One of the slightly disappointing aspects of the original Planet of the Apes is to learn that some of its best aspects seem to have been inspired afterthoughts, rather than part of the original story.
In Pierre Boulle’s original book, the apes lived in a technologically advanced society, whereas director Franklin J. Schaffner chose to set the movie in a less advanced society that combines medieval and modern aspects. This seems closely related to the themes of the movie, but actually the decision was made to save money, as it cost less to build sets for a more primitive society.
Then there is the movie’s famous ending. The ending is so important to the movie, and so well-known that I cannot help discussing it later, so if you have spent the last fifty years on another planet yourself, or if you are a novice to the world of cinema, then I must warn against spoilers. For now I will only say that the ending seems like the perfect symbol for the ideas expressed earlier in the film, but actually even this ending was a belated choice.
Three other endings had been suggested, and the final choice was made more for its impact than with a specific intention of making a point. It is the kind of twist that we might expect in a story that was first drafted by Rod Serling, famous for his work on The Twilight Zone. Of course that does not prevent us from investing the finale with deep meaning.
This reflects the fact that Planet of the Apes is not an arthouse movie, but a piece of popular cinema. It has some serious quasi-philosophical moments, and I am always impressed by the pessimistic vision that lies underneath the exciting story. Nonetheless it is a film that was developed to make money.
Indeed it was one of the earliest films to have its own tie-in merchandise, and the franchise was exploited in sequels, a remake (which also had sequels), a spin-off television series, and comic books. Planet of the Apes was intended to make money, and it did.
This may explain the huffy attitude that many critics had towards the movie, even before they saw it. They saw the plot outline, and assumed it would be awful. Were they right though? That is a matter of taste, and you will have to decide for yourself. Is the movie cheesy or very well-made? Is the humour heavy-handed and clunky, or is it part of the fun?
I shall remind you of some typical examples of humour in the film. Much of it lies in an inversion of familiar expressions. “Human see, human do”, “I never met an ape I didn’t like,” “The proper study of apes is apes,” and so on. Then there is this moment in the middle of a serious scene where three conservative members of an investigating commission perform an imitation of the ‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkeys.
Other aspects of the film may not be to everyone’s tastes. The sight of familiar actors talking in ape masks may be off-putting. Yet the prosthetics used were ground-breaking in 1968. They were designed by make-up artist John Chambers, using a technique that he tested on disfigured World War 2 veterans. An astonishing amount of money was spent on make-up, with claims that it took up to 17% of the film’s budget, and involved 80 make-up artists.
Another aspect of the movie that may not hold up well today is its attitude towards women. There is only one female astronaut, and she is dead before the story begins. This leaves Nova (Linda Harrison) as the movie’s de facto heroine, a mute primitive who clings helplessly to our hero, even though she is supposed to be a member of a species that should be better adapted to the environment than the astronauts. The result is that the only strong female character in the movie is an ape.
Nonetheless there are some good artistic touches in the making of the film. Much effort is made into creating a sense of something disturbing and unfamiliar. Jerry Goldsmith’s jarring avant-garde music score adds to this effect, as does the camera work. At the beginning we see the astronauts and their rocket in a series of arial shots that makes them seem small and alone, stranded in a large and seemingly lifeless world.
When Taylor (Charlton Heston) arrives in the city of the apes, the film makes use of hand-held cameras and cameras placed at unusual angles. This has a disorientating effect, as if we are seeing this alien and topsy-turvy world through the eyes of Taylor.
This is the framework in which the story takes place. The action of the movie takes place in the year 3978, and involves astronauts who have travelled 700 years past the time when they left. This is in line with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity which suggested that a short time in space could constitute many years on Earth, and the idea can be found in Interstellar too.
The astronauts arrive on what appears to be a forlorn planet that is barren of life, and appears to be mostly rocks and sand. Their rocket lands in the sea and sinks, and one of the crew dies during the journey, leaving three survivors. These are Taylor, Landon (Robert Gunner) and Dodge (Jeff Burton). Soon signs of life begin to emerge in the form of flowers, and in humans who follow them overhead, and steal their clothes.
It is only when the apes enter the scene that the men realise that they are in a world where the norms of their own society have been turned upside down. In this world, apes are the intelligent and dominant species. They ride horses, fire guns, live in houses, wear clothes, and have a culture of their own, including theatre and science. There are three dominant ape castes: a military wing ran by gorillas, a religious wing which runs the society and comprises orang-utans, and a despised scientific wing of chimpanzees.
Where do humans fit into this pattern? Here the humans are a throwback to our own prehistoric man. They are mute, have limited intelligence and live on fruit. As far as the apes are concerned, humans are disease-carrying vermin that eat their crops. Humans are shot or captured in nets.
This reversal makes an interesting point about how we treat other animals. We see images of human carcasses hanging upside, and apes posing for photographs over the bodies of dead humans. They can be lobotomised or spayed, or experimented on in labs. These shocking images act as a check, reminding us how we would like it if another species behaved towards us as we do towards them.
Deprived of his clothes, his voice (he is shot in the throat) and his companions, Taylor is shorn of the trappings of his civilisation, and learns what it is like to be treated like a wild beast – kept in a cage, observed by ape scientists, and given a mate, Nova, to see what he will do with her.
What lies at the root of Planet of the Apes is a discussion about progress, and the conflict between science and religion, an age-old debate. The orang-utan elder, Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans) insists that, “There is no contradiction between faith and science,” but of course there is, as there has been in every society. The film presents the arguments on both sides, so that we see their appeal, and also their destructive and harmful tendencies.
Let us look at how the film portrays religion first of all. At a first glance, this would seem in keeping with the usual criticism of dogmatic and fundamentalist thinking, and its ability to stifle intellectual curiosity.
The case of Taylor is examined by two intelligent apes, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter). These two apes have a genuine spirit of scientific enthusiasm, and the wish to push knowledge ever further, but this instinct only serves to get them into trouble with the rigid theocratic society in which they live.
They are excited by Bright Eyes (as they christen Taylor), and are astonished when they learn he can communicate with them. They attempt to keep Taylor’s abilities secret until Taylor makes a failed attempt to escape, during which he gets his voice back and utters one of the film’s most memorable phrases: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”
This discovery causes Cornelius and Zira to fall foul of the orang-utan elders, who are already suspicious of Cornelius’s heretical opinions about evolution. (In keeping with this reverse universe, Cornelius believes that apes evolved from man.) Nonetheless Dr Zaius is aware that some of their findings are true, and has been concealing them.
When Zaius sees a message written by Taylor in the sand in an early attempt to communicate with the apes, Zaius erases it. He has Landon lobotomised, and intends to treat Taylor in the same way. Ultimately this leads to Cornelius and Zira helping Taylor to escape, and heading off to the Forbidden City, an area that Zaius has stopped the apes from going, because it contains evidence of a city that pre-dated the apes.
Sure enough they find evidence that there was a human civilisation that pre-dated that of the apes, the final piece of evidence being a talking human doll. However this evidence does not help them, because Zaius has been aware of this all along, and has reasons of his own for concealing it.
It is here that the movie stands many of its ideas on its head. For some time many viewers will have identified with the progressive chimpanzee scientists rather than the reactionary Zaius, but new facts emerge which suggest that the picture is not that clear-cut, and that Zaius has good reasons of his own for wishing to impede progress. What concerns Zaius is that the previous human civilisation destroyed itself. “If man was superior, why did he not survive?” Zaius asks, and it is a reasonable question. Zaius concludes:
From the evidence, I believe his wisdom must walk hand and hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him, even himself.
The memory of the destructive impulses of the human race have even burned their way into the Scriptures of the ape community, and this is the reason why they are so hostile towards the humans:
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.
What Zaius fears most of all is that history will repeat itself, and that his species will develop into a society that is technologically advanced enough to destroy itself. His solution is to close the entrance to the caves and bury the evidence, and to continue the heresy trial against Cornelius. “What about the future?” pleads Zira’s nephew, Lucius (Lou Wagner). “I may have just saved it for you,” answers Zaius.
By his own standards, Zaius is a well-meaning man, and his viewpoint is not without merit. Throughout the film the spirit of learning and science goes hand in hand with the atavistic impulse to make war and destroy what is around us, and the two make a lethal combination. It is a widely-recognised conundrum that the more a species develops and advances, the closer it gets to blowing itself up as its weapons become more destructive.
It is not the truth-seekers and the intellectuals who thrive in this movie. Taylor’s companions seek immortal fame through space travel, but their fates are ironic. There will be no statue for Dodge. He will only be commemorated as a stuffed exhibit in an ape museum. Landon attends the expedition in a spirit of scientific exploration, and ends up falling victim to a medical procedure when he is lobotomised. Cornelius and Zira seek to advance knowledge, but their efforts are balked, and they are tried as heretics for their pains.
The one human who manages best in this society is the one who puts his irrational, primitive survival instincts over the pursuit of learning. Just as progress goes hand in hand with barbarism in our society, so Dodge and Landon travel through this new world with Taylor. It is difficult to understand how Taylor was chosen for the mission. He sneers at the aspirations of his colleagues, and is callous about Stewart’s death.
Taylor is cynical and aggressive, and only chose to come on the mission because he hoped to find something better than humanity. He gloats over the fact that everyone he and his fellow-travellers knew are already dead, and laughs at Landon’s admittedly pathetic attempts to erect a small American flag on this unknown planet. To Taylor, the world is meaningless. Regarding the length of time that passed since he left home, he muses:
I wonder if Man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who has sent me to the unknown still makes war against his brother and lets his neighbour’s children starve.
In some ways, Taylor’s pessimism about progress is not far removed from his enemy Dr Zaius. However, while Zaius wishes to prevent the primal instincts of his species from becoming too self-destructive, Taylor embodies the violent instincts of his kind, the ones that Zaius is worried about. His first speech to a member of the dominant species of the planet is to call him a “damned dirty ape”. When Taylor is freed from his cell, he is insubordinate, and his first instinct is to get his hands on a gun. This is understandable, but it supports Zaius’s notion that man is a warlike animal to be feared.
This brings us to the movie’s famous climactic scene, when Taylor and Nova set out across the Forbidden Zone to find his destiny. We have gathered so far that there was a human civilisation on this planet which destroyed itself, and that this is the reason why so much of the land is barren and lifeless. However the movie has one final surprise in store.
As Taylor’s horse makes its way along the beach, the travellers are impeded by a large object. We see Taylor’s growing horror as he realises what it is, and finally we are allowed to see it too. It is the Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand, and for the first time it becomes apparent that the action has taken place on Earth in the future all along. Taylor utters the movie’s famous line: “Oh, my God! I’m back! I’m home. All the time, it was…We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! God damn you! God damn you all to hell!”
The makers of the film deny its symbolic value, and the Statue is a handy landmark that is often threatened by outside forces in movies, from the 1933 film Deluge where it is surrounded by floodwater, to The Day After Tomorrow, where it is frozen. Along the way, the X-Men, Superman and the aliens of Independence Day and Cloverfield have menaced the statue. Nonetheless the Statue is more than a famous location. It represents the values that Americans like to believe their country stands for – culture, art, civilisation and freedom.
In some movies, the Statue’s symbolic importance is exploited. The climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s wartime thriller Saboteur depicts a Fifth Columnist plummeting from the statue to his death. The values that the Statue represents will outlive those who seek to overthrow America’s freedoms, and they will perish at its hands. On a more light-hearted note, Ghostbusters 2 shows the Statue marching into the middle of New York, its message of hope dispersing the negative energy that has developed in the city, allowing our heroes to triumph.
In that sense the use of the Statue of Liberty cannot help being symbolic in Planet of the Apes, whether the makers of the film consciously intended it or not. The film was made at a time when nuclear war was a real possibility, and people feared that the world might suffer a fate similar to the one that we see at the end of Planet of the Apes. Our aspirations towards liberty and progress might ultimately come to naught, as our destructive impulses won out.
One of the most appealing aspects of Planet of the Apes for me is its pessimistic vision. Behind the humour and the thrilling storyline lies a reminder that our world is built on insecure foundations, and could be destroyed at any time. In the film’s four sequels, this gloom is felt throughout, although the final movie Battle for the Planet Apes ends the series on a hopeful note.
However none of the sequels comes close to matching the power of the original film. It is a commercial movie, yet also a work of exciting speculative science-fiction.
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