Why Escape From the Planet of The Apes Was Ahead of Its Time

How Escape from the Planet of the Apes continued the series and created a saga.

It was 46 years ago that 20th Century Fox released the third film in the original Planet of the Apes cycle, titled Escape from the Planet of the Apes. The fact that a second sequel was even produced, following 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes, was something of a miracle: after all, in an effort to end the franchise after just two films, Beneath’s finale offered nothing less that the destruction of Earth itself. But with Beneath an unqualified success at the box office — $19 million in earnings against a $4.6 million budget (those numbers seem so cute nowadays, don’t they?) — screenwriter Paul Dehn was famously sent a terse telegram that simply said, “Apes exist. Sequel required.”

What Dehn did was nothing short of brilliant, finding a way to not only extend the story but make it a self-perpetuating cycle and a fully developed cinematic saga. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (originally titled Secret of the Planet of the Apes) acts as sequel, prequel, and reboot, those latter two terms not being in use back in 1971. It also delivers the best script of the original series after the first one, tight direction and a witty tone from director Don Taylor, and winning performances from series stalwarts Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall.

Beneath ended in the far future with the intelligent, dominant ape civilization battling an underground society of telepathic human mutants and Charlton Heston setting off a doomsday bomb that turns the Earth into a cloud of dust. For Escape, Dehn proposed that while the gorilla army was heading off to war, the sympathetic chimp scientist couple from the first film — Zira (Hunter) and Cornelius (McDowall) — were busy helping a third chimp, Milo (Sal Mineo), recover and repair Heston’s spaceship. They manage to launch the craft into orbit only for it to be flung into the past by the shockwave resulting from the explosion of Earth.

All this happens off-screen; the film opens in 1973 as the Navy finds the ship floating off the California coast with the three chimps inside. They are taken, naturally, to the Los Angeles Zoo, where they keep their ability to speak a secret from animal specialists Dr. Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman) and Dr. Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trundy). But their silence doesn’t last very long, after Zira grows irritated at having to take an intelligence test and speaks her mind about it. Minutes later Milo is strangled by a gorilla in the next cage, leaving Cornelius and Zira feeling frightened and isolated.

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That doesn’t last long, though: after a grilling by a Presidential Commission in which they reveal that they came from the future but do not disclose either their relationship to Heston’s Colonel Taylor or the fate of the Earth, the two apes are embraced as a cross between novelties and celebrities.

But the President’s chief science adviser, Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden from the previous year’s Colossus: The Forbin Project), becomes alarmed when it’s divulged that Zira is pregnant and drugs her to learn the truth about Earth’s future. Surmising that the baby could be the forefather of the intelligent ape species that will eventually overthrow humankind, Hasslein sets out on a course of action that will not end well for the parents-to-be.

Cleverly, Dehn takes the original movie and flips it, with the apes now objects of curiosity and fear in a society that makes no sense to them even though it mirrors their own. In fact, the more satirical elements of the movie are reminiscent of how the original Planet of the Apes might have looked if it had followed the source novel, Pierre Boulle’s La Planete des Singes (Monkey Planet), more closely. Human society, however, is much kinder, at least at first, to Cornelius and Zira than the ape civilization ever was to either Ulysse Merou in the original novel or Heston’s Taylor from the first film; Cornelius and Zira, already sympathetic characters in the previous movies, are even more charming here, and the scenes in which they’re initially feted by the government and media are delightful.

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In its latter stages, Escape from the Planet of the Apes achieves two things within the context of its suspenseful, slowly darkening story: it makes the apes the protagonists of the cycle, switching the allegiance of the viewer from humans to simians. It also brings the shape of that cycle fully into focus with the idea that Cornelius and Zira are essentially their own ancestors and that the story is a loop that might endlessly zoom around the track of time without change. Everything hinted at earlier in the series about what brought on the downfall of humanity is spelled out in Escape, practically previewing the storylines of any later films that would come along.

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A key scene is when Hasslein goes to visit the President (William Windom) and they get into a discussion about fate, destiny, free will and history that is startling in its depth. Surprisingly, the President doesn’t necessarily think they have the right to murder Cornelius and Zira any more than they might have had the right to slay Hitler’s ancestors — although Hasslein, much like Dr. Zaius in the first two movies, thinks otherwise but is troubled himself by the question. Interestingly, his solution is slightly more nuanced in the novelization of the movie written by sci-fi author Jerry Pournelle: he offers at first to make Cornelius, Zira and the baby sterile rather than kill them outright, although forced eugenics doesn’t sit well with them either.

The impending arrival of the baby turns Escape, in its last third, into a highly tense chase thriller as the apes go into hiding with Hasslein and a few government goons hot on their heels. Briefly taken in by a kindly circus owner, Armando (Ricardo Montalban), they nevertheless must keep running and make their final stand on a rotting tanker docked at an abandoned pier. It is here that the movie falls into line with the two previous Apes entries for a bleak and shockingly violent climax in which Cornelius, Zira, the baby, and Hasslein are all gunned down (I say it’s shocking because this was a G-rated picture — times have changed with those MPAA ratings). In a final macabre bit, Zira hurls her dead baby into the oily water before crawling bloodily over to her husband’s body to join him in death.

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Of course, it’s not their baby she flings into the drink, but that of a chimp from Armando’s circus, switched at the last minute to provide their own child with a chance for survival and the series with a perfect, explicit promise of a fourth film. The way the Apes franchise began to set up each succeeding film was the role model in many ways for today’s pre-sold franchises, the difference being that in the early ‘70s, sequels were not a foregone conclusion and were frowned upon as quick cash grabs rather than expanding profit centers; that’s why the budget of each Apes movie was lower than the last while today’s series usually balloon in cost with each entry.

Escape was directed by Don Taylor, a former actor and journeyman director who worked in both film and TV and later went on to helm The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977), Damien: Omen II (1978) and The Final Countdown (1980). He shot Escape in 35 days on a budget of just over $2 million, but he did have an easier time of it than his predecessors in the series: Escape had just three actors to put in ape makeup, and the movie was shot in contemporary Los Angeles locations with no futuristic ape villages and ruined nuclear wastelands to construct (even a prologue shot from the inside of the spaceship showing the Earth’s destruction was deleted). Taylor’s direction is assured if unremarkable, but he knows how to move the story along cleanly and is helped by the return of composer Jerry Goldsmith, who reworks his themes from the first movie into a modern pop framework that becomes more sinister as the film goes along.

McDowall and Hunter are wonderful in their final turns as Cornelius and Zira, the former (making a welcome return after skipping Beneath) turning from the rather milquetoast young scientist of the first film into a fierce protector of his wife and baby, while Hunter’s Zira is as sharp-tongued and cynical as ever, her edges finally and movingly softened in the end by motherhood. In addition to his two leads, Taylor had a terrific supporting cast to work with, two of whom — Windom and Montalban — are also known for roles in one of sci-fi’s other longstanding franchises, Star Trek. Windom played the doomed Commodore Decker in the classic 1967 episode “The Doomsday Machine,” while Montalban portrayed one of the genre’s most iconic villains, Khan, in both the first season episode “Space Seed” and the 1982 movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

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Escape made around $12 million at the box office — the catering bill on a movie these days, but a decent enough turnout on a $2 million investment to make a fourth entry viable. Producer Arthur P. Jacobs wasn’t happy though, suggesting that Fox did not promote the film as heavily as it could and bet on the Apes name recognition alone to bring audiences in. The disappointment many felt in the second film, Beneath, may have also kept some viewers away from Escape despite the latter earning some of the best reviews of the entire series. Nonetheless, a sequel was commissioned, and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes would take the story into darker territory than ever before. But with its smart script, well-balanced mix of comedy and suspense, and generally fresh spin, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is regarded to this day as the best of the original sequels — even if it took ending the world itself to make the picture happen.