Peter John Rule wasn’t the biggest problem for the Nazis, but he was a problem. A secret agent for the SOE, Rule was working to undermine the Reich in Indochina when he was captured by the Vichy. Rule, who was really a Frenchman named Pierre Boulle, was sentenced to a life of hard labor.
For two years, Boulle worked endless hours doing back breaking work. The experience changed Boulle, opening his eyes to a world he had never before considered; a world where good and evil were relative to one’s own belief. Boulle believed in the work he had been doing, and the Vichy believed in what they were doing. Caught in it all were the people of Indochina, who no one seemed to think about.
It was during his time as a prisoner that Boulle found a love for writing. When the war ended and he was freed, Boulle worked in the rubber industry and helped raise his niece. At night he wrote, using one of the experiences he had in Indochina to create what would become an international best seller as well as one of the greatest war films ever made, BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI.
Years later, and now a very successful novelist, Boulle found himself in a zoo looking at the monkeys when an idea hit him. In the year 2500, a group of men, tired of humanity, leave Earth to find a new planet. They land on a planet not unlike the one they left, but instead of humans being the dominant species, it is apes. Boulle named his book LA PLANETE DES SINGES. In english the title would become the much less cool sounding MONKEY PLANET.
Arthur Jacobs had made his way through Hollywood as a publicist for some of the biggest names around. Stewart… Monroe… Garland… Arthur was the guy who kept their names in the papers when the news was good, and out of the papers when it wasn’t so good. He liked his job, but Arthur wanted more. He, like so many others before and after, really wanted to produce. In 1963, Arthur created APJAC Productions and started to make his own movies. Arthur would get a script, a director, and an all star cast together, then bring the package to the major studios for financing. APJAC’s first film, WHAT A WAY TO GO! Was set up at 20th Century Fox and brought in almost three times its budget. Arthur was off to a hell of a start.
While celebrating the success of WHAT A WAY TO GO!, Arthur looked for bigger projects to take on. Before the book was officially released in the US, Arthur was able to get his hands on a copy of MONKEY PLANET. He tore through the book and knew that he had to make it. Before long, Arthur licensed the movie rights to the book. For the movie, he would choose to go with a better translation of the French title, PLANET OF THE APES. His next move was to bring on a writer, and for the job at hand, Arthur turned to one of the best writers Hollywood has ever seen.
Rod Serling didn’t start off as a sci-fi writer. He started his career in radio, writing for shows like OUR AMERICA and LEAVE IT TO KATHY before moving to local television in Cincinnati where he pounded out testimonials for questionable medicine and scripts for anthology dramas. It took a lot of work and more years than Serling thought it would, but his writing finally caught on with “Patterns”, a script he wrote for KRAFT TELEVISION HOUR.
Almost from the start, Serling’s work had that touch of political and social statements that makes his writing timeless, and believe it or not, the censors had some problems with this. Dealing with censors for both broadcast standards and sponsor censors was a constant annoyance for Serling – if his scripts didn’t need changing because Ronston Lighters demanded the line “Got a match?” be removed from “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” networks could be found busy not letting him tell the story of Emmett Till and others.
Serling figured out that he could tell his socially conscious stories if he used science fiction – Serling reportedly claimed that “a martian can say things a democrat or a republican can’t” – and so he created THE TWILIGHT ZONE. The show is a classic not just for its carefully done social commentary, but the twist endings that left audiences with their jaws on the floor.
Arthur Jacobs didn’t hire Serling for PLANET OF THE APES because of those things – he hired Serling because Serling was the name best connected to “classy” science fiction. Getting Serling’s commentary and twists was just an added bonus. In Serling’s script for PLANET OF THE APES, he moved the timeline to be closer to the current day. Instead of the year 2500, the astronauts – who were changed from French to American – would leave Earth in 1972. Serling also brought in the iconic finale with Taylor, the last astronaut, finding the Statue of Liberty and realizing that he was on Earth.
When BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI was turned into a movie, the ending was changed to make things a little happier. Pierre Boulle, still new to the whole being successful thing, didn’t complain. Now, a decade later and more willing to speak up, Boulle wasn’t afraid to voice his opinion, and boy did he voice it. In a letter he sent to Jacobs, Boulle railed against Serling’s ending, calling it “a temptation from the devil that will annoy the common man!” Still, the ending, for Jacobs, was too great to change. Jacobs knew that the image of a destroyed symbol of America would stick with viewers.
Jacobs took Serling’s script to Warner Brothers, but the $10 million dollar budget ($80 million today) was more than the studio was willing to spend on a movie set in a genre that was relegated to B-movie status. In the days before APES and STAR WARS, sci-fi movies were for drive-ins and teens. Low budgets with bad FX and even worse acting were sure to bring in some quick bucks, but there was no prestige to it, and no reason to spend real money on it.
With a solid “hell no” from Warner Brothers, Jacobs turned to the studio that financed his other films, 20th Century Fox.
Darryl Zanuck was, in Hollywood terms, a god. In the 40s and 50s he turned Fox into a studio unlike any other, a studio that was willing to take big chances that always seemed to pay off. Zanuck wasn’t really a movie guy; he preferred books over celluloid and he pressed that style of thinking on his employees. The story was what mattered, and the job of the studio was to let the auteur tell the story. Zanuck gave directors like Elia Kazan the freedom to tell the stories they wanted to tell and to tell them the way they wanted to tell them.
For over a decade, Zanuck built 20th Century Fox into a studio that people were proud to work for. When he left in 1956, things fell apart almost immediately. A series of terrible decisions by the studio heads left Fox on the edge of bankruptcy. To cover the $31 million dollar budget of CLEOPATRA ($250 million today) Fox had to sell off sections of their studio lot (today some of you may live there – it’s called Studio City). Other high cost movies that were supposed to be surefire hits bombed at the box office.
In ’63, Zanuck came back to Fox looking to make the definitive World War Two movie. When he saw just how bad things were at the studio, he convinced the board to put him back in charge. Once Zanuck was in place, he brought in his son Richard to oversee development. Like his father, Richard wasn’t looking to do what the other studios were doing – together the Zanucks would save Fox by taking chances. One of those chances, Richard decided, was to make PLANET OF THE APES. There was just one thing standing in the way – the board of directors.
At a budget of ten million, Richard Zanuck would have to get the approval of the board to make PLANET OF THE APES, but if Jacobs could cut the budget it half, the board wouldn’t need to approve. While Jacobs worked to find a way to slice his budget in half, Zanuck had the Fox make-up team do a screen test to make sure that the look of the apes wouldn’t be laughable. For the test, they used a scene from Serling’s script with famed actor Edward G. Robinson playing the orangutan scientist Doctor Zaius, the young Linda Harrison as chimpanzee Zera, James Brolin as her husband Cornelius, and Charlton Heston as Taylor. The test eased concerns about the look of for the movie and made Zanuck even more determined to get PLANET OF THE APES in theaters.
While Zanuck worked on getting the make-up right, Jacobs and director Franklin J. Schaffner brought in a new writer to see if they could find a way to save some money.
Michael Wilson had a career writers dream of. He started off writing westerns, but after the war his focus shifted to more human stories, working on the script for IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE before tackling A PLACE IN THE SUN and 5 FINGERS, which he won the Academy Award for. Things were going great for Wilson right up until he was called to the House Un-American Activities Committee where he was labeled as a communist. Wilson was blacklisted from Hollywood. Still, the studios couldn’t ignore his talents, so they still hired Wilson to write for them, they just paid him far less than he was worth and kept his name off the pictures. While he was blacklisted, Wilson wrote nine screenplays, including BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI.
Finally able to work under his own name again, Wilson was hired by Arthur Jacobs to rewrite Rod Serling’s script for APES and get the budget down. In a true bit of genius, Schaffner suggested that Wilson change the ape world from one that was technologically advanced to very low tech. The apes had guns, but no cars or planes. No paved streets or modern buildings. Everything was desert. This switch from modern bustling cities to desolate primitive villages instantly cut the costs of the movie in half.
Wilson also brought in his own social commentary to the film. He placed the apes in a class and racial system based on skin color – the gorillas, the darkest of the three types of ape, were the lowest class, working as soldiers and menial labor. Chimps were second in the system, working as mid-level executives and academics. Orangutans were the highest class with their pinkish skin, ruling over the other two as heads of government.
The main character of Taylor was turned into a perfect reflection of 1960s America – both cynical of humanity’s ability to live in harmony and filled with hope for a better tomorrow.
John Chambers perfected the look of the apes as sets were built. Charlton Heston and Linda Harrison were brought back from the screentest, with Heston staying on as Taylor and Harrison taking the role of Nova, Taylor’s mute love interest. Edward G. Robinson, who wasn’t a fan of being under the make-up, decided against taking the role of Doctor Zaius and the studio hired Maurice Evans. For Zira and Cornelius, Jacobs hired Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall.
On May 21, 1967, filming began. A year later, PLANET OF THE APES would become a box office hit, bringing in over five times its budget. Jerry Goldsmith’s unforgettable score was nominated for an Academy Award, as were Morton Hack’s costume designs. Chambers was given an honorary Oscar for outstanding make-up achievement (there was no make-up award at that time).
What no one knew, what no one could have known, was that all of this, from Boulle’s novel to Serling’s script to Chamber’s make-up, all of it was just the start of a story that still continues fifty years later.
*All Photos: 20th Century Fox