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Great Apes! Planet Of The Apes Celebrates Its 55th Anniversary
Image: 20th Century Fox

Film

Great Apes! Planet Of The Apes Celebrates its 55th Anniversary

Somewhere in the Universe, there must be something better than man!

With tales of the spectacularly fantastic having dominated the box office charts for the last 25-30 years, it might be hard from the vantage of today to appreciate just what a chance 20th Century Fox and a brazen producer were taking on Planet of the Apes fifty-five years ago.  It may be even harder to properly respect the risk in light of the brand having since spawned two lucrative film series besides a remake of the original, a primetime and Saturday morning cartoon TV series, comic books, and a line of merchandising ranging from coloring books and board games to lunch boxes.

But take a good look at those times and you’ll see Planet of the Apes – that Planet of the Apes, the one that kicked off the brand– could only have been made then.

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I’m trying to imagine the pitch meetings between Apes producer Arthur P. Jacobs and the long parade of studios which passed on the project.

“Lemme get this straight, Artie:  talking monkeys.  A planet full of talking monkeys.”

“Well, apes, but yeah, they talk but — ”

“Talking monkeys.  The people don’t talk, but the monkeys do.”

“Yeah, but — ”

“And they hunt people, these people who don’t talk, these talking monkeys hunt them.”

“Yeah, because, see, it’s satirical — ”

“And you think people are going to pay money and buy popcorn to watch talking monkeys that act like people hunt down people who act like monkeys.”

“I don’t think you’re seeing — ”

“You’re right, and I don’t think anybody else will, either.  Close the door behind you on your way out.”

A closed door through which, I’m sure on at least one occasion, Jacobs could still hear laughter.

But Arthur P. Jacobs was nothing if not resilient and it’s hard not to see him as someone driven by a passion for making movies.

He was one of the few people in the industry at that time who had actually studied film (he got his undergrad degree in film at USC), before working his way up in the industry from messenger at MGM in 1943 to opening his own public relations office handling big name stars like James Stewart and Judy Garland nine years later.  But I’d wager few people who study film do so with an ambition to become a publicity agent.  With that in mind, it seems unsurprising that Jacobs would eventually launch his own production company – APJAC Productions – in the early 1960s, and one of the first properties he acquired was Pierre Boulle’s 1963 satirical sci fi novel, Monkey Planet.

Great Apes! Planet Of The Apes Celebrates its 55th Anniversary
Image: 20th Century Fox

Jacobs did have a certain amount of producer credibility around that time, particularly with Fox, having turned out a popular (if critically-panned) hit for the studio with his company’s first effort, the Shirley MacLaine comedy, What a Way to Go! (1964).  Still, it would take years for the producer to get the project off the ground.

While producing his next feature, the expensive flop Doctor Dolittle (1967 — also for Fox), Jacobs tried to put Planet of the Apes together.  Despite all the studio thumbs-downs the project had been given as Jacobs shopped the project around, it was the right time – and maybe the only time – a major studio would buy into what, at the time, seemed a wack-a-doodle property about a world run by talking monkeys (sorry; apes).

By the mid-1960s, the American movie industry was going through several seismic changes.  An entire generation of studio management – most of them having been in place for decades — had grown older and out of touch with an audience which, since the 1950s, had grown younger.  Starting in the late 1950s and through the 1960s, the management of almost every major studio changed.  The Hollywood moguls who had made the major studios majors had either died off, retired, been pushed out or sidelined.

By the 1960s, film culture was a major part of youth pop culture; the new generation of young audience studied film, talked film, and some of them (think Scorsese, Coppola, DePalma, Lucas, et al) would go on to make films.  Also younger were the successors to the Old Hollywood fuddy-duddy studio chiefs:  a new, hip, more in touch breed of production executives at some studios like Robert Evans at Paramount, John Calley at Warners, and Richard Zanuck, son of the legendary Darryl Zanuck, who’d taken over Fox after pushing his dad out.

The new guys came in playing a weak hand:  movie attendance had been steadily and steeply dropping since the end of World War II.  By the mid-1960s, weekly attendance had dropped from over 80 million during the war years to less than 20 million despite a 25% growth in population.  A natural consequence was that there was hardly a production organization which wasn’t financially struggling; backlots were sold off, salaried craftsman laid off, production cut back.  There were several reasons for the drop-off, but certainly one of the biggest eroders was television.

Great Apes! Planet Of The Apes Celebrates its 55th Anniversary
Image: 20th Century Fox

With the popularity of TV (by 1962, 90% of American homes had at least one TV set), network programming had gotten increasingly safe.  On TV, married couples had to sleep in separate beds and couldn’t say the word “pregnant.”  Except for some prestige showcases, TV generally avoided hot topics like sex, race, abortion — … in fact, most of the issues roiling the social fabric in that era of Vietnam, urban race riots, the rise of Women’s Lib.

People like Dick Zanuck saw that maybe the strategy for a big studio’s survival was gambling on films the young audience saw as reflective of the tumultuous times they were living through.  And that’s when showing up in his office doorway was Arthur Jacobs with Planet of the Apes.  According to planetoftheapes.fandom.com, Jacobs gave Zanuck a short, punchy pitch for the novel over the phone and managed to spark Zanuck’s interest enough that the studio chief bought the rights to the novel for Jacobs although at that point, Zanuck hadn’t yet committed the studio to the project.

In the years after Jacobs first acquired the property, he’d been developing a script with Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame.  With TTZ’s penchant for moralizing tales set in realms of fantasy and sci fi, Serling seemed a perfect choice.  Serling would later claim to have gone through 30-40 drafts to wrestle the novel into something workable on film.  Jacobs also had production sketches drawn up, and tried to get a major star attached.  Eventually, Jacobs landed Charlton Heston, a major marquee name at the time; he’d won the Best Actor Oscar just a few years earlier for Ben-Hur (1959).  Jacobs had sent Heston the novel, and although Heston didn’t think much of it (ironically, neither did Boulle who considered it one of his worst), like Jacobs he signed on sensing there was something that could be extracted from the text which was worthwhile.

At various points in this development process, Jacobs had directors interested.  First there was J. Lee Thompson who eventually excused himself to direct MacKenna’s Gold (1969), and then Blake Edwards was involved for a time but also left.  When Heston became attached, he recommended Franklin J. Schaffner for the director’s slot.  Schaffner had made a name for himself during the heyday of live television drama in the early 1950s, most notably for doing one of the most complicated shoots ever attempted on live TV:  an adaptation of A Night to Remember, Walter Lord’s classic account of the sinking of the Titanic.  By the early 1960s, Schaffner was graduating to big screen projects, and Heston had been impressed working with the director on the medieval drama, The War Lord (1965).

Jacobs took this package – Serling’s script, his sketches, Heston and Schaffner – to Zanuck, and to prove the concept would work on film, had a scene shot between Heston and Edward G. Robinson in full orangutan makeup as Dr. Zaius (Robinson’s poor health and the grueling ape makeup regimen would prevent him from carrying on in the role for the film).  That was enough to convince the studio honcho to finally give the project the greenlight. 

#####

Great Apes! Planet Of The Apes Celebrates its 55th Anniversary
Image: 20th Century Fox

If you read Boulle’s novel, it says something about Jacobs’ producing instincts that he picked it up at all since the final product differs so greatly from its source.  Boulle’s novel had presented ape society as more or less a contemporary of human society at the time.  Keying off that concept, Serling’s script also presented the ape society as a modern-day, high-tech culture, but this was deemed too expensive to shoot.  Formerly blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson was brought on for rewrites carrying out Schaffner’s re-envisioning of a more primitive (and less expensive to shoot) society (ironically, Wilson, while blacklisted, had worked on the adaptation of another Boulle novel, The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957]).  Undoubtedly, Wilson’s own blacklisting experience flavored his version and the way ape society muzzled (figuratively and literally) the movie’s hero, Heston’s astronaut Taylor.

The key, of course, to making the project work was the ape make-up.  With the franchise rebooted in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes and CGI replacing facial prosthetics, the makeup for the original may seem less impressive today than it was in 1968, but John Chambers’ makeup effects – based on work he’d done with disfigured veterans during WW II — were considered so impressive at the time that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would give Chambers an Honorary Award for his work on the film (makeup did not have its own Oscar category until 1981).  The makeup work was so extensive that, according to IMDB, it comprised 17% of the production’s total cost, and required ape actors to be in makeup chairs before sun-up for a three-plus hours application process.

To capture the sense of a desolate (and as we find out later in the film, devastated) world, most of the filming took place in Arizona, making for a physically grueling shoot.  Actors playing apes especially suffered in the desert heat under their makeup which couldn’t be removed even during breaks.  Some cast and crew members actually fainted on the desert locations.

Less challenging were shoots on the Fox ranch, but the exciting cornfield hunt which provides the first reveal of the apes offered a unique problem.  The cornfield, according to the AMC documentary, Behind The Planet of the Apes (1998), had been planted on the Fox ranch specifically for the film with the calculation that the stalks would have reached an ideal height of six feet by the time of shooting.  Trying to meet the shooting schedule, the production crew pumped so much water and fertilizer into the field that by shooting time, the stalks had grown to eight feet.  Art director William Creber would recall reporting the oversized stalks to Schaffner and asking, “What do we do?”  “Mow it to six feet!”

By today’s standards, the Planet… shoot was a modest one of just three months on a comparatively tight budget.  With only $5.8 million (IMDB calculates this would be the equivalent of $42 million – a pittance in today’s Marvelized universe where budgets routinely go to nine figures), Schaffner and his crew created an ape society complete with costumes, buildings, state-of-the-art makeup, and simian-flavored props (in contrast, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, shot on contemporary locations, cost $93 million).

Impressed by composer Jerry Goldsmith’s work on Fox’s period epic The Sand Pebbles (1966), Zanuck recommended the young Goldsmith to Jacobs.  Goldsmith turned in what was then a revolutionary atonal score utilizing non-traditional instruments like a ram’s horn.  According to liner notes by Charlton Heston on the album release of the score:

Image: 20th Century Fox

“…Mr. Goldsmith’s score helped us achieve something that was very important to every scene…to remind the audience that they were in a time and a place they had never known.  The unearthly echoes of his theme reflect very accurately, I think, the lunar landscapes in which we shot the film.  To me, the music colours perfectly the mind-bent milieu of Planet of the Apes…”

And while liner notes tend to be overly laudatory, Heston hits on what was so mind-blowing about the movie in its time:  that it portrayed, in a vivid and intelligent way, a time and a place the audience had never known.  The fantastic and unreal have become almost routine today:  duels between superheroes and alien forces, battles between gods, epic combats between fairy tale-ish creatures.  But in 1968, the planet of Planet of the Apes was truly something that audiences of the time had never seen before.

There’s also this to consider:  prior, science fiction hadn’t been a vehicle for much in the way of serious thinking.  Oh, there’d been some wonderful sci fi flicks – the movies of George Pal, Forbidden Planet (1956), another eye-dazzling adventure from Fox in Fantastic Voyage (1966), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Thing from Another World (1951), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and others – but the postwar sci fi audience was primarily young (very young), and generally, sci fi flicks, even the best of them, were made with an accent on the kind of action and adventure (and when budgets would allow, SFX dazzle) to tickle the young ticket-buyer.  Alien invasions, giant bugs and the like – that was the genre’s signature style at the time.  And usually done on the cheap…and looking it.

But that wasn’t Planet of the Apes.  That wasn’t Serling’s or Wilson’s style, nor the intention of Boulle’s book, nor what Jacobs and Zanuck had seen in the material.

Take the movie’s hero – or, more appropriately, anti-hero – of Taylor.  Several years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Andrew Goldman, then head of programming for Home Box Office’s Cinemax service (Goldman now lectures on media studies at major universities and is a professor in the Department of Film & Television at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts), and we discussed the 1968 flick:

“Heston has several soliloquies that perfectly represent a feeling of the time – a sense of disillusionment with the human race.  Those scenes also carry a more universal discontent…It’s maybe a good half-hour or more before the hunt in the cornfield where we see the apes for the first time.  It gives us time to know Taylor, and you know something?  He’s not a very nice guy!”

Image: 20th Century Fox

Goldman would go on to tick off Taylor’s abrasive elements:  arrogance, condescension, misanthropy, a haughty disdain for the rest of humankind.  “Taylor is actually something of a prick,” Goldman concludes, “but we identify with his discontents.”  At least we did in 1968.  When Taylor, delivering one of his critiques of the human race to a fellow astronaut concludes that the reason he volunteered for a space mission to another world was because, “There has to be something better than Man.  Has to be,” it was the rare soul in the theater who, looking around at the world of the late 1960s, didn’t agree.

Boulle’s novel had the ape planet as an alien world, but in the development process, in a turn generally considered to be Serling’s contribution, Planet of the Apes ends with the gut punch – and one of the most iconic images in American film of a half-buried Statue of Liberty — that the planet Taylor is stranded on is his own nuke-devasted home planet.

When I show the film today in film classes and ask students after it’s over, “So what do you think happened to the Earth?” I get answers ranging from meteors to plagues, but never nuclear war.  In 1968, however, the fear of nuclear destruction was so embedded in the national zeitgeist that no one mistook the film as anything less than a warning about humankind’s capability to self-destruct.  Even as a thirteen-year-old, I understood that.  Keep in mind, Planet… was released just six years after the Cuban Missile Crisis when it did seem we might be on our way to the future posited in Jacobs’ movie.  I remember my mother recalling the stand-off with Cuba, telling me, “We thought this was it!”

Not kiddie stuff at all.

In this, Zanuck had been right about what would bring the young audience into theaters.  The college kids and recent college grads who wielded the biggest box office muscle at the time saw, despite the film’s fantastic premise, a warped mirror of the problems of their own time:  prejudice, intolerance, narrow-mindedness, persecution and oppression, and a sense their world might very well be tottering on the edge of global destruction.  And so, for all the hassles, doubters, and budget hurdles and what so many studios had thought to be a ridiculous premise, Planet of the Apes was both a critical and commercial success going on to become the 35th best-earning release of the decade.  Considered almost immediately to be a sci fi classic, thirty-three years later the film would be accepted into the Library of Congress, their acceptance based on a movie being “…culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

The increasingly juvenile sequels would betray the first movie’s underlying concept, and the revival of the franchise with Rise of… would trade the threat of nuclear destruction with a less disturbing be-kind-to-animals message (the less said about Tim Burton’s 2001 redo the better).  Topical relevance is not the box office energizer it was in the 1960s.  But as for the idea of the movie franchise, well, that’s something else.

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Image: 20th Century Fox

Say what you will about the sequels to the original – and there’s a lot of negative stuff to say – each opened Number One at the domestic box office despite each being made for less money than its predecessor (and looking it).  The Apes movies, coming before Star Wars, the big screen Star Treks, and all the other brand name sci fi franchises, stands as the first franchise in the genre, and like so many franchises, 20th Century Fox did with it what movies studios typically do:  milk it for every last dime.

So the remake and resurrection, the TV shows, but perhaps the most instructive lesson for later franchises was the ruthless merchandising.  Name it and there was an Apes related product:  games, activity kits, lunch boxes, action figures, comic books, coloring books…  According to Behind The Planet of the Apes, one company alone produced 300 Apes-connected products (this seems to have been a lesson George Lucas learned in retaining merchandising rights to his Star Wars brand; why Fox, which released SW, didn’t retain those rights after their experience with Planet of the Apes, is a great mystery).

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I have long felt that we have grown a bit numb cinematically; the fantastic has become routine, what took so much effort to do physically – providing it could be done at all can now be accomplished by CGI which seemingly can do anything.  And, we prefer out journeys of the fantastic to take us away from our concerns and fears rather than remind us of them.  In another time and place, we can debate whether that’s a good thing or not.

But I think it’s worth your while to try to unwind your mind from where we are today to respect – and maybe even be a bit in awe – of what some Hollywood gamblers and risk-takers and impressively creative people managed to pull off when they took us on that first journey to the Planet of the Apes.

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press) and Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television.

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