Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Despite appearing in over 75 films and TV shows, despite starring in two classic television shows (Naked City and Mr. Novak) and playing the lead in a total of six network shows, despite being the leading man in classic works by Dario Argento and Ray Harryhausen, today James Franciscus is best remembered for his role in a science fiction sequel.

But what a science fiction sequel - Beneath the Planet of the Apes!

Beneath was not only the first big budget sequel from a major studio, but it was also the most profitable of the many Apes movies. And unlike the subsequent Apes sequels, Beneath had the star of the original film, Charlton Heston, in a supporting (and definitely much more than cameo) role. Just as important, it also brought back from the original movie the mute but incredibly gorgeous Nova, played by Linda Harrison, the most beautiful and flat out hottest movie cavegirl of all time (sorry, Raquel). It also had a lot of fast paced action, ape cities above ground, mutant cities underground, a doomsday bomb and its doomsday cult, a brutal fight scene between Franciscus and Heston, and the most nihilistic ending probably ever filmed up to that point.

In Beneath, Franciscus plays John Brent, an astronaut sent to find his missing predecessor George Taylor (Charlton Heston), and like Taylor he crash lands on the Planet of the Apes (his skipper dying in the crash). Brent meets up with Nova (Linda Harrison), who is wearing Taylor's dog tags, and the two take off looking for the missing astronaut. Their quest takes them to Ape City, where they meet Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (David Watson), who advise Brent on how to survive on the Planet of the Apes. Despite these warnings, however, Brent and Nova are nevertheless captured and sent to a concentration camp where they are to be used as human targets. With Zira's help, the couple escape and make their way to the Forbidden Zone, where Taylor was last seen. Once there, they descend below ground to find Taylor, a buried city ruled by telepathic mutants, the previously mentioned doomsday bomb, and more. It's a wild ride, even for the sixties/seventies (the movie came out in 1970 and although it has 1960s political concerns, it's a very 1970s movie in every other way).

It's commonly thought that Franciscus was chosen for the role of Brent because of his resemblance to his tennis buddy Heston, and there are times in Beneath when it's easy to see the merit of this argument; sometimes Franciscus seems to be deliberately impersonating Heston (as when he gives a very Hestonian speech lamenting 20th century humankind to the uncomprehending Nova when the couple first descend underground). But although Burt Reynolds was the producers' choice for the role of Brent, Franciscus was always the first choice of director Ted Post, who saw Franciscus as a rising action star in the Steve McQueen mold.

Although excited to get such a major role, Franciscus wasn't happy with the character. When he got the script, Franciscus was so disgusted with the way Brent had been written that he called Heston up to complain about it (Heston was sympathetic, since he didn't really want to be in the movie at all), then rewrote it with a friend of his and apparently Post's blessing and certainly his later approval. By all accounts, Franciscus's changes were used throughout and improved the film considerably.

If nothing else, Beneath gave Franciscus the chance to finally bury the good memory of the sharp-dressed, clean-cut, very earnest Mr. Novak as well as the bad memory of the chick-flick sad-sack studmuffin Youngblood Hawke. With Beneath, Franciscus recast himself as an action hero who could act, and most of the roles in his career after that feature him as a smart, sophisticated action hero (and sometimes villain).

Stills from Beneath the Planet of the Apes