Planet of the Apes joined Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in the same year, as a landmark film in the history of American science fiction cinema. Though perhaps not as artful as Kubrick’s film, Planet of the Apes, distinguished particularly by the makeup that transformed human actors into believable ape characters, was nevertheless an impressive bit of filmmaking. Even more, it was a highly successful venture in storytelling and myth building that captured the imaginations of audiences in 1968 not only with its basic scenario and plot, but also in the waythe film commented on the political concerns of that volatile year. Ultimately, the film spurred one of the most important phenomena in SF film history, leading to four direct film sequels, two television series, a 2001 remake (directed by Tim Burton), and a reboot trilogy of films beginning with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011).
Planet of the Apes is based on Pierre Boulle’s 1963 French novel La planéte des singes (literal translation “Planet of the Monkeys,” but published in English as Planet of the Apes the same year).As adapted to the screen by the legendary Rod Serling, then reworked by veteran screenwriter Michael Wilson, the film is reasonably faithful to the original novel, including the direct transcription of most of the character names. Many of the changes are incidental and simply involve “Americanizing” the work by making the human protagonists American astronauts rather than French explorers, as they are in the novel. Other changes were made simply as matters of convenience for the film medium, as when the apes of the film speak English, while those of the book speak their own language. One major difference between the film and the book is that the ape society of the book has reached roughly the same level of technological advancement as earth in the 1960s, while the society in the book is in most ways extremely backward and primitive. This choice was made primarily for budgetary reasons because it allowed the filmmakers to avoid the expense of creating a credible-looking advanced ape culture, and it was primarily in order to implement this change that Wilson was brought in to rework Serling’s original script. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two works is that, in the novel, the explorers really do go to another planet (in the Betelgeuse system), while protagonist Ulysse Mérou returns to earth in the end only to discover that apes have displaced humans there as well. In the film, on the other hand, protagonist George Taylor discovers that he has been on earth all along. In this case, the film is probably more powerful than the book, while also providing a clearer explanation (in its suggestion of a nuclear holocaust) for the downfall of human civilization in the first place.
Planet of the Apes begins as astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) records his final log entry before touchdown after a six-month flight at near-light speed, in which time nearly 700 years have passed on earth. Taylor indicates early on the misanthropy that is central to his character: “You who are reading me now are a different breed—I hope a better one. I leave the twentieth century with no regrets.” He then wonders if the hundreds of years that have passed have brought about changes on earth, announcing the political concerns that have helped to make the film such an important monument of American popular culture: “Does man still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?”
Taylor then joins the other three crew members of the spacecraft in hibernation, in preparation for the automated landing. We are then treated to a disorienting, spinning sequence that attempts to show the landing as it would look from within the cabin. The ship lands in water, surrounded by a wasted, craggy planetary surface. Taylor, now bearded (to his obvious surprise), awakes as do two other crew members, Landon (Robert Gunner) and Dodge (Jeff Burton). But the only female crew member, Lt. Stewart (Dianne Stanley), is found dead within her cracked hibernation chamber, apparently of old age, though it is not clear why that would be if they have indeed been traveling at near-light speed.
Water begins to leak into the cabin, and they have to abandon ship. Taylor discovers that, according to the ship’s chronometer, they have been propelled forward to the earth year 3978; approximately eighteen months (rather than the scheduled six) have passed for them during the flight. They paddle ashore in an inflateable life raft, watching the ship sink behind them, leaving them stranded permanently on the planet. They believe they are 320 light years from earth, in orbit around a star in the constellation Orion, though something has obviously gone wrong and they are not really sure where (or when) they are. They have a few supplies and food and water enough for three days, and survival on the planet will not be easy. The atmosphere is similar to earth’s, so the air is breathable, but a test shows that the soil is dead, unable to support any vegetation.
They set out on foot, hoping to find a source of food and fresh water on the apparently barren planet, encountering along the way thunder and lightning, but no rain. Taylor (who will, ironically emerge as mankind’s champion in the film) continues to make misanthropic remarks. For example, he explains that he came on this voyage in the first place because he believes that “Somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man.” Eventually, they discover a small, scraggly plant growing in the arid soil—the first sign of life. As they continue onward, they encounter more and more vegetation, while we see furtive figures following and watching them ominously from the cliffs above them. Then they see some strange figures on a hilltop, apelike figures stretched on X-shaped frames, which they dub “scarecrows.” As the three men climb up to examine these figures (which we will eventually learn mark the boundary of the dead “Forbidden Zone”) they hear rushing water in the distance. They follow the sound and discover a waterfall feeding a pool of clear, fresh water. They all strip and dive in, celebrating.
Then Landon makes a shocking discovery: he finds what appears to be a human footprint by the side of the pool. They then see figures making off with the clothing they left on the shore. They follow these figures into the dense vegetation around the pool, finding remnants of their supplies on the way. Finally, they observe a group of primitive-looking people, feeding on corn from a field and fruit from a tree. The other crewmen are disappointed that humans on this planet seem so primitive, but Taylor finds a bright side (of sorts). “If this is the best they’ve got around here,” he remarks, “in six months we’ll be running this planet.” If this remark reveals the impulse toward imperialistic domination that the astronauts have brought to the planet from our own world, they very quickly discover that they will have formidable opposition if they plan to try to “run” this planet. A savage roar sounds in the distance, and the people flee, followed by the astronauts, with someone or something in pursuit. The pursuers turn out to be a band of intelligent gun-bearing apes, some on horseback. The apes chase the people into preset nets and ditches, capturing many. Dodge is shot and killed; Landon is knocked unconscious, his ultimate fate unknown; Taylor is shot in the throat and captured, placed in a cage with several other humans, including a beautiful woman (Linda Harrison) he had noticed earlier.
The captives are taken to a town, where Taylor is given medical treatment. The apes, surprisingly, speak English. Taylor hears two ape doctors talking. One, Zira (Kim Hunter), an animal psychologist, notes that the humans are being used for medical research in their efforts to develop effective techniques of brain surgery. Unable to talk because of his wound, Taylor repeatedly attempts to communicate with his captors, but they think he is just mimicking them. “Human see, human do,” one of them concludes, in one of the film’s many humorous (but telling) reversals of clichés from our own world. Zira does not understand Taylor’s attempts at communication, but she recognizes that he seems to be special. She dubs him “Bright Eyes” and is so impressed that she shows him to her superior, the orangutan Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), whose title is “Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith,” indicating the way in which scientific research on this planet seems limited by religious bigotry. Interestingly, Zaius’s disparaging attitude toward humans (he thinks they are a nuisance and should be exterminated) echoes Taylor’s own, though Taylor will ultimately defend humans against Zaius’s prejudices.
Zira orders the beautiful woman (whom Taylor will eventually name “Nova”) put in Taylor’s cage as a “present” in order to study his reaction. Later, she brings her fiancé and fellow chimpanzee, the young archaeologist Cornelius (Roddy McDowell), to see Taylor in an outdoor cage. Taylor tries to write a message in the dirt, then gets into a fight with another man who joins Nova in frantically trying to rub out the message before the apes can see it. Taylor is removed from the cage and taken inside. Zaius discovers the remnants of Taylor’s message and rubs it out himself, providing the first indication that he knows things he does not wish to become common knowledge. Back in his indoor cage, Taylor manages to wrestle a pad of paper away from Zira, scribbling a message: “MY NAME IS TAYLOR.” Zira immediately orders a collar and leash and takes Taylor out of the cage. Taylor writes more messages for Zira and Cornelius, attempting to explain where he came from. When Cornelius dismisses his story, noting that flight is a scientific impossibility, Taylor makes a paper airplane to demonstrate the ease with which flight can, in fact, be achieved.
Cornelius is working in his research to demonstrate that apes evolved from men (having discovered evidence of an ancient culture that predates the Sacred Scrolls, founding texts of the ape culture). He realizes that Taylor could provide important support for his theory, but he also realizes that he is treading on dangerous ground because his work might prove the Sacred Scrolls wrong and thus be condemned as heresy. Zaius arrives with Dr. Maximus (Woodrow Parfrey), the Commissioner for Animal Affairs. Zaius quickly crumples up the paper airplane, again seeking to efface evidence of Taylor’s intelligence; he orders Taylor sent back to his cage and then gelded. Taylor, however, overcomes his guard and escapes out into the dusty streets of the town. After a furious chase scene, he is finally recaptured. Once again caught in a net, Taylor cries out, regaining his voice and shocking the apes around him, who believe humans incapable of speech: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”
Back in captivity, Taylor attempts to teach Nova to speak, but without success. His captors then remove her from the cage, holding him at bay with a fire hose (in an image that could not fail to resonate with audiences of the late 1960s, who had often seen the forces of authority holding demonstrators at bay with fire hoses in the streets of American cities). “It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!” Taylor screams in one of the film’s landmark moments—commenting both on the craziness of an ape planet and (at least for contemporary audiences) on the madness of the official repression of dissent in American streets. Watching Nova in the cage across from him, Taylor realizes that he misses her. “Imagine me needing someone,” he mutters as much to himself as to Nova. “Back on earth I never did. Oh, there were women. Lots of women. Lots of lovemaking, but no love. That was the kind of world we’d made.” He explains to an uncomprehending Nova that they had brought Stewart along to be the new Eve (apparently they had planned to found a colony, though it would make little sense to bring three men and only one woman for that purpose). Then he bitterly adds, “with our hot and eager help, of course.”
Weeks after his near escape, Zaius has Taylor brought to a meeting room for a hearing before a high-level tribunal of the National Academy of Science, chaired by the President of the Academy (James Whitmore), who is joined by Maximus and Zaius, with the Deputy Minister of Justice, Dr. Honorius (James Daly), as prosecutor. Zira and Cornelius are to act as Taylor’s advocates, but the tribunal is shocked when he speaks up for himself. Zaius immediately orders him silenced. Honorius, (adapting Alexander Pope’s dictum that the proper study of mankind is man) proclaims that “the proper study of apes is apes,” and denounces Zira for studying humans instead. In particular, he charges Zira and her surgeon-associate Dr. Galen (Wright King) with tampering with Taylor surgically to produce a “speaking monster,” noting that their work is intended to support a heretical theory of evolution.
In an attempt to disprove Taylor’s testimony of his origins, Zaius takes them all to view the other surviving humans from the hunt in which Taylor was captured. Landon is among them. Taylor points him out, but then discovers that his former crewmate has been lobotomized and is now a mindless hulk. Furious, Taylor rushes the tribunal, but is quickly subdued, beaten into semi-consciousness, and taken back inside. There, Zaius claims that Landon suffered a skull fracture in the course of his capture and had to undergo surgery to save his life.
As the hearing proceeds, Cornelius and Zira grant that Taylor surely did not come from another planet, but that he clearly must have come from somewhere, perhaps within the Forbidden Zone. Zira and Cornelius are promptly charged with contempt of the tribunal, malicious mischief, and scientific heresy, and the hearing is adjourned. Taylor is dragged away, while Zira and Cornelius walk slowly away as if in shock. Taylor is taken to Zaius’s office, where Zaius tells him that Zira and Cornelius will soon be tried and that Taylor himself will be emasculated, then subjected to experimental surgery on the speech centers of the brain, leaving him in a state of living death. But Zaius tells him he will be spared if he tells the truth about his origins. In particular, Zaius believes Taylor is a mutant and that he comes from a community of such mutants, which Zaius wants to locate and destroy. When Taylor sticks to his original story, Zaius sends him back to his cage.
Zira and Cornelius engineer an escape with the help of Zira’s nephew, Lucius (Lou Wagner). Taylor, over their objections, insists on taking Nova along as well. Zira and Lucius sneak out of the city by putting Taylor and Nova in a cage on the back of a horsedrawn wagon, then driving away, pretending the humans are prisoners. Once out in the countryside, the group is met by Cornelius with horses. Taylor and Nova drive the wagon, while Cornelius, Zira, and Lucius proceed on horseback as they flee into the Forbidden Zone. They reach a river and follow it to a seashore where Cornelius had earlier discovered the ruins of an ancient civilization. Taylor shaves off his beard, causing Cornelius to remark that it makes him look less intelligent.
Suddenly, Zaius arrives with a group of armed guards. Taylor aims his rifle at Zaius and orders him to send the guards away. Zaius does so but warns Cornelius and Zira that they will be hanged for treason if they do not desist. When Zaius announces that “There is no contradiction between faith and science. True science,” Taylor gets him to agree to drop his charges against Cornelius and Zira if they can find evidence in the diggings that the Sacred Scrolls do not tell the whole story of ape history. Taylor orders Lucius to stand guard outside while they all go inside what seems to be a large cave. Lucius, whose attitudes humorously resemble those of human teenagers, complains, “Always giving orders, just like every other adult.”
Inside, Cornelius shows evidence of an ancient culture more advanced than subsequent ones, including a human doll that is about 2000 years old, found near the jawbone of a man. Taylor identifies false teeth, eyeglasses, and an artificial heart valve among the relics. Then they discover that the doll talks, and Taylor points out that apes would not make a talking human doll. They hear gunshots from outside and rush out to find that Zaius’s guards have returned and are attacking. Taylor forces Zaius at gunpoint to send them away again. Lucius says he is disillusioned by the sneak attack. “You can’t trust the older generation,” he concludes. Taylor agrees.
Taylor then uses Zaius as a hostage to force the apes to give him and Nova horses, food, water, and ammunition. Based on the evidence in the diggings, Taylor speculates that civilized humans predated the apes on this planet but were wiped out by some sort of plague or natural catastrophe. He charges that Zaius knew of this all along. Zaius, in response, has Cornelius read from the Sacred Scrolls, 29th scroll, 6th verse: “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.”
Taylor has no answer to this description of man as prone to violence, which so closely resembles some of his own earlier remarks—and which surely had special resonances for contemporary audiences, living in the midst of the Cold War arms race and of controversy over the ongoing war in Vietnam.. He simply prepares to ride off with Nova, following the shoreline, though Cornelius and Zira opt to stay behind. Taylor leaves Lucius with the injunction to keep the flags of discontent flying and not to trust anyone over 30. He kisses Zira goodbye, though she is appalled that he is so “damned ugly.” Zaius, asked by the departing Taylor why he has always feared and hated him so, replies simply, “Because you’re a man.” He admits that he has always dreaded Taylor’s coming because he has indeed known about man all along. “From the evidence, I believe his wisdom must walk hand in hand with his idiocy.” Asked by Taylor what evidence he means, he cryptically says, “The Forbidden Zone was once a paradise. Your greed made a desert of it ages ago.” He also warns Taylor that he may not like what he finds if he continues to investigate the history of the planet. After Taylor leaves, Zaius orders the cave sealed with explosives and Zira and Cornelius tried for scientific heresy in spite of the evidence that their theories are correct. Zira asks him, referring to Taylor, “What will he find out there, doctor?” Zaius simply replies, “His destiny.”
Riding along the shoreline, Taylor and Zira come upon an outcropping protruding from the sand. Taylor looks up and stares at it in shock. He drops to his knees, screaming at his discovery: “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! Ah, damn you! Goddamn you all to hell!” The camera pans back to show us that the outcropping is the top half of the Statue of Liberty, apparently half buried in the holocaust (presumably nuclear) that destroyed the original civilization of this planet, which is, of course, earth.
Planet of the Apes was a major box-office success on its initial release. It was also recognized with Academy Award nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Original Score. Meanwhile, John Chambers, who designed the ape makeup for the film, was given a special Oscar for his “outstanding achievement” in the film. Chambers came to the film mostly with experience in doing makeup for television programs such as The Munsters, The Outer Limits, and Lost in Space; perhaps his most important achievement prior to Planet of the Apes was the design of Spock’s ears for Star Trek. But his achievement in designing the ape makeup for the film was indeed outstanding, overcoming the initial fears on the part of Fox Studio executives that audiences would be unable to take the film seriously because actors in ape costumes would inherently look ridiculous. Perhaps the best evidence of the quality of the makeup in the film comes from comparison to the later Tim Burton “reimagining” of the film in 2001, where the makeup is far more sophisticated, realistic, and expensive, but not one bit more effective. (Indeed, Burton’s version is a gorgeous film that looks much better than the original in all sorts of ways—but that is almost entirely lacking in the emotional power and political commentary of the original.) Clearly, audiences who watched McDowall, Hunter, and the other actors in the film in 1968 were perfectly well aware that they were watching humans in ape makeup, but were willing to accept them as ape characters nevertheless; in this and other ways, Planet of the Apes thus stands as a lasting testament to the ability of film as a medium to convince audiences to suspend their disbelief and to accept the premises on which individual films are based.
Much attention has been devoted to the ape makeup in Planet of the Apes, and discussions of its development can be found in numerous places, such as the recent guide Planet of the Apes Revisited, by Joe Russo and Larry Landsman, with Edward Gross (Thomas Dunne Books, 2001).But Planet of the Apes is far more than an exercise in creative makeup and costuming, as can be seen by the fact that the film and the franchise it spawned have become one of the crucial phenomena of American popular culture in the last four decades. In a technical sense, it is clear that the great emotional impact of the film owes a great deal to Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score, while aspects of the film other than the makeup are similarly effective without being truly realistic. For example, art director William Creber’s design of the ape city, with architecture that looks as if it were carved out of stone, seems truly inspired, despite the fact that there seems to be no logical way the apes could have built such architecture with the technology available to them, while the buildings actually look much too primitive for a society that is in the process of developing sophisticated technologies such as brain surgery. Indeed, the carved-stone buildings make the ape city look very much like something out of The Flintstones (which had, by the way, just completed its initial run on ABC in 1966), but the architecture somehow still seems appropriate and effective in its contribution to the overall impression of an ape-dominated society.
However, most of the serious critical attention given the film and its sequels has focused not on their technical achievements but on their political implications, and especially on the ways in which the various films, in their depiction of relations between apes and humans, can be read as allegories of interracial relations in our own world, especially in the U.S. Eric Greene has argued particularly well, in his book-length study Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture (Wesleyan University Press, 1996), for the importance of these racial allegories and other political aspects of the films. For Greene, “the makers of the Apes films created fictional spaces whose social tensions resembled those then dominating the United States. They inserted characters into those spaces whose ideologies, passions, and fears duplicated the ideologies, passions, and fears of generations of Americans. And they placed those characters in conflicts that replicated crucial conflicts from the United States; past and present” (9).
As Greene also notes, the racial allegories that are for him the central political issue dealt with in the Apes series become even clearer in the sequels than in the original. Still, even in the original film it is clear that the relationship between apes and humans on the Ape Planet can be read as a commentary on the relationship between whites and African Americans in our own world. For example, the roundup in which Taylor is initially captured carries resonances of the nightmarish hunts in which Africans were historically captured and then shipped to the Americas to be sold as slaves. And many of the stereotypes spouted by the apes about humans as irrational, lazy, lascivious, and violent clearly echo stereotypes that have, in our own world, been applied to African Americans and other nonwhite peoples of the world. Meanwhile, the sudden shift in perspective that makes humans the object of race hatred on the part of animals (and, by extension, whites the despised Others of blacks) provides precisely the sort of cognitive jolt that provides all the best science fiction with its principal power. This jolt asks audiences to see racism with fresh eyes, and the effect is only enhanced by the fact that the rhetoric of modern racism, as first developed in the nineteenth century, has long employed the strategy of suggesting that supposedly inferior races are in fact more similar to apes than to genuine human beings.
In the sequels Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) the terms of the allegory are reversed, as intelligent apes encounter suspicion, fear, and hatred in our own world—and in ways that make the comment on racism much more overt. For example, a rebellion of oppressed apes in the latter of these two films was specifically based on the Watts “riots” of 1965 in Los Angeles. On the other hand, the allegory of the original film, perhaps because it is the least overt, is probably the most complex of that in any of the Apes films, leaving room for a variety of simultaneous meanings. For example, the treatment of humans by the intelligent apes serves in Planet of the Apes not only as a commentary on the racist treatment of some humans by others but also on the often cruel treatment of nonhuman species (including our close cousins, the apes) by human beings.
One of the central motifs in the original Boulle novel is the apes’ use of human specimens for medical research, especially in their attempts to develop more advanced forms of brain surgery. The ghoulish medical experiments observed by Ulysse Mérou are made all the more so by the realization that human researchers in our own world quite routinely perform equally grisly procedures on laboratory animals. This aspect of the novel is considerably toned down in the film, but there are still suggestions that clearly derive from this aspect of the novel, including the lobotomization of Landon and the threatened castration and lobotomization of Taylor. Indeed, the very fact that the film includes the brain surgery motif at all (despite the fact that brain surgery seems well beyond other aspects of the technology of the ape society) seems a bit forced, suggesting that the filmmakers found the implications of this motif important to the power of the story they were trying to tell, even if it didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the film.
Planet of the Apes is a film that depends on the impact of shocking images rather than always making sense, and the surgical images are powerful indeed, a fact that would be demonstrated a few years later via the lobotomies of Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). That these images warn particularly of the potential horrors that can be produced by unchecked technological progress make Planet of the Apes typical of much of the most powerful science fiction, while also paving the way for the film’s final (and most shocking) image of technological destruction, the half-buried Statue of Liberty, with its implication of nuclear holocaust.
These technological themes of the dangers of unscrupulous medical research and the nuclear arms race make it clear that Planet of the Apes is a complex film that addresses a number of issues, in addition to racism. Even the treatment of racism can be more complex than it might first appear. For example, the first film, more than any of the sequels (though in less detail than the original novel), deals not only with ape-human discrimination but with the question of discrimination among the different species of apes. As indicated (and explored in much more detail) in Boulle’s novel, the ape population consists of three distinct groups—orangutans, chimpanzees, and gorillas—each of which tends to occupy a different position in the ape society, essentially arranged hierarchically. Orangutans occupy the positions of highest political authority, chimpanzees are the scientists and intellectuals, and gorillas are soldiers and manual laborers.
The conflicts that we see within the ape society, however, are strictly between the conservative, officious orangutans and the more liberal, open-minded chimpanzees. Thus, in our first introductions to the scissions in ape society, the chimpanzee scientist who is treating the injured Taylor complains to Zira of having to work with dirty animals like humans, thus functioning as little more than a veterinarian. He then reminds her that she had promised to speak with Zaius about a different position for him. “I did,” she replies. “You know how he looks down his nose at chimpanzees.” He responds that the quota system has been abolished, suggesting that the ape society had once been much more formally stratified than it now is. He also points out that Zira herself seems to be doing quite well in getting space and resources for her research, though she is also a chimpanzee, but she responds that her success is due simply to the fact that Zaius recognizes the importance of her work, which is helping to lay the foundations for “scientific brain surgery.”
In the Boulle novel, Mérou’s demonstrated intelligence causes Zaius to lose his position as head of the reseaerch institute where humans are being studied, to be replaced by Cornelius, who in the book is already a prominent scientist, rather than the aspiring junior scientist that he appears to be in the film. However, it is also clear in the film that Zaius’s authority over Cornelius is not merely a case of seniority but also has to do with the racial hierarchy between orangutans and chimps. On the other hand, that Zaius is clearly older also contributes to the generation-gap theme of the film, though this theme resides primarily in the treatment of the character of Lucius and is treated more as a joke (aimed at contemporary audiences in 1968) than as serious social commentary.
Still, the generation-gap theme points toward the way in which the film addresses social hierarchies (and the power of one social group over another) that go beyond the central one of race. Perhaps most importantly, the distinction between different species of apes is really a question more of class than of race, and the fact that class boundaries tend to run along the boundaries between species potentially calls attention to the fact that, in the U.S., racial differences have historically tended to disguise class differences and therefore to reinforce the myth that American society is classless, refusing to privilege one economic class over another.
It is significant that the struggle for power in the ape society appears to exclude gorillas altogether. Indeed, no gorilla characters are represented in the film as having distinct points of view—or even as having distinguishable personalities. They simply do their jobs, carrying out orders that are given to them, primarily by orangutans but also by chimpanzees. And this absence provides a potentially significant political commentary, echoing (though perhaps unintentionally) the relative lack of power on the part of working-class individuals in our own society. Meanwhile, the fact that “liberal” chimps like Cornelius and Zira are highly concerned about human rights but seem little concerned about the oppression of gorillas provides a potential reminder of the relative lack of attention to working-class concerns on the part of our own intellectuals. Indeed, the fact that the subservient position of gorillas goes unchallenged and unremarked throughout the film may also suggest that the filmmakers themselves, clearly concerned about racial oppression, were blind to the class-based commentary in their own film.
The central political moment of Planet of the Apes occurs in Taylor’s hearing before the tribunal at the Academy of Science, because it is here that the orangutans most clearly express—with institutional support—their racial hatred of humans and their condescending attitude toward chimpanzees (and gorillas, who serve as guards in the hearing but do not actively participate in it). Among other things, the fact that such attitudes are central to such an official setting provides reminders of the way in which our own institutions sometimes facilitate and validate racial and other forms of discrimination.
As a comment on our own institutions, particularly legal proceedings, the tribunal scene can be seen to derive, if indirectly, from a scene in the original novel in which Mérou, having witnessed several official proceedings in the ape society, suddenly thinks back to a trial he once covered as a journalist and suddenly concludes that the seemingly adept legal professionals he observed at the trial were performing entirely scripted roles, like so many trained apes. Of course, the fact that the “heresy” of evolution is a central point brought before the tribunal unavoidably makes the hearing function as a commentary on the infamous Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925, in which Tennessee small-town schoolteacher John T. Scopes was placed on criminal trial for teaching evolution, an act that was then against state law. Indeed, any number of commentators have noted the connection between the tribunal in Planet of the Apes and the Scopes trial, which seemed to be informed by the same kind of ignorance and religious intolerance as those that drive the “prosecution” of Taylor in the film. Moreover, this connection proved to be more timely than it might first appear: the kind of anti-evolution laws on which the prosecution of Scopes was based were not outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court until November of 1968 (nine months after the release of Planet of the Apes), when the Court declared a similar Arkansas statute unconstitutional.
The hidebound refusal of the tribunal to recognize the truth when presented to them is symbolized in the film in a classic shot in which the three members of the tribunal respectively cover their eyes, mouth, and ears, enacting the famous stereotype of monkeys who see so evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil. This gesture is a bit over the top, of course, injecting a humorous note that seems inconsistent with the serious nature of the proceedings. On the other hand, it also serves to make the members of the tribunal look ridiculous and in that sense reinforces the rest of the scene. Meanwhile, this humorous jab at the members of the tribunal cannot help but suggest a parodic glance at the somewhat similar procedure to which screenwriter Wilson had himself been subjected in September of 1951, when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as part of its paranoid investigation of “communist” activity in Hollywood, but took the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer any questions because he judged the entire proceeding inappropriate and illegal.
Wilson was subsequently blacklisted, unable to work for any Hollywood studios until the 1965 film The Sandpiper, Planet of the Apes being his second credited Hollywood feature since the blacklist. However, Wilson, who won a Best Screeplay Oscar for A Place in the Sun (1952), his last film before the blacklist, remained active. He went on to write the script for the near-legendary independent leftist film Salt of the Earth (1954), a film whose makers were hounded by HUAC, the FBI, and the CIA during filming and that was subsequently kept from wide distribution by government pressure until the 1960s, when it became a cult favorite of the counterculture. He also worked secretly (without credit) on the scripts of several films, including such classics as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, also based on a novel by Boulle, for which Wilson received a posthumous Best Screenplay Oscar in 1995) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962, for which Wilson received a posthumous Best Screenplay Oscar nomination in 1995).
Wilson thus had good reason to treat the tribunal negatively, and it is certainly the case that they come off as ignorant bigots, uninterested in the truth. Meanwhile, the religious nature of the tribunal’s proceedings also recalls medieval inquisitions in which the Catholic Church sought to block the progress of the new science that was beginning to challenge religion as a discourse of authority in Europe. Of particular relevance here is the 1633 trial (and conviction) of Galileo for the “heresy” of continuing to hold that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the opposite, even after the Church had ordered him to desist. The silencing of Galileo by the Church has become one of the central emblems in our culture of the attempts of religion to prevent the spread of scientific truth, Galileo himself emerging as a major cultural hero and champion of knowledge in the face of ignorance. In any case, the fact that Galileo’s inquisitors refused even to examine any of the scientific evidence that he hoped to present in his defense clearly resembles the refusal of Zaius and the other members of the tribunal to accept evidence of Taylor’s intelligence, leading to Zaius’s ultimate destruction of conclusive evidence of a human civilization that predated that of the apes.
In the film, religious zealotry stands firmly in the way of scientific progress, placing science and religion in direct opposition, as they often are in science fiction. Through most of the film science occupies the positive pole of this opposition, with Zaius and his religious attitudes appearing to be markers of ignorance and superstition that lead to intolerance and cruelty. Here again, Planet of the Apes is typical of science fiction, which tends to take a dim view of religion, especially if it impedes the scientific quest for “truth.” One might recall here Mark Rose’s argument, in his book Alien Encounters (Harvard University Press, 1981) that “it is because the content of the genre is a displacement of religion that science-fiction stories are often concerned to disassociate themselves from religion by characterizing it as the ignorant or feeble opposite of science” (41). That is, for Rose, science fiction and religion are competing for the same territory as discourses of authority. In particular, using terms that are strikingly relevant to Planet of the Apes, Rose notes that “like science fiction, religion is concerned with the relationship between the human and the nonhuman” (40).
Then again, some of the best known science fiction films (Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Matrix would be the most obvious examples) draw energy from religious imagery rather than in opposition to it. At any rate, among its many twists and shocks, Planet of the Apes itselfhas one more surprise in store for those who have comfortably accepted the fact that Zaius and his ilk are religious bigots inhibiting progress in the ape society. In the end, we realize that Zaius actually has good reason for suppressing the truth, because he fears that it will lead to a resurgence of humankind and its violent impulses, a resurgence that could prove deadly and destructive. (In fact, Taylor himself triggers the doomsday device that destroys all life on the planet in the first sequel.) Zaius thus may simply be a wise ape acting in the interests of his civilization. Young Lucius asks him, after he has ordered the destruction of the evidence of an ancient human civilization, “Why must knowledge stand still? What about the future?” Zaius simply replies, “I may just have saved it for you.” And this final complication is entirely appropriate in a film that treats so many complex issues in nuanced ways, even as a casual viewer could easily mistake the film for a lightweight adventure film intended to appeal to children. Indeed, it may well be because of its appearance as an “unserious” film that Planet of the Apes was able to get away with so much trenchant social and political commentary.