Planet of the Apes is, I’m fairly sure, the first film I’ve ever watched and known the director started in television. Franklin J. Schaffner has a lot of dynamic shots–helicopter shots, three dimensional motion and camera movement (which is rarer than one would think)–but none of them go together. It’s like watching a different movie every cut. There are also definite commercial breaks in the film and the first hour, until Charlton Heston speaks to the apes, is really a fifteen minute teaser drawn out with a lot of monologues, walking, and chase scenes.
When I started watching the film, I marveled at how bad Charlton Heston’s performance is. He actually gets better, but it’s one of those cases of not knowing if he actually gets better or if the viewer has just been conditioned to his performance. It’s kind of funny, though, to see über-Conservative Heston in a role basically advocating (small c) communism. That correlation is about the only one I could pull out of Planet of the Apes and I had to use a big pair of pliers. We’ve gotten used to seeing science fiction as metaphor and there’s none of it in Apes. It’s an incredibly straightforward approach, which could work well in the film’s favor, if it wasn’t so inconsistent with its characters and generally dumb.
The problem with the film–its stupidity–is in the package. The film asks the viewer to accept this ape civilization–a planet–which doesn’t seem to be larger than a city, doesn’t know anything about science except has verbose scientific terminology (how did they learn them?) and has working firearms–lots of them–but supposedly is opposed to killing. The characters, with the exception of Heston and the two good apes, flip back and forth, the worst being Maurice Evans’s. He goes from being the big bad guy, to just a guy, to sort of a good guy, to a bad guy, to just a guy. Or ape. Whatever. I think he’s supposed to be an orangutan, actually. He generally changes character between commercial breaks (oh, and Schaffner doesn’t know how to do establishing shots). The film’s about ideas (and running) and getting them presented is the only important thing.
Once the movie gets to the end and Heston’s wailing in the surf, I realized it actually could have worked. There was a big thing–during the opening, the twenty minute walk–about Heston wanting to get off the planet Earth because he hated the way things were going (war–yes, this film does actually star Charlton Heston and it has a big anti-war message, one about 150 feet tall). Anyway, there’s a metaphor there, about Heston returning to the Earth he dreaded, where everything he feared had come to pass, and so on and so on. I wouldn’t want to write it, but I would have wanted to see it. Or, at least, I know it’d have been better than what they did.