Though something of a guilty pleasure, I have no hesitation in revealing that Planet of the Apes (the 1968 original, of course) is one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s a fantastic science-fiction story adapted from an outstanding book and molded into a hell of a ride by a director, cast and crew who were at the top of their game. There’s a multi-faceted hero, adventure, plenty of action, sex (well, at least the intimation of it, between chiseled star Charlton Heston and his curvaceous human companion, Linda Harrison) and a serious underlying theme. Then there are the apes themselves (the makeup works!) and the alien world within which we’re immersed. And that shock ending! Its effect was so powerful that it has been “aped” in countless movies since.
Director Franklin J. Schaffner had already enjoyed a successful career by the time he signed on to the job. He started in television during the late ’40’s and directed nine more movies after Apes, among them two from my Top 50 list: Patton (1970) and Papillon (1973). ASC Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Fred Koenekamp was Schaffner’s most frequent cinematographer, but for Planet of the Apes he chose to work with the legendary Leon Shamroy, ASC.
In this case the acclamation is well placed. A past president of the ASC, Shamroy was born in 1901 and became a cinematographer in 1926 after working on the laboratory side for a number of years. Over a career that included such memorable films as Twelve O’Clock High (1949), The Robe (1953) and South Pacific (1958), he earned a record 18 Academy Award nominations, with four wins.
Shamroy was also a proponent of the 2.40:1 CinemaScope format, which he used to extraordinary effect here. Check out the 32-minute opening sequence, shot in and around Utah’s Lake Powell and Arizona’s Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It provides a clinic on epic-scale, widescreen photography. It ranks with the work of Freddie Young, BSC, whose own big frame tutorials in Lawrence of Arabia and other classics are among the finest. That Shamroy achieved his look without digital tools makes it all the more impressive. In an almost completely day-exterior situation, there’s barely a mismatched shot to be found, and we all know how difficult it can be to maintain that kind of consistency. The rest of the movie offers a near-perfect blend of location and back-lot situations, interspersed with set work whose lighting and compositions represent some of the last (and best) examples of a style that was fading fast. Combined with succinct, elegant pacing and a powerful music and effects tracks, Shamroy’s work is truly something to marvel at.
It’s interesting to note that the hand-crafted quality of Planet of the Apes were swept aside with the release of Star Wars a mere nine years later. But both movies share a strand of DNA that makes them unforgettable. I recognized something special about Apes when I first saw it at age eleven, even though I had no idea how to articulate it. Apparently those feelings have stuck with me, because I’m still looning about it all these years later.
Even if the thought of watching Heston run around in a loincloth is not your cup of tea, I urge you to give Planet of the Apes a chance (the Blu-ray is amazing). There’s something in it for everyone and you’ll find that it hasn’t dated a single bit.