BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970)

It is all there in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970): from Alpha to Omega, from Moses to St. John of Patmos all the way through to Martin Luther’s antisemitism.

We last saw Taylor (Chuck Heston) in the original Planet of the Apes crying like a baby, making mud pies before the post-apocalyptic ruins of the Statue of Liberty with dumb (i.e. mute) brunette Nova (Linda Harris, in a bad performance) by his side. Insert invisible wormhole to swallow Taylor up whole. Nova now waits for new knight-in-a-loincloth Brent (James Franciscus) to rescue her.

Yes, American astronaut Brent has a loincloth too, and cuts a leaner, more-sylphlike figure than Heston (of whom he gives a second-rate impersonation. Franciscus fared better in his best performance as blind detective Mike Longstreet in the TV series “Longstreet,” which is as lamentably forgotten as Franciscus himself). Nova and Brent go cave exploring and what do they find? An elongated and pointless rehash of the first movie.

Cornelius (David Watson, briefly replacing Roddy McDowell as the chief chimp) and Zera (Kim Hunter) do much hand wringing. Meanwhile, there is a gorilla named Ursus (James Gregory) who is prone to booming his own second-generation, agenda-laden scripture. (“The only good Jew is a dead Jew” has far more expansive potential when mouthed as “the only good human is a dead human.”) A simian neo-Fascist yahoo, Ursus takes his cavalry into the Forbidden Zone, hot on the trail of Brent and Nova. A prophetic Jonestown awaits.

Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) laments: “Someone has outwitted the intelligence of the gorillas.”

“The only thing that counts in the end is power! Naked merciless force!” Hallelujah, General.

The hippie apes protest the impending war (i.e. Vietnam).

Still from Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)Meanwhile, our Adam and Eve protagonists (make that Second Adam with Eve) have been bamboozled into joining a charismatic, apocalyptic religious cult, a la Jim Jones.

Former King Tut Victor Buono (with Moses’ staff and sacred scroll in hand) starts slaying in the spirit and whips up a pillar of fire, apparently delivered personally by a cobalt-cased deity, to stall the Mighty 7th. Ursus may just be another replacement for the Pharaoh, but with Gregory’s evangelical charisma practically melting the ape makeup, the stoic  could never have competed.

“If you are caught by the gorillas, you must remember one thing.”

“What’s that?

“Never to speak!”

“What the hell would I have to say to a gorilla?”

“That thing out there, an atomic bomb… is your god?” “Get outta my head!”

“Mr. Taylor, Mr. Brent, we are a peaceful people. We don’t kill our enemies. We get our enemies to kill each other.”

Insert nihilistic finale.

Rod Serling (who co-wrote the script for 1986’s Planet of The Apes) was commissioned to compose a treatment for Beneath the Plant of the Apes, which was summarily (and foolishly) rejected. Apparently, for this first sequel, the producers wanted something formulaic. in the mold of its predecessor (which suceeded because it defied formula. Leave it to executive producers to miss the obvious). Prolific television and Goldfinger scripter Paul Dehn was hired and delivered what Zanuck wanted, at least for the first third. Most series fans consider Beneath akin to an Apocrypha, but it is the only sequel which retains the original’s flavor (and then some). Once one gets past the story repeating itself, and its reduced budget (making for some embarrassing long shots of actors in pullover masks), the film’s descent into a Mass for weapons of mass destruction renders Beneath the most bizarre of the Apes’ series.

MASS FOR THE H-BOMB:

“Behold our God. The heavens declare the glory of the Bomb, and the firmament showeth His handiwork.”

Chorus sings: “I reveal my Inmost Self unto my God. Unto my God. Unto my God!”

“Glory be to the Bomb, and to the Holy Fallout. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. World without end. Amen.”

“May the Blessings of the Bomb Almighty, and the Fellowship of the Holy Fallout, descend upon us all. This day and forever more singing Amen!”

Amen.

Although critics correctly assessed Beneath as an ill-constructed movie (mainly due to the opening rehash), it has a delightfully inherent cynicism, with militant fundamentalism as the not-so-subtle, but well-deserved, target. Dehn shrewdly hones in on the charismatic fundamentalist ambition for a self-created apocalypse. Tired of waiting for God to blow up the world? Well, by gosh, we will give him a helping hand and transform our deity into the guts-guns-and-glory mother of all Golden Calves: the Armageddon bomb! Alpha screws Omega. Having served in the second world war, Dehn was a personal witness to the aftermath of the Hiroshima bomb, and his own apocalyptic fears made their way into the film with brass knuckled subtlety. He was even shrewd enough, in second sequel (1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes), to flesh out his own version of a rapture via a discarded rocket (a la Superman’s escape from Krypton).

Heston, possibly smelling a hint of blasphemy afoot, loathed the script, along with the resulting film. Although he was accused of doing it only for the money, Heston actually committed due to an admirable, professional sense of loyalty to both Zanuck and Twentieth Century Fox. Not believing in the film, Heston felt guilty taking a salary and donated his entire paycheck to charity. When people say “they don’t make actors like they used to,” Heston fits into the “used to” category.  However, hating Beneath‘s script and (rightfully) fearing it would diminish the original, Heston desperately wanted to put an end to further potential sequels and slyly suggested blowing up the world at the end (unintentionally taking Dehn’s sci-fi version of “Revelations” one delirious step further). Surprisingly, producers embraced the suggestion.

Producer Richard Zanuck to Chuck Heston: “We can’t exactly do the sequel without you, Chuck.”

Chuck to Zanuck: “Oh, alright, I have one condition: I’ll do it, if you kill off my character at the end.”

(Sort of) God:“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.”

Co-star James Franciscus was decidedly more enthusiastic than his predecessor and rewrote some of Brent’s dialogue—although his character was mostly called upon to deliver one-linerzingers, such as the melodramatic “My God, it’s a city of apes!” Reportedly, there was much loincloth binding on set.

Original Apes director Franklin J. Schaffner declined to direct the script, leaving Zanuck’s to commission television director Ted Post.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes was a box office hit, which secured Dehn as the primary screenwriter for remaining sequels. With a brief reprieve of humor in Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (1971), Dehn’s ominous obsessions would lead the series into further violence. Although he was clearly no Rod Serling, Dehn proved to be a fairly good franchise choice, avoiding repetition and staleness, at least until the final “family friendly” Battle For the Planet of the Apes (1973), which he only co-wrote after his earlier, bleaker script was rejected.  A short-lived, pedestrian television series followed, which Dehn was not involved in. Still, the saga remained moderately successful (financially) until ‘s 2001 pastiche.

Many consider 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes to be a rebound, and the best adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel since the 1968 original film. Oddly, just about everyone ever associated with “Planet of the Apes,” in any of its incarnations, received some kind of homage in Rise, with the notable exception of Dehn.

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