Next to the Tool Shed of the Apes
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of , Fox and the American Movie Classics channel produced this feature length documentary, which covers the entire series of films – plus whatever Apes spin-offs followed – in as much depth as 127 minutes will allow. Roddy MacDowall, the actor most identified with the series, is the perfect choice to host the program, though one naturally wishes he’d have shared a more personal view of his experiences, especially since everyone else that participated is so forthcoming in their interview segments.
Just about every leading participant still alive is interviewed for the program, which aired on AMC in September of 1998, along with several “Ape-athon” screenings of the series. Many tales and tidbits are told throughout the course of the film that I’d never heard before – impressive, considering the box full of Planet of the Apes comics and magazines I’ve got stashed away. The entire first hour is spent on the first film, starting with a brief bio of producer Arthur P. Jacobs, who followed an uncanny instinct and bought the rights to Pierre Boulle’s novel before publication. Unlike the author, he saw great film material in it, and we’re guided through an amazingly thorough examination of how the property was developed into the finished film. Jacobs amassed a huge presentation book of concepts and art for the project, had Rod Serling write thirty drafts of the script, got Heston to attach himself to the project, then had a test scene shot with Heston and his Soylent Green co-star Edward G. Robinson to show that the material could be taken seriously. This test footage is one of the documentary’s highlights, showing not only Robinson, but also James Brolin and Linda “Nova” Harrison in early ape make-up.
The Apes series truly was something of a family project. Harrison was easily cast – she was Fox exec Richard Zanuck’s girlfriend at the time, and Jacobs gave his wife Natalie Trundy large roles in four of the films.
The rest of the film is spent covering the remaining four films, the CBS television series, the NBC animated series, toys, lunch boxes, etc. A few clips provided prove to be the perfect cure for those pining nostalgically to see either short-lived series once again. One of the most shocking revelations is how little Fox spent on the films. Science fiction hadn’t started to crawl out of the B-movie ghetto by the mid-’60s. Some thought Fox crazy to spend 5.8 million dollars on an outer space movie. Even when Planet became an awesome hit, earning far beyond any projections, the studio allotted less than half as much for the sequel. By the way, Heston claims it was his idea to blow up the planet in Beneath, believing there’d be no way to make another sequel.
MacDowall, just months before his death from cancer at age 70, looks surprisingly healthy standing by the Lawgiver statue on what used to be the Fox Ranch. As a child star, he’d been in over 30 films by the time he was 20. During the 1950s he became a respected stage actor, especially in productions of Shakespeare. In the ’60s, he became more well known for a string of comedies, mainly for Disney. As he says in his narration, he jumped at the chance to play the chimpanzee Cornelius because of the odd challenge the role provided.
Though Behind the Planet of the Apes is a fine documentary, one can see that the frugality Fox showed with the film series itself is still a tradition today. In an era where successful – and even unsuccessful – movies are released on DVDs packed to the rim with extra features, why was it necessary to put this documentary on a separate disc? To make the box set $20 more expensive, that’s why. Silly monkey! Just to show you their hearts are in the right place, the disc also has the same trailers available on other discs in the same box.
But don’t mind my grumbling – I’m just a bit ill after viewing all six of these discs and eating about twenty bowls of banana-flavored popcorn. The rest of you should fire up your spinners and enjoy.