The unanticipated success of 1968’s Planet of the Apes began the longest running English-language film series other than James Bond and helped pave the way for the Hollywood of today where it seems every other movie released is part of a film franchise. The original film was followed by four sequels and a TV series. There were Planet of the Apes comics, toys, lunch boxes, and conventions. After a gap 28 years the series was rebooted with Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001) followed by Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017). Besides its influence on the film industry, the series has had a strong impact on popular culture and even entered into political discourse.
It all began in 1963 with the short novel, La Planète des singes, by Pierre Boulle, who also wrote The Bridge over the River Kwai. The novel is a satire influenced by Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. He didn’t consider it a work of science fiction nor did the director of the original film, Franklin Schaffner: “I had never thought of this film in terms of being science fiction. More or less, it was a political film, with a certain amount of Swiftian satire, and perhaps science fiction last.” Boulle’s intention was to critique our over-reliance on technology which he saw as the cause of declining intelligence amongst humans.
American film producer Arthur P. Jacobs bought the rights to the novel and hired Rod Serling to write the screenplay. Serling’s script bears little resemblance to the the final film but his thematic contributions were significant. He emphasized humanity’s cruelty to animals such as hunting for sport and medical experiments, a theme which is also present in the novel. By reversing the roles of humans and animals, the audience experiences the horrors of being hunted or subjected to medical experiments. He also introduced the theme of man’s destructiveness and eventual nuclear self-annihilation, though over Boulle’s objection. I believe it is Serling’s writing in the sacred scrolls produced by Dr. Zaius at the end of the film with its warnings about men:
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.
Ironically, this echoes the message to Earth recorded by the film’s hero/antihero, Taylor, at the beginning of the film when he asks if people still make war against their brother and keep their neighbor’s children starving. Though it is natural to identify with Taylor despite his misanthropy, and view Dr. Zaius, his chief antagonist, as a villain, the latter is really the hero of the film for trying to prevent mankind from becoming dominant again via Taylor, for he knows that mankind destroyed the planet ages ago. Objecting to the destruction of the cave with evidence of an earlier civilization in which humans were dominant, Zira’s nephew asks him “What about scientific progress? What about the future?” Zaius replies “I may have just saved it for you.” I also think Serling wrote the final lines of the film spoken by Taylor when he realizes that mankind has destroyed itself: “Goddamn you all to hell!” Serling’s criticisms of mankind may seem misanthropic but apparently he cared enough about humans or perhaps just other forms of life on this planet to use this film as an attempt to lead us away from the path towards global destruction.
Concerned that the cost of producing Serling’s screenplay would be prohibitive, Michael Wilson, who had adapted Boulle’s The Bridge over the River Kwai for the screen, was brought on board for a rewrite. Wilson had been blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and so received no credit for his Oscar-winning screenplay. Wilson contributed the film’s allegorical references to race issues and the Vietnam War. In the early sixties, when America felt threatened by the expansion of communism and anti-colonialism, Hollywood produced many films that promoted the myth of America as the defender of civilization in an effort to reassure audiences that the West would continue to reign supreme. Charlton Heston was frequently cast as the hero in these types of films such as in El Cid (1961), where he plays a white man fighting against North African Muslims, 55 Days at Peking (1963), where he fights hordes of Chinese, and Khartoum (1966), where he battles Arabs. By the time filming began for Planet of the Apes in 1967, for audiences, Heston had become a symbol for Western Civilization itself. Thus he was the perfect choice to play the last representative of the West thrust into a world in which he is helpless and his efforts to defend his civilization are pointless because, as he eventually learns, it has already disappeared. Taylor’s impotency parallels America’s hopeless situation in Viet Nam.
The story is that the film’s producers didn’t recognize its racial undertones until Sammy Davis Jr. pointed it out to them. In the novel, racial hierarchy amongst the apes, though once present, had been eliminated. In the film, it is apparent that the light-skinned orangutans are in a position of authority, dark-skinned gorillas are assigned to menial labor and law enforcement, while chimpanzees form the intelligentsia, doctors, scientists, etc. In Eric Greene’s in-depth analysis of the film series, Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture he states that the orangutans represent the dominant white culture, gorillas represent blacks, and chimpanzees represent Jews, who are “on the periphery of the power system and not fully sharing all of its privileges.” Perhaps more obvious is the sense in which the subjugation of one species by another serves as an allegory for the subjugation of one race by another. This theme became much more explicit in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973).
Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score also deserves to be mentioned. According to Goldsmith, it’s the first feature length film with an entirely avant-garde score. Goldsmith and the producers are also to be commended for knowing when not to use music, such as when Taylor and crew first begin wandering around the desolate landscape after their crash landing. The silence adds to the sense of desolation. At the end of the film, as the credits roll, there is only the sound of the ocean waves on the soundtrack, which helps the power of the film’s final image and message sink in.
For further reading I highly recommend Eric Greene’s aforementioned book, from which I have gleaned most of the insights expressed here. He also provided the text commentary for the Planet of the Apes 35th Anniversary Edition DVD.
★★★★★★★★☆☆ (8/10) Planet of the Apes at imdb.com