I was only ten (I turn fifty-nine today...sheesh) when I first saw Planet of the Apes in the theater. It was a new movie, a high-profile science fiction movie, something relatively rare in 1968. Needless to say it left an impression. To my memory I never went to the theater to see any of the sequels, but I do have specific memories of this debut.
The plot everyone knows. Three astronauts imagine they are on a distant world hundreds if not thousands of years after their own times and instead discover that the world they find is their own, inhabited by humans who are effectively animals in behavior and assorted apes (gorillas, chimps, and orangutans) who are the ascendant and intelligent race on the planet. The astronauts are driven apart during a wild hunt which results in one being captured, another being mutilated, and a third killed. Eventually the truth about the planet is learned, but it has a steep cost for our hero.
Charlton Heston was a box office hero back then, a handsome tough hero who had been in many films, the guy was freaking Moses for gosh sakes. So when he shows up in this movie as Taylor, a hero sure, but an arrogant son of bitch for sure too, it was a complex brew. Taylor, the leader of the three astronauts (the other two are Robert Gunner as Landon and Jeff Burton as Dodge) who crash land on the planet is a misanthrope and at times a very nasty guy.
Whatever process the government used to select its astronauts, it seemed not exceedingly effective as they fell out with one another almost immediately on a mission which by definition was pretty much intended as a one-way ticket.
The infamous human hunt which introduces us to the apes, specifically the gorillas is a fantastic melee of violence and chaos which at its finale pays off the scene with the truly weird hunting camp, humans hung upside down and talking apes in the banal but frightening picture taking scene. The clash of action and bizarre really strikes the memory.
Ape City is unusual and in this modern day seems a little unimpressive given what we've seen to this point. I rather like the architecture of the interiors, but I don't really understand why this scheme is any more apelike than some other approach. I know cost dictated the nature of the village and it does have a specific character, but it doesn't really track with the logic of the show.
Planet of the Apes is a movie which does its damnedest to bring arrogant humankind to its knees and get us to see that we live in a complicated world full of far more differences than similarities. The nefarious way the creators of the movie mislead us with their ending is thematically elegant. We celebrate our hero's escape, his ability to assert his will and achieve in this crazy planet some measure of autonomy. Just when he reasserts his control over his own perception of himself (by shaving his beard) he is thrown for the ultimate loop when he finds that all he imagined about the world in which he lives is that he never left the world he hated all along.
Planet of the Apes is a science fiction movie, a satirical fable, and more. It successfully combines social commentary and entertainment into a delightful singularity which rises above the details of genre and craftsmanship and becomes art.
It's a movie which never needed a sequel, but of course it got plenty. More to come.