Widely regarded as one of the most thought-provoking films of all time, the original, 1968 version of Planet of the Apes is a film with a secret. Though the secret is widely known, those few readers who don’t know what it is won’t have it spoiled in this review. They should be free to discover it for themselves by watching the film.
This secret and the unforgettable way it’s revealed in the film was what earned this film its landmark status in Hollywood history, and is the one of the things that makes it so thought-provoking. But it isn’t the only reason. Even before the movie reveals its secret or even if you already know what it is there’s a lot here to intrigue, to provoke, and even to disturb. (How the film managed to get a G rating from the MPAA in 1968 I’m not quite sure; it certainly would not get one today.) When the film first came out, all of these factors would have loomed even larger in the audience’s minds.
It wasn’t only Planet of the Apes’s intellectually intriguing elements that drew audiences to it. The film also boasts numerous stunning visuals, from the natural beauty of the environment to the artistic imagination that went into designing the ape society. The film even won an Oscar for its then-groundbreaking ape makeup (though naturally it is not as realistic as Rick Baker’s work in Tim Burton’s 2001 remake). Ultimately, though, it is the questions the film raises that are most compelling.
As the film draws us in, it challenges us to contemplate what a world might be like where Darwinian evolution was reversed where apes evolved from men rather than the other way around.
In saying that, one has to give an immediate caution not just because the subject of evolution is controversial but also because the account just given is misleading. Darwinian evolutionists do not hold that humans evolved from apes. They hold that both modern apes and humans evolved from earlier primates that are no longer with us. We and the apes we know today are supposed to be part of the same family, but they’re supposed to be our cousins, not our ancestors.
Still, man evolved from ape has become the standard summary of Darwinism in the popular mind, and a movie that took an idea that has so powerfully affected the modern mind and turned it on its head was guaranteed to provoke thought. (And, if you’re a real stickler for accuracy, you can always pose the film’s question to yourself in this way: What would a world be like where apes had intelligence and humans didn’t?)
Charlton Heston plays Colonel George Taylor, one of four astronauts from the year 1972 who has been sent on a deep space mission to colonize a new planet. Because their destination is a planet hundreds of light-years away from earth, Taylor and his crew journey at near-light speeds in the process confirming Einstein’s theories about time dilation, since over 1400 earth years pass while the ship is in transit, but on the ship itself only about a year passes (and even less for the astronauts themselves, since they spend half the trip in a state of suspended animation).
When Taylor and his crew wake up, it is the year 3978, and their spaceship has crashed on a world that we are told is 320 light years from Earth on an unnamed planet in orbit around a star in the constellation of Orion. They also discover that the crew of four has been reduced to three due to the death in suspended animation of the ship’s lone female astronaut.
Once out of the ship, Taylor reflects on their predicament: stranded on an alien world, centuries after everyone and everything they ever loved has turned to dust. Taylor reveals himself to be something of a cynic and a misanthrope. He laughs in scorn when one of his crewmates plants a tiny American flag in the soil of the world, as if the concept of America still had any meaning at this remote date and distance.
Taylor certainly doesn’t seem to have the patriotic right stuff NASA expected of its astronauts, and one wonders why he would undertake (or be allowed to undertake) such a mission. One of his crewmates points out that Taylor doesn’t seem to be driven by the joy of discovery and advances a different explanation of why he came on the mission, saying: You’re no seeker. You’re negative You thought life on earth was meaningless. You despised people. So what did you do? You ran out.
Taylor denies this, however: I’m a seeker, too. But my dreams aren’t like yours. I can’t help but thinking somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be. The first creatures they discover, though, don’t seem to be what Taylor is looking for: They are a primitive tribe of what appear to be humans who lack both speech and intelligence. Cynically, Taylor remarks, If this is the best they’ve got around here, in six months we’ll be running this planet.
But the primitive humans aren’t the most formidable creatures around. Almost immediately a group of intelligent gorillas riding horses and carrying guns and nets descend on the tribe and the astronauts, herd them together, and capture them like animals, killing several in the process.
The film now begins to explore the question of what the world would be like if ape and human roles were reversed. Due to an injury to the throat, Taylor initially is unable to speak and prove his intelligence to his captors, so he is treated exactly as if he were an animal. He is placed in a cage, physically punished when he acts up, and subjected to dehumanizing remarks by his ape captors, who assume him to be no more intelligent than the other humans. Even the sole ape who takes a liking to him an idealistic chimpanzee psychologist named Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) gives him a lab animal name (Bright Eyes) and has hopes of mating him with a non-intelligent tribeswoman who is later given the name Nova (Linda Harrison).
Eventually Taylor is able to prove his intelligence by writing notes to Zira and her fiancee a cautious chimpanzee archaeologist named Dr. Cornelius (Roddy McDowell). But just as things seem to be looking up for Taylor, they take a turn for the worse. During an abortive escape attempt, Taylor learns that his two remaining crewmates have both met horrifying fates based on the assumption that they were animals. (These are two of the most disturbing moments in the film.) And when Taylor’s speech finally returns he gives voice to what must have been running through the minds of many of the film’s original audience: It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!
Though the film is compelling (and would have been more so in the 1960s), it does have flaws. It is very good science fiction for the period it was released, but its numerous implausibilities appear glaring today. For example:
Still, these kind of implausibilities are par for the course in the science fiction of this period (cf. the original Star Trek, where virtually every alien race spoke English, and nary a mention of universal translators) and even often enough of today. One ultimately has to appreciate the film for what it reveals itself to be, which isn’t a hard science SF tale. It’s a Twilight Zone-style cautionary tale, as becomes clear from the film’s subsequent action.
While Zira (enthusiastically) and Cornelius (reluctantly) become Taylor’s allies, the discovery of his intelligence sends a shockwave through the ape culture. Though the apes don’t yet have twentieth-century technology, they are in many ways are a mirror image of twentieth century Western society, and their worldview does not allow for the existence of intelligent humans.
They believe God to have created them as the sole masters of the planet, made different from all the beasts of the field (humans included) by their divinely-given intelligence. They believe this on the basis of sacred scrolls written by a Moses-like religious figure known as the Lawgiver. They are even having the stirrings of an evolution controversy, with some scientists such as Cornelius secretly suspecting the scientific heresy that apes may have evolved from humans.
As the fact of Taylor’s intelligence becomes more and more undeniable, he is placed, along with Zira and Cornelius, before a meeting of the ape science council, which happens to be headed by the chief defender of the faith an orangutan named Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans).
At this point some viewing the film might conclude that Planet of the Apes is simply Inherit the Wind turned on its head. Inherit the Wind is a truly evil film: a highly biased depiction of the Scopes Monkey Trial that amounts to anti-Christian propaganda. It tells a lopsided science versus religion story in which those on the side of science are good and noble and unjustly persecuted by the agents of religion, who are uniformly bigoted, closed-minded, and oppressive.
Yet, while echoes of the earlier film are perhaps inevitable, Planet of the Apes is not another Inherit the Wind. Not only are the religious figures more complex than those in Inherit the Wind (especially Dr. Zaius, who hides knowledge he has about humans but also points out genuine flaws in Cornelius’s reasoning), but the movie eventually reveals itself to be about something else entirely. Both films are cautionary tales, but Planet of the Apes isn’t meant to caution us against the evils of religion or against mixing it with science. What it is a cautionary tale of, I can’t discuss, because that pertains to the secret of the film, which is revealed in its final moments.
The fact that ape society and its intellectual and spiritual struggles so closely resemble our own isn’t a social statement. It’s simply an imaginative outworking of the film’s premise: What if ape and human roles were reversed? Exactly reversed. There are even echoes in ape society of the 1960s’ generation gap. Toward the end of the film, Zira’s young nephew Lucius (another Latin name!) expresses his disillusionment and declares, You just can’t trust the older generation!
Based on a book by French novelist Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes is essentially a big-screen version of a Twilight Zone episode (not surprising since Twilight Zone-creator Rod Serling was a co-author of the screenplay). It is meant to toy with Taylor’s initial question of whether there is anything in the universe that is better than man. The answer it gives is ironic and ambiguous: If apes were on top rather than us, that wouldn’t mean things would be better. They might be exactly the same.
In a way, there’s a positive message here, one certain radical environmentalists and certain radical animal rights activists today would benefit from: Don’t assume that man is just a villain and that other species are more noble than we are.
A warning given toward the end of the film may apply to radicals who see man as an eco-villain and misanthropically wish that he didn’t exist. In contemplating an Earth-without-man-in-charge, such individuals might want to ponder the warning Dr. Zaius gives Taylor when he sets off to learn the final secret of the Planet of the Apes: Don’t look for it, Taylor. You may not like what you find.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.