Reflections on the 1968 film version of "Planet of the Apes"
A video presentation of these notes is available here
This film sums up, in many ways, what science fiction films invite viewers to do - to see ourselves and our society in a different and perhaps clearer light.
As four astronauts set off into the cosmos to find new worlds to inhabit, significant questions are asked with regard to the participants' purpose in taking part in this quest, as well as questions about what has been left behind and how society will have developed in the period since they left.
Taylor (Charlton Heston) asks if man still makes war on his brother, then goes on to goad fellow traveller Landon about his reasons for joining the expedition, accusing him of seeking glory, achievement and approval through the pursuit of a career. He goes on to point out to Landon that by now he will be long forgotten by everyone (apart from the odd statue erected in his honour) on Earth, and that all that matters is the here and now, and survival.
Taylor appears to be somewhat disillusioned with the human race, and suggests he was inspired to take part in their mission by a desire to seek something better than what was on Earth. Eminently practical, Taylor appears very willing to put man and his past behind him to concentrate on his present situation and predicament.
Apart from these swipes at man's career-based society and ambition, and his willingness to inflict pain and suffering on his fellow man, there is also a swipe at nationalism as Landon erects a miniature American flag on the shore shortly after their escape from their sinking spacecraft - much to Taylor's amusement. This may also imply criticism of man's failure to fully comprehend his insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe, and suggests a much inflated opinion of his own worth.
When Taylor, Landon and Dodge come across a group of mute humans, it takes them no time at all to assume superiority and to show a willingness to take advantage of them. However, their plans are somewhat cut short when the entire group is attacked by horse-riding apes who herd and hunt the group of humans (including our three Earthlings). There follows a fairly shocking sequence in which the humans are treated as we would treat animals, showing little or no sensitivity, respect or dignity. Humans are caged, tethered, hung by their limbs and treated as game hunted for sport. We discover that these humans are used for a variety of purposes including recreation and "scientific" experimentation. Taylor is caged and even given a "mate" as a reward! Such treatment (lacking any shred of dignity or respect) really brings home and calls in to question the attitude we humans show toward our fellow inhabitants of the Earth.
This role-reversal cleverly furnishes a clarity of vision which allows the audience to see and doubt aspects of our society that we would normally accept without question. This is not restricted to the question of animal treatment, but may be applied to religion, science, politics and social mores.
The leading figures in ape society refuse to accept evidence of intelligence in humans and invoke Holy Scriptures to deny such a possibility, in much the same way that religious factions will quote literal interpretation of the Bible and dogma to uphold principles long since abandoned through reason, knowledge and common sense. Taylor is even found wanting because he cannot quote the Scriptures! Common sense dictates this is ridiculous, yet during the time of the Inquisition or Witch hunts, such practices were commonplace - heresy was (and apparently remains) fundamentally a failure to comply with the ruling religious order.
Taylor eventually points out the conflict of having the Defender of the Faith as Minister of Science. How can science and knowledge be developed by the very person who refutes the findings of science and knowledge (or who twists them to conform to an existing religious premise)?
It has become clear that Dr Zaius (Minister of Science) seeks to avoid the truth about Taylor, though we (the audience) suspect this is due to something beyond mere defence of faith - Zaius appears to be acting with a hidden agenda, and is attempting to protect his race from some human threat.
Zaius warns Taylor he may not like what he finds as he sets off farther into the Forbidden Zone with Nova, confirming our suspicions of a hidden agenda. Zaius displays complete disdain for humanity, citing man's bent toward violence and destruction, but also his lust and greed, as the reason for his scorn, but this is clearly based on knowledge beyond that which he has been willing to share thus far.
Man's feeling of superiority appears to be based on the ability to think, and ensuing self-awareness, and this leads to self-importance and ego. Ego may be man's greatest gift in that it enables him to be ambitious, to strive to achieve, to defend himself and survive, but it may also be his greatest curse as it can also lead to self-glorification, indulgence, misdeeds and destruction. Perhaps ego needs to be tempered by empathy.
Zaius appears to be aware, at least to some degree, of man's potential for destruction and this may explain his attempts to avoid the truth about Taylor - he is trying to protect his race from what he regards as a significant threat. Man (and ape) is also gifted or cursed with insatiable curiosity - a desire for knowledge and understanding which may, potentially, lead to disaster. The apparently unjust denial of knowledge and truth thus takes on a quite different and perhaps more honourable aspect, and explains the insistence on faith rather than reason - Zaius is trying to protect his own kind, while during the Inquisition men merely tried to protect their own positions of authority.
In the end, then, it appears that man's self-centred superiority may fuel resentment at the lack of equality, dignity and respect accorded to others, to the extent that man may end up destroying the very society he has built for himself. We may convince ourselves of our superiority and position, but in the end our fate may just as fleeting and fragile as that of those to whom we feel superior.
I am most grateful to the producers, writers, directors and players for this memorable look at man and society. It is, I have to say, vastly superior to the Tim Burton remake of 2001. Although the remake is undeniably more advanced on a technical level, the heart and soul of the story have all but gone, to be replaced by little more than some kind of ape soap opera.
I hope you have found these reflections of some interest, and my thanks for taking the time to read them.
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To my page on "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"
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To my other pages of reflections
Due to technical problems (and my inability to cope with them), new material will be posted on My Blog. Please check for regular updates. These include various articles, discussions of "Dunkirk", "Dances With Wolves", "The Prisoner" (1967 TV series), "Inherit the Wind" (1960 film), a little Flash Fiction and some of my memoirs as a teacher in a small Highland school for some 35 years.