50 Years Ago This Week – Planet of the Apes

On February 8 1968, Planet of the Apes premiered in New York City. The film, starring Charlton Heston, was a hit, and spawned four sequels of increasing dystopia and decreasing budget—but at least the unloved fifth installment, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) gave us John Huston as the lawgiver, which works for us. A twenty-first century reboot of the franchise had more realistic apes and better special effects, but we’re going to bat for the original, Flintsones sets and all.

The well-known story: U.S. astronauts embark on a one-way mission away from earth in medically-induced hibernation, to test a theory about whether the passage of time can be accelerated. The theory is on the mark – when the men are roused it is 2,000 years later – but the ship was not. It had veered off-course, and would soon crash-land on an unknown planet, and then sink. Thus our heroes are stranded, and soon find themselves in an “upside-down” society, where a literate simian civilization of roughly nineteenth century technological vintage lords ruthlessly over a mute humanoid species. It is left to Taylor (Heston), to fight for his humanity, and, famously, to understand his fate.  

Capably directed by Franklin Schaffer (who would next helm the highly praised Patton from a script by Francis Ford Coppola), and beautifully shot by Leon Shamroy, Apes features an excellent supporting cast, including Roddy McDowell (Cornelius), Kim Hunter (Zira) and Maurice Evans (Dr. Zaius). Evans’ performance, assuredly carrying the movie’s most complex, politically charged character (very New Hollywood), is especially fine. But to our eyes, along with Heston’s central role, the key contributions of the film come from co-screenwriters Rod Serling and Michael Wilson.

In particular, in addition to being a really entertaining movie, Apes is also radically charged, influenced by the political sensibilities of these prominent leftists. Serling, of Twilight Zone fame, was an outspoken, even daring progressive on issues of Civil Rights, The Vietnam War, and freedom of expression (it was in the sixties that liberals led, and won, the epic battle against forbidden speech). Michael Wilson, who won an Academy Award for A Place in the Sun (1951), was a victim of the blacklist. He lived in France for nine years, and was able to continue to write screenplays, if without credit—in 1985 he was posthumously given an Academy Award forThe Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957).

As a result, Planet of the Apes has a lot to say. Its racial politics might seem overt, as suggested by the barbaric way in which apes dispose of men, but they are also more subtle, as with the stratified racial hierarchy within the Ape community itself (gorillas, chimps, orangutans). The movie also features a classic show trial (“at the very least this man has the right to know whether there is a charge against him”), and an attitude towards religion that ranges from gently mocking (asserting that only apes have souls, and were created by god in his image), to more pointedly critical, emphasizing the abuse of power by religious leaders. Like Galileo, the research of Cornelius and Zira leads to charges of heresy, despite their naïve protestation (“how can the scientific truth be heresy?”) But Dr. Zaius has the greater good in mind, and no intention of letting the truth get in the way. Finally, in still another radical gesture, Apes is notable for its unwillingness to choose sides in the Cold War, as I have argued here. And this in 1968, which was a year for choosing sides—Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Shame  was vilified in some quarters for refusing to do so. But with Shame, Planet of the Apes had its eyes on something larger.

That something larger was about the human condition more generally. (Thus the advertising tag-line, and Taylor’s great hope: “somewhere in the universe there must be something better than man.”) On these themes Heston (that is, Taylor) has a lot to say: dismissing patriotism, laughing out loud at the planting of an American flag (one shudders to imagine the social media reaction today), and mocking a fellow astronaut for his “all-American image” and studied willingness to die a hero’s death. (This during the height of the Vietnam War, the same year that CBS-TV was so sensitive to pacifist sentiments it chose not to air “Living in Harmony,” an episode of The Prisoner in which No. 6 refused to carry a gun.) This might not sound like the Charlton Heston of your imagination, rifle above his shoulder, six shooter in his hand. But in the 1950s and 1960s Heston was a prominent liberal, bravely outspoken, for example, on Civil Rights, and playing characters that went around saying things like “a policeman’s job is only easy in a police state,” (Orson Welles’Touch of Evil).   

That Heston was probably closer to Taylor who, at the very start of the film, asks of his imagined, future audience (and the real, theater-going audience as well), “Does man, that marvel of the universe . . . still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?” Ironically, and eerily, those words come to echo (and are in fact plausibly the source material for) passages of the Apes’ sacred scrolls: “Beware the beast man, for he is the devil’s pawn. Alone among god’s primates, he kills for sport, or lust, or greed. He will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land.” It is not long after hearing a version of his own thoughts recited back to him that Taylor learns, as Dr. Zaius said he would, “his destiny”—how right he was.


Better than Man

Taylor Hopes for Something "Better than man"



Stranded, and overwhelmed by their surroundings



Planting the Flag     


Science meets Herasy 

Science vs Religion: Zira Risks a Heresy Charge


The people's court

The People's Court


Dr. Zais

Dr. Zaius will have his way—by reason or by force