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Just in time to celebrate its 50th birthday, this week we give you the sci-fi classic “Planet of the Apes.” While many these days know the 21st century reboots of the franchise, it was this 1968 film that started it all and helped revitalize 20th Century Fox, proving that sci-fi could be entertaining, thought-provoking and profitable.

Based on a 1963 novel by French author Pierre Boule, the film tells the story of a group of astronauts stranded on a planet where apes rule the world with primitive, mute humans serving as their slaves. Led by the gruff, cynical Taylor (Charlton Heston), the astronauts soon get captured by gorilla soldiers rounding up humans in the wild to take back to their city.

Taylor comes to the attention of chimpanzee scientists Zira (Kim Novak) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) who are astonished to learn that this intelligent beast can speak. While the scientists are intrigued and sympathetic to Taylor, the society’s political/religious orangutan leaders see him as a dangerous threat to their culture and its image of itself.

Through a series of dramatic confrontations, Taylor and the apes end up in a final confrontation culminating in one of the great twist endings in cinema.

Boule’s novel was picked up by Hollywood publicist and producer Arthur Jacobs, who sought out Rod Serling, the creator of the legendary television show “The Twilight Zone,” to write the screenplay. Jacobs soon brought iconic Hollywood star Charlton Heston and innovative television director Franklin Schaffner into the project. Despite this entertainment A-team, Jacobs had a hard time getting studios to take a risk on the film. Talking space monkeys didn’t exactly promise box office gold to studio execs.

Jacobs was finally able to convince Fox Vice-President Richard Zanuck with a brief test scene featuring Heston and Edward G. Robinson, utilizing the early development make-up for the ape characters. Fox was still financially unstable from “Cleopatra,” which had almost bankrupted the studio, so Zanuck demanded that the film had to be made for $5,000,000.

Boule’s novel and Serling’s screenplay depicted the ape planet as a highly-developed, technologically sophisticated society based in big cities much like modern American ones. The filmmakers soon realized that the modest budget wouldn’t support this, so they began to look for ways to cut back.

Serling left the project shortly after submitting his screenplay, so Jacobs brought in formerly blacklisted writer Michael Wilson to rework the story. Wilson came up with the idea of making the ape civilization more primitive, greatly reducing the costs of the sets. Serling’s script was largely kept (including the legendary twist ending), but dialogue was rewritten. Serling’s script had introduced social commentary on race, class, religion, and war into Boule’s story, and Wilson contributed more social critique based on his own experiences as a blacklisted writer.

There is much more to discuss about the film – the innovative makeup, the acting, and particularly Leon Shamroy’s epic cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s striking avant-garde score – but that will have to wait for movie night. Come out and see the film that started a 50-year franchise. It’s the first and it’s the best.

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