PLANET OF THE APES (1968): Man Can Be Domesticated

Planet of the Apes 1968

With DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES being released this weekend, I wanted to do an APES marathon before seeing it, as I’ve never seen any of the APES movies beyond the original (and even then, it was on broadcast TV) and the Burton. I wanted to do this last week, but I became sidetracked down Scooby Doo Road, and so I’ll be reviewing the APES movies this week, hopefully at the rate of one a day. Please feel free to stop back and offer your own thoughts.

Planet of the Apes (1968) – Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner – Starring Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, James Daly, Robert Gunner, Lou Wagner, Jeff Burton, and Linda Harrison.

PLANET OF THE APES rightly deserves its place in the canon of classic science fiction films. With a cracking good story and a whole lot of social commentary, APES has enough pulp goodness to satisfy sci-fi fans while still being obvious enough for non-fans to understand that there’s more going on here than punching and kicking. Plus, it’s got one of the all-time swerve endings, depicted by a devastating visual that ranks with the all-time great shots. APES contains obvious social critiques of race, government, religion, education, law, sex, and the treatment of animals, and it’s impressive how much commentary it manages to include through world building as much as it does through plot.

Four American astronauts are on a deep space mission that will see them gone from the Earth for only eighteen months of their time but 2,000 years of Earth time. As the film opens George Taylor (Charlton Heston) is busy making a speech infodumping the mission for us/the ship’s logs before joining John Landon (Robert Gunner), Dodge (Jeff Burton), and Lieutenant Stewart (Dianne Stanley) in private hibernation units. The ship crashes on a planet they don’t recognize (why they don’t give serious thought to it being Earth is done to set up the ending), and the men discover that Stewart is dead, her body desiccated in her sleeping unit. There’s not much time to ponder this as the ship starts to sink and they have to hurry to get to safety.

APES is a very smart, and highly economical movie, and this instant switch for these men from being immersed in the finest piece of technology of their time to simple survivors with only three days worth of provisions gets things started smartly. It’s technology that makes the difference here, as both space and the desert are vast, sparse, hostile terrains. The film also wisely eliminates the only female member of the crew; like Dodge and Landon, she exists only for what the character tells us about Taylor’s masculinity.

It’s not all positive.

APES relies and trades on Heston’s brand of cologne ad masculinity. It’s dependent on his grunting, individualist machismo to sell the ill treatment of humans at the hands of the apes, but in the process it also slyly peels away at that stereotype. He’s a leader, so they make him a slave. He’s good with words, so they rob him of the ability to speak. He’s a ladies man, so the film first robs him of Stewart, and then cages him with the uneducated, unspeaking Nova (Linda Harrison). In captivity, Taylor gives a rather creepy speech about how Stewart was destined to be their new Eve, with men eager to make that happen, so perhaps it’s good she’s dead. (Yes, Taylor, much better for the woman to be dead than to have to fight off the horny advances of three dudes who can’t control themselves. It should be noted that neither Landon nor Dodge give any indication this is the case.) Taylor is such a romantic that when he finds himself drawn to Nova (which is pre-ordained, since she’s hot and he’s a man’s man), he bemoans to her, “Imagine me needing someone!” then brags about how there was “lots of women,” and then decries how there was “lots of lovemaking but no love,” insisting this is why he left.

Women is confusing to George Taylor.

But then, women in cologne ads aren’t complicated: they’re hot, they don’t talk, and they hang on the hero. No wonder Taylor decides to make a possession out of Nova – for all of his she’s his perfect woman. He won’t mate with her for the benefit of the apes, but he’ll cuddle with her, and take her along when he gets busted out of jail. For all his declarations of “needing someone,” there’s not much emotion in his relationship with Nova – her job is to be pretty and sit in the corner until Taylor pulls her forward. He never gets that he’s treating her with the same mindset as the apes; sure, he’s nicer to her than they are, but both treat her like a glorified object, unable to think for herself. Even when he says to her that he can’t believe he needs someone, it’s much less about her as it is needing someone.

When Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) finds them after their escape, he remarks to Taylor that he can’t believe man can be monogamous.

Taylor’s response? “On this planet, it’s easy,” and the implication is that this is from the lack of option and not because Nova is his soulmate.

Heck, in one of the film’s most iconic scenes, he tells ape scientist and his chief defender, Zira (Kim Hunter) that he would like to kiss her goodbye. She accepts his request, with the caveat, “But you’re so damned ugly.” Taylor’s masculinity takes two hits here – one, it reveals that the way he thinks of women is always physical (Zira has done alright by him, so he wants to seal the moment with a kiss), and two, it shows how little he thinks of Nova that he’ll kiss another woman in front of her. Zira’s retort is the film’s most obvious example of poking fun of Heston/Taylor’s masculinity, and it’s a great line, but it also helps to obscure his sexism – if everyone’s doing it, it can’t be that wrong for any one person to do it. This is replicated later, too, when Taylor ties up Dr. Zaius – Zira objects to this treatment of the ape responsible for their troubles, and Taylor snaps back that this is how they’ve all been treating him.

Why grow when you can settle for petty revenge

PLANET OF THE APES also picks apart Taylor’s physical prowess. As he, Landon, and Dodge make their way across the barren landscape, they run across a herd of animalistic humans. Taylor remarks that if this is the best the planet has to offer, “we’ll be running things in 6 months.” His ego is quickly cut down as the apes attack, shooting and capturing the humans. Taylor is shot in the throat, so he can’t talk to his captors, and they interpret his attempts to communicate as mimicry.

Even when he can talk – his first words post-injury are the immortal, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” – there are apes who refuse to accept his ability to talk is a sign of actual intelligence.

Taylor takes some of the blame for the world he left behind, but mostly, he points the finger at others. In his opening monologue, he says he leaves the 20th century “with no regrets,” saying that he has a different perspective in space, feeling small and lonely. He wonders if humanity, “that glorious paradox that sent me to the stars” is still waging war and refusing to feed the hungry.

These are noble sentiments, but coming from Taylor, they’re cheap and easy and not backed by personal convictions. Taylor might recognize these faults in humanity, but the moment he sees the primitive humans, his thoughts run immediately to conquest. When he’s in captivity, those above him (the apes) are enemies and those below him (the humans) are objects.

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying with all of this – while these attributes make Taylor less of a hero, it makes APES a much better movie. Few people in APES come across as good, decent people. Ape society is built on strict, racialized lines: the orangutans have the administrative roles, the gorillas have the physical roles, the chimpanzees are the scientists, and the humans are the mute savages.

The film largely mirrors this same type of thinking: the orangutans are officious know-it-alls, the gorillas are roughneck jerks, the chimps are open to new ideas, and the humans are the mute savages. There’s social commentary here, but it’s largely done in broad, hard-to-miss strokes.

It’s the chimpanzees – Zira and her archaeologist fiancĂ©, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) are skeptical of Taylor’s non-observed human behavior but they are open to changing their theories on humanity and learning from him. I really like how Cornelius, especially, warms to Taylor, as he initially wants to dismiss the very possibility of Taylor being different from other humans, even though this would support his own earlier research that was mocked and shuttered by Dr. Zaius. The chimps have a lower position in this society than the orangutans, who are the protectors of religious doctrine that governs Ape City, and both Zira and Cornelius are pressured by Zaius to stay in line and not upset society’s rules.

Zira is Taylor’s true protector, however. It’s Zira that first recognizes there’s something different about the new human (though not before naming him “Bright Eyes,” reducing his moniker to that of a physical descriptor), and she gradually has to understand what he is and what he represents. Before he can talk, Zira gives him Nova partly as a gift and partly as an experiment – she wants to see what he does with her. The film doesn’t really follow up on this, unfortunately, but perhaps even in 1968 the times weren’t liberal enough to take apart Taylor’s sexuality in a mainstream Hollywood movie.

Zira and Cornelius plead their case to a Tribunal of Orangutans. That’s not actually what it’s called, but think of how much more awesome the world would be if it was. The leaders of Ape City – Zaius, the Presidresident (James Whitmore), and Dr. Maximus (Woodrow Parfrey) – want nothing to do with Taylor, and the trial is largely a farce, designed, it seems, to eliminate four problems all at once: Taylor, Zira, Cornelius, and a fellow chimp doctor who treats humans, Dr. Galen (Wright King). It’s a good political move, which ends with Taylor being remanded to Zaius’ custody, where the old orangutan basically admits he believes that Taylor is different but doesn’t believe he’s come from outer space.

With the help of Zira’s nephew, Lucious (Lou Wagner), Taylor is busted out of jail before Zaius can lobotomize him as he did Landon, and he drags Noval along behind him. They head for Cornelius’ archaeological dig, where the final showdown takes place. There’s lots of gunplay here – as soon as he can, Taylor grabs a rifle, and there are several shootouts between Taylor and the apes that track them, reinforcing that while the roles between ape and man have been reversed, the more things change the more they stay the same.

There’s not many people to root for here – Zaius is a jerk, but so is Taylor. It’s the chimps – Zira, Cornelius, and Lucius, as briefly as we see him – that represent the possibility of something better. I wish the film had done more to place them at the center of the film, and not just as a more decent alternative to Taylor and Zaius’ worldviews. The chimpanzees get some decent screen time, but APES never feels like anything more than Taylor’s film.

In the end, PLANET OF THE APES rises above the failings of its lead character, because those failings work to make the social commentary stronger. When Taylor sees the buried-in-the-sand Statue of Liberty and pounds his fists into the beach’s water-soaked sand, he blames humanity for what happened. That’s fair – it’s not actually his fault the world fell apart, after all. The message this sends is a strong one for the audience, however. Taylor left Earth, convinced there was something better than man out there in the stars and eventually finds a different society that’s not only no better than his own but evolved from his own.

Taylor left the Earth behind to find something better, but APES reminds us that there is no victory in abdicating one’s responsibility. If you want the world to be better, than you need to be better.

__________

Gunfighter Gothic: Under Zeppelin Skies, from Mark Bousquet and Atomic Anxiety Press.

Gunfighter Gothic: Under Zeppelin Skies, from Mark Bousquet and Atomic Anxiety Press.

You can purchase GUNFIGHTER GOTHIC: UNDER ZEPPELIN SKIES right here. Thanks for giving it a look.

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