One of the most successful science fiction franchises ever to emerge from Hollywood, Planet of the Apes (and the four sequels that followed) introduced film audiences to a world where apes ruled supreme, and with an iron fist. With Charlton Heston playing the lead human, and Roddy McDowell, Maurice Evans and Kim Hunter transformed into believable beasts (via loads of latex makeup), Planet of the Apes continues to enthrall with its thought-provoking plot and colorful characters over four decades after its original release.
The first film begins with a group of American astronauts, led by Colonel Taylor (Heston,) whose space travels have taken them horribly off course. When they inevitably crash-land on a nearby planet, their exploration of the new surroundings leads to some surprising discoveries. First, they come across a group of primitive humans foraging for food, all of them unable to speak. Soon, a horn blasts in the distance, and an army arrives – an army of well-armed and formidable apes – well dressed and in perfect command of the English language. A battle ensues, killing one of the astronauts. A disobedient Taylor is shot in the throat, effectively silencing him, and taken prisoner along with the other surviving astronaut.
Taylor’s wound is mended, thanks to the advanced medical techniques practiced by two chimpanzee scientists, Zira and Cornelius, and he is locked in a cage with a human woman named Nova. The monkey doctors soon discover that Taylor has a much higher IQ than the humans they are used to seeing (and performing medical experiments on) and his moving lips seem to suggest that he may be able to talk. They are intrigued but their superior, an orangutan named Dr. Zaius, demands that Taylor be destroyed. Luckily, the two scientists have a soft spot for Taylor and help him and Nova escape their prison. Their journey leads them to a shocking discovery, perhaps one of the most unnerving film climaxes of all time.
While kids were perfectly content with all the monkey business going on, adults were given plenty of social commentary to ponder, thanks to a compelling script written by Michael Wilson and Twilight Zone creator, Rod Serling. And audiences of all ages could agree that the makeup techniques were simply fantastic, allowing for a full array of facial expressions that were startling for the time. Makeup artist John Chambers received a special Academy Award for his accomplishments and his innovative techniques were adopted by a whole new generation of makeup artists.
Thanks to the astounding success of the first film, which unleashed a mass-merchandising machine of comics, toys and games, it was inevitable that sequels were on the horizon, not to mention television series and cartoons. The first sequel arrived a year later, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Heston made a cameo appearance in the second film but the leading role went to James Franciscus, who played astronaut John Brent.
Brent is sent to find out the whereabouts of the astronaut team from the original journey. He soon discovers the same simian inhabitants and learns a few new startling discoveries of his own. Venturing into the Forbidden Zone, he finds a race of telepathic mutant humans and his discovery unleashes a formidable war between ape and man.
For the third installment, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, the friendly simian scientists, Dr. Cornelius and Zira, arrive on earth, circa 1971. The pair are married and expecting their first child. Rather than run in fear, the humans embrace their visitors and elevate them to celebrity status. That is, until the good doctor lets the cat out of the bag about the future of Earth. It doesn’t take long for the fearful humans to turn on their ape friends and try to destroy them.
For the fourth offering, Conquest For the Planet of the Apes, audiences are introduced to Caesar, the adult offspring of Zira and Cornelius. A plague on Earth wipes out the entire cat and dog population on the planet, and longing for some new subservient companions, the humans start enslaving the ape population. Ceasar, being the only one of the bunch who can speak, leads a bloody revolt against the human enemies.
And, in the final film of the series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the franchise comes full circle. The human race has been devastated by nuclear holocaust and only a few survivors remain. This leads to a fierce debate over what the treatment of these remaining humans should be. On one side, a gorilla leader named Aldo wants to exterminate them, which on the other, Caesar would prefer a peaceful co-existence. But things are never peaceful on the Planet of the Apes, it would seem, and as a civil war looms, Ceasar must also find a way to deal with a group of humans determined to regain control of their planet. Like a snake eating its own tail, the series worked its way right back to the first film.
It was a long and lucrative journey, with 20th Century Fox releasing an astounding five films in six years. But after the final installment, the monkey suits went back into the mothballs, until new territory was explored – that of television. A prime time series called Planet of the Apes debuted in 1974. And in 1975, the whole gang appeared in animated form for the Saturday morning series, Return to the Planet of the Apes, which lasted for 13 episodes.
In 2001, director Tim Burton (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands) took a stab at the iconic ape saga, with a remake of the original film. Panned by fans and critics alike, its lukewarm box office reception didn’t spell the demise of the franchise however. Released in 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was much better received, enough so that sequels are practically a given. Meanwhile, the original films continue to entertain viewers, old and new, thanks to their compelling plotlines, and costumes that still look amazing decades after they were first donned.
If you caught ape fever back in the day, or include the Planet of the Apes series on your list of sci-fi favorites, we’d love to hear your thoughts in our comments section, as we tip our hats to this iconic collection of monkey movies.