Posted: 06/23/2001


Planet of the Apes


by Barry Meyer

Where man is beast, and beast is king.

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One of my earliest movie-going memories is squatting in the back of my parents’ station wagon, bundled in a sleeping bag and watching The Planet of the Apes at the Central Drive-In. That’s the same place where I viewed all of the other Ape films as well (all except Battle for the Planet of the Apes, which I watched at a Saturday matinee with my brother and cousin, somewhere outside Buffalo). Seeing that I was only about seven at the time The Planet of the Apes came out, I can guarantee that I was fully into the action and the monster-value of it all, and not of its social relevance. But I can say that I was acutely aware that some of the action in the movies seemed to reflect the images I saw on the nightly news. People getting hosed down on the street, getting beaten by sticks. People in tattered cloths and broken homes, while others lived peacefully unaffected. These images rang a bell for me, and I knew there was something being said, but I just wasn’t that aware yet.

Watching the films now, it’s plain to see the social comments that were being made, not just about the racial tensions at the time of its release, but about the social morés and religious and scientific beliefs that go back centuries.

THE STORY: A malfunction on a spaceship sends four astronauts crash-landing onto a strange planet some 2000 years away from Earth time. Cut off from any communications to anyone, the three surviving crew members (the female is the one casualty) strike out to find life on the planet. They are successful, and find a tribe of mute humans who look to have reverted back to caveman times. But before they can settle in, the men find that they are all under attack by an unseen predator in the tall grass. The astronauts are shocked to find that the attackers are apes riding atop horses. One crew member is shot dead by the apes, leaving only two surviving astronauts, who are then quickly captured along with the other humans.

Taylor (Charlton Heston of NRA infamy) is relegated to the Animal Behavior Lab, under the care of a Chimpanzee Scientist, Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil). Taylor tries to communicate with the ape, but a wound to the throat has left him speechless. Zira is intrigued by his attempts and names him Bright Eyes, and tries to convince her fiancée and fellow scientist, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall, A Bug’s Life), that they should present their findings to their leader, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evens, Rosemary’s Baby). Cornelius is reluctant, though. He is already under scrutiny for his archeological findings that he claims show that ape had evolved from man.

Taylor tries to escape the ape village. When he is captured, he astounds the apes when he cries out in anger. Dr. Zaius is disturbed by this development, and angered at the scientific meddling of Zira and Cornelius. He calls for a tribunal, and tries the scientists for heresy.

In retaliation, Zira and Cornelius help Taylor escape, asking him to take them to where his ship crashed, and to the Forbidden Zone, hoping to find proof of their theories. In the Forbidden Zone, where apes are not allowed to venture, Taylor and the apes make some shocking and disturbing discoveries.

The attraction of this film lies greatly in its ability to appeal to the audience on both an aesthetic level and an intellectual level. On an aesthetic level (as I mentioned before about being a kid watching this film at the local drive-in) it’s just plain fun. There’s plenty of bang ‘em up action, chases, fighting, explosions. And the make-up! It was crude by today’s standards, but back then it was pure magic. [And also won the Oscar that year, beating out 2001: A Space Odyssey—Ed.]

On an intellectual level you can’t help but ponder the basic comparisons of the ape world to our own social class structure, race relations, and views of religion. The apes are broken into types. The Orangutan are the leaders and law makers; the Chimpanzees are the scientists who do the Orangutan’s bidding; and the Gorillas are the blue collar workers, doing all the manual labor. The humans on this planet are the animals. Religion, or belief in a higher power, is the driving force behind the laws and rules.

To make its point, The Planet of the Apes uses a good deal of satire with the switching of human and animal roles. And there is an enjoyable dose of sly and clever puns that work both visually and in dialogue. Dr. Zaius attempts to belittle Taylor’s ability to speak by passing it off as “Human see, human do.” And when Zira drones on about her theories of evolution, the three Orangutan Judges drown her out by mimicking the “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” monkeys.

But the real thoughtful stuff comes out in the confrontations between Taylor and Dr. Zaius. Taylor argues that Zaius’ dual positions as “Chief Defender of the Faith” and the “Minister of Science” have given him the dangerous power and ability to dictate however he sees fit. Like the Church before the Age of Enlightenment, Dr. Zaius vehemently enforces the laws of the Holy Scrolls, and dismisses the observations of science. He declares that one species, ape, is the only worthy one, and Humans are mere animals that lack dignity and should be treated thusly.

There is also the less veiled commentary on race relations between whites and blacks (and any other race that the Anglos have had tensions with). “All humans look alike,” and “Humans are nothing but a violent species,” are both statements made by the apes. Sound familiar? They’re the same ignorant statements that whites have made about blacks and other minorities for decades. In one interesting moment, while speaking out at the tribunal, Dr. Zaius proclaims that humans are inferior to apes. This bit of judicial bigotry directly mirrors a ruling put forth by our own U.S. Supreme Court. In 1857, in what has been called the lowest moment in this nation’s judicial history, the Supreme Court, in Dred Scott vs. Sanford, ruled that blacks, as “subordinate and inferior beings,” could not constitutionally be citizens of the United States, whether slave or free.*

The role of women in our society was challenged as well. There was only one female on the space flight, and her only role was to be Eve to the other three astronauts once they found a suitable planet to populate. Once she was eliminated, Taylor turned his sights on the beautiful mute human, Nova (Linda Harrison, Airport 1975), who, he says, is a lot dumber than the female astronaut, but certainly more attractive.

There is a greater Truth that seems to intrigue both Zaius and Taylor. Dr. Zaius fears this unknown Truth, afraid that it will shatter all that he believes in. Taylor, on the other hand, has nothing to believe in anymore. He is disillusioned that life back on Earth has become too trivial, and laments that man has become complacent and self-centered and has no purpose. He took the space flight to explore the possibility that “there must be something out there better than man.”

Who would have thought that a silly movie about apes ruling man would be so deep?

The script, adapted from a 1963 novel, La Planéte des singes by Pierre Boulle, was penned by Rod Serling (the creator of The Twilight Zone) and Michael Wilson. Their main chore was to turn the satiric novel about “the vanity of human ambition” into an allegorical commentary on race relations, and the Vietnam War. Along with the direction of Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton), and the cinematography of Leon Shamroy, they have created a film that is both exciting and thoughtful.

This type of film (and science fiction as a whole) has become a rare breed, overshadowed by the high-tech, budget-bloated, inorganic blockbusters of today that place style over content. The filmmakers expend too much time and money on methods that try to fool the audience into believing what they are seeing is real, when we already know that it’s not. Audiences know that everything is created by guys in dark rooms with computers, we’ve seen them all boasting of their achievements on the countless making-of specials that “reveal the secrets.” There’s no more magic. Audiences no longer become immersed in the fictional world of the story. Instead, they marvel at the technological bells and whistles, and they wonder aloud “How’d they do that?” To me, that is not an ideal moviegoing experience. I don’t want to understand that I’m watching a piece of technology. I want to become a part of the movie. The beauty of the moviegoing experience is that a filmmaker can engage the audience’s imagination, then lets them visit the world that he or she has created.

My greatest worry over the upcoming Tim Burton version of Apes is that he will be more interested in outdoing the outward, technological appearance of the 1968 film, and he will forget and ignore the important intellectual content of the film and novel. Hell, he ruined The Legend of Sleepy Hollow! Why stop there?

Barry Meyer is a writer living in New Jersey. He’s worked in the film and television biz for the past decade or so.

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