Crashlanding on an unidentified planet on 25th November 3978 earthtime, the three surviving astronauts find themselves on a planet where evolution has been reversed and apes are the dominant species.
The same premise may have been used for the first two sequels and the TV series but here it carries an intellectual and philosophical weight leavened by both a sense of humour and its vivid action. Unlike the immediate sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, it deals credibly with Heston's atronaut's disorientation in a manner that enhances our involvement both the character and the film. His deeply cynical character, whose disgust with mankind led to his decision to flee it in the hope that "somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man - has to be", is forced into the position of its unlikely defender.
The direction is at once both highly disciplined and rough and ready, its mix-and-match of camera techniques giving a sense of a world both unbalanced and repressively logical that makes his plight entirely involving. It builds to the first appearance of the apes with a highly credible opening half-hour that sees the astronauts foraging across an incredibly stark and alien landscape. When it does come in the powerful hunt sequence, it is still a stunner, as indeed is the knockout final shot that easily beats novelist Pierre Boulle's original ending (the astronaut returns to Earth to find apes have taken over there too).
Even with modern advances in film make-up, there has never been anything to touch the extraordinary work on the apes films. Designed both for credibility and emotional effect, there is a level of detail and character that is quite astounding, and most important of all, they are never less than totally convincing. You always believe that these are talking apes, not men in masks. The actors too deserve special praise for this, their body language giving them simian attributes without descending to parody, their vocal ability injecting them with a gravitas and personality that is genuinely involving. After a while you stop thinking of them as apes but as characters and share Taylor's anger and frustration at them.
It is particularly interesting in the context of the film that one of the astronauts is black (something NASA took its time getting round to), and clear traces of the civil rights era can be found in the script. There is racism within the ape society, with chimpanzees looked down on by an orangutan elite in a society where a species 'quoata' system has only recently been abolished. The elite fears the presence of a talking human who could destroy the status quo in an era of social upheaval. Similarly, the Scopes Monkey trial of 1925 which put Darwinism in the dock is evoked in the tribunal sequence, as are the shameful anti-communist showtrials of fifties America.
Indeed, it is easy to see a disgust with McCarthyism running through the film, both on-screen and behind the cameras. Co-writer Rod Serling had attacked the paranoia of the era in the Twilight Zone episode The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, as had director Schaffner in The Best Man, and co-writer Michael Wilson was denied his screen credit on Lawrence of Arabia both by the blacklist and director David Lean. Kim Hunter was also blacklisted as a result of an Oscar winning director's testimony.
The production design is also excellent, the simian city so perfectly realised that it is surprising to learn that Rod Serling originally envisioned a (undoubtedly economically unviable) sixties-style metropolis of skyscrapers and machinery modified for the dimensions of apes. Goldsmith's score is a landmark, evoking an alien soundscape every bit as vivid as its visual equivalent through its use of bizarre instrumentation, echoing the chattering of apes in its orchestration.
On the debit side there are some terrible bits of monkey business - the orangutan jury adopting the poses of the three blind monkies, lines like "I never met an ape I didn't like" and "Human see, human do" - as well as one VERY unfortunate shot at the pool when two of the naked astronauts disappear below the frame while Heston remains (briefly) standing. Yet these are not enough to detract from what is still one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.
While the sequels are only readily available to British Blu-ray buyers in a boxed set, the original film has been released on Blu-ray in Europe with almost all the extras intact from the excellent two-disc limited edition, most notable the excellent two-hour documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes (here presented in an interactive version) which gves a thorough overview of the original film franchise (it was made before tim Burton's 'reimagining' or the excellent Rise of the Planet of the Apes - Triple Play (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy)[Region Free
]). There's also an audio commentary by Roddy McDowell, Natalie Trundy, Kim Hunter and John Chambers, isolated score with commentary by Jerry Goldsmith, a showreel produced for cinema owners to persuade them to book the film, original featurette, mute dailies and outtakes and full make-up test with Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, James Brolin and Linda Harrison, Roddy McDowall home movies, stills, concept art and merchandise galleries, promo for Behind the Planet of the Apes, original trailer and teaser for Planet of the Apes and trivia track. Extras exclusive to the BD include 'Science of the Apes' bonusview featurettes, two new featurettes on the film and its merchandising, a text based interactive game and a mock public service announcement.
(For the record, the A Look Behind the Planet of the Apes featurette for Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and location footage of Don Taylor directing Escape From the Planet of the Apes and J. Lee Thompson directing Conquest of the Planet of the Apes can be found on the Blu-ray releases of the respective films).
The Blu-ray transfer itself is very good, though perhaps not such a giant leap from the two-disc special edition DVD to make an upgrade absolutely essential. But if you don't have the film and don't want the sequels, this is certainly the version to get. Do note, however, that the US Blu-ray is region A-locked (though it does include the original mono soundtrack that is dropped in favour of a stereo remix in the version released in the rest of the world).