Monday, 20 April 2015

Planet Of The Apes

Heston, Blooming Tall

Planet Of The Apes
USA 1968 
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
20th Century Fox Blu Ray Zone A,B,C

Warning: There’s the obvious spoiler in here so, if you really don’t already know the famous trick ending of this film, then steer clear of this review until you’ve had a chance to watch it for yourself.

I’ve been a fan of Planet Of The Apes for almost as long as I can remember. One of my early cinema memories (although by no means the earliest) was of seeing Battle For The Planet Of The Apes as a five year old in 1973, as part of a double bill with an obscure underwater adventure movie called The Neptune Factor* (I think I slept through a lot of the other movie). The one thing which I remember from that film was... oh, no, wait... I’ll save that memory for when I come to rewatch and review that fifth installment.

I remember it wasn't just the movies I loved as a kid. I also used to watch the live action TV series, the cartoon series, had the novelisations, had some of the comics (not many, some of the British black and white Marvels carrying reprints), had a few of the TV show bubble gum cards (again, not many but at least I still have them), got the Mego action figures and also had a Planet Of The Apes board game. A game in which, if you were caught, your cardboard human had to stand on a cardboard cage while you had to twiddle and then press a button and, if you were unlucky, you would be plunged to the depths of the cage. That was a pretty cool game, actually.

Years later, in the 1980s sometime, I read the original source novel, Monkey Planet, by Pierre Boulle (who also wrote the original novel The Bridge on the River Kwai) and loved it, although I was amazed by how different the novel was to the way the movie turned out. The ape society in the novel, for instance, is much more technologically advanced than the one depicted in the movie version, if memory serves, and it’s far less aggressive to the central astronaut protagonist. Also, in the novel, the central character really does land on a different planet and the ending to the story, while the same outcome in principal, is actually reaching the same kind of point by a different means.

In fact, I remember when reading the novel, thinking how much it was like reading one of Edgar Rice Burroughs original John Carter novels in the way it explored the aspects of the central culture at the story’s heart. I also loved the explanation, not apparent in the film, of the reason for the length of the journey taking hundreds of years and necessitating putting the crew into suspended animation for the majority of the time... the trick to it was that the actual main part of the journey, gazillions of light years, actually only took a few seconds. However, the engines running themselves and the ship through space to reach the speed to enable that main part of the journey took many years... which I thought was kinda clever.

The movie starts with a prologue monologue of Taylor, played by Charlton Heston, as he is about to go into suspended animation. As he puts himself under we go into the opening titles and Jerry Goldsmith’s incredible score, which won him an oscar nomination and should certainly have snagged him the prize, but didn’t. He lost out to John Barry’s, admittedly, fantastic score to The Lion In Winter but, I think in this case the Apes should have probably taken it. It’s such a unique and influential score.

After this we have my favourite part of the movie... the first half hour. No apes and just three astronauts trying to survive in the harsh terrain of what they think is an alien planet. We have philosophical discussions and frightening scarecrows and a bunch of mute, human savages who our heroes encounter after a much needed swim when they find water (I don’t know why they are so pleased to find water at this point because, after all, they already crash-landed in a body of water at the start of the movie). And we have Jerry Goldsmith’s score, wonderfully spotted as certain scenes are wisely left without music to heighten the dramatic effect in specific sections.... although he did actually write some music for the spaceship crash landing which was left out of the finished film.

It’s a beautiful score and many people assume, when hearing it for the first time, that it employs a lot of electronics. It doesn’t. It’s got some great orchestration as Goldsmith gets his musicians to play their instruments in unusual ways that they weren’t designed for, some of the time. He even, at one point, grabbed the big steel mixing bowls from the studio canteen and used these for percussion effects in some of the earlier scenes. And then we have The Hunt. A piece of music which is an action cue when we finally, after a half an hour, see the apes... it’s all fantastic scoring and I was privileged to, at least twice in different years, see Goldsmith reconstruct the 15 minutes or so of music leading into and including the hunt music live in a couple of the concerts I went to see him conduct when he was alive (must have seen him about six or seven times throughout my life, I reckon). It was absolutely incredible. He also uses horns and rhythms to emulate the grunting of the apes as a musical effect in the score too. Outstanding stuff.

As an aside to the music, I see that on the IMDB it says that Planet Of The Apes is the first fully atonal score to grace a movie. Well, in my opinion that’s pretty wrong on a couple of counts. One, because it’s not, in any way, totally atonal... it’s full of rhythm and melody and it’s very hummable, believe me. Secondly because, as far as I know, the first atonal, indeed the first twelve tone serial score, was Leonard Rosenman’s music for the 1955 Vincent Minelli movie The Cobweb... so I don’t know why there are so many incorrect “facts” to be found on the IMDB. It simply isn’t true. Planet Of The Apes is the second, I think, of a long collaboration Goldsmith had with director Franklin J. Schaffner and, like most of the others, it garnered a brilliant musical response from the composer.

Back to the movie, though. Schaffner employs a lot of Dutch angles to keep everything off kilter in these early sequences, to echo the disorientation of the astronauts and incite that kind of empathy in the audience. When the apes finally make their appearance, things are less angled but there are still some striking compositions and designs found throughout the movie and I think, although it’s now back to being a strong and healthy franchise, this first movie is still a little underrated by some. It’s a brilliant film with some unique visuals to match the groundbreaking musical identity, with deft little visual flourishes like the, improvised on the day, “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” pose that the orangutans in the courtroom scene mimic. There are a lot of these kinds of things occurring, both scripted and improvised, throughout the movie and it adds to an already rich, visual and aural feast. It’s no wonder that the movie spawned four sequels, TV shows and two reboots.

And when you think about the story mechanics involved in the first 35 or so minutes... it’s pretty impressive. The writers have to find a way of leaving the astronauts without their clothes and Taylor without a voice to speak (for a while) and Schaffner and the actors have to sell it without alerting the audience as to why it’s necessary to have to do that... otherwise the next half hour or so just won’t work. The way the cast and crew pull this off is... quite astonishing when one considers it. Not to mention the amazing make up which is another major feat and without which the movie might not have been green lit. Without the screen tests involving Edward G. Robinson (who was sadly not up to filming his role as the original choice for Dr. Zaius) then we may not have the franchise we have today.

It’s the ending though, that really gets everybody when they first see the film and, although it’s different from the book, it’s obvious from the strength and twistiness of it, I think, that one of the major writers on this was Rod Serling. It should come as no surprise to anybody that the notorious, half buried Statue Of Liberty reveal at the end of the movie is from the creator and chief writer of the television series The Twilight Zone (first season reviewed by me here) when it’s an ending worthy of the best of those episodes. It certainly puts his stamp on this movie and the ending to Tim Burton’s later, 2001 reboot of the movie, while being a little closer to the novel in essence (if not in tone), is a bit of a let down in a way, in terms of the strength of this original ending.**

Any way you look at it though, this film is superbly directed and edited (some of those shots really shouldn’t work together as well as they do but... Schaffner manages to pull it off pretty well), has brilliant performances from the actors (not least from the likes of Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans, who had to act behind all that make-up) and a classic Jerry Goldsmith score which pulls you in and doesn’t let go. One of the great movie treasures that any cineaste (or even one of us more common and garden variety of movie lovers) should definitely take a look at. Outstanding.

*With thanks to Twitter friend Andrew Elias for correctly identifying the movie I saw on a double bill with Battle For The Planet Of The Apes back in 1973 as The Neptune Factor.

** It has come to light since I wrote this review that Serling did not come up with the idea for the famous Statue Of Liberty reveal. Click on my review link below of the book Simians and Serialism for more details.

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