Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)


“Man Destroys Man. Apes Do Not Destroy Apes

Main Cast: Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall

Director: Don Taylor

One of the great tragedies of the PLANET OF THE APES franchise, in my opinion, is the near total absence of Drs. Cornelius and Zira from the second movie, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES.  Yes, the two appeared and helped the hero Brent when he needed it, but with the near total absence of Charlton Heston’s Taylor character, it would have been nice for the viewer to have something familiar, something comfortable to help ease us into the story.  And by the second film’s end, I was left wondering whatever happened to them?  If the earth truly was destroyed at the end of BENEATH, then the real shame isn’t the loss of everything, but the loss of these two characters, the two most likable and relatable characters in the entire series.

Kim Hunter’s Zira became, over the course of the first movie, one of the strongest female characters I’ve encountered – brilliant, compassionate, and willful.  Roddy McDowall’s Cornelius was equally smart, but cautious, a character full of heart and soul who it seemed made friends easily, but always kept himself aloof through his own lack of social skills.  I loved these characters and their appearance in the second movie was one of the brightest spots for me (although the absence of McDowall as Cornelius in the second movie was obvious and I felt it weakened the character).

So I was very happy to see Cornelius and Zira become the main characters in the third movies of the series, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES.

It’s 1971 and a spaceship has crashed landed in the ocean.  The Army hauls the ship ashore and opens the door, helps the astronauts inside it out to the beach and salutes its returned heroes.  But when the astronauts remove their helmets, revealing themselves to be man-sized chimpanzees . . . to say confusion ensues would be an understatement.

The apes are taken to the L.A. zoo where they’re studied by veterinary psychiatrist Dr. Dixon (Bradford Dillman, Falcon Crest).  Dr. Dixon stages a hearing with a governmental board to determine whether the apes have learned their behavior or if they just may indeed be intelligent.  When Zira mentions they’ve come from Earth’s future, one member of the board in particular, Dr. Hasslein (Eric Braden, The Young and the Restless), begins to get very cautious.

And when Zira reveals she’s pregnant, Hasslein’s caution turns to fear and then to prevention.  The only way to ensure the apes don’t take over the world, he insists, is to make sure Zira’s baby is never born, then to make sure the couple are never allowed to procreate again. 

I really did enjoy ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, although I had my doubts in the beginning, especially during the Apes on the town scene as they become media darlings.  The whole fish out of water thing is so boring to me, not nearly as interesting and clever as I’m sure it was once meant to be.  But overall, I liked the story itself and the themes it dealt with.

The script was very well-written by Paul Dehn who also wrote the previous movie as well as the next in the series.  Cornelius and Zira were always the most fully-realized characters of any of the movies and in this one they just get even better.  There’s humor, and at times it’s a bit overplayed, but in 1971 it probably went over a lot better than it does 50 years later.

McDowall and Hunter, even though fully covered by make-up throughout ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, were able to bring a humanity and an expressiveness to their roles that even now amazes me.  I always knew I liked Roddy McDowall and had great respect for him as an actor, but as Cornelius he’s beyond awesome.  He seems so relatable, so down to earth and intelligent.  Through McDowall’s portrayal you get a clear sense of Cornelius’s view of the world.

Eric Braeden’s Dr. Hasslein contains just the right amount of nobility to keep him from being a totally unlikable villain.  While we’re rooting for the heroes, we do see Hasslein’s point of view and if not for our own morals, we might almost agree with him.

Bradford Dillman’s Dr. Dixon is a mystery at first.  We WANT to like him, we WANT to believe he’s got the apes’ best interests at heart, but Dillman plays him so cold at times, we’re just not sure, but it makes the moment we finally believe him all the more rewarding.

I’d have to say ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES has some of, if not THE best acting of the series so far.  I went into it thinking I would hate the “modern day” setting, but the characters and script came to life so well and were played in such a convincing manner that in almost no time at all, I lost the sense of “apes from the future have come to the present” and instead the movie was about these characters who I was growing to care more and more about as it went on.  Very well done.

I think, in terms of Planet of the Apes as a franchise, the first movie is still the best, but for me, if you just want to talk good filmmaking, this one has stepped forward as a major contender.  And with that ending, I’m really curious to see what happens next.

The Evolution of a Franchise

Planet of the Apes

Beneath the Planet of the Apes

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