This memorable adaptation of the novel Monkey Planet, authored by Pierre Boulle (the same guy who wrote The Bridge on the River Kwai), was brought to life by the infamous producer Arthur Jacobs, who eventually oversaw the production duties for the entire Apes saga. No studio except Fox would touch the project with a ten-foot pole, despite the participation of Rod Serling, who co-authored the screenplay adaptation of Boulle’s novel (and which led to 30 drafts), Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, and Kim Hunter (Stella from A Streetcar Named Desire), and the amazing ape makeup by first-timer John Chambers.
Heston plays George Taylor, who along with three fellow space travelers, is exploring the far reaches of the universe via a time-traveling space shuttle. Taylor and his crew end up crash-landing on a desolate planet and then set out across the desert plains to find someone or something on this strange New World. Heston and his crew eventually find a watering hole, jump in for a quick skinny dip, and encounter a race of mute humans foraging for food in a local cornfield. Suddenly, apes appear on horseback with rifles slung across their shoulders, and Heston’s crew is captured during an ugly roundup of the mute humans.
During Heston’s capture and torture, a sympathetic chimp named Zira (Kim Hunter) takes an interest in Taylor and nurses him back to health since Taylor took a shot in the throat and can’t speak. When Taylor escapes from his cage, he is chased through the ape plaza and utters those famous words that shock the ape community. Kira and her husband Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), an anthropologist with his own theories about ape evolution, take up the defense of Taylor against an orangutan tribunal led by Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) intent on either castrating or lobotomizing this “talking human.” After judgment is passed (no dice, Chuck), Kira and Cornelius help Taylor and his new girlfried Nova (Linda Harrison — the studio head’s girlfriend who doesn’t utter one word of dialogue in the entire film) escape from the clutches of the ape community. Together, the rag-tap group of apes and humans venture into the Forbidden Zone to discover Taylor’s true destiny on this planet of talking monkeys.
Planet of the Apes has stood the test of time because of one key element: its script. Rod Serling and Michael Wilson, working on the script separately, managed to construct one of the most diverse and entertaining pieces of cinema to emerge from the 1960s. The combination of Serling’s deft storytelling abilities shown so strongly in his work on The Twilight Zone with the real-life political experiences of Michael Wilson — who was blacklisted by the Un-American Activities Committee in the 50s — gave this first Apes movie everything a successful film needs: intelligent and meaningful dialogue, rousing action sequences, evolving character development, and a whopper of an ending.