Decades ago, well before Mark Wahlberg had learned to walk upright, Hollywood laughed at the idea of a world ruled by apes. But everything changed in 1968, when the first “Planet of the Apes” opened, proving that simians could indeed dominate less advanced Homo sapiens, or at least those Homo sapiens who buy movie tickets. A new 35th anniversary DVD package helps unearth the goofy, ironic charm that infused the original movie and helped give birth to a hairy new species of science fiction films.
The movie, with its occasional moments of chilling suspense, looks great in the DVD’s widescreen presentation. Although the two-disc set is stuffed with some dubious extras — a series of home movies taken on the set by actor Roddy McDowall could interest only the most prehensile of fans — other features shine.
Jerry Goldsmith, whose original score gave the film an un-nerving and primal atmosphere, provides a surprisingly interesting commentary track. The package’s treats also include an archival screen test with Edward G. Robinson reading the part of orangutan leader Dr. Zaius — Robinson withdrew from the movie partly because he dreaded all the makeup — and stills of paintings detailing the movie’s original vision. That more high-tech “Planet” with apes flying helicopters ultimately proved too expensive to shoot.
But perhaps the package’s best feature is a lengthy documentary called “Behind of the Planet of the Apes” and hosted by McDowall, who played a sympathetic chimp in the first film.
The movie, based on a sci-fi novel by French writer Pierre Boulle, tells of an embittered astronaut who travels into the future and lands in a world where pre-lingual humans are enslaved by apes. Boulle didn’t believe his story was suitable for the screen, and studio executives ridiculed the idea as the stuff of Saturday morning serials. Rod Serling co-wrote the screenplay and, according to the documentary, produced 30 drafts in one year.
The filmmakers eventually enlisted Charlton Heston, who, after star turns such as Moses and John the Baptist, said that he “liked the idea of talking monkeys.”
The biggest hurdle proved to be turning actors into convincing-looking apes. Actors had to sit for up to six hours a day for fur and latex facials. Once in costume, they preserved their make-up by smoking through cigarette holders and eating while looking in mirrors.
In the documentary, Kim Hunter, who plays the chimp Zira, describes trying to show emotion beneath the layers of make-up by keeping her facial muscles in constant motion and developing tics that, on any other planet, would simply have looked like over-acting.
One of the documentary’s more bizarre anthropological tidbits is how, off camera, the ape actors ended up keeping with their own kind — chimps with chimps, gorillas with gorillas, etc. The documentary also covers the four Planet of the Apes sequels, which chart the series’ devolution from intelligent sci-fi to mindless action flicks with diminishing budgets, and its final meltdown as a television series and cartoon.
Even knowing how far the apes will fall, however, it’s hard not to smile at the original, with its quirky tale and surprise ending that still packs a punch.