Planet of the Apes | Revisiting the unique 1970s sequels

planet of the apes sequels
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With Kingdom Of The Planet Of The Apes in cinemas, we take a timely look back at the imaginative 1970s sequels that took the franchise to unexpected new places.

NB: The following contains spoilers for 1968’s Planet Of The Apes and its 1970s sequels.

Planet Of The Apes has survived for more than half a century as a significant piece of science fiction that, alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey, also released in 1968, explored bold ideas about humanity’s future.

Franklin J Schaffner’s adaptation of the Pierre Boulle novel was a bigger hit than anyone anticipated, with astronaut Taylor going on to become one of Charlton Heston’s defining roles. The ending, particularly, with Taylor realising the ape world is Earth of the future, spotting the ruins of the Statue of Liberty and screaming “God damn you all to hell!”, remains iconic.

The recent Apes trilogy in the 2010s, directed by Rupert Wyatt and latterly Matt Reeves, breathed new life into the series after Tim Burton’s 2001 misfire. But it’s easy to forget that Planet Of The Apes spawned four sequels between 1970 and 1973, all of which build on the original film and at the same time take some remarkable right turns as the concept develops and evolves, each reflecting numerous American societal anxieties of the time.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), directed by Ted Post, attempts in part to replay the events of the celebrated original. Heston opted not to return in the main role as Taylor, opting instead for a reduced extended cameo, ceding ground to the hilariously similar James Franciscus who plays another astronaut named Brent who crashes on the planet while on a search and rescue mission for Taylor. He inevitably becomes drawn into a similar scenario with dominant apes enslaving humans.

Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (1970). Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Then the film gets interesting. The script by British sci-fi author Paul Dehn, drafted in when Boulle saw his sequel screenplay, Planet Of The Men (which would have seen Taylor raise a human army to rebel against the apes), was rejected, imagines Beneath as a parable for the atomic age. Dehn builds on the Statue of Liberty reveal by presenting a subterranean New York City buried as the result of a historic nuclear holocaust, the ultimate example of humanity’s hubris. The humans who survive ‘beneath’ the planet of the apes worship the ‘Divine Bomb’ as evolved telepaths, and plan its detonation as a sacral event.

“Man is evil! Capable of nothing but destruction,” opines Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans), as the mortally wounded Taylor begs him for help, declaring doomsday is upon them. He’s not wrong. Dehn’s script takes the remarkable step of destroying the entire future Earth, the religious human zealots setting off the bomb and wiping out man and ape alike. Beneath therefore taps into the anxiety of a generation who grew up in the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War.

Read more: Kingdom Of The Planet Of The Apes review | A long road forward

Even so, Beneath ends on a striking down note for the sequel to a hugely successful film, taking the central conceit of Planet Of The Apes – that humanity would essentially regress and be replaced by a more sophisticated version of their nascent biology, the ultimate in natural selection – to an apocalyptic degree. You would never get a sequel in a major franchise end in this manner today. Nor would you end up with the kind of tonal and narrative pivot Paul Dehn takes for the next film in the series, Escape From The Planet of the Apes.

My personal favourite of the original Apes movies, Escape sees educated, thoughtful apes Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Zira (Kim Hunter), who provided some supportive solace to Taylor in the first film, escape the destruction of 36th century Earth in a spaceship. They’re flung back through time to the near contemporary year of 1973 (the film released in 1971), where they come to the attention of the United States military and its scientific apparatus, and are stunned at humans’ ability to use language and display intelligence.

Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (1971). Credit: 20th Century Fox.

After the conclusive ending of Beneath, audiences might not have expected a further Apes film, but box office success spurred 20th Century Fox into keeping the train running. Arthur P Jacobs, the producing supremo behind the series, sent Dehn a telegram simply stating, ‘Apes exist. Sequel required’.

Dehn set to work on what would become Escape, which moves the Apes series away from post-apocalyptic dystopia firmly into the realms of sci-fi by dialling further into the time travel aspects of the original.

Indeed, in a striking moment that belies a film over 50 years old, Escape has Dehn include a sequence where Dr Hasslein (Eric Braeden), ultimately the villain of the piece, describes the ‘observer effect’ during a television interview. This presented audiences in 1971 with the concept of a ‘multiverse’ decades before the term was even coined. It establishes the idea of Escape spawning a new timeline from the original film. All bets are now off, and the series can head in whatever direction it wishes.

Read more: Planet Of The Apes | The lost 1990s sequel starring Arnold Schwarzenegger

In many respects, Escape represents the closest representation of where Boulle’s series would have ended up going on screen, had it been faithfully adapted. Burton’s hackneyed remake decades later, with what appears to be a rather gonzo time travel ending, also attempts to evoke Boulle, but Escape dials into the destiny versus free will idea at the heart of time travel paradoxes. Meanwhile, director Don Taylor’s film manages to be both thoughtful sci-fi and at points a lighter, more comedic film than before, thanks to McDowell and Hunter’s likeable apes.

Again, Dehn is unafraid to roll the dice and end Escape in daring fashion. Having given birth to what some see as a Christ-figure for ape-kind, a child called Caesar, Zira is killed and Cornelius soon joins her, orphaning a figure in ape history who never previously existed. It allows Dehn to continue the story in 1972’s Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes. Here, under the directorial auspices of J Lee Thompson – best known for making the 1962 thriller Cape FearConquest darkens the palette once again, throwing the Apes franchise back into the realm of dystopian fiction.

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972). Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Though Conquest’s future setting of 1991 has now immeasurably dated to modern eyes, Dehn’s notion to place Apes in a fascistic human future where increasingly intelligent apes are enslaved by an American apparatus akin to Nazism, both in style and costuming, gives Conquest a distinct visual and tonal sense. Thompson never has the budget to truly bring Caesar’s rebellion against all-seeing human technocrats alive, as the rather paltry finale shows, but he does present 1991 Century City as a greying, utilitarian cityscape at odds with the America of the 1970s.

That said, as the 70s begin and the optimism of the post-war boom years gave way to Nixon-era paranoia (the Watergate scandal was the same year) and economic stagnation, Conquest’s potential future seemed less far-fetched than it might have done even four years earlier when the original film debuted. Thompson’s film is not without missteps, with the ever-dependable Ricardo Montalban perhaps at odds with the serious tone Dehn attempts to mine from the story, but it’s still an evocative sequel.

Read more: The pivotal laughter test that kickstarted the Planet Of The Apes saga

It also feels built with a sense of destination in mind. The continued success of the Apes series after Escape, which was critically and commercially well received, sees Conquest not just react as Escape did to the definitive conclusion of Beneath, but also continue the religious allegory and dystopian symbolism inherent in Dehn’s work across these films. It presents the adult Caesar (played by McDowell) – a name later cribbed by the Wyatt and Reeves modern films – as the bridge between old and new, the liberator of ape-kind and the true founder of the ‘planet of the apes’.

Which brings us to 1973’s Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, designed by Jacobs and returning director Thompson as the concluding act in the series. The first of the sequels not completely written by Dehn – it was by John William Corrington and wife Joyce Hooper Corrington (though the unwell Dehn would later do uncredited rewrites) – Battle throws us into a future where nuclear war has destroyed human civilisation. The apes under Caesar – now with a family of his own – attempt to forge a truce with the remaining humans.

Battle For The Planet Of The Apes (1973). Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Working to most resemble the original film since Beneath, in depicting a future with apes in control of the world, Battle nonetheless suffers from a lack of financial resources and directorial acumen to pull off the sizeable conflict between Caesar and opposing ape General Aldo. The film ultimately comes across as a cheap-looking forest romp as opposed to the army-on-army epic it purports to be. The lowest box office receipts to date and poor critical reception (even Thompson didn’t like the film) put paid to further sequels, as did Jacobs’ death soon after.

Nonetheless, it is impossible to divorce the success of these sequels from the fine fettle the Apes franchise now finds itself in. Kitsch and pulp most of them might be, lacking the heft of the original or the star power of Charlton Heston, they stand as intriguing, thought-provoking attempts to build on the 1968 film’s premise. Beneath, Escape, Conquest and Battle are all very different films, each exploring fresh sci-fi and dystopian ideas that other fiction of the era tended to avoid.

There would be no Rise, Dawn, War or this year’s Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes without these films. All richly deserve to be remembered.

You can find A J. on social media, including links to his podcasting and books, via here.

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