I wish Planet of the Apes had never become a franchise, because then I might have appreciated it sooner. The original Planet of the Apes, from 1968, is regarded as a classic, but it spawned an unbelievable number of sequels, spin-offs, and reboots (4 direct sequels, a television series, an animated television series, a 2001 remake, another reboot series that has so far produced 4 films, plus comic books, novelizations, and unfathomable number of toys and products). I’ve never met anyone who has mentioned being a Planet of the Apes fan (they’re certainly less visible than Star Trek and Star Wars fans), but they must be out there, because the franchise has made billions of dollars.
I confess that it never held any allure for me, so I had never watched any of the zillion-and-one Apes movies, even the 1968 original. It all sounded kind of, well, dumb to me, and besides, I already knew how the first movie ends, because it’s one of the most famous endings in the history of the movies. I knew Planet of the Apes through parody (it’s been done by both the Muppets and the Simpsons, and there’s even a porn version, due to Rule 34). I knew that (spoiler) the planet turns out to be Earth. I didn’t feel like learning more.
But I often find that when you go back to the original of something that has been copied, parodied, and branded over and over, it can be far more interesting than you expected, so I recently gave 1968’s Planet of the Apes a try. I expected it to be stupid, but entertaining.
It isn’t stupid at all. In fact, it’s profound, and it’s a shame that its ending is so widely known, because if you try to see it with fresh eyes, it can be moving and disturbing. Planet of the Apes is very much a “movie of ideas,” and it’s a great film to watch with others and talk about afterward.
I realized Planet of the Apes was going to be more than I expected when I saw that Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame had co-written the screenplay. We’ve covered Serling’s work in this magazine before, because he was brilliant at using science fiction to convey parables about some of the most important issues facing humankind (especially tending to warn us about our self-destructive hatreds and suspicions, and the danger that our species would destroy itself). Serling had seen war up close, and many Twilight Zone episodes were implicit arguments for peaceful cooperation and empathy, against bigotry and Cold War paranoia.
1968’s Planet of the Apes can almost be viewed as an extended Twilight Zone episode, as it shares a lot of their features (a terrifying alternate reality somewhat like our own, a social message, a twist ending). In fact, I prefer to pretend that none of the other Planet of the Apes spin-offs exist, and to view it as an entirely self-contained story. If you think of it that way, and view it as a story instead of the first in a series of glimpses at a fictional world, it almost feels like the best Twilight Zone episode ever made.
You probably know the outlines of the story: George Taylor (played by Charlton Heston) and his spaceship crew awaken after a long slumber on what they think is a distant planet. They wander in the desert looking for signs of life. They discover groups of half-naked feral human beings, and then discover that these human beings are tormented by a more “civilized” society of talking apes. Taylor, wounded by an ape, is rendered mute like the other humans. He has to convince the apes of his intelligence, which proves difficult, since there is a deep-seated prejudice in ape society against humans, who are seen as primitive, stupid, and useless for anything except being enslaved. The ape society is a theocracy, with a strict class system (gorillas are the military, orangutans the government, chimps the scientists) that justifies its crimes against humankind using references from holy texts that have been passed down. There is a clash in the ape society between curious ape-scientists who want to learn more about the humans, and those who believe they are a “walking pestilence” that ought to be “exterminated.”
Two kindly ape scientists, Dr. Zira and Cornelius, take an interest in Taylor and take him seriously. Taylor’s capacity for speech is a threat to the prevailing dogmas of the society, because some suspect he is a “missing link” that shows apes evolved from humans. The ruling theocrats are sure he must be the product of some unauthorized experiment. Threatened with lobotomization, Taylor escapes with the help of Dr. Zira and Cornelius. As he rides to freedom along the beach, Taylor encounters the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, and realizes not just that he is on Earth, but that human society has destroyed itself. He experiences horror and rage at the revelation, falling to the ground and cursing humanity. “YOU MANIACS! YOU BLEW IT UP! AH, DAMN YOU! GOD DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!” The end.
Now, Planet of the Apes having come to me only through the filter of pop culture references, I knew that final scene, but for some reason my impression before the film had been that he was cursing the apes for having destroyed humanity. I suspect that impression came about because I couldn’t imagine him calling humanity “maniacs” and damning them to hell, and I knew that other famous line from the film (“Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”). I assumed it turned out that the apes had destroyed humanity.
But no. The apes are oppressors in the film, but they didn’t kill off our civilization. We did. It’s a classic Rod Serling ending, with its implication that no one could be crueler to humanity than we are to each other. Again, when you watch it with fresh eyes, it’s haunting.
The risk of nuclear apocalypse isn’t the only serious question addressed in Planet of the Apes. It’s absolutely overflowing with ideas. There is an animal rights theme, since the apes treat humans like humans treat other species. There are parallels with the Holocaust and the history of American slavery and racism (the ape soldiers, dressed in all-black, look slightly like Nazi stormtroopers and see human beings as untermenschen, ape cops spray humans with fire hoses like Southern sheriffs did to civil rights demonstrators).
Then there’s the battle between dogma and scientific inquiry. In a memorable scene, an ape prosecutor “proves” that Heston’s Taylor lacks the capacity to reason by showing that Taylor doesn’t know any Scripture. The film has some memorable action sequences, but a lot of it is dialogue, and a lot of that dialogue is about serious religious and political issues.
Like I say, a film to talk about after you watch it. Supposedly, other entries in the series (haven’t seen them, don’t intend to, one’s enough) touch on issues of racism, religion, and revolution. But you can’t get a more idea-packed film than the 1968 original.1
Planet of the Apes has its flaws. It’s not just that the ape-costumes are cheesy and their mouths don’t really move. The gender politics aren’t great. Dr. Zira is a brilliant female psychologist, but the other female lead (Nova, played by Linda Harrison) doesn’t get to say a word, and exists mostly to follow Heston around and mate with him. (Heston also has some gross dialogue about how he and his crewmates were bringing a woman with them on the ship so she could be the “new Eve,” who was the “most precious cargo we brought along.” Perhaps fortunately for her, she went down with the ship.) Planet of the Apes is also an early entry in the list of “Black guy dies first” movies, with crew member Dodge being the first killed by the apes. Some of the ideas in the film are presented in a less-than-subtle manner, too, although I’ve always felt that “hitting people over the head with the point” can be okay if it’s a really important point.
One thing I like about Planet of the Apes is that it’s not actually that unrealistic. Could humanity mostly destroy itself in a huge nuclear war? Of course we could. Could our closest living relatives eventually develop a rudimentary civilization themselves? I don’t see why not. We evolved a language capacity at a certain point, so it’s not inconceivable that given enough time, another species could undergo the same transformation, although probably not on the short time-scale of the film. Could that new civilization replicate some of the worst features of human societies, like brutalizing populations perceived to be lesser and refusing to confront uncomfortable truths when they conflict with prevailing dogma? I don’t see why not. The spaceship is the most unlikely part of the story, and it crashes in the first five minutes and is never seen again.
I’m on the record believing that we need more films that address the very real risk of major global conflict that will destroy civilization as we know it. The threat posed by nuclear weapons is serious and growing, though it’s very difficult to talk about it or confront it. 1968’s Planet of the Apes delivers exactly the right kind of warning. Dr. Zaius tells Taylor that the evidence suggests that humankind is a species whose “wisdom must walk hand in hand with his idiocy,” and “a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him.” One reason the apes regard the humans as uncivilized, Zaius suggests, is that when given power, we destroyed everything we touched. That’s not a particularly pro-human message, but the challenge Planet of the Apes issues us is to prove it wrong. Are we “maniacs” who will ultimately “blow it all up”? Will human civilization be a blip that ultimately extinguishes itself through war and the destruction of our own habitat? I am not a cynic like Heston’s character, who became an astronaut out of a bitter belief that “somewhere in the Universe, there has to be something better than man.” But I do take the chilling ending of Planet of the Apes seriously, and hope that the people of the future don’t find themselves cursing our folly like Heston on the beach.
One other idea you can get out of the film is a comment on how difficult it is to confront uncomfortable truths even when they’re staring us right in the face. The evidence that Taylor was on Earth all along was overwhelming. The apes ride horses, for God’s sake—did he think that horses had just independently evolved on a planet 300 light-years away, and that there were apes and humans and blue skies as well? But the truth is too horrible to accept, and it’s only when it’s totally impossible to deny that Heston accepts the difficult, devastating revelation. ↩