Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Planet of the Apes (1968): A Profound Critique of the Human Race

There is a new Planet of the Apes film out, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a prequel that explains how the story began. I will probably end up seeing it, although with some reluctance. You see, I'm a hardcore fan of the original 1968 Franklin J. Schaffner film, starring Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans and James Whitmore.

Long before I went vegan, long before I embraced animal rights, Planet of the Apes helped plant the seeds in my mind that blossomed into those commitments.

WARNING: For those of you who still haven't seen this superb science fiction film, you may not want to continue reading this Blog post, especially if you're someone who doesn't like spoilers (i.e., a piece of writing that divulges a surprise or twist in a film).

The plot: Sometime in the future, Colonel George Taylor and his fellow astronauts awaken from deep-sleep hibernation (a state they've been in for thousands of years) when their ship crashes on a planet. They escape the ship as it sinks into a lake and when they reach the barren landscape, they search for signs of life. Eventually, they encounter human beings who behave like wild savages: mute, fleeing through cornfields, behaving like primitive cavemen.

At this point, the astronauts and the wild humans clash with apes on horseback. One of the astronauts is killed and the other two, Taylor and Landon, are captured and separated. Landon is later lobotomized. The apes give Taylor to two chimpanzee scientists, the open-minded and kind-hearted Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall).

Over time, Zira develops a friendship with Taylor. Cornelius is slower to come around, but he also warms up to the astronaut. Because Taylor has been shot in the throat by the apes who captured him, he has to use pantomime to communicate. At some point, he tries to escape, and when he's captured by ape soldiers, his voice returns. "Take your paws off me, you damned, dirty ape!" Taylor shouts.

Taylor is later brought before a tribunal, led by the venerable Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) to explain why he can do things that other human beings cannot. The "wise" orangutans who head the tribunal threaten to punish and lobotomize Taylor for being a subversive, but Zira and Cornelius plot to free Taylor with the help of Zira's nephew Lucius. Their plot succeeds. They free Taylor, along with Nova (Linda Harrison), a mute female human with whom he has fallen in love.
Zaius reveals that humans and apes once lived side by side, but human beings destroyed their civilization thousands of years earlier in warfare. The cradle of this dead civilization is called the Forbidden Zone.

Taylor and Nova leave the apes behind and travel a great distance until they reach the Forbidden Zone. When they arrive, they find the top of the Statue of Liberty, revealing that they are on earth, and that human civilization collapsed, presumably in nuclear annihilation.

In 1968, Planet of the Apes was a radical critique of the human race, based on a 1963 book Monkey Planet (or Planet of the Apes) by French novelist and screenwriter Pierre Boulle. The screenplay to Planet of the Apes was co-written by Rod (The Twilight Zone) Serling and Michael Wilson, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter (he netted the Oscar for 1952's A Place in the Sun) who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He wrote several screenplays under pseudonyms or using "front writers" during the 1950s and early 1960s (including, ironically, for Bridge on the River Kwai, which was credited to "front" writer . . . Pierre Boulle). Wilson also wrote the screenplay to Salt of the Earth (1954), a pro-labor movie about a miners strike in New Mexico made entirely by blacklisted filmmakers. Salt of the Earth, like Planet of the Apes, has become a cult film.

Serling and Wilson very deliberately set out to write a subversive script that challenged some widely held assumptions of the day. Amazingly, the concept of speciesism - the notion of or belief in the superiority of one species over all others (in this case, apes) - came under intense assault in Planet of the Apes. I remain convinced this film was actually a thinly veiled attack on human speciesism.

Despite their backwardness and arrogance, the apes in Planet of the Apes despise human beings for very good reasons. At one point in the film, Cornelius reads from the ancient, sacred ape scriptures:
Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.

Throughout Planet of the Apes, the "wise" orangutan leaders harbor a deep distrust of the chimpanzee intellectuals, who are the gentlest and most thoughtful and inquisitive of the apes. At one point, Dr. Zaius warns Zira that her faith in science puts her in danger of being judged as subversive. Zaius tells Zira:
Dr. Zira, I must caution you. Experimental brain surgery on these creatures is one thing, and I'm all in favor of it. But your behavior studies are another matter. To suggest that we can learn anything about the simian nature from a study of man is sheer nonsense. Why, man is a nuisance. He eats up his food supply in the forest, then migrates to our green belts and ravages our crops. The sooner he is exterminated, the better. It's a question of simian survival.
And to Cornelius, Zaius cautions:
Ah, yes - the young ape with a shovel. I hear you're planning another archeological expedition. Cornelius, a friendly word of warning - as you dig for artifacts, be sure you don't bury your reputation.

Zaius is the voice of conservatism in this ape civilization. He is a brilliant simian, a sort of Grand Inquisitor, who fully understands the past and knows that certain truths have to be kept a secret to keep ape civilization intact. Before Taylor wanders off into the Forbidden Zone with Nova, he turns with his firearm to Zaius and the following exchange occurs:

Taylor: Don't try to follow me. I'm pretty handy with this.
Zaius: Of that I'm sure. All my life I've awaited your coming and dreaded it.

All along, Zaius knew something that naive Zira and Cornelius did not: Human beings lacked humanity and destroyed themselves. To prevent the calamity from occurring again, the apes brutally repressed the wild humans in their midst. But Zaius understood, more than any other character in the film, that this repression was a necessary evil.

Planet of the Apes showed the gorilla soldiers handling human beings like animals. And yet, as awful as human beings are treated in this film - trapped in nets, thrown into cages, occasionally beaten or shot - they are not murdered en masse the way that human beings destroy animals. Repressive as the apes in Planet of the Apes were, there was a method to their madness, and a decency completely lacking in human beings.

Planet of the Apes may have been the most radical film to ever have come out of Hollywood. This should come as no surprise. Earlier in the decade, Rod Serling - eager to keep finding work as a writer at a time when Cold War attitudes were still strong in America - disguised social critique in the form of science fiction in The Twilight Zone. In adapting Planet of the Apes to the screen, Rod Serling and Michael Wilson wrote a profound and deeply pessimistic tale about the human race that remains as relevant and powerful in today's world as it was 43 years ago.

(Left: Dr. Zaius, who understood the evil of human beings more than any other character in Planet of the Apes.)


  1. Good stuff, Planet of the Apes was a radical film and some of the challenges and provocations to "conventional" thinking and characterizations stuck with me also. Curiously, Charlton Heston, who also starred in Soylent Green...another fairly radical not someone generally associated with challenges to conventional thinking.

    In any event, thanks for highlighting this film. Many folks haven't seen it and they really should.

  2. Thank you for your great post! At the time Planet of the Apes was made, Charlton Heston was still in his liberal Democrat phase. By 1972, when he voted for Richard Nixon instead of George McGovern, Heston began his transformation into a conservative. In his later years, he was very rigid about the right to bear arms and a host of other issues, and he supported Republicans like Reagan and the Bushes.

    Later in his career, Heston never would have appeared in anything as dystopian or radical as Planet of the Apes or Soylent Green (you're right about that one - it was a real shocker in its day, and Edward G. Robinson's last film). Of course, by the 2000s, Alzheimer's had pretty much torpedoed his movie career. He made a cameo (if you blink, you miss him) in Tim Burton's dreadful 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes. His last role came two years later, in a movie I haven't seen but I hear was quite good, Rua Alguem 5555: My Father, in which he played elderly Nazi Josef Mengele. Sad that a man who marched in the Civi Rights Movement drifted so far away from that thinking.

    Again, great to hear from you! I hope all's well... Keep up the great posts on Facebook - I'm really enjoying them.

  3. I'm always intrigued by folks flipping from one fairly strong stance to the opposite side. I've seen such in a number of people over the years, not necessarily political, and have come to suspect that they really aren't moving at all. They're just staying matter what the content of the taken stand and that sort of positioning usually has to do with rebellion and personal issues and not genuine conviction. My leanings have always been in one direction and have simply intensified over the years...I hope that means I'm not at risk of 'flipping'. :-)

    You do a fantastic job on this blog Andrew.

  4. Thank you so much for your kind words, Glenn! The feeling is certainly mutual - I'm a big fan of your Blog and I always get a lot out of every terrific post. Keep up the great work on your end, too - you're a real inspiration!

    It is strange to see people on one of side of the political spectrum leap to the other (examples: David Horowitz, Peter Collier, John Dos Passos, etc.). But I guess for every one of those, there's somebody who goes from the right side over to the left (Daniel Ellsberg, Ron Kovic, John Stockwell, etc.). It reminds me of that topic of discussion a few weeks back, of Ginnifer Goodwin going from vegan to omnivore. It's hard to understand how someone with such strong beliefs and passions can suddenly jettison them. It's beyond my understanding...

  5. I'd have to agree wholeheartedly that the original is far more compelling and subversive than the remake (although I haven't seen the latest prequel yet).

    But, I've always found it ironic that the portrayal of apes in the movie is itself a product of human stereotyping. In POTA, we have brutish gorilla soldiers, inquisitive and scientific chimps, and wise orangs... mostly a reverse of actual ape behaviors.

    In real life, gorillas turn out to be the gentlest and most docile of the great apes, while chimps are a bunch of Machiavellian brutes who hunt in rather cruel fashion (remind you of their closest cousins?), and orangs appear to be the most scientific, having a better affinity for puzzles and deliberative problem-solving than either gorillas or chimps.

    Some of this incongruity, of course, is the result of expanding knowledge of ape behavior since the 1960s. But, I can't help wonder how much of it is also the product of human self-flattery; even back then, we suspected chimps were our closest relatives, and their portrayal in POTA tells us a great deal about how we see ourselves, then and now.

    Anyway, loved this article. I'm gonna go rent the original now.

  6. These are all superb points, Humane Hominid! Even as the filmmakers were combatting human prejudices, they were still relying on a problematic view of primates. It is very important to be mindful of this when watching the film. Also, I didn't realize till I saw it again recently how hammy Charlton Heston was. Good grief, he overacted! The others were superb.
    Thanks for the excellent post!