Running Time: 319 minutes (total)
MPAA Rating: NR
Format: Standard 4:3
Audio: Dolby Digital Stereo
Languages: English
Subtitles: None
Region: 1
MSRP: $24.99

Own It!
Behind the Planet of the Apes (1998)

This two-disc set is built around a two-hour documentary hosted by the late Roddy McDowall. Detailing the history of the original Planet of the Ape series, it spends roughly an hour on the first film. The four sequels are covered at length in the second half. Also touched upon is the short-lived CBS television series based (more or less) on the first film, as well as the amusingly primitive NBC Saturday morning cartoon show. Merchandising, comic books and even parodies — including footage from the Simpsons episode featuring a hilarious stage musical based on the first movie — are all given their due.

The people who made this obviously took the films seriously. They therefore produced an immensely thoughtful, entertaining and thorough retrospective. McDowall, of course, starred in four of the five films and in the live action TV show, and hence was an obvious choice to act as host. Other people associated with the series, at least those still around to do so, provide informative interviews. On the acting side this includes Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter and Linda Harrison. On the production side we get the insights of, among others, former Fox Studio head Richard Zanack, make-up designer John Chambers and Mort Abrahams, the initial film’s Associate Producer.

Although they don’t highlight the fact, other than in terms of how the series’ production budgets decreased with each new chapter, the falling quality of the entries remains quite apparent. By the time we get to the television knock-offs we can only contemplate how the mighty had fallen. Still, the first film remains an acknowledged classic, the series remains a fan favorite, and all are well served by what is easily one of the best documentaries on motion pictures yet produced.

The picture and the sound are both crisp and clean. Some of the older film elements are, of necessity, a bit beat up. On the whole, though, everything looks superb. Surprisingly so, on occasion, including such bits as the segment from the Simpsons episode (which bodes well for the DVDs that have started coming out) to an amazingly gorgeous looking clip from the ‘50s cheesefest Gorilla at Large. Thirty seconds of that camp classic and you’ll be chomping at the bit for it to come out on DVD too.

Hoo, boy. Well, you can’t accuse them of stinting. The thoroughness apparent in the production of the documentary is also shown in the plethora of intriguing extras provided here.

The first disc alone contains not only the documentary, but the theatrical trailers for the five films; a 1967 promotional short about the first film created to arouse the interest of the North American Theater Owners organization; a promotional short on that film designed for general audiences; a fourteen minute documentary made about the first film made back in 1974; a seven minute production short about director Don Taylor filming Escape From the Planet of the Apes; a one minute look at the filming of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes; and a television promo for the broadcast of the Behind the Planet of the Apes documentary.

The most interesting extra by far, however, is a make-up test scene. This was staged as production of the first movie was being mulled over. Its purpose being to see if the ape make-ups would look viable on film, it presents a fascinating look at how the picture might have turned out to be a very different animal. (No pun intended.) Before the actual test footage we see original conceptual art based much more on the source novel, featuring a much more technologically advanced ape culture.

In the test itself Edward G. Robinson plays orangutan scientist Dr. Zaius, the role assayed in the actual film by Maurice Evans. Heston’s Taylor is shown in a safari jacket and sporting a crew cut. Meanwhile, the Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall parts are played by James Brolin (!) and Linda Harrison. Harrison, of course, went on to appear as Taylor’s mute squeeze Nova. Their make-ups in particular are strikingly different that those used in the final movie, making the pair look almost completely human rather than chimpanzee-like. Zaius, in contrast, looks much like he would in the movie.

The contents of the second disc will appeal mainly to diehard fans of the series. The first of the two features is nearly two hours of raw interview footage with the erudite and entertaining McDowall, conducted shortly before his death. The final extra is twenty minutes of dailies and outtakes from the original Planet of the Apes. Given the nature of the footage, it’s naturally bereft of sound (you don’t print sound for dailies), and is instead accompanied by selections from the film’s original score. This latter stuff, I imagine, will be of interest only to the most insanely devoted fans.

Ken Begg, 11/28/2001