To my generation, who grew up in the 1970s, The Planet of the Apes (1968) was as beloved as Bruce Lee and Burt Reynolds. I loved the film (when it aired on television in the early 1970s) for the sheer joy of watching Charlton Heston, at the height of his machismo, swatting away his ape captors like flies.
But beneath all the fisticuffs and gunplay and chases that attracted my young age group, there was a political message to the film which, though the plot was set in the distant future, reflected the atmosphere of 1968.
Although relatively cocooned from what was raging in Vietnam-era America (I grew up in red-state Texas and the war was never mentioned in my house), I did get some of the film’s points. I understood that our humanity was in question at the time, when through the larynxes of talking apes man was condemned as greedy and cruel and homicidal.
And I knew, by the jolting ending, in which the Statue of Liberty lay buried from the waist down in what the apes called “The Forbidden Zone,” that the nuclear bomb had something to do with it. When Heston screamed “You finally did it!” I understood there had been a nuclear exchange that was responsible for man being primitive and apes being dominant.
In his excellent book, The Making of Planet of the Apes, Jonathan Rinzler doesn’t take a fan-boy approach to the film by drowning the reader in minutiae. What becomes apparent through all the concept art, and prosthetics and various drafts of the script, is just how much thought went into this groundbreaking movie. The end result was superb; never before had action been so faultlessly combined with politics.
Everyone involved was superbly talented. Their achievement is even more impressive when one examines the book the film was very loosely based on. Had the film followed Pierre Boulle’s 1963 book to the letter, it would have been less effective. The synopsis of Boulle’s novel in Rinzler’s book reveals a ridiculous concept of helicopter flying gorillas on another planet encountering one-dimensional humans who could speak.
Instead, the makers of the film eschewed the camp aspects of the novel, and gave what could have been a B-level drive-in movie the best talent Hollywood had to offer. Rod Serling penned the original script. The blacklisted and Academy Award-winning writer Michael Wilson reworked it away from the advanced technology of the apes in the novel toward a more primitive society. Ape city was now made up of structures that resembled early American adobe. Somehow that was more chilling.
Wilson, at one time a fervent communist, added a bit more to Serling’s condemnation of mankind as greedy, barbarous, and cruel— a portrait that in his younger days he would have applied solely to America. One could spot Wilson’s touches in having Heston’s character laugh at his fellow stranded astronaut planting a miniature American flag.
But much remained of Serling’s métier of cynicism, irony, and his fears of a nuclear exchange, the latter of which was expressed in one of the most famous and effective endings in American cinema.
Serling’s trademark irony was present. Heston’s character, the hyper-cynical misanthrope George Taylor, fled into space to find something better than man. But what he encountered was simians representing the worst of humanity. The gorillas, the soldier class, were tasked with hunting down the primitive humans for blood sport, and to provide the chimpanzee scientist class with experimental material. The orangutans that ran the society were as corrupt and murderous as the Nixon administration.
Filmmakers wisely knew that what was essential in pulling this off was for the apes to look realistic. Luckily John Chambers was on board and instead of putting the actors in tacky gorilla suits, used prosthetics that made the apes look much more realistic. But it was also the presence of A-list actors underneath the makeup that carried it over.
Rather than follow the Hollywood tradition of using poverty-row actors like Lon Chaney Jr. (Chaney specialized in werewolf and Frankenstein parts), the filmmakers used acclaimed actors. Playing off Heston’s unique combination of gravitas, machismo, and doomed qualities were other A-list actors. The corrupt and prejudiced orangutan leader of the society, Dr. Zaius, was played by the classically trained actor Maurice Evans. The dissident of the piece, the compassionate Dr. Zira, was played by the Academy Award-winning actress Kim Hunter.
What is striking about the overall product is how the film-makers did not hit the viewer over the head with political points. Fears of evolution this time around resided in the ape leaders rather than humans of the 20th century. Lke Christian fundamentalists, Dr. Zaius, in a rigged trial against Taylor, used the ape religion rather than science to dispute Heston’s claims of coming from another planet and that apes evolved from humans.
There is good reason that of all of the Ape movies (four coming after the original in the early 1970s, several in the 21st century) it is only the original that the Library of Congress chose for preservation for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
The sequels that almost immediately followed the original were obviously tacked together solely for profit. And the political points became more labored; filmmakers tried to capitalize on the black power movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Apes became Black Panthers and the humans Bull Connor.
The films today cannot match the excellence of the original, even with CGI making the apes look even more realistic than the prosthetics used in the 1968 film. The scripts are terrible. The animals-nobler-than-humans theme has been done to rags. And without the threat of nuclear war, the films represent little more than a quest for tolerance.
But ultimately the 1968 classic has never been surpassed because, as Rinzler’s book shows, it was the product of literate and talented people.