“Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed”
Prior to watching the original Planet of the Apes, I had seen Tim Burton’s ‘reimagining’ from 2001 and the latest Rupert-Wyatt-directed Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Like the majority of audiences, the word-of-mouth behind ROTPOTA is what pulled me to the cinema and now, very late in the day, I have ‘caught up’ on the original films, released between 1968 and 1973. Based upon the 1963 novel La Planète des singes by Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes explores a world whereby earth is inhabited by Apes. The novel, a French-property (whereby astronaut Ulysses sends a bottle into space, specifying his exploits on an Ape-plant, after he returns to Paris to find that Apes have taken over society) was converted into an American Story, whereby New York is the centre-piece. But, as we all know, our protagonist Taylor (Charlton Heston), and the audience, only find this out at the very end.
Communication, especially in the Internet-age, is taken for granted. Consider the relentless, irrelevant information we communicate to each other via social networking sites. The spaceship Taylor travels on crash-lands on an ‘alien’ planet, only to realise that the human ‘creatures’ are mute. They are primitive in their manner and are used for hunting by the dominant species: Apes. To twist the story further, Taylor loses his ability to speak as his throat is injured, and we see the world from his ‘primitive-animal’ perspective. You can feel his frustration as the apes mock him when they say “Look! He’s trying to speak!”
We see the day-to-day running of the Ape Village. Clearly defined roles are highlighted in the Orangutan’s political prowess, whilst the Gorilla’s represent the militaristic side to society. Our lead Chimpanzee characters – Cornelius and Zira – are liberal, free-thinkers. They hold jobs that reveal a desire to seek knowledge – Zira conducts experiments on humans, whilst Cornelius is a historian. Of the three ‘ape’-species, the Chimpanzee’s hold the least power. Subtext regarding social-class is clear from the outset – and, through the high-standard of make-up, we believe in the world created as we can see parallels in our own world.
Schaffner’s way of shooting though is a long-way off from our world. The camera flips upside-down, it will spin 360 degrees. It is rough-and-ready and combined with Goldsmith’s score – equally sporadic and alien – it is uncomfortable. To imagine watching the film, for the first time, you don’t know what is around the corner and, in the first instance, the threat is the primitive humans … it is when we see the Gorilla’s hunt that we see the true fear. But again, looks can be deceiving, as the Gorilla’s are only one part of the apes culture.
Though social-class is highlighted, the film does not seem to be overtly critical of the world the apes have established. What it is critical of, is faith – and the blind faith the apes hold. Strange laws that are dictated by the ‘sacred scrolls’ dictate that they do not visit the ‘Forbidden Land’ and that humans are ‘the devil’s pawn’. The challenge Taylor has is not as much against apes, as it is against their belief system. His existence, akin to the comfortableness of atheism, challenges their faith.
Dr Zaius, a self-interested philosopher, could be seen as a character ‘protecting’ the apes from the dangers humanity holds. Or, if we side with Taylor, we see him as the enemy – the man, amongst others, who stops the apes from furthering their understanding of the history that preceded their existence. “Greed, lust, death” are all attributed to man, and we know that this is true of mankind, but this is true of many societies. This is such a strong stance, that I’m sure anyone who has strong convictions will find the film more than your-average low-budget Sci-Fi – the film is tackling the foundations of what defines faith and belief. And how it could be completely wrong. Blindly following scripture is the polar opposite to earnestly exploring and seeking the answers, to the biggest unanswered questions.
The Future of Sci-Fi
Planet of the Apes, originally considered as a stand-alone film, spawned multiple sequels, tv-series and comic-book series. This was a time before 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars were released. 2001: A Space Odyssey uses apes to show us how we seeked answers, and how we seeked understanding to our existence. These huge-questions, were tackled within months of each other in the late sixties due to both Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
And, as far as dusty-planets go, you only need to consider the farm Luke Skywalker lived upon in Star Wars, to see how desert landscapes, so alien to most people, is ideal for another ‘world’ to be based upon. As the astronauts wandered the desert terrain in the first act of the film, I could imagine R2D2 and C3PO wandering past in the background as they search for Obi-Wan. Even the apes houses are circular in their form, a structure Lucas would replicate on Tatooine. I have a feeling Planet of the Apes is more influential than many people realise.
When the ship crashes down, amongst the crew is one female astronaunt and she is revealed to have died in hypersleep. This beginning sets a very masculine tone to the film – Taylor and his fellow astronaunts discuss humanity, death and the pursuit of knowledge as they walk across the desert. It exclusively portrays different male-perspectives on these issues and this is purposeful – Taylor, representing humanity is a man so before he even meets apes, he only represents a very limited outlook.
With this in mind, it is questionable how ‘good’ Taylor even is. As the film progresses, Taylor becomes more dominant and powerful, eventually overpowering the apes. He orders the apes for his own protection and, with a hint of lust, kisses Zira before setting off. He believes he is a hero.
Until the final moments, whereby the power and dominance of man is what ensured its own destruction. The final acts sets-up Taylor ‘winning’ the battle for his freedom, but consequently undercuts this by showing how his attitude is what destroyed mankind. Atom-bombs and nuclear war was still a conversational topic at the time, and to tap into those fears was a brave move – and ensured Planet of the Apes stayed in the public-consciousness for years to come.