This contemporary of 2001: A Space Odyssey is a ripping reversal, from up among the stars humankind comes crashing down into a new Stone Age. The space cruiser marooned on a strange planet is a solitary metal spec on a primeval world, leading the exploration is a nihilistic seeker (Charlton Heston), "somewhere in the universe there’s got to be something better than man." (Cosmic jokes are not lost on him, his cackle at the miniature American flag planted in the crumbly expanses echoes for miles.) What he finds is a topsy-turvy civilization "a rung or two down the old evolutionary ladder," with people dumb as oxen under the rule of a harsh simian order. Reactionary orangutans protect old laws while militaristic gorillas organize mass hunts, inquisitive chimpanzees embody the sotto voce of science in a paranoid theocracy. Nothing less than a threat to ape culture’s very foundation, the perplexed visitor is stripped, caged, whipped, hosed, leashed and damn near clipped; he finally regains his homo sapiens belligerence astride a horse with rifle and cigar, a journey that's lasted a couple of millenniums. "You can’t trust the older generation!" Nightmarish retrogression is the nucleus of the piquant allegory, the alien mirror held up to 1968’s sundry upheavals reflects a divided society’s road to ruin. The era of mutations has little time for the human ego, Franklin J. Schaffner embraces disorientation throughout: Sturdy Panavision compositions are unbalanced by rising and plunging cranes, Rod Serling’s sermons yield to the fiendish atonality of Jerry Goldsmith’s score. The latex muzzles are still beguiling, even more so is the pantomime of Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans, just the twitchiness needed for the wry Scopesian burlesque. Striding through the circle of oppressor and oppressed is Heston’s splendidly wounded hubris, the last twentieth-century man in burlap rags yet raging still at the new organ grinders. Herzog is not far off with Fata Morgana, the punchline is a Rauschenberg effect evoked by Gibson in Apocalypto. Cinematography by Leon Shamroy. With James Whitmore, James Daly, and Linda Harrison.
--- Fernando F. Croce