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.)