“Planet of the Apes” and the Hollywood Renaissance

This is a short anaysis paper I wrote for my Screenwriting MFA program this summer.  Enjoy!

Ask someone what they think of 20th Century Fox’s 1968 film, Planet of the Apes, and their likely response will be something akin to “it’s cool sci-fi” or “fun escapist entertainment.”  The good news for Apes, of course, is people remember it more than a half-century hence.  The film spawned a franchise that includes eight follow-up films, two television series, and an endless stream of tie-ins and merchandise.  It has earned a place among the greatest pop-culture phenomena of the late-Twentieth Century, and paved the way for future blockbuster franchises like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  What has been forgotten—or perhaps never quite cemented in the collective consciousness—is that, at the time of its release, Apes was seen as more than a fun, sci-fi romp.  It was deemed an important film, with Variety’s A.D. Murphy hailing it as “amazing…political-sociological allegory,” (Murphy) and lauded alongside other films (Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, and Easy Rider to name a few) associated with a cinematic movement of the late-1960s to mid-1970s characterized by “a brief period of radicalization and innovation, which became known as the Hollywood Renaissance.” (Kokonis, 169)  In fact, Planet of the Apes’ style, themes, and development point to it being a key contributing work of the Hollywood Renaissance.

Simply being “of the time” does not qualify a film to be considered part of The Hollywood Renaissance.  Rather, a film’s style, themes, and manner in which it was developed seem to be the predominant indicators that identify it with the movement.  From the late-1940s to mid-1960s, admissions to Hollywood productions ticked steadily downward.  Though the trend was originally attributed to the ascendant popularity of television, the actual culprit was a decline in popularity of tried and trusted genre films, which had been the bread and butter of Hollywood’s Golden Age. (Kokonis, 176; Langford, 120)  With America’s socio-political landscape in upheaval, audiences were no longer content with the “puerile and simplistic” fare Hollywood was churning out.  Instead, a growing preference for European films “signaled the rising expectations for more serious subject matter.” (Kokonis, 177)  The problem was so pervasive that, by the late-1960s, many Hollywood studios were on the verge of bankruptcy. (Kokonis, 170)  With the Hollywood studio system in shambles, studios heads looked to a “new breed of outsiders,” producers and directors unbound by the flagging studio contract system, to provide a shot of adrenaline to their flat-lining enterprises. (Kokonis, 189)  These filmmakers, many of whom had cut their teeth in television, brought with them a “radical skepticism about traditional American values” that was the antithesis of the American mythos that formed the bedrock of the Golden Age narrative. (Langford, 152)  As these maverick filmmakers retooled and skewered established genres, they injected a “freshness and sophistication” into their films.  They eschewed notions of propriety and technical correctness that had constrained Hollywood for decades, and they freely experimented with stylistic techniques associated with the European cinema, particularly those of the insurgent French New Wave.  (Kokonis, 189; Langford, 134, 146-147)

In terms of its development as a cinematic project, Apes had all the hallmarks of the Hollywood Renaissance.  Similar to other studios, 20th Century Fox saw its fortunes wane after World War II.  Its financial troubles became acute, however, with the box office failure of its 1963 epic, Cleopatra.  Fox was on the verge of bankruptcy (Royle) and needed a hit, which led newly minted president Richard Zanuck to take a chance on a project that independent producer Arthur P. Jacobs had shopped around for a few years, to no avail.  It was still an uphill battle for Jacobs to convince Zanuck to green light Apes, which was based on acclaimed French novelist Pierre Boulle’s satirical “allegory about morality,” (Ulin) a far cry from the fare Fox typically invested in.  A pioneer in the packaging practices that are commonplace today, Jacobs convinced Academy Award-winning actor and top box office draw Charlton Heston to sign onto the project.  With Heston attached, Zanuck reluctantly gave the project the go-ahead. (Burns)  From there, Jacobs assembled a team of visionaries that included hot television-turned-film director Franklin J. Schaffner, acclaimed stage and television writer Rod Serling, and Academy Award-winning (and formerly blacklisted) screenwriter Michael Wilson to create a film that The Hollywood Reporter heralded as appealing “to both the imagination and the intellect within a context of action and elemental adventure, in its relevance to the consuming issues of its time, by the means with which it provides maximum entertainment topped with a sobering prediction of the future of human folly.” (THR Staff)  The gamble paid off for Zanuck.  On a budget of $5.8 million, Apes went on to gross over $32 million at the U.S. box office alone. (Burns, Box Office Mojo)  It was a critical and commercial shot in the arm for the faltering studio.

Mort Abrahams, who was Jacob’s right hand throughout development and production on Apes, claimed everyone on the the project knew they were “doing a political film.”  (Burns)  Further, noted Apes scholar Eric Greene asserts that the film “depicted, commented upon, and engaged in, the painful convulsions of the changing times.  It was for this reason the studio could claim in Planet’s advertisements not only that the film was ‘unusual’ but also ‘important.’” (Greene, 9)  Apes’ commentary on race relations and racial stratification (Burns) is certainly in step with the zeitgeist of the late-1960s. Apes’ boldest departure from the Golden Age narrative, however, comes in the form of its main character, astronaut George Taylor, played by Charlton Heston.  Quite the opposite of the heroes Heston portrayed throughout his esteemed career, Taylor was “hardly a sympathetic character…quite happy to be leaving earth.  Taylor is arrogant, overbearing, [and] just waiting for a fall.” (Kim, 238-239)  Even more, as Pauline Kael mused in her review of Apes for The New Yorker, casting Heston to play such a character was “an enormous, many-layered black joke on the hero and the audience.”  She continues: “Physically, Heston, with his perfect, lean-hipped, powerful body, is a god-like hero; built for strength, he’s an archetype of what makes Americans win.” (Kael)  Taylor’s tumble from the stars to civilization’s “lowest level,” (Schaffner) was viewed as a cautionary tale about the absurdity of American arrogance, isolationism, and the pervasive sense that America was immune to the devastation that laid Europe low after World Wars I and II.  Heston as Taylor was, in fact, a warning to the audience: “if it can happen to Charlton Heston, it can happen to anyone.” (Kim, 239)  Apes’ commentary on timely political themes of racial tension and stratification, as well as its blistering rebuke of the American hero archetype, puts it up there among the most potent socio-political “problem pictures” of the Hollywood Renaissance. (Kokonis, 178)

While Planet of the Apes’ development and themes make it a prime candidate for inclusion in the pantheon of the Hollywood Renaissance, its style cements it as a member of the club.  Of course, the film’s Academy Award-winning make-up design and avant-garde music score are noteworthy nods to the European cinematic sensibilities Hollywood Renaissance filmmakers embraced, but certain formative aspects of Schaffner’s mise en scène speak loudest in terms of how Apes embraces these sensibilities, specifically those of the French New Wave.  Obviously inspired by the “camera as pen” approach of New Wave filmmakers (Hitchman), Schaffner employs dramatic handheld and zoom shots, as well as high-angle establishing and extreme long shots, in select scenes to visually convey a message apart from the story’s narrative.  Schaffner employs these techniques liberally at the start of the film, as Taylor and crew crash-land and make their way across the wasteland they will later learn is the apes’ “Forbidden Zone.”  The effect makes the viewer aware of the camera’s presence in the scene, a subtle signal that the viewer is part of the equation as they bear witness to the events unfolding.  At the same time, Schaffner’s establishing and extreme long shots are angled from high above the scenery and action.  His intention is to indicate the viewer-as-witness—literally looking down on everything and everyone—presumably enjoys a vaulted position in this world.  It’s not until near the end of the film, as Taylor returns to the Forbidden Zone, that the handheld and zoom shots reappear with any frequency.  Schaffner is reminding the viewer that they are, in effect, a character in this drama.  Then, as Taylor sets out to find “his destiny,” (Schaffner) Schaffner returns to the high-angle establishing and extreme long shots to further remind the viewer of their “vaulted” position in the story.  Finally, in the last scene, the camera pans across what the viewer will soon learn are the torch and crown of the ruined Statue of Liberty.  The camera is once again positioned at a high angle, looking down on Taylor in an extreme long shot.  Schaffner jiggles the camera and executes an unnatural zoom one final time—he wants the viewer to know they share the perspective of this thing that is about to be revealed, and that they and this thing are, in fact, one and the same.  Which means that, while on the surface, it appears the big twist of the movie is that Taylor has returned to a post-apocalyptic Earth over 2,000 years in the future, the real shocker is Schaffner has led the viewer to believe they are “above” everything they just witnessed, only to reveal that they are complicit in humanity’s eventual demise.

In his May 1968 commentary for Life magazine, Second Thoughts on Ape-Men, film critic Richard Schickel called Planet of the Apes “the best American movie I have seen so far this year.” (Kim, 240)  This is unexpected high praise for a film that the world has since relegated to the middling ranks of popcorn entertainment.  In reality, the film’s development, themes, and style have earned it a spot as an important and impressive representative work of the Hollywood Renaissance.

Works Cited

Burns, Kevin. Behind the Planet of the Apes. 20th Century Fox, 2000.

Greene, Eric. “Planet of the Apes” as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture. Wesleyan University Press, 1996.

Hitchman, Simon. “A HISTORY OF FRENCH NEW WAVE CINEMA.” New Wave Film.com | French New Wave / Nouvelle Vague and International Cinema of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, 2008, http://www.newwavefilm.com/about/history-of-french-new-wave.shtml.

Kael, Pauline. “PLANET OF THE APES (1968) – Review by Pauline Kael.” The New Yorker: Scraps from the Loft, 30 June 2017, scrapsfromtheloft.com/2017/06/30/planet-apes-1968-review-pauline-kael/.  original publication date: 2/17/1968

Kim, Erwin. Franklin J. Schaffner: Filmmakers, No. 9. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1985.

Kokonis, Michalis. Hollywood’s Major Crisis and the American Film “Renaissance” . http://www.enl.auth.gr/gramma/gramma08/kokonis.pdf.

Langford, Barry. Post-Classical Hollywood : Film Industry, Style and Ideology Since 1945. Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

Murphy, A.D. “Planet of the Apes.” Variety, 17 Feb. 1968, variety.com/1967/film/reviews/planet-of-the-apes-2-1200421584/.

“Planet of the Apes.” Box Office Mojo, http://www.boxofficemojo.com/franchises/chart/?id=planetoftheapes.htm.

Schaffner, Franklin J., director. Planet of the Apes. 20th Century Fox, 1968.

Royle, Alan. “How ‘Cleopatra’ (1963) Almost Sunk 20th Century Fox.” Historian Alan Royle, 3 May 2017, filmstarfacts.com/2017/05/03/cleopatra-1963-almost-sunk-20th-century-fox/.

Staff, THR. “’Planet of the Apes’: THR’s 1968 Review.” The Hollywood Reporter, 27 Mar. 2017, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/planet-apes-1968-review-i-original-movie-973869.

Ulin, David. “The Transformation of ‘Planet of the Apes,’ from Book to Movie Legend.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 14 July 2014, http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-transformation-of-planet-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-book-to-movie20140710-story.html.

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