WolfmanOz at the Movies #72

Damn you all to hell !

In the year 1968, two movies came out that changed modern day science-fiction films forever – Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey has been the most celebrated out of the two (and my all-time favourite movie), but Planet Of The Apes stands on its own ground and has become a classic that is universally acclaimed. The original Planet Of The Apes is still far superior to any of the sequels and remakes that has been subsequently made.

Planet Of The Apes is based on a 1963 French novel, La planete des singes, by Pierre Boulle, most famous as the author of La pont de la riviere Kwai (1952), which became the 1957 film The Bridge On The River Kwai

Rod Serling did the first drafts of the screenplay, simplifying the plot by fitting it into the mold of his Twilight Zone TV series and introducing an anti-nuclear war theme not present in the Boulle novel. Because of budget constraints the modern ape civilization had to be reduced to a less technological one, something more reminiscent of ancient Greece. In fact, after Michael Wilson was brought in to do the final script drafts what emerged was a political allegory more akin to an Aesop fable than a Voltairian satire.

Charlton Heston was the perfect choice to play the arrogant and dislikable American astronaut George Taylor, where he, and his doomed colleagues, find themselves stranded on a distant planet where it seems to be inhospitable with no life. However, after travelling throughout the place they discover that man’s role as the superior life form has been reversed with the apes. 

As simians, Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter, as Cornelius and Zira, and Maurice Evans, as Dr. Zaius, enjoy some of the best performances on the screen, bringing the then-innovative makeup design of John Chambers to life under the intelligent and stylish direction of Franklin J. Schaffner. Also excellent is veteran cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s Panavision lensing, which makes great use of remote areas of southern Utah around Lake Powell to suggest an alien world, and Jerry Goldsmith’s avant-garde musical score, which has become a landmark, cannot be emphasised more for contributing to the eerie mood of the movie. Rarely has a movie score so fit like hand-in-glove than this one.

Once Hestons’ character, Taylor, is captured by the apes his mere existence throws the existing order of ape society into disorder. Their sacred texts do not allow for the evolution of ape from man, and they often speak of man being brutish, untamable beasts. Taylor, who would have agreed with Dr. Zaius in the beginning if talking about humanity as a whole, must fight the idea that he is of that same race, prone to the same violence. He always wanted to be apart from humanity, giving him the reason for his deep space adventure in the beginning, but faced with the reality that he’s being judged for humanity’s failings and he’s going to pay for them, he has to fight back and stick up for the humanity he ran from.

So, Taylor has made his defense of humanity at an archaeological site that showed ancient humanity’s advances over ape, and he walks away still confident of his race’s superiority. Dr. Zaius immediately has the site destroyed, confident of his own beliefs in humanity’s faults and that Taylor would find the truth of humanity’s history out there beyond the Forbidden Zone.

Of course the ending is justly famous where Taylor promptly discovers his destiny, and the truth. Man is indeed the harbinger of death, and by the megaton. The final image is laden with symbolism, and the scene is a visual scream.

Today, the film’s makeup may pale in comparison to the performance capture of the recent reboot movies but in terms of performances, script, wit and audacity, the original film towers over them all.

The film was a box office smash in 1968, but if ever there was a movie that was more a victim of its own success it’s this one. Four sequels, two TV series, numerous novelizations and comic book adventures, a lamentable remake in 2001 and a reboot in 2011 have been spawned by its popularity, most of which has been so inferior in quality to have tarnished the reputation of this classy, intelligent and superbly made science fiction landmark film.

Planet Of The Apes really has stood the test of time, and it’s not because it has some memorable quotes or a great twist ending. It’s well anchored by a great central character and journey, elevated by Charlton Heston giving a surprisingly committed performance whilst dressed in rags. It explores its themes of racism, class structure, animal abuse, tribalism, genocide and religion with intelligence and irony whilst treating its character’s path with surprising cynicism and cruelty, one of the traits of 60s and 70s science fiction that I find quite appealing. It’s a movie classic for all-time.


and the tease for next weeks post . . . One flew East . . . One flew West !

WolfmanOz at the Movies #70

A Tale of the Christ

There are some films that make a lasting impression when you see them for the first time, and Ben-Hur (the 1959 version) is one such movie for myself.

I first saw it on a re-release in the early 1970s when my parents took the family to see it on a huge cinema screen, and for one young lad the experience was simply mesmerising. Awe and wonder filled me as I watched this story of shocking betrayal, revenge and forgiveness unfold on screen, and by the time the heart-stopping chariot race was over, my fate as a future movie addict was sealed. 

Despite its 212 minutes running time, this is storytelling at its finest that knows how to entertain; as we follow the story during the time of Jesus of a Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur, who is betrayed and sent into slavery, whilst his family is imprisoned, by his Roman friend Messala. He regains his freedom and returns back for revenge. His dramatic journey just never lets up and immerses you completely.

It’s hard to imagine anything more cinematic: if ever there was an epic that was meant to be seen on the big screen in all its bombastic glory, it’s Ben-Hur. And even now, after I’ve seen the film many, many times, I feel like this story has a certain sense of greatness to it that is touching (and I don’t just mean that in a religious sense).

What’s not to love about Ben-Hur ? It’s a film that tells an epic story in an epic way, filling every shot with artistry and colour until the screen overflows with splendour, which is all enhanced by Miklos Rózsa’s magnificent score. Despite the lengthy running time, the pacing never flags. The episodic structure of the storyline works in the film’s favour, ably chronicling the adventures of the lead character as he undergoes a thrilling journey to hell and back.

It has Charlton Heston playing his most famous role and being incredibly heroic and strong in it. It has a cast of seasoned performers in support, not least Jack Hawkins as a sympathetic Roman general and Stephen Boyd as the villainous Messala. And, of course, it has the most spectacular and complex action sequence ever put on film in the shape of the chariot race, which is just as thrilling and breathtaking as it was when it was first released in cinemas.

The film was directed by William Wyler, one of Hollywood’s greatest directors from its Golden Age period. He was able to steer a huge production and keep his sanity and perspective whilst showcasing the human emotions amidst the spectacle.

Wyler’s handling of the religious scenes where Jesus appears is both sensitive and touching; and, in the following scene where Judah and the other slaves are marched to the galleys they stop in Nazareth to water the Romans’ horses. Judah begs for water, but the Roman commander refuses. Judah collapses but is revived when Jesus gives him a drink. It is masterfully directed.

The chariot race in Ben-Hur was directed by Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt, filmmakers who often acted as second unit directors on other director’s films. The chariot arena was modelled on a historic circus in Jerusalem. Covering 18 acres, it was the largest film set ever built at that time. Planning for the chariot race took nearly a year to complete. The chariot scene took five weeks (spread over three months) to film and required more than 320 km of racing to complete. The end result is simply one of cinema’s greatest set-pieces that will never be surpassed.

Unfortunately, YouTube won’t allow me to show the chariot race as one clip, however I can show it all as two clips.

Finally, it’s a film that engages the senses and the emotions. It never forgets, amid all the glory and the epic wonder of the scenery and action, that this is a human story about real people struggling with their lives. There’s a message there for any viewer, Christian or otherwise, and that’s the reason why Ben-Hur hasn’t dated a day since it was first released. It’s a true classic for a reason.

Ben-Hur is nothing like the many sandal and sword or Bible films of that era; it is (at least to me) the ultimate film epic. With its touching story and fantastic action sequences, Ben-Hur is among the milestones of its era and part of film history.


and the tease for next weeks post . . . The ultimate man of conscience.