Beneath The Planet Of The Apes

US (1970) Dir. Ted Post

With the success of Planet Of The Apes surprising and delighting the bean counters at Twentieth Century Fox a sequel was commissioned despite protestations that there wasn’t really anywhere else for the story to go. Original novelist Pierre Boulle was asked to provide a second screenplay which was rejected so writers Paul Dehn and Mort Abrahams were given the unenviable task of coming up with a new story.

Beneath The Planet Of The Apes opens by replaying the end of the first film leading to human protagonist Taylor (Charlton Heston) and mute slave girl Nova (Linda Harrison) riding off into the Forbidden Zone when a strange phenomenon occurs. As Taylor goes to investigate, he promptly disappears into the ether.  

Nearby Brent (James Franciscus) emerges from the wreckage of space craft like Taylor’s in the first film, who spies Nova riding alone. Brent tries talking to her, getting nowhere until he spots Taylor’s dog tags around her neck. Eventually Nova understands Brent and takes him to the one place of safety agreed with Taylor – with animal psychologist Zira (Kim Hunter) and her husband Cornelius (David Watson) at the ape city.

Upon arrival army general Ursus (James Gregory) is mid speech rousing the apes with his bellicose tirade against the humans, and proposes to take back the Forbidden Zone. After meeting with Zira and Cornelius, Nova and Brent try to escape the city but are chased by ape soldiers. They find cover underground, where Brent discovers something even more terrifying and destructive than the apes they are running from.

In a period when sequels weren’t major concern for film studios the idea of making a follow-up to Planet Of The Apes was purely motivated by money after Fox suffered losses from big budget musicals, the hope being this would be another hit to create enough revenue to help make up some of the shortfall. As a result the budget was slashed to $2.5 million dollars and it shows – the special effects are cheap and embarrassing even for 1970 and many of the apes extras had noticeable pull-on masks rather then intricate make-up the main cast were afforded.

Thankfully many of the original locations and sets were still around so that was half of the problem solved while the giant atomic bomb, for all its imposing majesty, still looks like a gold painted giant plastic toy missile! The second half of the film is set in the underground chambers of the forbidden zone which bear the same budgetary limitation signs of 70’s Doctor Who but serves as a well enough set despite its cheap look.

Obviously the biggest struggle aside from the visuals was the story which had to follow the impact of the first. Dehn’s script follows a more sci-fi direction as Brent and Nova discover a race of telepathic aliens living under the Forbidden Zone who worship an atomic bomb which they believe is a gift from their God. Claiming to be a peaceful race, their telepathic illusions to deter the apes from infiltrating their community had failed, so detonating the bomb to destroy them is their last resort, seemingly oblivious to the true power and extent of the consequences this would have on them all.

As an academic on the subject of the bombing of Hiroshima, Dehn incorporates his fears of atomic weaponry into the script to reinforce the socio-political implications of using such a destructive device. Another theme continued from the first film is the religious attachments the antagonists – both ape and alien – have which they use to justify their actions, as demonstrated by the aliens holding a church sermon complete with hymns of praise to the atomic bomb in the name of God, along with an ironic verse of All Things Bright And Beautiful!

Somewhat paralleling the fraught experiences off camera with the removal of studio president Richard Zanuck, for whom this was his last project, the tone of this film is much darker and very downbeat with nary a flicker of humour from its predecessor to be found anywhere during its 93 minute run. The denouement is certainly memorable for its ominous and effective absence of a any audio, creating a definite sense of finality to the tale (although producer Arthur P. Jacobs was discussing a third Apes film before production ended) with its lamenting voice over ringing in our ears as the credits silently role.

One of the major stumbling blocks was original star Charlton Heston’s refusal to return for this sequel, believing the story was done. He was eventually convinced to capitulate when it was agreed his character would be killed off at the start, later changed to the end. Thus Heston was replaced by James Franciscus, not in the least for looking like a Heston mini-me! In all honesty, Franciscus came across more natural and convincing in his role than Heston did, making Brent feel more integrated with the rest of the cast and a far more compatible companion for Linda Harrison’s Nova – despite trying to kill her whilst under the alien’s control!

Of the returning apes, Kim Hunter all too briefly reprises her role as Zira while an indisposed Roddy McDowall was replaced by David Watson. Maurice Evans once again plays the pig headed Dr. Zaius who frequently buts heads with the arrogant Ursus, a fabulous turn from James Gregory in a role originally offered to the mighty Orson Welles, who refused to wear the make up. Of the aliens the most familiar would be Victor Buono who played King Tut in the 60’s Batman TV series. Incidentally the female alien was portrayed by Jacobs’s wife Natalie Trundy, who would return in the later sequels this time under the ape mask.

Beneath Planet Of The Apes succeeds in overcoming its budget handicap to deliver a solid and engaging sequel, managing to end on a chilling note despite some unfortunate missteps along the way. Should they have ended it here? We’ll see…

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