While Planet of the Apes was a marvelous mixture of fantasy, science fiction, political satire and adventure, it’s sequel is a cheap and quick rewarming of those elements. It has the unshakable feel of being the earlier film’s TV remake with a TV-grade star (James Franciscus, TV’s “Longstreet”), a TV-Grade director (Ted Post, TV’s “The Twilight Zone”) and TV-grade production values that include recycled sets and cheap pull over masks (which is how this ties into my Halloween theme for the month). It’s a fairly crass sequel made simply because the studio was uncomfortable with a hit and needed to capitalize on the success.
Naturally, I love this first sequel. It’s called Beneath the Planet of the Apes and it is fascinating in its own shoddy way; including how it got made.
A Little History: At the time Planet of the Apes was released, 20th Century Fox was going through some growing pains. Movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck was transitioning out of his direct control of the studio and handing it over to his son, Richard D. Zanuck. The studio was also in a financial crunch as a string of movie musicals and expensive productions failed to wow movie-goers. It was almost the 1970s and trouble lurked around the corner for all the major studios, but with the success of Apes, Fox saw an opportunity to turn around its faltering bottom line. With costumes, make-up, and sets ready to go, it would be easy to quickly turn around a sequel and that’s just what producer Arthur P. Jacobs was ordered to do.
Granted, at that moment, Jacobs had no idea how to make a sequel happen.
I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that really praised Jacobs for having the vision to bring Planet of the Apes to the screen. He produced musicals and light entertainment, but it seems he always saw his talking monkey picture as something more serious and A-level. Keep in mind Jacobs also produced Goodbye, Mr. Chips.
Yet, when the Fox brass requested a sequel from him, he was not quick to agree or even pitch an idea. Associate producer Mort Abrahams claimed he walked into Jacobs’ office later that same afternoon with a kernel for what would be known as “Planet of the Apes Revisited.”
Beneath Scripting: The kernel, Abrahams recalled, was that shot of the Statue of Liberty in the Forbidden Zone. Now knowing that the story takes place somewhere near New York, what else could they find buried in the nuclear desert? With that in mind, Abrahams and Jacobs approach original novelist Pierre Boulle and “Apes” screenwriter Rod Serling to take the thread and run with it.
Boulle offered a treatment called “Planet of the Men” that saw Charlton Heston’s character 14 years older and teaching a tribe of humans to talk. He and his mute bride Nova also have a son named Sirius. Father and son eventually lead an uprising against the Ape society. Once humanity is restored to the dominant life-form on the earth, the apes are returned to captivity. The final moments of Boulle’s outline sees Dr. Zaius on display at a zoo.
Serling’s ideas concerned Taylor and Nova finding another spacecraft and either a.) escaping to another world and new adventures or b.) remaining on Earth to repopulate the world with intelligent humans.
All of these ideas were rejected as they failed to posses the startling imagery that made the first picture so fresh. Both also failed to build upon the shot of the Statue. A hybrid concept called “The Dark Side of the Earth” was commissioned. It featured an enduring story element: Taylor’s decision to blow up the earth and end the cycle of violence.
If only “Battlestar Galactica” had ended that way.
It is finally at this point that screenwriter and poet Paul Dehn enters the picture, as I mentioned in the first article, Dehn had something of a plan and he embedded it in his outline for “Planet of the Apes Revisted.” The story resembles the finished film with Taylor encountering a race of radiation scared human mutants, but the treatment also sees sapien and simian kind coming to an understanding. An epilogue was to reveal the existence of a half-ape/half-human child!
Of course, this being Dehn, a poet of the apocalypse, mutated Apes appear to tease a potential third film.
Where it starts to go wrong: While there’s some potential in those ideas, the actual writing turned out to be trouble. Director Don Medford fled the production because of the script and original star Charlton Heston planed to leave as well, which greatly troubled Ted Post, then man who would eventually direct the finished film.
Post had directed hundreds of hours of television by that point and the Clint Eastwood flick Hang ‘Em High. While not the flashiest or most gifted of filmmakers, Post was an able craftsman hobbled not only by a script he found without focus, but Fox’s decision to slash the budget in half in response to its own money troubles.
Soldiering on with limited resources, Post reused as much of the surviving sets from the first film that he could get. This results in the early portion of the movie feeling very much like a retelling of Planet of the Apes with James Franciscus stepping in for Heston.
Oh, right, the Heston thing!
The actor had walked, unsure about a sequel at all, but Post and studio head Richard Zanuck were able to talk Heston into appearing at the beginning and end of the film. Dehn altered his script to introduce a new lead human character, Astronaut Brent. Franciscus is very similar in tone, voice, and attitude to Heston. I’d even argue that he’s a better actor when given good material to work with. Unfortunately, he was mostly a TV actor — a term that meant something in the early 70s — and that stigma follows him into this production.
In the finished film, Brent and Nova make their way from Ape City to a half-buried New York now populated by telepathic human mutants who worship a doomsday bomb. As a luckily coincidence, Post was able to use sets constructed for Fox’s recent flop Hello, Dolly! to serve as his New York. Redressing them with decay and stalactites, they more or less do the job of showing a post-apocalyptic Manhattan. There, they also find Taylor and the two actors have an ham-off before the apes invade.
While I’m trying to be charitable to the people who made the film, the scene where Brent and Taylor fight is supremely cheesy and indicative of just how little Heston and Franciscus cared about the film by that point. It’s hilarious to watch, but in researching the film for this article, I learned that Heston was genuinely embarrassed by his performance. Now spending more time on the film than he ever planned, Heston suggested that they alter the peaceful ending for one far more bleak: he wanted to blow up the Planet of the Apes.
This worked out fine for the producers, who had come to a creative impasse on the ape/human hybrid child. The popular myth is that the implied sex between species would cost the film its G rating, but its more likely that the problem came down the uninspired and silly make-up effects.
Also, the situation within Fox’s top brass was a drama all its own. The elder Zanuck had returned and ousted his son from the top job. Richard Zanuck, now packing up his belongings and preparing to embark on a journey that would see him jump-starting the blockbuster era with Jaws, was more than fine with the nuclear option.
Post, however, was deeply disturbed by the film’s bleak ending. Always an optimist, he hoped to find some way to indicate that life survived. He campaigned for Nova to escape, pregnant with Taylor’s child, but she ended up shot by a gorilla. Franciscus also hoped to see Brent survive, but he would also end up bullet-riddled. There was simply no budging on the issue as everyone at the executive level believed this would be the final “Apes” adventure. The scorched earth ending was as good as any other, so the film ends with voice actor Paul Frees intoning the following words:
In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.
Despite all of this, life found a way and Dehn was told to write another “Apes” script.
What’s it all about? This project began with a great big heap of cynicism at the top level. No one really wanted this puppy and it got pushed aside for other, more immediate concerns. The studio was in massive flux, the script was never really whipped into shape, and the principle creative elements that brought the first film together wisely steered clear of it except for one man who was smart enough to put a bullet in its head. I always hate it when filmmakers use the term “uncompromising vision” because film is inherently an exercise in compromise, but Beneath the Planet of the Apes is very much an example of a “compromised vision” in the sense that it was shot in the kneecaps before a frame was filmed. In the end, it goes down as the most troubled Apes production — including that abortion of a remake Tim Burton made– but it’s still loveable all the same.
I think the trouble behind the scenes shows through both in a negative and positive sense. The small budget is obvious, but so is the dedication of director Ted Post. He tried his best under circumstance few feature directors ever face (except, oddly enough, when shooting a sequel for 20th Century Fox). The story hints at so many interesting ideas, but never hits one square on and explores it. It’s severely hampered by Heston’s reticence toward it, but Franciscus is a totally fine replacement. So much so, I didn’t realize the switch had happened the first time I ever saw it. It also lays the groundwork for the subsequent films as Dehn continued playing with the themes in hopes of returning to this film’s time period and, perhaps, rewriting history.
In the end, we have a scrappy, silly, movie about talking monkeys, mutant humans, and a theological love of the Bomb. If that isn’t the perfect metaphor for a 1960s hangover, I don’t know what is.