hat a piece of work is a man,” Hamlet says, just before expressing his own distaste for the world and the loathsome humanity infesting it. The reluctant prince, had he had the chance, would surely have taken the next spaceship out of this solar system in hopes of finding something better. Bereft of this technology, his only choice is to kill as many people around him as possible, including, of course, himself. In contrast, the equally judgmental and disdainful Colonel George Taylor has the means to venture beyond the stars, in hopes of finding a world worth inhabiting, and does so without hesitation. Unfortunately, the world he finds is the Planet of the Apes.
The Planet of the Apes has become a cornerstone of popular culture and, alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey, the definitive film of the ‘60s science fiction phenomenon. It’s no surprise. At a time when human space travel was a new reality and the Cold War threatened the planet with annihilation, science fiction offered an avenue for allegorical explorations of the social and psychological forces that could achieve so much good with technology, while at the same time loosing so much evil. “What if” and “what could be,” no matter how far-out, finds articulation in the sci-fi genre. Planet poses the provocative question: what will prove stronger, Darwinism or technology? It’s result, to put it mildly, are less than desirable.
The film begins with Taylor (Charlton Heston) and four other astronauts in the spacecraft where they’ve spent six lonely months. They’ve been traveling near the speed of light, which, according to the Theory of Relativity, means their six months translate to hundreds of years back on earth. (I won’t try to explain.) Taylor was perfectly aware when he took this mission that he would return to a planet he would not recognize—that is exactly what the brooding colonel wants. In fact, he hopes to come to a place where he can start society anew under his cynical leadership. He steps into the suspended animation tank for the return flight home and awakens to find the ship has crash-landed in an unknown ocean in the year 3978. The crew swims ashore, finding themselves on a barren landscape. Taylor surmises they’ve gone 320 light years off course and has himself a good laugh as he watches one of his crew plant a U.S. flag, fully aware of the futility of the gesture and enjoying it. After a long and desolate walk, they soon find vegetation, water, and eventually, people—scores of mute, primitive humans wandering in the tall grass. “If this is the best they got,” Taylor boasts, “In six months we’ll be running the planet” (like many of his earlier presumptions, this doesn’t quite pan out).
Planet presents homo sapiens stripped of their humanity, reduced to dumb beasts, underlining exactly how reliant we are on language as the foundation for our civilizations. Our position at the top of the food chain is a precarious one indeed. When the humans are hunted down and rounded up by an army of gun-wielding gorillas, Taylor is taken captive after being nicked in the throat with a bullet (effectively eliminating his ability to talk). Rod Serling, who co-wrote the script, rehashes the proverbial “be care of what you wish for” theme, which was a recurrent one throughout The Twilight Zone, which he created. Taylor wanted a world without bothersome people, and so he gets a world populated by bothersome simians. The scary thing is that things aren’t so different.
The planet, Taylor discovers, is run by apes. The differentiation among the primate species mirrors their social classes: orangutans are aristocrats and administrators of the religious and political ideologies, gorillas are brutish soldiers, and chimpanzees are scientists, thinkers, and civilians. Humans, of course, are slaves, unworthy even of being apes’ pets. They’re killed for sport and undergo horrendous experiments. Taylor and the mute female Nova (Linda Harrison) are at the mercy Dr. Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter), two chimpanzee scientists who take an interest in Taylor (whom they dub “Bright Eyes”) and his apparently high IQ. Zira’s trying to prove a theory of evolution through her studies on humans, while her superior, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), resident senex and orangutan aristocrat, disparages her theories as threats to the pervasive religious doctrine (humans are the pestilence that apes—created in “God’s image”—are charged to destroy). When Taylor finally speaks, the apes’ world is turned on its head. The powers that be want him silenced. He wants to find out how “apes evolved from men.” The answer to Taylor’s question—humans blew themselves up—comes in what is perhaps the most well-known ending in cinematic history. The irony is that the apes’ civilization is equally restrictive, narrow-minded, and violent as that of the humans, a perverse shadow of everything Taylor hated about the earth he left behind.
The film became an instant classic. The camp potential in adapting Pierre Boulle’s mediocre 1963 novel (La Planete des Singes, translated as Monkey Planet) was counterbalanced by a well-paced and thought-provoking script and masterful performances by McDowell, Evans, and Hunter. While one might think Heston’s overblown acting would be a detriment to the seriousness of the film, it strangely feels appropriate to the outlandishness of the situation in which Taylor finds himself. Taylor bombastically exclaims, “It’s a madhouse!” as he is hosed down while he’s imprisoned, it doesn’t come off as the inadvertent comedy that it may have in another film. Instead, it’s a direct allusion to official responses to black Civil Rights demonstrators in the U.S. South, during the ‘60s. Issued by all-American hero Heston, this judgment is especially unnerving, suggesting that the world had in fact been turned upside down.
Planet is also a special-effects landmark because of John Chambers’s award-winning makeup innovations, which gave the simian characters personalities through the intricate application of realistic foam-latex masks and prosthetics. Thirty years later, Chambers’s work still isn’t outdated. Reportedly, during shooting, the actors in ape makeup would gather with like-masked colleagues. Chambers’s effects were apparently so “real” that the fictional divides became fact, even when the cameras were not rolling. A social psychologist could not have concocted a more telling display of the superficiality of racism.
The stunning success of The Planet of the Apes led to a pop phenomenon nearly equal to those surrounding Star Trek and Star Wars. The film spawned four sequels, two television series, and endless array of merchandise. The first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), follows astronaut John Brent (James Franciscus), on an expedition to find out what became of Taylor’s mission. The second, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), is both a sequel and prequel to the previous films, as Cornelius and Zira travel back in time to the earth before apes. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) follows their son Caesar’s (also played by Roddy McDowall) rise to power, and the final film, 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, shows the events that eventually led to the simian society, bringing the series, in effect, full circle.
All the sequels build on the social commentary introduced by the original. Planet of the Apes attacks the arrogance of our technologically-oriented culture, more devoted to appropriation and conquest than racial or religious equality. This protest, relevant during the ‘60s, is still relevant today, one reason, along with the promotional campaign, why Tim Burton’s update will be a success—as evidenced by a $69.5 million opening weekend. The notion that the world we’ve created could so easily disappear is a haunting one, and surely a theme that Burton, known for envisioning unearthly atmospheres, can work with. Granted, he had a bigger budget than Schaffner, and the storyline is somewhat changed (Burton’s Planet is not Earth), but the concept of humans humbled by apes inspires deep consideration of our place on the evolutionary ladder and in any supposed grand schemes. Planet of the Apes reminds us that we may not be the end product of some divine plan, or necessarily very important to the universe. Ultimately, it points out that we are responsible for our future, for better or worse. The planet will be what we make of it: paradise or madhouse.