Planet of the Apes is a 1968 science fiction film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner loosely based on the novel La planète des singes by Pierre Boulle. The film stars Charlton Heston and features Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, veteran Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, James Daly and Linda Harrison. The script was originally written by Rod Serling but had many rewrites before eventually being made. Changes included character names and a more primitive ape society, instead of the more expensive idea of having futuristic buildings and advanced technology.
The film was ground-breaking 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, various merchandising, and eventually a remake in 2001. Roddy McDowall, in particular, had a long-running relationship with the Apes series, appearing in the original series of five films (one only via stock footage from an earlier film), and also in the television series.
Astronauts Taylor (Charlton Heston), Landon (Robert Gunner), Stewart (Dianne Stanley), and Dodge (Jeff Burton) are in deep hibernation when their spaceship crash-lands in a lake on an unknown planet in the year 3978 A.D. after a 2006-year voyage at near-light speed (during which the crew ages only 18 months due to time dilation). The planet has no moon and the clouds at night are luminous. The astronauts awaken to find that Stewart has died in space due to an air leak and that their ship is sinking. They use an inflatable raft to reach shore. Once there, Dodge performs a soil test and pronounces the soil incapable of sustaining life. Taylor suggests they are on a planet in the constellation of Orion some 320 light years from Earth but admits he is not sure.
The three astronauts set off through the desert, finding first a single plant and then others. They find an oasis at the edge of the desert where they decide to go skinny dipping, ignoring strange ‘scarecrows’. While they are swimming, their clothes are stolen. Pursuing the thieves, the astronauts find their clothes in shreds and the perpetrators — a group of mute, primitive humans — contentedly raiding a cornfield. Suddenly, gorillas on horseback charge through the cornfield, brandishing firearms, snares, and nets, which they use to capture whatever humans they can and kill those they cannot. While fleeing, Dodge is killed, Landon is captured, and Taylor is shot in the throat. The gorillas take Taylor to “Ape City,” where his life is saved by two chimpanzee scientists, Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall). Upon awakening, Taylor—now housed in a cage with a woman Nova (Linda Harrison), who was captured on the same hunt—discovers that his throat wound has rendered him temporarily mute.
Taylor discovers that the apes, who can talk, are in control and are divided into a strict class system: the gorillas as police, military, and hunters; the orangutans as administrators, politicians and lawyers; and the chimpanzees as intellectuals and scientists. Humans, who cannot talk, are considered feral vermin and are hunted and either killed outright, enslaved for manual labor or used for scientific experimentation.
Zira and her fiancé, Cornelius, an archaeologist, take an interest in Taylor after he tries to communicate by mouthing words. While Cornelius and Zira are talking to their boss, an orangutan named Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), Taylor writes in the dirt and attempts to call Cornelius and Zira’s attention to it; only Zaius sees it, though, and realizing that Taylor is intelligent, he destroys the writing with his cane. Eventually, Taylor steals paper from Zira when she comes close to his cage and uses it to write messages to her. Zira and Cornelius are convinced that Taylor is intelligent; upon learning of this, Zaius orders that Taylor be “gelded” (castrated).
Taylor manages to escape before the procedure can be carried out and flees through Ape City, which he discovers to be an architecturally primitive version of 20th Century Earth. During his flight, he finds himself in a museum, where Dodge’s corpse has been taxidermied and put on display. Shortly thereafter, Taylor is recaptured by gorillas; finding that his throat has healed, he angrily addresses them, shouting “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”
When back in his cell, Nova is then transferred to a cell across from Taylor’s cell as the warden Julius (Buck Kartalian) sprays Taylor with water. The shocked apes hold a tribunal to determine Taylor’s origins (in a parody of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial) run by the President of the Assembly (James Whitmore), Dr. Zaius, and Dr. Maximus (Woodrow Parfrey) with Dr. Honorious (James Daly) as the prosecution. Taylor tells of his two comrades and explains that one was killed and the other lost. At this point the court produces Landon, who has been subjected to a primitive lobotomy that has rendered him catatonic.
After the tribunal, Dr. Zaius holds a private meeting with Taylor, where he threatens to lobotomize him if he doesn’t lie about where he came from. With help from Lucius (Lou Wagner), Zira and Cornelius intervene early the next morning and “kidnap” Taylor and Nova, taking them to “The Forbidden Zone,” a region outside of Ape City which has been ordered quarantined by Dr. Zaius and the other orangutans. Upon arriving, Cornelius shows Taylor the remnants of a technologically advanced human society, which he discovered a year earlier while on an archaeological expedition; the apes’ world was, at one time, controlled by humans, but at some point in history, apes developed sentience and the roles of apes and humans were inverted, with apes becoming the dominant species and man becoming the apes’ household pets, and later becoming animals living in the wild, incapable of speech.
Dr. Zaius arrives with a band of armed gorillas to capture or kill Taylor; Taylor presents Dr. Zaius with the ruins of the human society, which Zaius seems to already know about. He agrees to exile Taylor and Nova. When asked by Zira “What will he find out there, Doctor?”, Zaius replies: “his destiny.” Once Taylor and Nova have ridden away on horseback, Dr. Zaius has the gorillas lay explosives and destroy the evidence of the human society.
After an unspecified time spent following the shoreline, Taylor and Nova find something on the shore; Taylor stops the horse and dismounts, approaching the object before descending into a fit of rage, declaring that he has been home all along. Referring to the destroyed Statue and to his own civilization he says: “We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you. God damn you all to hell.” As the film ends, the picture zooms out to reveal the remnants of the Statue of Liberty, half-submerged in the shoreline.