The screenplay for “Planet of the Apes” (1968), adapted loosely from the 1963 novel “La Planête des Singes” by Pierre Boulle, was written by Michael Wilson & Rod Sterling. Considering the latter’s previous work of creating and hosting “The Twilight Zone” (1959), Planet of the Apes is a cautionary tale, more intent on asking the tough questions than leaving its audience with that warm fuzzy feeling. The timing of the movie was so perfect: it was the peak of the Cold War and the American Space Age, and just a year before the Moon Landing in ’69. And while it’s most remembered for it’s iconic closing shot (we’ll get to that), the entire film works great as a sort of thrilling, dark political satire, not unlike George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” (1945), which Charlton Heston’s character Taylor even paraphrases: “All apes are equal… but some are more equal than others.”
The film opens with Taylor and his American astronauts returning to Earth after a deep-space mission sometime in the undisclosed future. His shipmates already in stasis, Heston delivers a very philosophical final status log: “From out here, everything seems different. Time bends, space is… boundless. It squashes a man’s ego.” He sets the high-concept setting for the audience, before leaving he and his crew in the hands of machines to auto-pilot their ship home. (Humans leaving their lives to technology? Hmm…) The ship crash lands on a seemingly deserted yet hospitable planet; Taylor and crewmates Dodge (Jeff Burton) and Landon (Robert Gunner) find the only female member has suffered a rupture in her stasis chamber, seemingly dead for centuries. Taylor explains the concept of time diffraction—how their relatively short mission has lasted around two thousand years of Earth, ‘give or take a decade’.
The other crewmates serve more to explain Taylor’s character, with Landon accusing his cynical, realist attitude a symptom of misanthropy. There’s a very on the nose scene where Landon plants a tiny American flag, claiming the beach they landed on, to which Taylor simply laughs. The three men explore this strange new world, finding trace signs of life before coming across primitive, human-like creatures. Taylor quickly settles into a colonialist attitude, quipping “in six months we’ll be running this planet.” Cue the howling of apes. Gorillas suddenly ride in with technology matching humanity’s own industrial era, capturing Taylor and killing his crewmates. Taylor, whose neck was wounded in the kerfuffle, can’t speak in his own defence, and he spends several humiliating days caged up like an animal, prodded by Chimpanzee scientists Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter). Any results to display his intelligence through gestures is met with table-turning phrases like “human see, human do”. Remembering all that talk about squashing the human ego?
The Ape society is not without it’s own flaws however. A sort of racial caste system becomes clear: Gorillas are the enforcers and laborers, Chimps the intellectuals, and Orangutans the political and religious leaders. Just as Zira begins sympathizing with Taylor, we’re introduced to the physical antagonist of the film, the orangutan Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), ‘Minister of Science and Defender of the Faith.’ It’s Dr. Zaius who suppresses knowledge and keeps Ape society as being dictated by ‘ancient taboos’. Alongside satirizing the false self-righteousness of humanity, the orangutans in particular represent an outdated older generation, to which a disillusioned young chimp asks, “Why must knowledge stand still?”
When Taylor’s speech comes back to him, Heston comes out swinging at his most Shakespearean acting: “Take your stinking paws off me you damn, dirty ape!” By this point we learn more about Taylor’s motives: he left Earth so long ago because “There was lots of lovemaking, but no love.” His humanity is then put on trial before a court of orangutan judges, yet it’s his humanity that is the crime. The idea that the pathetic human race once surpassed Apes seems so ridiculous, Zaius poses the golden question: “If man was superior, why didn’t he survive?” By now, the mystery is piecing itself together… not where, but when? Amidst this upside-down civilization, Zaius criticizes Taylor as only seeing it that way because ‘he exists on its lowest level’. Like much of the Golden / Silver Age of science fiction around the mid-20th century, “Apes” takes a ridiculous yet intriguing idea and uses it to hold a mirror up to the audience so they can see their own twisted follies.
And if the mirror wasn’t clear enough, we’re left with a very grim note to think on. As Taylor rides away from his captors into the great unknown, he comes across a sight so powerful it brings him to his knees, cursing the human race. Buried amidst the sandy beach… a rusted Statue of Liberty. The planet of the Apes was Earth’s future all along! “You finally made a monkey out of me!” cries Troy McClure in “The Simpson”’s Planet of the Apes Musical. Decades of parodies have somewhat robbed the scene of it’s shock-factor, but it fits in well with the darkly comedic tone of the rest of the film. You may laugh, not because the film is hammed up, but because this ridiculous, inverted world is so close to our own.
The assumption (which would be elaborated in the sequels) is that humans destroyed themselves with nuclear warfare, and the film’s been rubbing your nose in the possibility the whole time without you knowing it. I’d say that’s why the original Planet of the Apes has always stood out, and why subsequent entries in the franchise have lacked that certain flair. The beauty of it is that “Apes” poses all of these questions, these ‘What If?’s, and just leaves them for the viewer to mull over.