Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Behind Planet of the Apes (1998)
Purchase: DVD | Planet of the Apes: The Evolution Box Set | Novel - Pierre Boulle | Score soundtrack - Jerry Goldsmith | Poster

Picture/Sound/Extras: NA/NA/NA

Okay folks, this one'll be short, as there's less to discuss than usual. Behind the Planet of the Apes is a 126-minute documentary from 1998. Originally produced for the American Movie Classics cable channel, this show covers all five of the Apes films plus a few other facets of the film's legacy. The entire program is hosted by the late Roddy McDowall, who appeared in almost all of the Apes projects covered here.

Of course, not all apes are created equal, so don't expect a balanced emphasis on each of the different pictures. Logically, the original Planet of the Apes greatly dominates this piece. Discussion of that 1968 classic takes up 13 of the DVD's 22 chapters and it lasts until a little past the 61 minute mark, or almost half of the program. As I indicated, this makes sense, since POTA is not just the most famous and successful of the bunch, but also it provided the backstory for the entire line; all of the information about how the original came to exist has to be explained, and that information then is unnecessary for the later films.

Participants in the piece include stars Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter and Linda Harrison plus others involved in the production such as producers Richard Zanuck and Mort Abrahams, and art director William Creber. The program includes a wealth of good information as it traces the film's genesis, from its origins as a novel to a Pierre Boulle to the difficulties they had getting a studio to back the project to script problems to... well, there's a lot of information to be found here, and most of it's pretty entertaining.

The documentary varies between film clips, outtakes and stills from the production, and modern interviews with the aforementioned folks and others. The pace alternates between these nicely and makes for a strong visual presentation that doesn't stagnate. One nice part is that whenever someone mentions some cool aspect of the production - like test footage of early make-up concepts - we almost always actually see that material. This isn't a perfect rule; for example, some deleted scenes are mentioned, but we only find still photos from them. Nonetheless, the show nicely supports many of the verbal statements with corresponding visual material.

The program looks into the message behind the movie, and that actually provides some of the documentary's unintentionally (to the participants, at least) amusing aspects. We hear some of the commentators discuss what point was being conveyed in the film and how people interpreted it, but producer Zanuck still seems to be in denial. He insists it's just a fun little picture that had no message, no matter how obvious that point may seem, and despite the continued statements of others. It's very odd but also entertaining.

The content covers the making of the first film well and includes a lot of little surprises, such as some of the actors we see in the aforementioned test footage. Part of the fun of Behind... came from these unanticipated bits, so I won't ruin them for you here. Suffice it to say that we discover a lot of fun details about the movie; it's a brisk and fascinating hour.

Chapters 14 and 15 expand into the area of the sequels and directly discuss the second film in the series, 1970's Beneath the Planet of the Apes; this segment lasts about 14 and a half minutes. Although I haven't seen that movie, it's also a good piece, though obviously less detailed. The best parts? Hearing how hard Heston worked to make sure he wouldn't be in another sequel.

Chapter 16 goes into 1971's Escape from the Planet of the Apes; this part runs for approximately 13 minutes. As the documentary continues, I found less detail about the various projects and more discussion of the content of the films themselves, and this section demonstrates that. Nonetheless, it still offers some interesting details on the project, especially as it discusses how the producers dealt with ever-smaller budgets and increasingly-odd scenarios in which they have to place the characters. {;us it offers good old Ricardo Montalban as an ape-buddy - can't ask for more than that! (Well, you could, but you'd look like a terrible ingrate.)

In chapter 17, we hear about 1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes in a piece that goes for roughly 13 and a half minutes. This was easily one of the more interesting sections. The producers enlisted Guns of Navarone director J. Lee Thompson and the film took on a societally-appropriate militant attitude that the suits at Fox feared would kill this "family-oriented" franchise. Apparently those attitudes and some disastrous test screenings killed what probably would have been the only Apes movie endorsed by Huey Newton.

The fifth and final Apes epic - 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes - fills chapter 18, which takes up a little less than 11 minutes. This section's not quite as interesting as the others, mainly because the creative juices clearly stopped flowing long before they made it to this picture. Still, it's a good piece and is almost as compelling as the others, despite the apparently greater flatness of the movie itself.

Chapter 19 tells us just how hard it is to kill an ape. Despite the existence of four films in four years, and the diminishing returns that accompanied each effort, the apes just wouldn't die, and CBS ran a POTA TV show in 1974. It didn't last long, but we hear about it - and 1975's NBC series Return to the Planet of the Apes, which also didn't run for an extended period of time - in this five-minute chapter. I enjoyed this part if for no other reason than the TV shows are what I remember most about POTA from childhood; I don't know if I ever saw any of the movies as a kid, but I definitely dug the TV programs, and I found it fun to hear about them.

The evil force of merchandising takes hold in chapter 20, which runs for a little more than two minutes. (Yes, I think mass marketing of gewgaws based on films is horrible; that's why I'm an obsessive Star Wars collector.) This part offers a nice though brief look at all of the crap they offered with a picture of an ape slapped on the side.

In chapter 21, we learn of the undying life of the Apes franchise and how it's become part of pop culture in this slightly less than four minute segment. Happily, this includes a brief snippet of a scene from The Simpsons; when I think of Apes references, that's what occurs to me and probably a lot of others, so it's cool they acknowledged this. (Shoulda been the "Dr. Zaius" song, though.) The credits in chapter 22 extend us to the 126 minute and 40 second mark and the program's end.

Hmm... I said this would be short, didn't I? Guess I lied! Well, at least my comments about picture and sound quality will be brief, because unless they're atrocious, I don't think they're an important consideration for programs such as this; unlike the films themselves, programs like this don't really require the meticulous care required for the best possible presentation. To be sure, I want the documentaries to look and sound good, but I just don't think it's as important.

That said, Behind... looks and sounds just fine on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD. Obviously the quality of the material varies greatly due to the numerous sources, but everything seemed appropriately clear and accurate. It does what it should, which is why I feel no need to assign a formal grade.

Although I also didn't want to rate the supplements - after all, the whole thing is essentially an extra - but Behind... tosses in a few bits and pieces. We find trailers for all five of the films plus a "Planet of the Apes Cross-Promotion", which is just an ad for the whole set of films combined into one. In addition, it gives us a promo for Behind... itself plus a preview of Fox Interactive's upcoming POTA computer game. (No, there's no "playable" component - you just watch it.)

Behind the Planet of the Apes offers a very entertaining and fairly comprehensive look at an enduring film series. Unfortunately, this DVD is only available as part of the Planet of the Apes: The Evolution boxed set. That package, which retails for $100, is also the sole source of all four of the Apes sequels on DVD. Is that price worth it? Not if all you want is one movie and the documentary, and if you'd like to have two films and Behind..., that's still pushing it.

However, if you want to check out at least three of the pictures, I think it's well worth the money. Overall, the package is well-priced for what you get; even without Behind..., list prices of only $20 a DVD seem good, and obviously the documentary adds a lot of value to the set. You need to be pretty interested in the whole series for Behind... to merit your purchase, since it doesn't come cheap, but it's an excellent program that makes a fine addition to the package.

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