Yet another repackaging of the original Fox film series (1968-1973), Planet of the Apes - The Legacy Collection is a much less-expensive alternative for those who don't have $180 to indulge on a big ape head and a bunch of DVDs, or those who like the movies but don't especially want the mediocre 1974-75 live-action series or the even worse Saturday morning cartoon show. The 16:9 widescreen transfers presented here are extremely good, so those with Fox's older 4:3 letterboxed editions might want to consider chucking those for these splendiferous transfers.
The Legacy Collection includes the original Planet of the Apes (1968) and its four sequels - Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). A few of the extra features included on past editions are here, including Behind the Planet of the Apes, the excellent feature-length documentary produced in 1998.
Planet of the Apes is by far the best of the bunch, one of the all-time best science fiction films ever, a timeless classic. Charlton Heston stars as sardonic, misanthropic astronaut (George) Taylor, a man who so dislikes humanity that he gladly hops aboard a spacecraft racing at near-light speed into the distant future. His spacecraft crash lands on a planet where humans are mute slaves to a 19th-century-like society of talking apes, and to save himself Taylor ironically must make the case for humanity.
Audiences that flocked to this runaway hit in 1968 were awed by John Chambers' innovative ape makeup, latex appliances that completely obscured the actors' identity yet were subtle and flexible enough that the actors were able to achieve a surprisingly wide range of expression. In point of fact, Chambers had been creating similarly expressive makeups in films and in television for several years prior to Apes. What really sold them to audiences was the picture's superlative screenplay, direction, cinematography, acting, and film score.
Former blacklistee Michael Wilson (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia) greatly improves upon Rod Serling's impractical adaptation of Pierre Boulle's satirical novel, especially in terms of its character relationships. At the heart of the film is the conflict between Science Minister Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), an intellectual orangutan who refuses to accept what he long has known to be true, that in spite of age-old ape religious beliefs about Divine Creation, intelligent human beings preceded ape culture, and that apes had evolved from its remnants.
Taylor, with the help of bemused chimpanzees Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) make the mistake of trying to reason the unreasonable: Taylor's very existence threatens the world Zaius has been charged with protecting.
Director Franklin J. Schaffner, working with cinematographer Leon Shamroy, belies his television background with an intensely cinematic sensibility throughout. Shot mostly on location in Utah and at the Fox Ranch and Zuma Beach in Malibu, the pair uses these locations exceedingly well, creating a genuinely alien atmosphere with little in the way of optical effects. Adding enormously to the overall atmosphere is Jerry Goldsmith's groundbreaking atonal film score, still probably one of the Top Ten movie soundtracks of all-time.
The acting, too, is extremely good. Shakespearian Evans famously could be quite broad, but filtered through all that makeup he comes off extremely well, giving probably the picture's best performance. Though Heston's teeth-baring, "Damn you all to Hell!" expletives would subsequently become the butt of merciless parody, it's exactly right for the character: someone less cold-blooded, less cynical and larger-than-life would never have survived Taylor's ordeal.
Roddy McDowall reportedly preferred playing the innocuous Galen of the Planet of the Apes TV series to the pessimistic, pragmatic Cornelius of the first Apes film but he was wrong. As a character, Cornelius has far more dramatic weight than the cuddly ape-heroes McDowall would play in Battle for the Planet of the Apes and the 1974 TV show.
None of the sequels could touch the original, though Conquest comes fairly close, and Beneath and Escape have their moments. (Battle, on the other hand, is almost a complete failure.)
(It's worth noting that while this reviewer watches these films now with a critical eye, he also remembers the terrific excitement seeing the first four movies for the first time in the early-1970s, at the height of Ape-mania**, and how, back then, they were just about the most thrilling movies imaginable.)
Planet of the Apes made do with a adequate $5.8 million budget but the sequels, of which all but Escape were similar in scope, were forced into production with much less money. Beneath cost around $3 million, less even than Fox's concurrent Myra Breckenridge (!), and a tiny fraction of what Hello, Dolly! and Tora! Tora! Tora!; Escape came in at just $2 million; Conquest and Battle were little more than pricey TV movies, at $1.6 and $1.7 million respectively.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes offers some of the series' best and worst ideas, with Taylor's would be astronaut rescuer Brent (James Franciscus) visiting the former's old haunts, eventually falling into the hands of post-apocalyptic, "doomsday bomb"-worshiping mutants. The film was severely hamstrung by Heston's abject refusal to appear in the film beyond a few brief scenes at the beginning and end, a budget that meant cutting too many corners (e.g., the overly familiar Red Rock Canyon standing in for the Forbidden Zone) and a script all-too-clearly cobbled together by committee of executives.
Heston's departure left Franciscus's arrival extremely awkward and his adventures during the film's first half redundant. Still, budget aside there was simply no excuse for the complete absence of any characterization. Brent's an astronaut. That's it. We know nothing about him at all, much less in fact than his "skipper," Captain Maddox (Tod Andrews), and he dies about 90 seconds after being introduced. We know nothing about Brent's background while his reactions to Ape City and the remains of Midtown Manhattan simply echo Taylor's without adding anything new. The same holds true for Taylor's mute lover Nova (Linda Harrison), who's dragged through the entire picture with nothing to do. Couldn't writers Paul Dehn and Mort Abrahams come up with a scene where Brent tries to tell Nova a little bit about himself while trying to learn something about her?
Worse, the picture tries to liken ape militarism and chimpanzee opposition to it to the war in Vietnam and antiwar protests. Unfortunately, this is so badly done as to be completely embarrassing. The scene reportedly was shot against director Ted Post's wishes, and while there's some evidence that he tried to improve what was already a troubled production, his skills were just not up to the task.
The reduced budget is most apparent in scenes involving the apes. Where the first film had suggested an entire ape civilization, Beneath's badly chosen camera angles of the same sets imply a village of perhaps 100 gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans. The army of General Ursus (James Gregory) was beefed up with opticals trebling the number of extras, and while the use of masks and partial makeups for background extras really isn't any worse than the first film, unforgivable are Beneath's major gaffs when actors' teeth poke out from behind the false "ape" choppers and, in one especially glaring error, an extra's pink forearm is clearly seen between the sleeve of his gorilla "arm" and made-up ape hand. Why this error wasn't simply trimmed out of the picture is a complete mystery.
Despite all this, the picture's second half comes to life as Brent and Nova discover the cavern-encrusted remains of New York City and are eventually drawn to the mutants' lair. (Leonard Rosenman, whose very good score meshes quite well with Goldsmith's original while offering a personality all its own, wisely chooses not to underscore these scenes.) Eerily realized via simple mattes and imaginative art direction by William J. Creber and Jack Martin Smith, these scenes are otherworldly and singularly captivating.
Third entry Escape from the Planet of the Apes is both clever and budget-conscious, bringing Zira (Hunter) and Cornelius (McDowall) to present-day Los Angeles. The film rather ingeniously reverses the set-up of the first film, with the two chimpanzees (with the help of human counterparts, zoologists played by Bradford Dillman and Natalie Trundy) forced to defend themselves against those who believe Zira's pregnancy threatens the very future of mankind.
Despite a severe case of the cutes, pedestrian direction (by former actor Don Taylor) and an appallingly bad gorilla costume (the worst this side of The Mighty Gorga) thwarting a key scene, Escape offers many fine moments. The characters played by Dillman and Trundy are pretty much cardboard and their scenes with Cornelius and Zira obvious and overacted, but Paul Dehn's script does well with presidential scientific adviser Dr. Hasslein (Eric Braeden), a character referred to in each preceding film; his growing obsession with saving mankind is intelligently handled, and Braeden has several good scenes with William Windom's skeptical U.S. President.
The ingenious if badly staged twist at the end of Escape sets up the best of the Apes sequels, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which overcomes a grievously low budget thanks to director J. Lee Thompson and writer Paul Dehn's imagination and ingenuity. In one sense, the star of Conquest isn't Roddy McDowall (now playing Milo/Caesar, the adult son of Zira and Cornelius) nor the ever-fascinating makeups, but rather Century City, the former 20th Century-Fox backlot-turned-austere urban metropolis. Ingeniously, the brand-new Century City Mall and nearby office buildings, with the help of a few matte paintings, is convincingly transformed into a totalitarian city of the near future***, where Neo-Con types lord over a growing population of mute ape-slaves.
Literally by walking across the street, Conquest's cast and crew were thus able to access Samuel Bronston-scale "sets" at virtually no extra cost, while Thompson's subtle use of the location feels appropriately oppressive and futuristic, even now. Dehn's script is also very good, an edgy tale of slaves pushed to the brink of revolt, and how one of its human oppressors, nicely essayed by Don Murray, unwittingly provides Caesar the means for the apes to overthrow their masters.
Besides Murray and McDowall (giving his best performance as an ape), the excellent, offbeat cast includes a revelatory performance by former Second City comedian Severn Darden as State Security Inspector Kolp, whose casual approach to torture is truly unsettling; and Ricardo Montalban, reprising his humanist circus owner character from Escape. Hari Rhodes, as Murray's aide, is also quite good as an African-American unnerved by man's enslavement of the apes, and who can't help but liken the plight of the apes to that of his own ancestors.
Where the Vietnam connection in Beneath had been as subtle as a sledgehammer, what might have been a potentially tasteless if not downright racist analogy in Conquest is handled with such care that, reportedly, inner-city audiences cheered when the apes finally revolt, igniting the futuristic society with a fury recalling the not-so-distant race riots of the late-1960s.
Indeed, Conquest proved so incendiary that worried Fox executives ordered the film substantially altered: the violence was toned down, and a new ending was crudely fashioned in the editing room in which, rather than end the film with Murray's character graphically beaten to death at Caesar's command, the ape leader instead unconvincingly pleas for an end to the bloodshed. Although Ape fans are all abuzz about this set's "Extended Edition" of the much inferior Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Thompson's original cut of Conquest is the real Holy Grail of the series. That it hasn't turned up yet suggests that it's probably lost forever, but it may still exist, somewhere.
Tree houses, a schoolbus, and a pet squirrel named Ricky figure prominently in Battle for the Planet of the Apes the threadbare "final chapter" in the Planet of the Apes saga. The juvenile screenplay by John William and Joyce Hooper Corrington is like a cloying morality play that only treads water story-wise. Fox had already decided to move the franchise to television before production began with the film crassly green-lighted to squeeze a few extra bucks out of the drive-in market.
Nothing about the picture works. Determined to make a G-rated family film, producers Arthur P. Jacobs (who died days after its release), Frank Capra Jr. and the Corringtons abandoned its predecessor's chaotic violence and thrilling tension for treacly sentiment and portentous dialogue, capped by a ludicrous, nonsensical final shot that brings this remarkable series to an ignominious close.
Inflation drove its budget very slightly higher than the previous entry, but it nonetheless looks much cheaper. (Undoubtedly some of the added cost came from moving all those costumed extras and equipment to the Fox ranch in Malibu, compared to the Century City-based Conquest.) Tellingly, the makeups look worse than ever, with the orangutans now wearing helmet-like blonde wigs.
The story is apparently set only a few years after the ape revolt that climaxed Conquest, yet during the interval mankind has somehow destroyed itself in an apparently unrelated nuclear holocaust (never explained). The stage is set with a tenuous "Ape City," a bunch of treehouses and Ewok-like society ruled by Caesar (Roddy McDowall) and protected by thick-skulled gorilla General Aldo (Claude Akins). Elsewhere, in the radiated ruins of the Forbidden City, sadistic Kolp (Severn Darden), now governor of a mutating band of human survivors, plots one last assault on the former slaves.
The highly anticipated final battle is lamentably underfinanced, with about 50 apes fighting roughly 50 mutants. (Of course, audiences wouldn't have been too excited had the film's title been Skirmish on the Planet of the Apes.)
Fox's new "Extended Edition" DVD adds several minutes of screentime and very modestly improves the film a bit. The most notable addition is a subplot involving mutant Alma (France Nuyen), entrusted by Kolp to detonate the dreaded Alpha-Omega doomsday bomb should the apes prevail.
Video & Audio
All five films are presented in their original Panavision/Todd-AO 35 aspect ratios, with stellar 16:9 transfers that improve upon the older 16:9 DVDs released internationally. The later films don't appear all that different, but Planet of the Apes and, to a lesser extent, Beneath look exceptionally clean and sharp, free from dirt and age-related wear. Planet of the Apes offers myriad sound options: English Dolby Surround 5.1 and DTS, as well as French Dolby Surround and Spanish mono, along with English and Spanish subtitles. The sequels have English 5.1 Dolby Surround, the original English mono, and a French Mono track, as well as English and Spanish subtitles. Behind the Planet of the Apes (see below) is offered only in English Dolby Surround with English and Spanish subtitles. Each film comes with a terrific THX Optimizer that viewers can use not only to calibrate their sound systems, but also their television screens for maximum impact.
Regrettably, Planet of the Apes - The Legacy Collection offers few of the extras that are included on the pricier Ultimate Collection****. The Planet of the Apes disc appears to be the same: both include two Audio Commentary Tracks, the first by composer Jerry Goldsmith, the other with actors Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Natalie Trundy, and makeup supervisor John Chambers. (Sadly, all but Trundy have since passed away.) A breathlessly-paced Text Commentary by Eric Green, author of "Planet of the Apes as American Myth" is also included.
Behind the Planet of the Apes, included as a separate, sixth disc, is the wonderful feature-length documentary produced in 1998, with scads of rare footage and new interviews with, as implied above many key cast and crew members are no longer with us in 2006. (Indeed, host Roddy McDowall himself died within weeks of its premiere.)
Except for a notably paltry Photo Gallery on Beneath, the only other supplements are 4:3 letterboxed trailers for the series, all transfers dating back to the original laserdiscs. None of the makeup tests and promo films on the Ultimate Collection are duplicated here.
A combination of imagination, tenacity, good fortune and dumb luck contributed to the success of Planet of the Apes and its sequels. The pictures justly became a major pop phenomenon of the early-'70s, captivating several generations of audiences who still enjoy the films today. Planet of the Apes is as great as it ever was, and in a way no amount of CGI and makeup innovations can ever change that. The sequels bear up less well but are still entertaining and interesting in their own way, and this packaging of DVDs is a fine route to see them.
**When Battle finally made its network debut in 1974 I had to miss it: my parents made me attend my Boy Scout Troop's pinewood derby that evening. For years after I imagined Battle of the Planet of the Apes to be the greatest Apes film of them all. Little did I know.
***When MGM's employees, including this reviewer, unhappily abandoned their cozy Santa Monica offices for the utilitarian MGM Tower in Century City, several of us enjoyed spending lunch hours trying to figure out where various scenes from Conquest had been shot. Soon after, many of these instantly recognizable buildings were torn down or radically reconfigured.
****An extra I wish Fox had thought to include were the fun 45rpm book and record sets, which featured hilariously bad voice characterizations timed to badly-drawn comic book panels. They were a blast!
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.