Planet of the Apes (1968)

planet of the apes 1968 film review

The unanticipated success of 1968’s Planet of the Apes began the longest running English-language film series other than James Bond and helped pave the way for the Hollywood of today where it seems every other movie released is part of a film franchise. The original film was followed by four sequels and a TV series. There were Planet of the Apes comics, toys, lunch boxes, and conventions. After a gap 28 years the series was rebooted with Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001) followed by Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017). Besides its influence on the film industry, the series has had a strong impact on popular culture and even entered into political discourse.

It all began in 1963 with the short novel, La Planète des singes, by Pierre Boulle, who also wrote The Bridge over the River Kwai. The novel is a satire influenced by Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. He didn’t consider it a work of science fiction nor did the director of the original film, Franklin Schaffner: “I had never thought of this film in terms of being science fiction. More or less, it was a political film, with a certain amount of Swiftian satire, and perhaps science fiction last.” Boulle’s intention was to critique our over-reliance on technology which he saw as the cause of declining intelligence amongst humans.

American film producer Arthur P. Jacobs bought the rights to the novel and hired Rod Serling to write the screenplay. Serling’s script bears little resemblance to the the final film but his thematic contributions were significant. He emphasized humanity’s cruelty to animals such as hunting for sport and medical experiments, a theme which is also present in the novel. By reversing the roles of humans and animals, the audience experiences the horrors of being hunted or subjected to medical experiments. He also introduced the theme of man’s destructiveness and eventual nuclear self-annihilation, though over Boulle’s objection. I believe it is Serling’s writing in the sacred scrolls produced by Dr. Zaius at the end of the film with its warnings about men:

Beware the beast man, for he is the devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land. Let him not breed in great numbers for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him. Drive him back into his jungle lair – for he is the harbinger of death.

Ironically, this echoes the message to Earth recorded by the film’s hero/antihero, Taylor, at the beginning of the film when he asks if people still make war against their brother and keep their neighbor’s children starving. Though it is natural to identify with Taylor despite his misanthropy, and view Dr. Zaius, his chief antagonist, as a villain, the latter is really the hero of the film for trying to prevent mankind from becoming dominant again via Taylor, for he knows that mankind destroyed the planet ages ago. Objecting to the destruction of the cave with evidence of an earlier civilization in which humans were dominant, Zira’s nephew asks him “What about scientific progress? What about the future?” Zaius replies “I may have just saved it for you.” I also think Serling wrote the final lines of the film spoken by Taylor when he realizes that mankind has destroyed itself: “Goddamn you all to hell!” Serling’s criticisms of mankind may seem misanthropic but apparently he cared enough about humans or perhaps just other forms of life on this planet to use this film as an attempt to lead us away from the path towards global destruction.

Concerned that the cost of producing Serling’s screenplay would be prohibitive, Michael Wilson, who had adapted Boulle’s The Bridge over the River Kwai for the screen, was brought on board for a rewrite. Wilson had been blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and so received no credit for his Oscar-winning screenplay. Wilson contributed the film’s allegorical references to race issues and the Vietnam War. In the early sixties, when America felt threatened by the expansion of communism and anti-colonialism, Hollywood produced many films that promoted the myth of America as the defender of civilization in an effort to reassure audiences that the West would continue to reign supreme. Charlton Heston was frequently cast as the hero in these types of films such as in El Cid (1961), where he plays a white man fighting against North African Muslims, 55 Days at Peking (1963), where he fights hordes of Chinese, and Khartoum (1966), where he battles Arabs. By the time filming began for Planet of the Apes in 1967, for audiences, Heston had become a symbol for Western Civilization itself. Thus he was the perfect choice to play the last representative of the West thrust into a world in which he is helpless and his efforts to defend his civilization are pointless because, as he eventually learns, it has already disappeared. Taylor’s impotency parallels America’s hopeless situation in Viet Nam.

The story is that the film’s producers didn’t recognize its racial undertones until Sammy Davis Jr. pointed it out to them. In the novel, racial hierarchy amongst the apes, though once present, had been eliminated. In the film, it is apparent that the light-skinned orangutans are in a position of authority, dark-skinned gorillas are assigned to menial labor and law enforcement, while chimpanzees form the intelligentsia, doctors, scientists, etc. In Eric Greene’s  in-depth analysis of the film series, Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture he states that the orangutans represent the dominant white culture, gorillas represent blacks, and chimpanzees represent Jews, who are “on the periphery of the power system and not fully sharing all of its privileges.” Perhaps more obvious is the sense in which the subjugation of one species by another serves as an allegory for the subjugation of one race by another. This theme became much more explicit in 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).

Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score also deserves to be mentioned. According to Goldsmith, it’s the first feature length film with an entirely avant-garde score. Goldsmith and the producers are also to be commended for knowing when not to use music, such as when Taylor and crew first begin wandering around the desolate landscape after their crash landing. The silence adds to the sense of desolation. At the end of the film, as the credits roll, there is only the sound of the ocean waves on the soundtrack, which helps the power of the film’s final image and message sink in.

For further reading I highly recommend Eric Greene’s aforementioned book, from which I have gleaned most of the insights expressed here. He also provided the text commentary for the Planet of the Apes 35th Anniversary Edition DVD.

★★★★★★★★☆☆ (8/10) Planet of the Apes at imdb.com

Rip van Wyk (1960)

rip van wyk film review

This South African modern take on the Rip Van Winkle story is set in 1859 and 1959. Rip van Wyk is a simple farmer from a small village who’s a crack shot with a rifle. He’s in love with the daughter of an innkeeper, Rina, who also loves him but he’s too shy to ask her to marry him. At a celebration at the inn he is tricked into drinking some hard liquor by his opponent in a shooting match which causes him to lose the contest. On his way home he meets a mysterious well dressed stranger who persuades him to drink a potion after which Rip immediately falls asleep. Upon awakening he finds himself in a strange new world and he eventually discovers that he has slept for 100 years but unlike the original story, he hasn’t aged. He happens to see a woman whom he takes to be Rina (played by the same actress) but his insistence that he knows her leads to his arrest and confinement in the home of a psychiatrist. From time to time the mysterious stranger reappears but always vanishes when Rip tries to show him to anyone else. The stranger’s motivation for transporting Rip to the future remains a mystery to Rip and the viewer until the end. The tone of the film is lighthearted but the ending is quite touching.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

Rip van Wyk at imdb.com

As of June, 2016 Rip van Wyk is available for streaming at rarefilmm.com

The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola (1913)

the extraordinary adventures of saturnino farandola film review

Marcel Fernández Peréz (1884-1929) was born in Madrid and began his career as a circus clown in Paris. After appearing in a few French comedy films he signed up with Ambrosio Films, an Italian production company, starring in and directing several films. For these films he was known as Robinet but he had many other aliases including Marcel Fabre, Michel Fabre, Fernandea Perez, Tweedy, Tweedledum, and Twede-Dan. Ten of his films, five made in Italy and five in America, were released on DVD in 2015 as The Marcel Perez Collection. In 1913, while still working for Ambrosio Films and according to some sources, Perez released a series of 18 films in serial form based on the 1879 novel The Extraordinary Voyages of Saturnino Farandola, in the Five or Six Parts of the World and in All Countries Known and Unknown to Mr. Jules Verne. Other sources indicate that the work originally appeared as four featurettes. It tells the story of Saturnino Farandola, who as an infant was the only survivor of a shipwreck and drifted to an island where he was raised by monkeys. Eventually he is rescued and has a series of outlandish adventures around the world which include escapades under the ocean and an aerial battle involving hot air balloons. The imaginative way in which these scenes are rendered certainly owes much to the films of Georges Méliès, who made his final film the year previous. Lobster Films restored the surviving material for a 1997 DVD release, editing it into a single 100 minute feature though I’ve read that one of the sections was abridged. As far as I can tell the DVD is no longer available but has been uploaded to YouTube and includes the excellent score. There’s no English translation of the Italian intertitles but the film is still enjoyable even if you don’t always understand what’s going on.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola at imdb.com

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2W0lRsGJVG8

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

the thief of bagdad film review

I never saw The Thief of Bagdad as a kid so for me it doesn’t provoke any nostalgia that might cause me to consider it a better film than it really is. Without question the production is lavish, the color spectacular, and the special effects cutting edge for 1940. It deservedly won Oscars for Best Art Direction, Cinematography, and Special Effects. Conrad Veidt, who played the somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and would go on to play Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942) certainly gives an excellent performance as Jaffar, the film’s villain as does Sabu as Abu, the titular thief of Bagdad. Despite all these merits, coming to this as an adult I can only regard the film as juvenile popcorn fare. I found the story and people behind the film’s production much more interesting, all of which one can learn about from the plethora of bonus features found on Criterion’s two disc edition.

The main force behind the film was Alexander Korda, the Hungarian-born producer/director whom I’ve heard referred to as the Louis B. Mayer of the British film industry. Korda founded his own production company London Films in 1932 which released The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and Rembrandt (1936), both directed by Korda and starring Charles Laughton. The Four Feathers (1939), directed by Alex’s brother Zoltan Korda, was one of the studio’s most successful films. Alex bought the rights to The Thief of Bagdad from Douglas Fairbanks who wrote the story, produced, and starred in the original 1924 version directed by Raoul Walsh. Korda’s production started out as an operetta and a few of the songs from this early phase remain in the final version. German director Ludwig Berger was hired as director but it soon became apparent that his concept of the film was at odds with Korda’s when Berger insisted that German composer Oscar Straus write the score for the film even though Korda had already hired Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa for the job. When Berger began shooting and tried to get the actors to move like puppets to Straus’ antiquated music enthusiasm for the production began to wane among cast and crew. Not wanting to break the contract with Berger, Korda started undermining him nefariously while publicly praising him and Straus’ music. He hired Michael Powell to shoot second unit material but gradually gave him more and more directorial duties. Korda himself started directing scenes that Berger was scheduled to direct.  He told Rózsa to play the music he had written for the film on the piano in the room next to Berger’s office for five days. Eventually Berger was persuaded to leave the production. Hardly anything he shot remains in the film though part of the reason for that was due to the fact that Sabu had grown considerably taller during the shoot. Yet Berger’s name appears first in the list of directors in the opening credits.

When Britain declared war on Germany in September, 1939, production on the film ceased while Korda and Powell went to work on propaganda film The Lion Has Wings  (1939), made to boost British morale. Having run out of money to finish The Thief of Bagdad, Korda managed to get United Artists, the production company founded by Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, to provide the necessary funds to finish the film. Key members of cast and crew were flown to Hollywood though not Michael Powell. American director William Cameron Menzies and Zoltan Korda directed the scenes shot in the U.S.

The film was Alexander Korda’s most successful in America and the culmination of his career though he continued making films afterwards. Disney’s Aladdin (1992) borrows freely from Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad and even Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, who provide one of the commentary tracks on the Criterion edition, cite it as an influence.

★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ (5/10)

The Thief of Bagdad on imdb

As of January, 2016 The Thief of Bagdad is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.