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“Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”
Lyndon B. Johnson was American President following the assassination of JFK four years previous, the Vietnam War was in full flow and the execution of Viet Cong Captain Nguyen Van Lém is iconically captured on film by photojournalist Eddie Adams. Student protests kick off the 1968 Polish political crisis resulting in 13,000 Polish Jews emigrating out of fears for their own safety, and in neighbouring Czechoslovakia the Prague Spring is beginning as they seek liberation from the Soviet Union. In Hollywood California, the star of Ben-Hur, Charlton Heston is on the red carpet to celebrate the release of Planet of the Apes, the start of a sci-fi franchise that captured the essence of a world turned upside down in a time when the world was far from stable.
Planet of the Apes catalogues the crash landing of three astronauts on a derelict planet and their encounters with the locals, who happen to be mute, animal-skin clad humans and sophisticated, intelligent apes. On the surface Planet of the Apes looks like a straight forward sci-fi with its Earth-like alien planet where everything is backwards until the now iconic final scenes, but this indisputable classic is hiding many layers under the polymer masks.
Screenwriters Michael Wilson & Rod Serling, working from the Pierre Boulle 1963 novel La Planète des Singes, had to make a few adjustments to appease the $5.8 million budget restraints, most notably limiting the extent of the apes’ advancements in technology (apart from guns for some reason) and dropped the planes, trains and automobile driving simians of Boulle’s original work. The more money for the then-innovative (and Oscar winning) makeup design of John Chambers the better.
Another change that the writers made was the nature of the protagonist George Taylor, played by Charlton Heston. Similar to his captors, Taylor is a misanthrope and seemingly too cool for school when it comes to showing any kind of compassion towards humankind. When fellow astronaut Landon comments on the passing of shipmate Stewart during their time in suspended sleep, Taylor unemphatically responds “It’s too late for a wake. She’s been dead nearly a year.” And again when questioned about leaving the planet behind, Taylor states his reasoning for taking the mission; “I can’t help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be.”
On top of a distaste for all humanity, Taylor’s attitude towards women in general is problematic. His “love interest” in Planet of the Apes is a mute native to the barren land who he names Nova (Linda Harrison). He is gifted the female by Zira (Kim Hunter), an ape scientist who believes that Taylor, who she affectionately calls Bright Eyes, is different than the rest of the wildlings. After Nova is taken away from Taylor as punishment, he tells his primitive plaything “Imagine me needing someone. Back on Earth I never did. Oh, there were women. Lots of women. Lots of love-making but no love.” Taylor throughout embodies the macho “Lots of love-making but no love” kinda guy who made 1960s Hollywood tick over. The kind of man that “men wanted to be” and the kind of man those same men thought women wanted.
In one of the, I assume unintentionally, creepiest lines of dialogue ever heard, Taylor speaks of Stewart, his now deceased shipmate, in the most chauvinistic and vile ways to Nova;
Did I tell you about Stewart? Now there was a lovely girl. The most precious cargo we’d brought along, she was… to be the new Eve. With our hot and eager help, of course. Probably just as well she didn’t make it this far.
Hot and eager help. Yep! He actually just said that.
Ignoring the problematic matters above, Planet of the Apes holds up in many ways. Its political and moral allegories seem ahead of its time in parts. The Us vs Them dynamics of human vs ape, and the overt nods to racism and xenophobia are of course just as relevant today but incredibly poignant in the year of its release; the same year of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination and the heightened warfare in Vietnam under Johnson.
The anti-nuclear message of Planet of the Apes only really hits home with that iconic final scene but it was incredibly timely as the release came just months before the International Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the highly publicised and mysterious sinking of the US Navy’s nuclear-powered submarine USS Scorpion. With Nuclear threats still very much in the forefront of people’s minds today, it seems far from improbable that if our future selves could look back upon our planet in thousands of years that we too would be brought to our knees screaming, “You Maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! God damn you all to hell!”
Taylor: There’s your Minister of Science; honour-bound to expand the frontiers of knowledge…except that he’s also chief Defender of the Faith!
Dr. Zaius: There is no contradiction between faith and science… true science!
Planet of the Apes surprised me most in its blatant jibes at organised religion throughout. In the courtroom scene the ridiculousness of Dr. Zauis’ remarks about scripture are plain to see. The recurring themes of Us vs Them continue into the xenophobic rhetoric that the devout apes hurl towards Taylor and his kind.
Just as the organised religions of the world have done for millennia the Apes too use scripture to suppress mankind and justify slavery, beatings, murder and war.
Have you forgotten your scripture, the thirteenth scroll? “And Proteus brought the upright beast into the garden and chained him to a tree and the children did make sport of him.”
Although obviously mocking the Apes who believe in such primitive and ridiculous scripture the writers too use this as the basis for scathing remarks about humankind, remarks that need to sink in:
Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yes, 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.
We have been far from an ideal species, that is certainly not up for debate.
While all of this is going on Planet of the Apes is still just a straight-up entertaining movie. It is well-paced, contains some good action, has a terrific avant-garde score from Jerry Goldsmith and has some very strong acting, most notably coming from those in a mask. Zira, Dr. Zaius and Cornelius are the most human characters in the film (with a lot of credit for this going to Chambers’ make-up design). Heston is the quintessential Hollywood man of this era, and he works perfectly for the role. He oozes confidence, arrogance and sex appeal. He is a vile character at the heart of it all and I found myself reluctant to cheer him on throughout. Instead you find him only necessary for Zira and Cornelius in their search for the truth.
For anyone lucky enough to have seen this in the cinema before the DVD cover, The Simpsons or pop culture in general ruined it on us, the ending is science fiction gold. That twist and the reactions from critics and cinema-goers alike was strong enough to get it a sequel, followed by a hit and miss series incapsulating five movies from 1968-1973. There was also a TV show, an animated series, various comic book adaptations, a panoply of merchandise and the honestly deplorable 2001 Tim Burton remake before the 2011 rebooted series.
With the visual effects perfected and a string of movies each getting better than the previous, the new reboot could continue on the saga as before. Or maybe they should quit while they are ahead; The original film run ended with its fifth instalment, Battle for the Planet of the Apes of which the great Roger Ebert commented “[Battle is] the last gasp of a dying series, a movie made simply to wring the dollars out of any remaining ape fans.” Let’s hope this new series does not suffer the same fate.