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By Thomas Wheeler

In 1963, author Pierre Boulle crafted a novel that would eventually become the basis for a cinematic and pop culture legend.

In Boulle's novel, two space travelers happen across the spaceborne memoir of an astronaut from Earth, named Ulysse Merou, who had been stranded on a distant planet. That planet was a world of intelligent simians -- apes. Here he encountered the sympathetic chimpanzees Cornelius and Zira, the less than sympathetic orangutan Zaius, and the reader was treated to an adventure in a world much like our own, but populated by sentient apes.

The novel closed returning to the two space travelers who had discovered Merou's record. They regarded it as an interesting story, but implausible. I mean -- thinking, intelligent humans? Ridiculous. The two space travelers were themselves chimpanzees.

The apes in Boulle's novel were very simian. They were used to using all four of their limbs as hands. They applauded with their hands and feet. The space explorers' vessel was even designed for four-limbed use.

The novel, "Planet of the Apes", was nevertheless a science-fiction hit, and it wasn't too long before those in the movie world showed interest in it, notably one Arthur P. Jacobs. It wasn't an easy sell, though. For starters, you had the problem of the apes. I honestly don't know if the idea of using actual trained apes every came up, but one can readily imagine how much of a fiasco that would've been. You can train an ape to do a great many things. Delivering spoken lines isn't one of them.

Additionally, it was considered that showing apes in a modern-day world otherwise largely identical to our own was pushing it. The apes needed their own world. The story needed more of a shock value to it. To that end, the Apes concept was reworked somewhat, including significant participation by someone well acquainted with the weird -- Rod Serling.

But there was still the matter of the apes. Clearly, human beings made up to look like apes was the answer. The question remained -- was it possible? Most prosthetic make-up for movies and such was designed to make people look like frightening monsters or aliens, which didn't need any specific reference points necessarily. To make a human up to look like a plausible ape was to make a human look like an established creature, and yet without losing all of the personality of the human underneath.

The movie's producers turned to make-up expert John Chambers, who ultimately crafted the ape make-up design that was to be used in the movies. A careful design that reflected the basics of the simian likeness but still allowed for a measure of humanity to show through, physically in the actor's eyes and the edges of his mouth, and in a certain limited downplay of the ape countenance, almost a simian-human hybrid, was developed.

The story was also altered somewhat. The tale begins on an Earth spacecraft, as we listen to the narration of astronaut George Taylor, played by Charlton Heston. The spacecraft has been on a long-range space exploration mission, and the nature of the stardrive that the ship used has caused more time to pass on Earth than has passed on the ship, on the order of several centuries.

The ship experiences a malfunction, and crash-lands on an unknown world. Taylor notices as he and the survivors are evacuating the vessel that two thousand years have passed on Earth. Whatever world they're on, help isn't likely to be forthcoming.

They soon discover a population of humans -- primitive, unable to speak, apparent nomads in loinchoths. Not long after this, a hunting party descends on the tribe, killing two of the astronauts, and wounding Taylor, who nevertheless gets a good look at the hunters. They are gorillas -- wearing uniforms and mounted on horseback...

Taylor's wound costs him his voice for a time, and when he finally regains his voice, it's a shock to the ape population. A trial ensues, as the sympathetic chimpanzees Cornelius and Zira try to defend themselves for proposing the notion that there is some evolutionary link between ape and man, which is why Taylor is able to speak. Taylor's remark that he is from an entirely different planet is dismissed by the tribunal, which includes the orangutan Dr. Zaius.

Ultimately, seeking to clear their names, Cornelius and Zira, accompanied by Taylor, head into a region called the Forbidden Zone. There they have discovered an archaeological site that pre-dates the established records of ape civilization. Dr. Zaius shows up and, after being taken captive by Taylor for a time, shuts down the operation, after making a deal with Taylor to give him supplies and releasing him to find his own way in the world.

The movie concludes with a shock. As Taylor rides along the shoreline, he comes across another archaeological find -- the remnants of the Statue of Liberty. He realizes, in that moment, along with the viewer, that he's been home, on Earth, the entire time. In Earth's future. An Earth is now a Planet of Apes.

The movie was released in 1968 and created an immediate sensation. It also boasted an impressive cast, although pretty much only Heston's face was recognizable. Underneath the highly detailed and extremely impressive simian make-up were the likes of Maurice Evans as Dr. Zaius (who found the make-up so difficult to work through that he had to re-record most of his lines in the studio), Kim Hunter as Zira, and of course, Roddy McDowall as Cornelius, the actor who would become best-associated with the Apes.

People clamored for more, and this was in a time when sequels were relatively unheard of. Nevertheless, 20th Century Fox, which had turned out the movie, delivered. A couple of years later, "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" came on the scene. It wasn't based on a Boulle story. Boulle had actually written a sequel, called "Planet of the Men", but it was regarded as "unfilmable", featuring a world in which humans regained ascendancy as apes slowly lost their intelligence. The closing scene featured a circus with a barely-articulate Zaius somehow managing to pronounce his name.

"Beneath the Planet of the Apes" nearly featured a human-ape hybrid child, but that idea was dropped when the potential controversy of the youngster's conception was considered. What it did feature was a second astronaut, named Brent, following in Taylor's flight path on a rescue mission. This was due largely to Heston not wanting as major a role in the film. McDowall also bowed out, since the Cornelius role was not too significant. It was the only Apes movie he was not a part of.

Brent encountered the Ape City, building up to war with an unknown enemy in the Forbidden Zone. This ultimately turned out to be a band of still-intelligent humans living underground in what was left of New York City -- which wasn't much. Here, Taylor's theory at the end of the first movie was verified -- humanity had destroyed themselves in a nuclear war. The humans living here were mutated by radiation. There were telepathic, but also horribly scarred. They wore masks to conceal this, but eventually showed their true faces -- which made the apes look better by comparison.

They were also in possession of the ultimate bomb, created back in Taylor's time. It was designed to literally destroy the world which, after Taylor was shot and he set off the activation button, is precisely what it did.

Now, you'd think blowing up the planet would pretty well end the series, but it didn't. Fans wanted more, and Fox had to find out a way to deliver. The result was "Escape from the Planet of the Apes", which presented McDowall back as Cornelius, and Kim Hunter continuing as Zira. They and a colleague had discovered Taylor's rocket, and had managed to launch it backwards in time just before the destruction of the world. They arrived on present-day Earth, and were initially treated like celebrities, until it became increasingly clear that they were hiding more than a few secrets -- like the fact that they were from a future where humans were dumb and often mistreated, and somebody had blown up the place on their way out the door.

At the end of the movie, Cornelius and Zira were killed, but not before Zira gave birth to a child who survived. Fast-forward to the next movie, "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes", which featured Roddy McDowall once again, this time playing Caesar, Cornelius' son. In this movie, set about twenty or so years in the future, apes have become a slave class to humanity. A plague from space had killed all cats and dogs, and man wanted new pets, and started taking in small apes. Of course, an ape is far more intelligent than a cat or a dog, so over a fairly short period of time, they increasingly became less pets and more servants -- but still animals.

Caesar, basically, staged an uprising -- and got away with it. The final movie, "Battle for the Planet of the Apes", was almost an afterthought, and the production values showed it. It did introduce actor Paul Williams as the super-intelligent orangutan Virgil, and there was a hysterical segment on "The Tonight Show" at the time where Williams, best known as a singer at the time, came out and performed in full ape regalia, but there wasn't really much to recommend the movie, except as a closing chapter of sorts, which, as much as possible, equalized the position between ape and human, and drove the mutated humans underground for the foreseeable future.

It also provided a final chapter in the Apes timeline, which had always been a bit problematic. Although it's not without its holes, as anything involving this much time travel is bound to be, one can see a back and forth line whereby the two spacecraft, Taylor's and Brent's, travel to the distant future of Earth and discover the Ape civilization, and ultimately destroy the Earth, right after Cornelius and Zira travel back in time, give birth to Caesar, who essentially gives birth to the Ape civilization, with a little help from a subsequent nuclear war that is described in the final movie.

But even five movies weren't enough for the fans. In 1974, CBS debuted a live-action Planet of the Apes TV series. McDowall was back as a third chimp, the young and curious Galen, who teams up with fugitive astronauts Burke and Virdon, on the run from gorilla General Urko, played by Mark Lenard, best known as Spock's father Sarek from Star Trek, and probably wishing he'd stuck with just having to wear pointed ears. The series was short-lived, not even lasting an entire season, unfortunately. Interestingly, it took place in the year 3085. Humans are still reasonably intelligent at this point, but are an oppressed species under Ape rule, and live in primitive conditions, not that the Apes are exactly technologically advanced, but they clearly have the upper hand.

I'm not going to mention the 2001 Tim Burton remake, since that would require me to use language unfit for a family-oriented Web Site.

Suffice to say, the Apes concept was and is a highly popular one. And in the 1970's, it attracted the attention of the Mego Corporation. In the 1970's, Mego pretty much ruled the action figure world. They had the license to pretty much everything -- DC Comics, Marvel Comics (an impressive feat in and of itself), Star Trek, Wizard of Oz, and -- Planet of the Apes.

They created two basic assortments of figures. One was based on the movies, and a second one was based on the TV show. The movie-based line featured Cornelius, Zira, Dr. Zaius, a very generic "Soldier Ape", and an equally generic "Astronaut". The TV show line featured Galen -- a repackaged Cornelius -- Virdon, Burke, General Urko, and, strangely, General Ursus, who had actually been the gorilla general in "Beneath", but was arguably the inspiration for Urko.

Mego really went the extra mile on this line. The headsculpts, especially for the Apes, were among the most detailed of any Mego ever turned out. The wrinkles in the faces, the extensive detailing in the hair, was nothing short of remarkable. They even sculpted new hands, with hair sculpted on the backs of the hands, to be used for these Ape figures.

Mego survived as a toy company into the early 1980's, and to this day is highly regarded and well-remembered by most action figure collectors old enough to remember those days of eight-inch, cloth-costumed figures of just about everybody on the block.

Recently, a company called EmCe Toys, with the blessing and participation of Mego founder Marty Abrams, has started to bring back collector-level remakes of some of Mego's most popular lines. You're not going to find them in the standard toy stores. These are specialty products, distributed through Diamond Select Toys. If you're lucky, your local Suncoast Video store might have them, or your local comics store might be able to order them for you. They're also available at select online retailers.

EmCe's main focus up until recently has been Star Trek, producing very effective versions of the original crew, as well as the popular aliens. But they have recently started to do PLANET OF THE APES, as well. And it's not like anyone else is right now.

Of course, this was superb news to me. I loved the idea of having the Apes back in my collection, so when I turned up CORNELIUS recently, I brought him home. So -- how's the figure?

EmCe toys has done an excellent job of taking the basic Mego body and upgrading it to a collector level. The basic appearance and construction is the same, but the entire body seems sturdier. While I have no idea how it's assembled on the inside, I'd like to think it might make use of something a little sturdier than hooks and rubber bands (although in fairness, that was an excellent design for the 1970's, and I still have a couple of original Megos that are in perfectly good condition, something I can't say the same for regarding some more recent product).

The only real visual difference is that the little plastic pegs used to secure the feet and ankles are bigger in circumference than they used to be. This is probably both a safety factor, although these aren't really intended as kids' toys, and a sturdiness factor.

The headsculpt is fantastic. It's a perfect likeness of the original Cornelius, which in and of itself isn't a bad likeness of the character from the movies. As I said earlier, Mego really went the extra mile in the detail department on these the first time around, and EmCe has maintained that.

About the only off-point, which is something Mego did, was to give the character eyebrows. Cornelius didn't have hairy eyebrows. Only orangutans did. If one wishes, it's probably possible to remove them. I did on my original -- thirty or so years ago -- and the result doesn't look bad at all. But I'm not terribly inclined to do it on a collectible like this. Let him keep the brows.

The back of the head on the original had this lengthy copyright text that described both APJAC Productions -- Arthur P. Jacob's company -- as well as 20th Century Fox. EmCe Toys made this lettering a lot neater this time around, and shortened it. The information just says "TM and (C) 1968, 2008 FOX". At least it's one way to tell an original from the new one. Also the back of the body underneath the shirt doesn't have all the Mego information on it. Instead, it has EmCe Toys' Web Site.

I find a certain irony in that given that when these toys first came out, no one would've had a clue as to what a Web Site even was...

The figure is wearing a cloth uniform made mostly from the same sort of stretchy fabric used for super-hero costumes. It is olive in color, and features a long shirt and leggings, two separate pieces. The shirt has the leather-like "bib" on it that was common to chimpanzees in the movies, with the sculpted image that is apparently some mark of the Ape civilization.

Here is where EmCe has made a distinct improvement over the original Mego design. On the Mego Cornelius (and for that matter Galen), this bib could range in color from a sort of brown to almost purple, and it was just glued down on one midpoint spot. The fabric edges underneath tended to fray. The new bib is the right color -- a very dark brown -- and it's glued down very securely around all edges. This thing isn't going to pull up or fray.

The shirt has fur around the shirt cuffs. This looks a little strange, and is a little difficult to equate to the wardrobe in the movie, except that apparently the Apes wore some sort of rough fabric "undershirt", and this is how Mego chose to represent it, so that's how EmCe did it. It looks a little weird, but it's not bad. And the figure does have the proper sculpted fur-back "Ape" hands.

Footwear is a pair of moccasins. While not really in keeping with the movie characters, whose footwear more or less just extended from their leggings, but also ended in these ape-like feet, complete with thumbs, that Mego probably would have found very difficult to imitate at the time, it is in keeping with what Mego did. The moccasins are very western in their appearance, and one may wonder where they came from, but in the 1970's, Mego did a line of western characters at one point, including a number of historical Native Americans.

Articulation is, as one might expect, superb. Cornelius is fully poseable at the head, arms, elbows, wrists, waist, legs, knees, and ankles. It's small wonder Mego has such a good reputation and invokes such fond memories today. They put out good stuff, and I am delighted to see EmCe Toys bringing it back to this level. Would that they could acquire more of Mego's former licenses.

A brief word about packaging. EmCe Toys has taken great pains to reproduce the original packaging, at least on the front. It definitely has a 70's look to it, but it's still cool. The package has the "Planet of the Apes" logo, Cornelius' name, and painted images of Cornelius, Zira, Dr. Zaius, and the Soldier Ape. All are excellent likeness of the characters as they were in the movies.

The back of the card is different, with the caption "THEY'RE BACK", and showing pictures of the four figures planned for this line, along with the Apes logo, the phrase "8-inch "Retro Cloth" figures", and other details, including a brief history of Mego and how they were the first to produce authorized Planet of the Apes figures, along with a picture of Mego's founder, Marty Abrams.

So what's my final word here? If you're any sort of Apes fan, you really can't go wrong with this figure. Maybe you even had the original. Or maybe you're not old enough to have had the original, but you've become a fan of Planet of the Apes in the meantime, and you're wondering if this Cornelius figure is worth it. Please be assured, it is. It's a blast from the past, but it's also a very capable and impressive rendering of a classic figure based on a very cool concept, and heck, he holds up well even today. Get him. This is a high-quality, very well-made action figure in its own right, that is also a superb tribute to both Planet of the Apes and Mego. You won't be disappointed.

The EMCE TOYS PLANET OF THE APES CORNELIUS figure most definitely has my highest enthusiastic recommendation!