Let’s forget about Computer Generated Imagery and push-button special effects for a moment and go back to a time when a Science Fiction, Fantasy, Adventure masterpiece set the stage for every summer blockbuster to come. Without this masterpiece that was made real by almost sheer force of will, the idea that science fiction would ever rise above sub-B level production values was a nearly impossible thought. Without it, there could have been no Star Wars or the mindless onslaught of superhero drivel and their dubious sequels. Of course, the legacy of one particular film is greater than the marketing phenomena it pioneered but it cannot be denied, it was the original movie franchise that set the stage for everything to come.
It was also a time when creative vision was all about creating an alien world where everything was in fact, real. What you saw on screen was actually created by real human hands and existed in the real world, there were no virtual sets or digital effects. What you saw on screen really did exist and the incredible world you saw wasn’t streaming from some hard drive, it was photographed as it existed – as it had been created.
This one particular film innovated and influenced film production, distribution, and marketing in so many ways that’s really very difficult to find another film to compare it to, except perhaps The Wizard Of Oz. It’s true that every great film has an incredible backstory and every truly great film is a breakthrough in so many ways, this one particular cinematic idea achieved a great deal more. The Godfather is another example of how a mainstream blockbuster film raised the creative and artistic stakes considerably for everything that followed.
While the pioneering special effects achievements of 2001:A Space Odyssey were instrumental to the pragmatic production possibilities of Science Fiction films, the movie itself did nothing to make future Science Fiction films an economically viable proposition. In fact, it achieved nearly the opposite. There was another motion picture in production at the same time as Kubrick’s psychedelic space epic and that movie went on to pioneer in the area of set design, sound design, makeup, science fiction storytelling, and high production values and…Movies as a blockbuster marketing franchise …
This particular film is also just a great example of how movies and the making of movies is all about making the impossible, possible.
Especially by 1960s standards, it was a very distinctive and really an impossible concept for a general cinema audience and something which, in reality, to the novel writer himself, seemed to be an idea that would be impossible to film or even attempt to convey in cinematic terms. To begin with, it demanded that all of its leading cast members but one to appear on screen as apes – orangutans, chimpanzees, or gorillas throughout the whole unfolding of its storyline. On Feb. 8, 1968, The science-fiction film starring Charlton Heston had its world premiere in New York and the film was “Planet of the Apes”.
With significantly less talent and visionary stamina, the Arthur P. Jacobs and 20th Century-Fox movie version of Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes might have been yet another science-fiction movie fable which, in this instance, could have truly failed. Nevertheless, as produced by Arthur P. Jacobs and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, backed up by some of the biggest and most creative talent in Hollywood, it shines on the widescreen as a significantly mind-blowing, technically amazing adventure film that expertly combines spectacular action with an overtly clever stated “message” of rather substantial sociable relevance.
The challenge of course is that moviegoers needed to be led to go along with the ape characters as intelligent beings, capable of thought, speech, even technological and creative achievement. Actually, the film had to appear absolutely genuine and eliminate any sense of disbelief. Therefore with a tale and concept this challenging, the ape makeup had to be 100% completely believable. It had was also incredibly vital that the actors’ faces needed to be able to convey even the most subtle emotional and psychological reactions, otherwise, the viewers might never make any emotional response to the characters.
When film production began more than 50 years ago, nobody ever imagined it would last into the 21st. Century. In fact, most involved weren’t even sure if the original movie would ever get off the ground.
In fact, those early tests for art direction, makeup, costumes, casting, and even problems with the screenplay were so challenging that the film’s production was delayed for more than 2 years.
The premise of the book and the original story was so incredibly radical that the filmmakers absolutely knew they needed to create a landscape and cinematic vision that looked realistic and threatening. Their biggest worry was almost naive in retrospect because they truly feared the audience would laugh at the idea of intelligent apes.
In 1963, in a followup to his other successful novels, French author of The Bridge On The River Kwai, Pierre Boulle published another great and popular novel, “La Planete Des Singes”. This book was translated in 1964 as Monkey Planet by the British author Xan Fielding. The book was an immediate success and was highly commended as “Classic Science Fiction”, humorous and insightful satire.
The book takes place in the entire year 2500 when a team of astronauts, including journalist Ulysse Merou, set out on a voyage into strange territory in the star system of Betelgeuse. They come to discover a strange world where intelligent apes are the dominant species and humans are just primitive savages, caged in zoos, and used in lab experiments, vivisected and sadistically hunted for sport.
The narrative focuses on Ulysse’s capture by the apes, his fight to survive in this strange upside-down world, combined with the shocking realization as he returns to Earth and his last horrific discovery. While the framework is science fiction, the story is also a clever commentary on modernism, technology,, media, and the relationship between animal and man – and mankind’s relationship with itself.
Pierre Boulle, the author of Bridge Over The River Kwai, released his next French-language novel “La Planete Des Singes” in 1963 and British author Xan Fielding translated it into English the following year. In January 1965, producer Arthur P. Jacobs was seeking to produce the motion picture adaptation with Warner Bros., and director Blake Edwards of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and the Pink Panther film series was on board to helm the complex film.
Based on the success of Bridge On The River Kwai, as both book and film by director, David Lean and the enthusiasm over Monkey Planet, producer Arthur P. Jacobs had purchased the rights to the novel ahead of its publication in 1963. The exact truth of what transpired and in what specific order, however, is in some dispute, as the low budget producers, the King Brothers also planned to make the film version.
But just a few weeks later, Jacobs and Warner Bros. stated that there would be an 18-month delay for pre-production, research, and development before any cameras would roll. Of course, it turned out to be much longer. That’s when the Warner Bros. deal fell apart and Jacobs pitched the concept to numerous studios but with little success. After Jacobs developed a powerful debut as the producer of What A Way To Go! He was finally able to convince Fox Vice- President Richard D. Zanuck to fund the production of Planet of the Apes. In October 1966, Planet Of The Apes was suddenly at 21st. Century Fox, as a joint production venture between the studio and Jacobs’ Apjac Productions. In the week that followed, the production team announced that Rod Serling was on board as screenwriter and would star Charlton Heston and would be directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, who worked with Heston on Universal’s The War Lord in 1965 but everything wasn’t quite that simple…
The very first and original screenplays of course were the ongoing work of Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, although many of his ideas were eventually discarded for many pragmatic and logistical concerns. Over the course of several years, Serling had completed an incredibly high number of revisions and versions of the script. Serling’s vision however simply couldn’t be produced and the real reason was the price. The futuristic ape society and other significant science fiction elements of Serling’s script, which followed the essence of Boulle’s book, would have entailed a huge production budget buried in costly sets and special effects.
It was a suggestion from Director Franklin J. Schaffner, that imagined an ape society of a more primitive nature, which he thought would make for more pragmatic movie making and likewise give the film a more alien atmosphere. Serling’s work wasn’t entirely abandoned however because his stylized twist ending remained in place. While some say that director Blake Edwards conceived the idea, it was clearly a hallmark of Rod Serling and it was so shocking that it was kept extremely top secret. It has since become one of the most well-known film endings in the history of cinema. The precise place and condition and visibility of the Statue of Liberty truly transformed over many early storyboards. One particular version was set in a jungle, with the statue nearly completely buried while the other presented the discovered statue as completely destroyed.
Michael Wilson’s rewrite of the script maintained the fundamental structure of Serling’s screenplay however he rewrote all of the dialogue and place the script within a primitive society. Associate producer Mort Abrahams also stated that another uncredited author polished the final product ready version of the script. This forgotten screenwriter also rewrote dialog and contributed a number of the more comedic scenes. This new material was not in Serling’s or even Wilson’s drafts. As Abraham recalled, there were a few moments, like the one in which the judges mimic the “See no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil” routine was entirely improvised on set by director Franklin J. Schaffner.
Many of these whimsical and some say might even say silly touches, were kept in the final cut of the film due to the positive response from audiences during test screenings before the movie’s release. Throughout filming John Chambers, who was the artist and designer behind the brilliant prosthetic make-up used in the movie, held training sessions in 20th Century-Fox studios, where he mentored other make-up artists in the new techniques. Many revolutionary and modern motion picture special effects are the consequence of John Chamber’s amazing and visionary creative innovations and achievements.
The makeup tests had begun in early 1965 and the research and development of the incredibly innovative prosthetic makeup quickly became the most significant part of the film’s budget. There simply weren’t enough makeup artists in Hollywood and as a result, full classrooms and training sessions were established just to provide training for the new artform. The groundbreaking film production literally became a training school for many future makeup artists and technicians. Nothing of that scope had ever been done before.
The film really hinged on John Chamber’s work, if the makeup didn’t work there simply couldn’t be a movie. Prior to entering full pre-production of the film and to assure the Fox Studio a Planet of the Apes movie could actually be produced, the producers shot a short pilot scene based on one of Rod Serling drafts. The test used very primitive versions of this ape makeup but it was sufficient enough to convince the production team the idea was possible. On March 8th., 1966. Charlton Heston portrayed a prototypical version of Taylor, who was named Thomas in the test scene, as written by Serling, Edward G. Robinson appeared as Doctor Zaius, backed up by two Fox contract actors, James Brolin and Linda Harrison, who played Cornelius and Zira. Linda Harrison was studio chief Richard D. Zanuck’s girlfriend at the time. She later went on to play Nova in the 1968 film and its first sequel.
Cameras finally rolled on May 22, 1967, more than two years after the first announcement and several years after Jacobs first began development of the movie. The props and sets were complicated in the pre-CGI era, but the biggest challenge was the makeup: It needed to look very realistic. Security on the set was extremely tight. There were nearly 250 actors in the film and the studio didn’t allow any photography or media coverage until the movie was ready for release. The art department at 21st. Century Fox was on strict lockdown and all sketches, photographs and all creative work was under strict security supervision.
The production company and the studio insisted on maintaining complete secrecy because they wanted to the movie audience to be completely surprised. They also didn’t want any rival studios or hack producers ripping them off and getting to the box office first with some low budget variation. Boulle was credited for the screenplay because sadly, the movie’s true screenwriters, Carl Foreman, and Michael Wilson, had been blacklisted as communist sympathizers. The Motion Picture Academy finally gave Foreman’s and Wilson’s contributions and acknowledgment with awards in 1984.
Though shooting was initially planned to take place in England, the production was at some point moved to US locations, where the natural resources were better able to replicate a lifeless alien world. For the film’s opening and the Forbidden Zone sequences, production designers wanted a more ‘alien’ feel to the locations and so a decision was made to shoot some sequences in the Utah desert. Art director William Creber recalled, “I had done some work in Utah when I was up there on ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’, and I always felt that would be a great place to make a science fiction film. I had no idea that it ever would be applied, in fact, it wasn’t even my suggestion! It was Jack Martin Smith’s idea, the head of the Art Department.”
However, Franklin Schaffner credited Creber, who was art director George Steven’s film, ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ and he thought a spot near the area in which Stevens shot his picture would be perfect for Planet Of The Apes. A dam had been erected since Stevens shot his picture there and the water had backed up for nearly 185 miles. Creber scouted the area once again and came back convinced it would still be right for Planet Of The Apes.
Cinematographer Leon Shamroy made heavy use of hand-held Arriflex cameras, operated by Al Lebowitz, Irving Rosenberg, and Paul Lockwood, and mainly used a 35mm Panavision lens to shoot the film.
Director Franklin J. Schaffner explained the shooting of the opening ‘crash-landing’ of the spacecraft. To get the aerial shots for the crash-down the cameraman was on top of a World War I biplane. The crew also used a B-25 aircraft with a camera in its nose but the footage just didn’t seem to work. Finally, during post-production a combination of zoom-lens photography combined with reversing footage. The sequence works very well but it wasn’t planned that way, in the words of director Schaffner, the entire crash sequence was put together in the editing room out of desperation. .”
The spaceship, which has since been named the ‘Icarus’ or ‘Liberty 1’ by fans, was designed by production designer Bill Creber and set designer Holdereed Maxy. A well-constructed four feet long miniature of the front section of the sinking ship was made of sheet metal and sunk in the studio tank. A studio tank is a large water tank kept on all studio lots for the express purpose of using it for special effects shots. For the first crash-landing shot the nose-cone of the miniature was brass, unlike the full-size version which had a heavily weathered nose-cone. The scenes of the interior of the spacecraft were shot on a studio set built on a gimbal mount so it could be rotated upwards as the sinking begins.
The exterior footage of the crash site was shot at Lake Powell National Park on the Colorado River near Page, Arizona. The government permitted the film crew to shoot within the top security area at the foot of the nearby Glen Canyon Dam and it was the first time a movie crew had been allowed to do so.
Much of Planet of the Apes was filmed on location in the Arizona desert, in the middle of summer, with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees making the costumes and make-up even more excruciating to wear. In the early minutes of the film when the astronauts are roaming about the rocky countryside, a special cameraman followed them on a ‘sand-sled’ as they skidded down a steep bluff. The sand-sled was made from a piece of corrugated steel and two boards. Camera operator Paul Lockwood filmed with an Arriflex camera and a Panavision lens, which was nearly ruined by the rough ride and dust. Human figures seen running along the background cliff-tops in the Forbidden Zone were played by local residents from Page, Arizona.
Other film locations included Glen Canyon, Utah, Fox Ranch, Malibu, California, Malibu Creek State Park, Calabasas, California, Malibu, California, Cabo San Lucas, Baja California, Mexico, Westward Beach between Zuma Beach and Point Dume, California.
A man-made outdoor pool constructed for APJAC Productions’ previous movie, Dr. Doolittle was used for the scene in which the astronauts swim, complete with two-dozen firehoses to create a waterfall. When Art Director William Creber began his preliminary sketches of the simian city, he kept with the modernistic style of habitations which Pierre Boulle described in his book. But as time went on – and production costs continued to mount – the idea of such a complex setting was quickly abandoned in favor of the simple, less-complicated hut or cave dwellings. Around that time Twentieth Century-Fox’s Art Department was experimenting with a special type of polyurethane foam which could be sprayed from a gun and easily molded into any desired shape and was twenty times lighter than plaster. Pleased with the texture and durability of the substance, called NKC Coro-Foam, Ivan Martin, head of the studio’s construction department, fashioned the foam over skeletons made of pencil-thin iron rods and heavy craft paper. Parts of the Ape City exterior set were built of bent rebar frames, to which expanded wire mesh was attached. Over this, the studio sprayed “gunite” – a material similar to the stucco found on the outside of many domestic houses. The result was a speedy, economical, and realistic Ape City constructed on the Twentieth-Fox Ranch Lake in Malibu. The lake had been formed in 1901 by the building of a dam across Malibu Creek.
Filming finally wrapped on August 10, 1967. For the exciting climax of the film, the beach scenes were filmed on a very rugged stretch of California seacoast between Malibu and Oxnard with cliffs that towered 130 feet above the shore. Reaching the beach on foot was formidable and virtually impossible, as a result, cast, crew, film equipment, and even horses had to be lowered into the remote location by helicopter.
Moviegoers were thrilled with the thought-provoking and highly entertaining movie, that dealt with issues like evolution and mankind’s place in the universe. John Chambers’s pioneering prosthetics makeup earned him a special Academy Award. The movie likewise benefited from a highly notable supporting cast that included Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, James Whitmore, and James Daly. Also of considerable note is the remarkable work of composer Jerry Goldsmith who created the film’s amazingly innovative soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith.
The film was an incredible success and very likely saved the 20th. Century Fox studio from bankruptcy as well. It was a hit with both critics and fans and truly was one of the very first true Summer Blockbuster movies. The impact of Planet of the Apes has received particular attention from film critics and political historians for its treatment of racial issues and other social issues.
For a movie that was almost un-writable, un-filmable and just plain un-do-able, Planet Of The Apes, truly was a “world turned upside down” that turned the world upside down as both an incredible technical and creative achievement but as a significant cultural watershed moment that has affected so many aspects of our lives and the entertainment industry. Cinema and cultural analysts have explored its Cold War and animal rights themes. Planet Of The Apes has had a significant impact on film making and the motion picture industry in general. The legacy of that very first film has influenced subsequent films, media, and art, as well as popular culture and political discourse beyond virtually any other movie ever produced.