“Apes exist, Sequel required.”
With those words, sent in a telegram from producer Arthur P. Jacobs to writer Paul Dehn, a sequel was set in motion to Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
But hey — didn’t everyone die in a nuclear bomb blast at the end of that movie?
They sure did.
Dehn decided that Cornelius and Zira — along with an inventor ape named Milo — would go back in time with Taylor’s ship. He also consulted Pierre Boulle, writer of the original Planet of the Apes novel, to add more satire to the story. Originally titled Secret of the Planet of the Apes, the results are rather genius, as only three ape actors allowed for a smaller budget while selling director Don Taylor (Damien: The Omen II and The Final Countdown) on the idea of making the film more humorous.
Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), Zira (Kim Hunter) and Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo!) have escaped the ruin of future Earth and landed back in 1973, where they are taken to the Los Angeles Zoo, where Dr. Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trundy, the wife of producer Jacobs and the only actor to portray every single race in the Apes universe) and Dr. Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman!) are set to examine them.
In private, the apes elect to not to let the humans know that they can speak. They also can’t tell them that, you know, they once dissected humans and that everyone else died in the Ape War. But man, those humans act so condescending to Zira and she flips out and shows them just how smart she is. And then she starts talking. And then, well, a mishap allows a zoo gorilla to kill Dr. Milo. Luckily — and in spite of this — Lewis ends up friends with the chimpanzees.
Meanwhile, a Presidential Commission has been formed to investigate the return of Taylor’s spaceship and determine what these apes are all about. Cornelius and Zira become celebrities over night and everyone loves them.
That’s not sitting well with President’s Science Advisor Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden, Titanic, Colossus: The Forbin Project), who discovers that Zira is with child and therefore fears for the future of humanity. He gets her drunk — dude, she’s pregnant! — and she reveals all, which means that now it’s time for the government to really interrogate them. After some truth syrum, Zira reveals that yes, she has dissected humans before and yes, she knew Taylor before he died.
Hasslein takes his findings to the President (William Windom), who must agree with the council that Zira’s pregnancy is to be aborted — guess he’s not a Right to Lifer — and that they must both be sterilized. After his child is called a little monkey by an orderly, Cornelius goes wild and accidentally kills the man before they escape.
Branton and Dixon help the apes to escape, where they hid out in the circus run by Senor Armando (Ricardo Montalban!), where an ape named Heloise has just given birth. Zira also gives birth to a son, whom she names Milo in honor of their deceased friend.
Hasslein is more animal than the apes, tracking them to a shipyard. The couple do not want to be taken alive, which suits him just fine. He fires numerous shots into Zira and her baby to the horror of all watching. Cornelius kills him in retaliation before being shot by a sniper. The couple crawl toward each other, touching one another one more time before dying.
Meanwhile, at Armando’s circus, we learn that Zira switched children with Heloise and Milo has survived. As the ringmaster walks away, we hear his first words as he cries for his mother.
Somehow, each Apes film tops the previous one for total downer endings.
It could have been worse — Cornelius and Zira were originally going to be ripped apart by a pack of Doberman Pinschers!
James Bacon shows up here — the only actor to be in all five of the Apes films. He also would go on to write numerous books about Hollywood, including the Jackie Gleason biography How Sweet It Is: The Jackie Gleason Story. This is the only movie in the series where he plays a human being.
Detroit TV announcer — he was mostly on WXYZ-TV — Bill Bonds plays a TV newsman. John Randolph plays a councilman, a role he’d also play in the next film, and he’s in another monkey movie, the 1976 remake of King Kong. M. Emmet Walsh also makes an appearance. And Albert Salmi, who is in Superstition, is here as well.
Sal Mineo found the makeup process very uncomfortable and tiring. Kim Hunter would later say that she and Roddy McDowall had to hug Mineo a lot to console him. He had hoped that this movie would restart his career, as it did McDowall’s, but due to how much he hated the make-up, he was killed off earlier than originally planned. Escape from the Planet of the Apes would be Mineo’s final theatrical film before he was murdered on February 12, 1976 at the age of 37.