With the ending of BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, the prophecy from the first film – beware the beast man – had come to its obvious conclusion – the destruction of the planet and all things living on it.
But, this being a new dawn in Hollywood, letting the series end with just two entries would not do. So it was that writer Paul Dehn, originally brought in to help figure out how to end the APES series, would become the writer who lead it to new and strange places, starting with comedy.
Not only was Dehn told to find a way to continue the story, but he had to do it on an even smaller budget. Where BENEATH was made for half the cost of the original, this third film would have half the budget of BENEATH. Still, Dehn was certain he could weave a story that would make both the studio and the fans happy.
Originally titled Secret of the Apes, Dehn chose to craft a story that would center on Zira and Cornelius in 1970s America. Ignoring that Taylor’s ship from the first film sank into a lake, or that the apes couldn’t figure out how flying would work, let alone who a spaceship would work, Dehn had the loving couple travel back in time along with their friend Milo who is quickly killed off.
With only three ape costumes needed and the ability to film in actual locations instead of building sets, the budgetary restraints were met, and Dehn was able to imbue the series with a sense of lighthearted fun that the previous two films were void of. He even spoke with Pierre Boulle, the writer of the book the movies were based on, to ask him for some help in coming up with the more satirical aspects of the script. In reality, this third film of the series is closer to Boulle’s book than the original movie, switching out the three humans in a modernized ape society for three apes in a modernized human society but still commenting on the same social mores.
Kim Hunter signed up for a third go as Zira and Roddy McDowall was able to return as Cornelius – a role he was unable to play in BENEATH. ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES had it’s stars. It can’t be said enough just how much chemistry Hunter and McDowall have even under all the makeup. Not a single frame of ESCAPE would work if these two actors didn’t give it their all and imbue Zira and Cornelius with so much life and warmth. Watch this film and try not to fall in love with them. In a scene where Zira and Cornelius are called before a government hearing, you can’t help but think of the path that lead Hunter to the role – a once rising star, Hunter’s Hollywood career was forever altered when she was blacklisted after the House Un-American Activities Committee labeled her a communist. Many of Hunter’s peers stood before HUAC in a setting not unlike the one presented in the film.
Dehn’s script, for the majority of the story, kept it light. Zira and Cornelius become celebrities living in Los Angeles. They wear modern human clothes, get drunk, and have some great quips in interviews. We come to learn that Zira is pregnant, and this is truly a great time for the couple. After the doom and gloom of the first two films, it is wonderful to see such hope on display – it is hard to think that this film wasn’t on the mind Leonard Nimoy as he came up with STAR TREK IV, though I have no evidence to back up the claim – they just have a similar fun tone after two rather dark films.
Where STAR TREK IV didn’t go, where no family franchise would dare go, was for the darkness that takes over ESCAPE as the story progresses. The fun gets real grim when the US government, through Dr. Otto Hasslein drugging Zira, learns that the human race will one day become the servants of the apes and decide that the lovely chimpanzees and their unborn baby need to die.
As the couple runs from the government with the help of two animal psychiatrists and circus owner Armando, played by the ever amazing Ricardo Montalbán, the story changes from a fun romp into a modern retelling of the birth of Jesus. The newborn baby chimp Milo, who Dr. Hasslein fears will start the events that will lead to the fall of man, is the greatest threat to the world, simply because he exists.
One can only imagine Dehn sitting in his office gazing at the empty page cradled in his typewriter as he tried to figure out the ending for ESCAPE. Sure, he could have Zira, Cornelius, and baby Milo escape and live out their lives in peace, but that just isn’t how an APES film ends. If there’s any sense of hope, any sense of a better tomorrow, then surely, Dehn must have thought, the audience will riot. So it was that Dehn wrote the deaths of Zira and Cornelius, as well as their newborn child.
Director Don Taylor, who chose to make ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES because he liked the lighthearted tone, chose to not cut away as Hasslein uses a machine gun to shoot the baby Milo at point blank range before kicking the dead child into the ocean. He chose to hang on the shot of the dead Cornelius as the dying Zira crawls over to him, laying her head on his chest. Together they lie dead as the camera pulls back, showing the bleakness of humanity for untold amounts of kids to see. This, for Dehn, was to be the end of the film.
As filming commenced on ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, producer Arthur Jacobs got nervous. What if the studio asked for another sequel? What kind of tricks would they have to pull out to make one now that every character was dead? Jacobs went to Dehn and told him of his concern. Together they came up with a new ending, one that had a touch of hope, as long as you think hope is the eventual destruction of the human race. Before the final cut to black, we see that baby Milo is actually alive, hidden away in Armando’s circus. Not only that, Milo has already started talking.
Somehow, despite the last two movies being serious downers, parents still brought their children to see ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, and on a budget of just $2 million – $12 million today – the movie was a big success. Thank goodness Jacobs and Dehn created that new ending, because a sequel would soon be in the works and this sequel would be the darkest film in the franchise.