How Planet of the Apes Kicked Off the First Sci-Fi Film Saga

Over 50 years later, the original 1968 movie Planet of the Apes still feels revolutionary.

Planet of the Apes Cast
Photo: 20th Century Studios

It was in January 1963 when French author Pierre Boulle (The Bridge On the River Kwai) published a slim novel titled Le Planete des Singes, known internationally as Monkey Planet or Planet of the Apes when it was published later that year in the U.S. Boulle wanted to write less of a science fiction novel and more of a social satire in the style of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Nevertheless, he used the template of sci-fi to tell the story of astronaut Ulysse Merou, who travels near the speed of light to the star Betelgeuse in the year 2500, where he becomes trapped on a planet that is ruled by intelligent, civilized apes while humans are mute savages — and where he must prove he is different.

Boulle could not have known that his short yet pointed twist on the human condition would lead to one of the most successful science fiction franchises of all time, consisting of nine films (to date), two TV series (one live-action, one animated), comic books (including a magazine series from Marvel), toys, games, merchandise and more. And it all started with his book and the original film, produced and released in 1968. Starring Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes is regarded to this day as a science fiction classic. It not only played a role in saving it studio, 20th Century Fox, but it broke new ground in film makeup, was one of two releases that year that elevated sci-fi to a new level as a legitimate film genre (the other being 2001: A Space Odyssey) and provided the template for the idea of a movie and its sequels telling a single, large-scale, continuing story instead of a new, unrelated tale with each entry.

Interest in adapting Boulle’s novel to the screen started not long after the book was published, but the man who ultimately secured the rights and played the critical role in creating the franchise was publicist turned producer Arthur P. Jacobs. Jacobs was looking for a sci-fi or fantasy property to film, and had even thought briefly of remaking King Kong, but was presented with Les Planete des Singes by a French literary agent. He persuaded Fox president Richard Zanuck to purchase the rights for him — although neither man thought about how they would actually bring the book to life on the screen and in fact Zanuck kept passing on actually making the movie for several years because of Fox’s financial troubles at the time (the studio was nearly sank by the failure of the $40 million Cleopatra).

Jacobs was allowed to offer the project to other studios, all of whom passed. Along the way he hired Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, to pen a screenplay, with the famed writer delivering draft after draft as Jacobs shopped the film around. The original director was J. Lee Thompson, who later went on to direct the last two entries in the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Among the actors suggested for the role of Merou were Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Burt Lancaster and Paul Newman, while Jacobs wanted Ursula Andress as the human savage Nova whom the lead character strikes up a relationship with. Thompson eventually left the project since it was taking so long to set up and was replaced for a while by Blake Edwards (The Pink Panther).

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In the meantime, Jacobs brought in another writer, Michael Wilson, to make changes to Serling’s script because of the huge budget that Serling’s adaptation entailed. Wilson’s idea was to replace the technologically advanced, modern civilization of the apes — in which they lived in cities, drove cars and were an industrialized society — with a more primitive, agrarian one. Other changes were made along the way by Serling, Wilson and a handful of other writers: Merou was Americanized, first as John Thomas and eventually as George Taylor, although many incidents from the book — like the astronauts’ discovery of the savage humans, the hunt by the gorillas, and chimp scientist Zira’s fascination with and empathy for Merou/Thomas/Taylor — were retained.

The biggest change of all, however, turned into what is now regarded as one of the greatest twist endings in cinematic history. In the early screenplays, as in the book, Merou is clearly on a different planet (named Soror by the astronaut) where a human civilization fell and was replaced by the ascendant apes. He escapes with Nova and their infant son in a spaceship and heads back to Earth, which is now 2,000 years older thanks to time dilation. But when he and his family emerge from the craft, they see to their horror that an ape civilization has arisen on Earth as well (in a framing device, a couple on an interstellar voyage who discover Merou’s story in a manuscript floating in space are also revealed to be chimps, who discard the tale as a fake).

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Although Serling went with that ending initially, he came up with a different idea as well: finding artifacts of a human society on an archaeological dig, the astronaut ultimately discovers that he is on Earth itself — a revelation confirmed by stumbling across the buried remains of the Statue of Liberty, destroyed thousands of years earlier in a nuclear war. While a number of others associated with the project have tried to take credit for the concept, it was Serling who created one of the most iconic images in not just sci-fi cinema but Hollywood history.

Jacobs, meanwhile, signed Charlton Heston to star in the film and hired director Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton) behind the camera at Heston’s suggestion. But with a major star, a script by an acclaimed writer, concept art and a well-regarded director, he still could not get any studios to bite. Finally he went back to Richard Zanuck at Fox, who agreed to commission a screen test with Heston and Edward G. Robinson in an early version of the ape makeup as Dr. Zaius, the orangutan Minister of Science who sees the talking human as an existential threat to the simian race (the scene also features then-unknowns James Brolin and Linda Harrison — Zanuck’s girlfriend — as Cornelius and Zira). Zanuck reportedly told Jacobs that if anyone laughed at Robinson while watching the footage, the project would be dead. No one laughed, and Zanuck finally agreed to put Planet of the Apes into production (it would be several more months before it got the green light from the Fox board, thanks to the success of another sci-fi film produced by the studio, Fantastic Voyage, and Zanuck’s promise to bring it in for $5 million).

The script went through more revisions as production ramped up, while the main ape roles were all cast: Roddy McDowall was on board almost from the start as chimp scientist Cornelius, but Robinson dropped out as Zaius due to his concerns over the extensive makeup. He was replaced by Maurice Evans. Julie Harris (The Haunting) was cast as Zira, but she also got nervous about the makeup and left, with Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire) stepping in. Harrison took the role of Nova after Raquel Welch and Andress were either unavailable or uninterested. Filming was originally slated for England, but was moved to the U.S. to take advantage of locations in Arizona, Malibu and the Fox Ranch — although Fox cut the shooting schedule by 10 days, from 55 to 45 (the film’s final cost was $5.8 million).

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Makeup artist John Chambers devised the groundbreaking prosthetics for the apes, allowing the actors to emote and speak through detailed facial appliances, ultimately winning a special Academy Award for his efforts. Composer Jerry Goldsmith — later to create indelible scores for films like The Omen, Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture — was also nominated for his avant-garde, percussion-heavy work, which captured the eerie, out-of-time atmosphere of the film’s story and setting.

Upon its wide release in April 1968, Planet of the Apes was a massive success, earning $33 million at the North American box office (in 1968 dollars, remember), while also proving popular with critics; it was largely acclaimed as one of the best movies of the year. The otherworldly sci-fi setting, startling makeup and production designs, a committed cast, an intelligent and satirical script and one of the most shocking endings of all time combined to create a film that became an instant classic. As noted earlier, it elevated the standing of science fiction among critics and studios as well, with the next few years turning into something of a boom for literate, socially conscious sci-fi cinema.

The success of the film — and its open-ended climax — led Fox and Jacobs to begin talks about a sequel, something largely unheard of in those days with the exception of the James Bond films and some low-budget horror series. More importantly, however, the first sequel, 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and the three that came after that — Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) — told one complete story, with each movie leading naturally to the next and making a circular, self-fulfilling saga unlike anything done on film before. The later TV series filled in a few gaps in the timeline, while the recent reboots that started in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes acted as loose remakes of the later films, albeit infused with tones, themes, designs and styles all their own.

The Apes franchise remains one of the most enduring and unique science fiction sagas in cinematic history. Thanks to the efforts of a few filmmakers who saw something visionary in the original material and turned it into a celluloid classic, we’ll continue to “go ape” over these stories for probably decades to come — or until the apes really do take over.