The film tells the story of an astronaut crew who crash-land on a strange planet in the distant future. Although the planet appears desolate at first, the surviving crew members stumble upon a society in which apes have evolved into creatures with human-like intelligence and speech. The apes have assumed the role of the dominant species and humans are mute creatures wearing animal skins.
The script was originally written by Rod Serling, but underwent many rewrites before filming eventually began. Directors J. Lee Thompson and Blake Edwards were approached, but the film's producer Arthur P. Jacobs, upon the recommendation of Charlton Heston, chose Franklin J. Schaffner to direct the film. Schaffner's changes included an ape society less advanced—and therefore less expensive to depict—than that of the original novel. Filming took place between May 21 and August 10, 1967, in California, Utah and Arizona, with desert sequences shot in and around Lake Powell, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The film's final "closed" cost was $5.8 million.
The film was released on February 8, 1968, in the United States and was a commercial success, earning a lifetime domestic gross of $32.6 million. The film was groundbreaking for its prosthetic makeup techniques by artist John Chambers and was well received by critics and audiences, launching a film franchise, including four sequels, as well as a short-lived television show, animated series, comic books, and various merchandising. In particular, Roddy McDowall had a long-running relationship with the Apes series, appearing in four of the original five films (absent, apart from a brief voiceover, from the second film of the series, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, in which he was replaced by David Watson in the role of Cornelius), and also in the television series.
Astronauts Taylor (Charlton Heston), Landon (Robert Gunner), Dodge (Jeff Burton) and Stewart are in deep hibernation when their spaceship crashes in a lake on an unknown planet after a long near-light speed voyage, during which, due to time dilation, the crew ages only 18 months. As the ship sinks, Taylor finds Stewart dead and her body desiccated. They throw an inflatable raft from the ship and climb down into it; before departing the ship, Taylor notes that the date is November 25, 3978, approximately two millennia after their departure in 1972. Once ashore, Dodge performs a soil test and pronounces the soil incapable of sustaining life.
After abandoning their raft, the astronauts set off through a desolate wasteland in hopes of finding food and water before their provisions run out. Eventually, they encounter plant life. They find an oasis at the edge of the desert and go swimming, ignoring eerie scarecrow-like figures around the edge of the water. While they are swimming, their clothes are stolen. Pursuing the thieves, the astronauts find their clothes torn to shreds, their supplies pillaged and the perpetrators—a group of humans that are apparently so primitive that they cannot even talk and dressed in torn clothes—raiding a cornfield. Taylor is attracted to one of the humans, whom he later names Nova (Linda Harrison).
Suddenly, armed and uniformed gorillas on horseback charge through the cornfield, brandishing firearms, snares, and nets. They capture some humans and kill the rest. In the chaos, Dodge is shot in the back of the neck and killed, Landon is wounded and rendered unconscious, and Taylor is shot in the throat and taken prisoner. The gorillas take Taylor to Ape City, where his life is saved after a blood transfusion administered by two chimpanzees: animal psychologist Zira (Kim Hunter) and surgeon Galen (Wright King). While his throat wound is healing, he is unable to speak. Taylor discovers that the various apes, who can talk and are in control, are in a strict caste system: gorillas are police officers, military, hunters and workers; orangutans are administrators, politicians, lawyers and priests; and chimpanzees are intellectuals and scientists. The apes have developed a primitive society based on the beginnings of the human Industrial Era. They ride horses and have carts, rifles, and even primitive photography. Humans, who are believed by the apes to be unable to talk, are considered vermin and are hunted, either killed outright, enslaved, or used in scientific experiments.
Zira and her fiancé Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), an archaeologist, take an interest in Taylor, whom Zira calls "Bright Eyes". Taylor attempts to communicate by writing in the dirt, but Nova, who has been following him around, attempts to destroy his writing with her hands, not understanding what the words mean. The letters she doesn't destroy are then obliterated by Zira's and Cornelius's superior, an orangutan named Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans). Back in his cage, Taylor steals Zira's pencil and notebook and uses them to write the message My name is Taylor. Zira and Cornelius become convinced that Taylor is intelligent, but upon learning of this, Dr. Zaius orders that Taylor be castrated. Before the castration can occur Taylor escapes, and during his desperate flight through Ape City passes through a museum, where he finds Dodge's stuffed and eyeless corpse on display. When Taylor is recaptured by gorillas, he overcomes his throat injury and roars: "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!"
A tribunal to determine Taylor's origins is convened by the president of the Assembly (James Whitmore), Dr. Zaius, and Maximus (Woodrow Parfrey). Dr. Honorious (James Daly) is the prosecutor. Taylor mentions his two comrades at this time. The court then produces Landon, who has been subjected to a lobotomy that has rendered him catatonic and unable to speak. After the tribunal, Dr. Zaius privately threatens to castrate and lobotomize Taylor if he does not tell the truth about where he came from. With help from Zira's socially rebellious nephew Lucius (Lou Wagner), Zira and Cornelius free Taylor and Nova and take them to the Forbidden Zone, a taboo region outside Ape City that has been ruled out of bounds for centuries by Ape Law. A year earlier, Cornelius led an expedition into the Forbidden Zone that found a cave containing artifacts of an earlier non-simian (and believed to be human) civilization. The group sets out for the cave to answer questions Taylor has about the evolution of the ape world and to prove he is not of that world.
Arriving at the cave, Cornelius is intercepted by Dr. Zaius and his soldiers. Taylor holds them off, threatening to shoot them if he has to. Zaius agrees to enter the cave to disprove their theories and to avoid physical harm to Cornelius and Zira. Inside, Cornelius displays the remnants of a technologically advanced human society pre-dating simian history. Taylor identifies artifacts such as dentures, eyeglasses, a heart valve and, to the apes' astonishment, a talking children's doll. More soldiers appear and Lucius is overpowered, but Taylor again fends them off. Dr. Zaius is held hostage so Taylor can escape, but he admits to Taylor that he has always known that a human civilization existed long before apes ruled the planet and that "the Forbidden Zone was once a paradise, your breed made a desert of it… ages ago!" Taylor nonetheless thinks it best to search for answers, but Dr. Zaius warns him that he may not like what he finds. Once Taylor and Nova have ridden off, Dr. Zaius has the gorillas lay explosives to seal off the cave and destroy the remaining evidence of the human society. He then has Zira, Cornelius and Lucius charged with heresy.
Taylor and Nova, at last free, follow the shoreline and discover the remains of the Statue of Liberty, revealing that this "alien" planet is actually Earth long after a nuclear war. Realizing what Dr. Zaius meant earlier, Taylor falls to his knees in despair and anger and condemns humanity for destroying the world.
Producer Arthur P. Jacobs bought the rights for the Pierre Boulle novel before its publication in 1963. Jacobs pitched the production to many studios, but was passed over. After Jacobs made a successful debut as a producer doing 1964's What a Way to Go! (1964) for 20th Century Fox and begun pre-production of another movie for the studio, Doctor Dolittle, he managed to convince Fox vice-president Richard D. Zanuck to greenlight Planet of the Apes.
One script that came close to being made was written by The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, though it was finally rejected for a number of reasons. A prime concern was cost, as the technologically advanced ape society portrayed by Serling's script would have involved expensive sets, props, and special effects. The previously blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson was brought in to rewrite Serling's script and, as suggested by director Franklin J. Schaffner, the ape society was made more primitive as a way of reducing costs. Serling's stylized twist ending was retained, and became one of the most famous movie endings of all time. The exact location and state of decay of the Statue of Liberty changed over several storyboards. One version depicted the statue buried up to its nose in the middle of a jungle while another depicted the statue in pieces.
To convince the Fox Studio that a Planet of the Apes film could be made, the producers shot a brief test scene from a Rod Serling draft of the script, using early versions of the ape makeup. Charlton Heston appeared as an early version of Taylor (named Thomas, as he was in the Serling-penned drafts), Edward G. Robinson appeared as Zaius, while two then-unknown Fox contract actors, James Brolin and Linda Harrison, played Cornelius and Zira. This test footage is included on several DVD releases of the film, as well as the documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes. Linda Harrison, at the time the girlfriend of studio chief Richard Zanuck, went on to play Nova in the 1968 film and its first sequel, and had a cameo in Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes more than 30 years later, which was also produced by Zanuck. Although Harrison often opined that the producers had always had her in mind for the role of Nova, they had, in fact, considered first Ursula Andress, then Raquel Welch, and Angelique Pettyjohn. When these three women proved unavailable or uninterested, Zanuck gave the part to Harrison. Dr. Zaius was originally to have been played by Robinson, but he backed out due to the heavy makeup and long sessions required to apply it. Robinson later made his final film, Soylent Green (1973), opposite his one-time Ten Commandments (1956) co-star Heston.
Michael Wilson's rewrite kept the basic structure of Serling's screenplay but rewrote all the dialogue and set the script in a more primitive society. According to associate producer Mort Abrahams an additional uncredited writer (his only recollection was that the writer's last name was Kelly) polished the script, rewrote some of the dialogue and included some of the more heavy-handed tongue-in-cheek dialogue ("I never met an ape I didn't like") which wasn't in either Serling or Wilson's drafts. According to Abraham some scenes, such as the one where the judges imitate the "See no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil" monkeys, were improvised on the set by director Franklin J. Schaffner and kept in the final film because of the audience reaction during test screenings prior to release. During filming John Chambers, who designed prosthetic make up in the film, held training sessions at 20th Century-Fox studios, where he mentored other make-up artists of the film.
Filming began on May 21, 1967, and ended on August 10, 1967. Most of the early scenes of a desert-like terrain were shot in northern Arizona near the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River, Lake Powell, Glen Canyon and other locations near Page, Arizona Most scenes of the ape village, interiors and exteriors, were filmed on the Fox Ranch in Malibu Creek State Park, northwest of Los Angeles, essentially the backlot of 20th Century Fox. The concluding beach scenes were filmed on a stretch of California seacoast between Malibu and Oxnard with cliffs that towered 130 feet above the shore. Reaching the beach on foot was virtually impossible, so cast, crew, film equipment, and even horses had to be lowered in by helicopter. The remains of the Statue of Liberty were shot in a secluded cove on the far eastern end of Westward Beach, between Zuma Beach and Point Dume in Malibu. As noted in the documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes, the special effect shot of the half-buried statue was achieved by seamlessly blending a matte painting with existing cliffs. The shot looking down at Taylor was done from a 70-foot scaffold, angled over a 1/2-scale papier-mache model of the Statue. The actors in Planet of the Apes were so affected by their roles and wardrobe that, when not shooting, they automatically segregated themselves with the species they were portraying.
The spacecraft onscreen is never actually named in the film. But for the 40th anniversary release of the Blu-ray edition of the film, in the short-film created for the release called A Public Service Announcement from ANSA, the ship is called "Liberty 1". The ship had originally been called "Immigrant One" in an early draft of the script, and then called "Air Force One" in a test set of Topps Collectible cards, and dubbed "Icarus" by a fan; that name gained popularity among Ape fandom.
Planet of the Apes was well received by critics and is widely regarded as a classic film and one of the best films of 1968, applauded for its imagination and its commentary on a possible world gone upside down. As of April, 2012, the film held a 90% "Certified Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 50 reviews. In 2008, the film was selected by Empire magazine as one of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time.
The film won an honorary Academy Award for John Chambers for his outstanding make-up achievement. The film was nominated for Best Costume Design (Morton Haack) and Best Original Score for a Motion Picture (not a Musical) (Jerry Goldsmith). The score is known for its avant-garde compositional techniques, as well as the use of unusual percussion instruments and extended performance techniques, as well as his 12-note music (the violin part using all 12 chromatic notes) to give an eerie, unsettled feel to the planet, mirroring the sense of placelessness.American Film Institute Lists
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies—Nominated
AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills—#59
AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
Colonel George Taylor—Nominated Hero
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
"Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!"—#66
AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores—#18
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition)—Nominated
AFI's 10 Top 10—Nominated Science Fiction Film
Writer Rod Serling was brought back to work on an outline for a sequel. Serling's outline was ultimately discarded in favor of a story by associate producer Mort Abrahams and writer Paul Dehn, which became the basis for Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The original film series had four sequels:Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
Planet of the Apes (1974)
Return to the Planet of the Apes (animated) (1975)
Planet of the Apes (2001): The film was a re-imagining of the original film, directed by Tim Burton.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011): A series reboot, directed by Rupert Wyatt, was released in August 5, 2011 to critical and commercial success. It is the first installment in the new series of films.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014): The second entry in the Planet of the Apes reboot series, directed by Matt Reeves, was released in July 11, 2014.
War for the Planet of the Apes (2017): The third film in the reboot series, directed by Matt Reeves, was released on July 14, 2017.
Comic book adaptations of the films were published by Gold Key (1970) and Marvel Comics (b/w magazine 1974-77, color comic book 1975-76). Malibu Comics reprinted the Marvel adaptations when they had the license in the early 1980s. Dark Horse Comics published an adaptation for the 2001 Tim Burton film. Currently Boom! Studios has the licensing rights to Planet of the Apes. Their stories tell the tale of Ape City and its inhabitants before Taylor arrived. However, in July 2014, it was announced that Boom! Studios and IDW Publishing will do a crossover between Planet of the Apes and Star Trek the original series.
A parody of the film series titled "The Milking of the Planet That Went Ape" was published in Mad Magazine. It was illustrated by Mort Drucker and written by Arnie Kogen in regular issue #157, March 1973.
Numerous parodies and references have appeared in films and other media, including Spaceballs, The Simpsons, Futurama, Family Guy, South Park, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Mad Men, The Big Bang Theory and the Madagascar films.
The film is also alluded to in literature, most notably in Junot Díaz's Pulitzer-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.