A crew of four American astronauts, launched in 1972, is en route back to Earth after a deep space exploration mission. Thanks to hibernation and the time-dilation effect of the ship approaching light speed, the astronauts fully expect 700 years to have passed on Earth by the time they return – everyone who was originally associated with the mission will have died long ago by their return. Expedition commander George Taylor is the last to put himself into hibernation for the voyage home, but when he awakens, the ship’s return has gone disastrously wrong. The ship has crash-landed in water, and at some point a breach in a hibernation unit caused the death of Dr. Stewart, the only female member of the crew. With fellow crewmembers Dodge and Landon, Taylor abandons ship; each man has only a backpack of tools and supplies, and the spacesuit on his back, as the three survivors set out to explore whatever planet they’ve landed on. Before bailing out of the ship, however, Taylor takes note of the chronometer: instead of returning to Earth in a few centuries, the astronauts have arrived on an unknown world two millennia later.
The three escape aboard an inflatable life raft and row their way to dry land, finding an arid desert with few signs of plant life. Eventually they cross into a jungle region and find signs of intelligent life, eventually stumbling across a group of primitive humans. But the astronauts are stunned when the humans scatter at the sound of approaching hooves: apes, riding on horseback, clothed and armed, are hunting the humans. Taylor and his crewmates are captured in the brutal hunt, with Dodge taking a fatal shot from an ape’s rifle and Taylor suffering a glancing blow to his throat which robs him of his voice.
Taylor finds himself caged and treated like an animal, in a facility where several of the primitive humans are kept in captivity. Unable to speak, he’s treated no better than any of the barely-civilized humans in the other cages. Dr. Zira, an ape animal behavior expert, is fascinated by Taylor, nicknaming him “Bright Eyes” and closely watching his attempts to communicate with her. She’s unable to convince her superior, Dr. Zaius, of the value of her continued attempts to communicate with the new arrival. She discovers that he can write, and she and her fiancee, an ape archaeologist named Cornelius, learn of his true origins, though they find his story implausible. Taylor decides to make a break for it, escaping from his cell and trying to find his crew. He does find Dodge – stuffed and cleaned up to serve as part of a museum exhibit about primitive humans. The apes catch up with Taylor just as he recovers his ability to speak, rocking every belief the apes hold about the humans they enslave.
A hearing is called in which Dr. Zaius and other elders of the apes’ society not only demand to know more about Taylor, but call Zira and Cornelius to account for the time they’ve spent with him. But since Taylor’s very existence contradicts both the science and the religious beliefs of the apes, he is sentenced to die regardless of what he says to them. Zira and Cornelius quietly break Taylor out of his cell that night to make an escape, but he refuses to leave without a primitive human woman he called Nova, who he has befriended. The two ape scientists are now on the run as well, facing charges of heresy, so they venture with Taylor back to his ship’s landing site, in the desert area the apes know as the Forbidden Zone, where Cornelius once took part in an archaeological dig.
But Dr. Zaius and a group of ape soldiers follow the fugitives. Taylor manages to stave off the imminent hostilities long enough to discover that Cornelius uncovered evidence that the humans on this world were once far more advanced and civilized. Though this contradicts the apes’ belief that they have always been the superior beings by divine birthright, Zaius begrudgingly admits that he has known of this evidence all along. Taylor bargains for his freedom and takes Nova with him to explore further in the Forbidden Zone, and much to everyone’s surprise, Zaius grants him that freedom, knowing that Taylor will soon realize that he’s closer to home than he dared to imagine.
screenplay by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling
based on the novel by Pierre Boulle
directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
music by Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Charlton Heston (George Taylor), Roddy McDowall (Cornelius), Kim Hunter (Zira), Maurice Evans (Dr. Zaius), James Whitmore (President of the Assembly), James Daly (Honorious), Linda Harrison (Nova), Robert Gunner (Landon), Lou Wagner (Lucius), Woodrow Parfrey (Maximus), Jeff Burton (Dodge), Buck Kartalian (Julius), Norman Burton (Hunt Leader), Wright King (Dr. Galen), Paul Lambert (Minister)
Notes: Rod Serling, who wrote the first draft of the screenplay in 1964 (and is also famous for creating the influential SF anthology series The Twilight Zone), also contributed ideas to the ultimately short-lived early ’70s television spinoff of the Apes movies. Pierre Boulle, the French author whose 1963 novel formed the basis of the movie, wrote another draft of the screenplay that went unused.
LogBook entry by Earl Green