lost half its budget and its studio champion (Zanuck), during pre-production, it’s almost a wonder that the movie got made at all.

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And what is even more extraordinary is that Beneath, as a result of its shortcomings, is one of the weirdest and most insane sci-fi films of its era. It’s strongly anti-war, even including a scene referencing the Vietnam protests of the time in which young pacifist chimps holding signs are physically moved aside by soldiers. Its surreal imagery — an illusion of a giant statue of the apes’ Lawgiver raining blood on a forest of crucified apes, the incredible church service in which dozens of deformed mutants sing a hymn to an atomic bomb — matches the first in terms of sheer originality, and that ending is among the bleakest the genre has ever offered.

For these reasons, the fans I know tend to love Beneath while acknowledging its many, many flaws. On a personal note, it was the first movie I ever saw on the big screen (in a drive-in at a very young age), and those images I mentioned above burned themselves into my little brain as I watched from between my fingers from the back seat. Two things the Apes movies rarely ran short of were strange concepts and bizarre imagery, and Beneath — while far from the best film in the series — may top them all in both departments.

And yes, while sequels were always expected in those days to make far less money, Beneath was still a sizable hit, earning $19 million in 1970 dollars (the first film reached $33 million). The result of this, of course, was that Fox, despite the best efforts of Dick Zanuck and Charlton Heston to kill off the series, wanted another sequel. As Beneath the Planet of the Apes proved, even the end of the world couldn’t bury this franchise.