The 13th Floor

History of THE PLANET OF THE APES Part 2 – Building the Myth of the Apes

Catch up with Part 1 here

PLANET OF THE APES spread across American theaters in April of 1968 and was an instant success. By the end of its theatrical run, the movie that was considered a major gamble by 20th Century Fox brought in over six times its budget. Feeling confident, Darryl Zanuck decided to take another risk – he ordered a sequel.

Sequels weren’t new to the film industry – the first one, THE FALL OF A NATION, came out in 1910 – but they were rare. Sequels were looked down on by studios and audiences as cheap gimmicks to try and drain a little more blood from the stone of the first film. Even a film like THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN was looked at as a money grab, despite it being so damn good.

Zanuck knew this, and sequalizing APES was certainly a decision made based on money, but he wasn’t going to rush it into production. He and his son Richard, who had championed the first APES, understood that the movie wasn’t a success just because of the amazing make-up by John Chambers; they knew that the story was what kept audiences coming, especially that ending.

Word went out to the producers of the original – get a sequel going. Producers Arthur Jacobs and Mort Abrahams had no idea what to do – the ending of the first film had become an instantly iconic moment, and for the life of them they had no clue how to top it. Jacobs turned to the two men most responsible for the story of APES, Pierre Boulle and Rod Serling, for ideas. Boulle came back with a treatment for what he called “Planet of the Humans” which followed Taylor as he lead the mute humans in a revolution against the apes, but this idea, along with many others, was rejected.

Jacobs and Abrahams knew they needed to bring in someone from the outside, someone who would think about the story in a different way. The man they were looking for was in London.

In December of 1941, Great Britain opened Special Training School No. 103, a secret military installation in Ontario. Better known as Camp X, the school was used to train covert agents in the methods used for clandestine operations. Today, the camp is best remembered for some of the men who were trained there, including Roald Dahl, Ian Flemming, and Paul Dehn.

Dehn, a reporter before the war broke out, returned to writing after the fighting ended, turning his attention to plays and poetry. In 1949, Dehn decided to take a shot at writing screenplays – his first one, SEVEN DAYS TO NOON, which he co-wrote with James Bernard based on Fernando Josseau’s novel UN NAZI EN MANHATTAN, won Dehn the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. With that, his film career took off as he became known for his spy stories, including THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD and the James Bond classic GOLDFINGER.

Mort Abrahams was in London when he ran into Dehn and told the writer about the problems they were having coming up with a sequel. A few days later, Dehn called Abrahams with an idea on where to take the story. By September 1968, Dehn handed in his treatment for what he titled ‘Planet of the Apes Revisited”. Dehn’s script built out the APES universe while focusing on the fear of mutual nuclear destruction that was prevalent in the late 1960s. With the introduction of mutant humans who lived in a buried New York City and worshipped a nuclear bomb, Dehn created a religious war between the mutants and the apes. Each side is given their idol – the apes have the Lawgiver as set up in the first film, and the mutants have the “Alpha Omega Bomb” – that they pray to. Where PLANET OF THE APES had Lucius as a stand-in for human teens, Dehn’s script brought in the anti-Vietnam War protestors as a group of younger apes who try to block the ape army from heading off to battle. The protesters are quickly beaten by the military and pushed aside.

One concept that was thrown out by the studio – but not before make-up tests were completed – was a character who was half man and half ape. 20th Century Fox’s higher-ups were worried about the implications of beastiality this would bring up, and how the family audiences that made up the majority of the business for the first film would react. The ape boy was cut.

With the ape boy idea taken out, Dehn’s story focused on the hero of the first film, Charlton Heston’s Taylor, and his continuing journey on the destroyed planet. There was just one problem – Heston didn’t want to return, and without Heston on board, director Post was threatening to quit.

Richard Zanuck reached out to Heston and begged him to return. Heston agreed, but only if he would be killed off in the opening. Zanuck countered with having Heston’s Taylor vanish at the start, only to return at the end to die. Heston graciously agreed. Dehn reworked his script to fit Heston’s wishes. In place of Taylor, Dehn brought in another astronaut, Brent, played by James Franciscus. Franciscus and director Ted Post weren’t fans of the script and together they sent Dehn fifty pages of notes on changes they believed would help flesh out the Brent. Post also wanted to push the bleakness of the planet even further, saying that “the loss of a planet is the loss of all hope”. Dehn once again reworked his script.

As the script was rewritten, Ted Post and John Chambers worked on the look of the mutants. Chambers’ original ideas were more in tune with b-movie mutants – people with three eyes or other random deformities. Post wanted something creepier, and gave Chambers a photo of a human body with it’s epidermis removed, revealing the dermis. Chambers took the image and created what would become the final, frightening design for the mutants.

Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, and Linda Harrison all returned to play their characters from the first film. Sadly, Roddy McDowall was unable to return to continue the role of Cornelius. He would come back though, turning the series into his legacy.

While PLANET OF THE APES was a massive hit for Fox, the studio’s fortune didn’t last. Big budget musicals DOCTOR DOLITTLE, HELLO DOLLY, and STAR all bombed at the box office. The studio was forced to cut the budgets of every movie in production, including the now retitled BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, which saw its budget cut nearly in half. A careful (or not very careful) eye can tell that, unlike the first film, the ape masks for background characters are cheaply and quickly made. Where each ape extra in PLANET OF THE APES was given special prosthetics molded to their features, for BENEATH, the extras all wear masks not unlike the kind you could buy in a store for Halloween.

Along with the massive budget cuts, Darryl Zanuck was forced to fire his son, Richard. Angered by his firing, Richard Zanuck took an idea from Charlton Heston and suggested it to Ted Post – why not end the movie by blowing up the planet. Heston liked the idea because, in his mind, if there was no planet left, there couldn’t be more sequels. Zanuck liked it for the same reasons, but for him it was a touch of spite as he hoped to deprive the studio of a source of future earnings. Ted Post liked the idea because it was bleak as hell and nothing anyone would expect.

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES ends with a voiceover so dark, so depressing, that it likely fills Robert Smith and Morrissey with endless amounts of jealousy:

In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.

With those words, the credits run in silence, leaving the audience in shock. The idea that a major studio would dare end a movie, let alone a movie that was sold as a family film, on such a terrifying note, is unbelievable. Even more unbelievable was the telegram Paul Dehn received from Arthur Jacobs a few months after BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES hit theaters…

Apes exist… sequel required



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