Planet of the Apes is a 1968 American science fiction film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, based on the 1963 French novel La Planète des singes by Pierre Boulle. The film stars Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Maurice Evans, Kim Hunter and Linda Harrison. It was the first in a series of five films made between 1968 and 1973, all produced by Arthur P. Jacobs and released by 20th Century Fox. The series was followed by a remake in 2001 and a reboot in 2011.
The film tells the story of an astronaut crew who crash-land on a strange planet in the distant future. Although the planet appears desolate at first, the surviving crew members stumble upon a society in which apes have evolved into creatures with human-like intelligence and speech. The apes have assumed the role of the dominant species and humans are mute creatures wearing animal skins.
The script was originally written by Rod Serling but had many rewrites before eventually being made. Directors J. Lee Thompson and Blake Edwards were approached, but the film’s producer Arthur P. Jacobs, upon the advice of Charlton Heston, chose Franklin J. Schaffner to direct the film. Schaffner’s changes included creating a more primitive ape society, instead of the more expensive idea of having futuristic buildings and advanced technology. Filming took place between May–August 1967, mostly in California and Arizona, with the opening scene shot at Lake Powell, Utah. The film’s budget was approximately $5,800,000.
The film was released on February 8, 1968, in the United States and was a commercial success, gaining $32,589,624 at the international box office. The film was groundbreaking for its prosthetic makeup techniques by artist John Chambers, and was well received by critics and audiences, launching a film franchise, including four sequels, as well as a short-lived television show, animated series, comic books, various merchandising, and eventually a remake in 2001 and a reboot in 2011. In particular, Roddy McDowall had a long-running relationship with the Apes series, appearing in four of the original five films (absent, apart from a brief voiceover, from the second film of the series, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, in which he was replaced by David Watson in the role of Cornelius), and also in the television series.
In 2001, Planet of the Apes was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Astronauts Taylor (Charlton Heston), Landon (Robert Gunner), Dodge (Jeff Burton) and Stewart (an uncredited Dianne Stanley) are in deep hibernation when their spaceship crash-lands in a lake on an unknown planet, after a 2006-year voyage at near-light speed (during which the crew ages only 18 months due to time dilation). However, due to an air leak, Stewart’s suspended animation equipment fails. The astronauts awaken to find her body desiccated and their ship sinking in the lake. They use an inflatable raft to reach shore. Before departing the ship, Taylor notes that the current year is AD 3978. Once ashore, Dodge performs a soil test and pronounces the soil incapable of sustaining life.
Despite this, as the three astronauts set off through a desert, they gradually encounter plant life. They find an oasis at the edge of the desert and decide to go swimming, ignoring strange and eerie scarecrow-like figures. While they are swimming, their clothes are stolen. Pursuing the thieves, the astronauts find their clothes in shreds, their supplies pillaged and the perpetrators — a group of mute, primitive humans that are dressed with torn brown clothes — contentedly raiding a cornfield.
Suddenly, clothed gorillas on horseback charge through the cornfield, brandishing firearms, snares, and nets, which they use to capture whatever humans they can and kill those they cannot. While fleeing, Dodge is killed, Landon is knocked unconscious, and Taylor is shot in the throat. The gorillas take Taylor to Ape City, where his life is saved by two chimpanzee scientists, animal psychologist Zira (Kim Hunter) and surgeon Galen (Wright King). Upon awakening, Taylor — now housed in a cage with a girl whom he later calls Nova (Linda Harrison) — discovers that his throat wound has rendered him mute.
Taylor discovers that the apes, who can talk, are in control and are divided into a strict caste system: the gorillas as police, military, hunters and workers; the orangutans as administrators, politicians, lawyers and religious clerics; and the chimpanzees as intellectuals and scientists. Humans, who cannot talk, are considered feral vermin and are hunted for sport and either killed outright, enslaved for manual labor, or used for scientific experimentation.
Animal psychologist Zira and her fiancé, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), an archaeologist, take an interest in Taylor, whom Zira has named “Bright Eyes”. Taylor attempts to communicate by writing in the dirt, but his writings are hidden by the girl Nova and Cornelius’s boss, an orangutan named Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans). Eventually, Taylor steals paper from Zira and uses it to write messages to her. Zira and Cornelius become convinced that Taylor is intelligent, but upon learning of this, Zaius orders that Taylor be castrated.
Taylor manages to escape and during his flight through Ape City he finds himself in a museum, where Dodge’s corpse has been stuffed and put on display. Shortly thereafter, Taylor is recaptured by gorillas; finding that his throat has healed, he angrily addresses them, shouting “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” Back in his cell, Taylor is separated from Nova and the warden Julius (Buck Kartalian) sprays Taylor with water.
The apes hold a tribunal to determine Taylor’s origins run by the President of the Assembly (James Whitmore), Dr. Zaius, and Dr. Maximus (Woodrow Parfrey) with Dr. Honorious (James Daly) as the prosecution. Taylor tells of his two comrades and at this point the court produces Landon, who has been subjected to a lobotomy that has rendered him catatonic.
After the tribunal, Dr. Zaius privately threatens to lobotomize Taylor if he doesn’t tell the truth about where he came from. With help from Zira’s socially-rebellious nephew Lucius (Lou Wagner), Zira and Cornelius free Taylor and Nova, taking them to the Forbidden Zone, a region outside of Ape City subject to an ancient taboo that has remained quarantined for centuries. A year earlier, Cornelius led an expedition into the Forbidden Zone and found a cave containing artifacts of a previous non-simian civilization. The party then set out for the cave to answer the questions Taylor has about the evolution of the ape world and to prove he is not of their world.
Arriving at the cave, Cornelius is intercepted by Dr. Zaius and his soldiers. Taylor holds them at bay, warning he’ll shoot them if necessary. Zaius agrees to enter the cave, both to disprove their theories and to avoid any physical harm to Cornelius and Zira. Cornelius displays the remnants of a technologically advanced human society pre-dating simian history. Taylor identifies some of the more recent artifacts as dentures, a pair of prescription glasses, a heart valve and, to the apes’ astonishment, a talking children’s doll. As more soldiers appear, Lucius is overpowered, but Taylor again holds them off. He then ties up Zaius to make sure he and Nova are not followed.
Dr. Zaius admits that he has always known that human civilization existed long before apes ruled the planet. He explains that “the Forbidden Zone was once a paradise, [man] made a desert of it… ages ago!”. Taylor is skeptical, and prepares to leave in search of answers. Zaius warns him that he may not like what he finds. Once Taylor and Nova have ridden away on horseback with food and a gun, Dr. Zaius has the gorillas lay explosives to seal off the cave and destroy the remaining evidence of the human society while having Zira, Cornelius and Lucius charged with heresy.
Taylor and Nova, at last free from Zaius and the others, follow the shoreline and eventually discover the charred remnants of the Statue of Liberty, thus revealing that this “alien” planet, which previously had a human civilization long before apes ruled, is actually post-apocalyptic Earth.
Learn more about the concepts, principles and symbolism behind the subliminals found in this film: