The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Though many of you might think it more a guilty pleasure than something to shout about in a public forum, I have no hesitation in revealing that Planet of the Apes (the 1968 original, of course) is one of my all-time favorite movies. And why should I feel strange about that? It’s a fantastic science-fiction story adapted from an outstanding book and molded into a hell of a ride by a director, cast and crew who were functioning at the top of their game. There’s a multi-faceted hero, adventure, plenty of action, sex (well, at least the intimation of it, between chiseled star Charlton Heston and his curvaceous human companion, Linda Harrison) and a serious underlying theme. You also can’t forget the apes themselves — the makeup actually works — and the alien world in which we’re immediately immersed. Then there’s the shock ending, whose effect was so strong that contemporary films, both cheesy and grand, continue to “ape” it 46 years later.

Director Franklin J. Schaffner had already enjoyed a long and successful career by the time he signed on to shoot this simian saga. He started out in television during the late 1940s and went on to direct nine more movies after Apes, among them two that I often find worming their way into my all-time top 20: Patton (1970) and Papillon (1973). ASC Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Fred Koenekamp was Schaffner’s most frequent feature-film cinematographer, but for Planet of the Apes he chose to work with the legendary Leon Shamroy, ASC.

These days, people tend to toss that word — “legendary” — around with blind abandon, but in Shamroy’s case the adjective is truly deserved. A past president of the ASC, he was born in 1901 and became a cinematographer in 1926 after working on the laboratory side for a number of years. Over the course of a career that included such memorable films as Twelve O’Clock High (1949), The Robe (1953) and South Pacific (1958), he earned a record 18 Academy Award nominations, with four wins.

Shamroy was also an early adopter of the 2.40:1 CinemaScope format, which he used to extraordinary effect on Planet of the Apes. Check out the film’s 32-minute opening sequence, shot mostly in and around Utah’s Lake Powell and Arizona’s Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. This section of the movie is a veritable clinic on how to execute epic-scale widescreen shots. Certainly it ranks alongside the work of Freddie Young, BSC (who conducted his own widescreen tutorials with Lawrence of Arabia and other classics) or the broad canvasses created by the cinematographers who partnered with Stanley Kubrick. That Shamroy achieved his look without the help of today’s digital tools makes it all the more impressive. In an almost completely day-exterior situation, there’s barely a mismatched shot to be found, and we all know how difficult it can be to maintain that kind of consistency. The rest of the movie offers a near-perfect blend of location and back-lot situations, interspersed with set work whose lighting and compositions represent some of the last (and best) examples of a style that was going out of vogue. Combined with the movie’s succinct, elegant pacing and a music and sound-effects track whose sophistication rivals anything you’ll hear today, Shamroy’s work is elevated to something more impressive than you’ll find in most high-end dramas, let alone the science-fiction genre.

It’s interesting to note that the hand-crafted qualities of Planet of the Apes were completely swept aside with the release of Star Wars a mere nine years later, but both of these classics share those strands of DNA that make certain movies memorable. I intuitively recognized the creative significance of Apes when I first saw it at age 11, and apparently those feelings have stuck with me, because I’m still looning about it all these years later.

Even if the thought of watching Chuck Heston running around in a loincloth is not your cup of tea, I urge you to acquire a copy of Planet of the Apes (the Blu-ray is amazing) and give it a chance. As a reader of this magazine, you owe that much to the memory of Leon Shamroy.

Anyway, it’s summertime. Go ahead — treat yourself!

 

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