Or so they thought! Unfortunately for the human race, the chimp child was swapped at birth and lives. Meanwhile, a plague kills every cat and dog in the world, so humans take apes as pets, only for them to put them into slavery when they realise they're more intelligent, and into this fascist world comes Caesar, the ape child now grown up and who springs an ape revolt when Ricardo Montalban is murdered and he himself is tortured, ending up invoking bloody revenge and a promise to dominate mankind as he himself has been dominated.
But he wusses out and ape and man end up living semi-harmoniously in a post-nuclear world, as much as the gorillas dislike it. However, a bunch of near-mutants from the smoking radioactive ruins of New York don't like this, and try and exterminate the apes. They don't succeed, and apes and man appear to live happily ever after. But the appearance of a tear on a statue of Caesar, thousands of years after his reign, perhaps says differently...
TIME PERIOD: CIRCA 3978
Yep. It's taken a while, three films and six-thousand, four-hundred and eight words, but we're now at the actual Planet of the Apes. So without further ado, let's dive right in. But what can you say about Planet of the Apes, a movie that is considered a bonafide science fiction classic and that has been dissected, plagiarised, sequelized and parodied in the forty-three years since it was first released?
First, a summary: three astronauts - Taylor, Landon and Dodge - crash-land on an unknown planet in a spaceship after being in lightspeed for thousands of years. After exploring, they come across humans that are mute and generally look like Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C., which is not in itself bad. However, the fact that the planet is ruled by talking apes is.
Said apes are divided into three classes - the warlike gorillas, the pacifistic chimpanzees, and the intellectual orangutans (obviously no one ever saw Dunston Checks In). The astronauts are separated, and Taylor is put in a cage where the chimp scientist Dr. Zira can observe him. She discovers he is not only intelligent, but he can talk. Whilst Dodge is murdered (and stuffed in an interesting mirror of our natural history museums) and Landon is lobotomised, Taylor is put before the ape council to determine his origins. Heavily disliked by Dr. Zaius, both minister of science and chief defender of the faith who has a deep mistrust of man and believes he is only capable of destruction (there's a reason for this), Taylor is threatened with a lobotomy himself, before he escapes with Zira and fiancee Cornelius.
Travelling to the Forbidden Zone, an area of the city everyone is banned from, they find evidence of a previous civilisation that was not ruled by apes, but by a technollogically advanced race: man. Dr. Zaius and his men catch up with them, to be confronted by this. Unsurprisingly, he isn't shocked, stating he has always known about it, with the Forbidden Zone being a way of protecting the apes. He also reveals that it was "once a paradise", that was destroyed at the hands of man, and tells Taylor that if he continues to look for answers, he "may not like what he finds".
Naturally, Taylor ignores this and leaves to explore further. As he rides along the coastline, Zira asks what he'll find, to which Zaius replies 'his destiny.' He's not wrong. Taylor rides further on, and suddenly stops, talking to himself, saying 'I'm back, I'm home'. Then the realisation kicks in and as he angrily pounds the watery sand with his fists, out come those immortal words:
'You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you. God damn you all to hell!'
The camera pulls out to show the burned remains of the Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand. Destroyed.
Man, what a powerful ending. Even now, it's chilling, despite the fact it's been etched into our brains for decades and was even on the box of the freaking DVD. It's just the pure starkness of it, it doesn't end with a massive orchestral flourish underscoring the revelation or a rousing end credits piece, or a flashy pull back from the statue into space. That indelible image just fades to black to the primative and primevil sound of the ocean, a moment of meditation and contemplation. A moment seared into the iconography of science fiction.
What's surprising is the tone of the film, and this connects to another landmark picture of 1968 - George A. Romero's legendary horror Night of the Living Dead. What Romero's movie did is create a seizmic shift in horror, with not just its pretty horrendous violence but in treating something in such a serious and unflinching way that it had a massive impact on the mainstream. Romero's film in itself is credited by many with giving birth to the golden age of horror cinema, and it's due to the way he treated the subject matter: that of zombies. The idea of zombies shambling around is ludicrous (just watch Shaun of the Dead), but Romero stuck to the idea of presenting it as fact, without any explanation.
Also interesting with Planet of the Apes is that it came out in the same year as another landmark science fiction classic that involved apes - Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. But while Kubrick's apes were designed to illustrate a particular period in the evolution of man (and were apparently considered by some to be real apes), the apes here represent a further evolution, particularly one that talks. But both present their apes without winking at the camera, without any tongue-in-cheek caveats to say 'yeah, we know there are apes here'.
Indeed, the initial appearance of the apes themselves is one of terror. Brilliantly conceived with the fields full of six-foot high corn, the image from the astronauts perspective of the attacking gorillas feels like it's ripped straight from a horror film. It's easy to look at the apes now, but thinking back to some of the science fiction films before Planet of the Apes, it's like comparing water to wine. This is not a dig at those movies - there are plenty of great science fiction pictures before Apes - but an appreciation of the impact the film had.
Of course, the film had a decent budget - $5.8m - and it shows, particularly with the unique production design. Pierre Boulle's original novel La Planet Des Singes was set in a much more technologically advanced society, with apes dressing as modern humans and driving cars and the like, but that was changed because it would have been too expensive, but you also have to wonder if it would also have been because of the reaction it may have got. I mean, gorillas in suits and chimpanzees in dresses with a man looking on has a kind of a Swiftian sense of humour to it, but would it have worked in a movie like Apes, which - while certainly having humour - is so intent on treating itself seriously?
But putting them in a still primitive environment - and throwing modern man Taylor into it - helps suspending disbelief much easier, yet still allows for humour. Charlton Heston's Taylor himself is a great mix of a brilliant character and a wonderfully-suited actor. The character is an odd one, with Taylor being such an overt pessimist. Indeed in the opening monologue on the spaceship, he talks about wondering 'if man still makes war against his brother', and when taken to task by his fellow astronauts, preaches that 'there has to be something better than man.' Yet it's this individual that is so critical of his own race who ends up defending it.
And behind that you have Chuck Heston, a man who made his career by playing mythic characters such as Ben Hur, El Cid and even Moses. A proper American hero with a jaw chiselled enough to make Bruce Campbell blush. Chuck isn't just Taylor, he's America, he's the human race, and he's humiliated and stripped naked by his ape captors, brought down to the level they were treated by ourselves. His mind shattered by the topsy-turvey world, when he's being forced back into his cage with the hose (itself an object and image synonymous with disorder here) he can't help but scream 'It's a madhouse! A madhouse!'
And it is a madhouse. America's favourite actor being tortured by talking apes on a strange planet that turns out to be Earth's future? Even now it sounds like the most insane pitch ever, and were it not based on a novel by someone like Pierre Boulle and backed by a star like Heston, it probably would have been thrown out. Then again, we live in a cinematic culture where there are five instalments of The Fast and the Furious.
But what really helps it make it less nutty is the talent involved. I mean, people criticize Heston for his acting, but I always found it a really interesting performance. With someone less aware in the role, Taylor could have come across as a horrendous character, but Heston develops the role well, with a real sense of contemplation instead of outright negativity at the beginning, but with his eventual exaggerations amplifying his situation until he's a mess of emotions. You sense there's something deeper inside his comments about man initially, but it's all forgotten as the anger and frustration and sheer madness takes over with something changing when the proof of man is found, all for it to again turn into a cathartic anger when he finds out that the very thing he disliked - that he defended - i.e. man was really responsible for the whole situation.
The realism is also helped by the rest of the cast, especially the simians. Kim Hunter's Zira and Roddy McDowell's Cornelius bring a lot of humour to the film, and imbue it with a sense of fun. Likewise, Maurice Evans' Dr. Zaius is great as a villain who you actually don't really blame. You want him to stop being so damn stubborn, but there's an underlying part that believes maybe he is right about man, especially as he plays the role with a secrecy that implies the character is aware of something we aren't.
But Zaius' character brings up a key argument of the film, which is still going on today: the debate between science and religion. To most eyes, Zaius' role is a contradiction, after all how can you be a minister of science as well as chief defender of the faith? But because he is defender of the faith, he can hide things he finds in science, such as the city, and justify it by saying he is protecting the faith, and by extension ape culture. Reveal the truth, that everything didn't come as the Lawgiver said and that god did not create ape, and every one will go mental.
Still, it's a good thing that every ape in the film is not bound to believing in this, although they still believe they can be tried as heretics, which is pretty scary. Cornelius and Zira's belief in evolution and their subsequent effort to explain Taylor is met with ridicule and anger. The hearing is one of the best sequences of the film, with the prosecuting orangutans dismissing even Taylor's simple existence based on their faith. They then go a step further, when he says he had intelligent companions they show him Landon and that they lobotomised him, showing the lengths they are prepared to go to in "protecting their culture". It's not hard to see the allegory here, and it's certainly not subtle.
It's hard not to talk about the iconography of the film. The film has many visuals that are burned into not only pop culture's consciousness, but also the cinematic world's. Obviously the big one is the final shot, and understandably so, not only because of the excellent composition but the emotional content involved. But there are great images, such as the spaceship (retroactively named the Icarus) with its nose sticking out of the water, the apes hunting in the cornfield, Taylor's subduing with the hose, the human doll. Not to mention John Chambers' amazing ape makeup, which could be the subject of another whole article. Also iconic is Jerry Goldsmith's score. Primitive, as serious as the film's tone and as surreal and other-worldly as its subject matter, it's as alien yet familiar as the setting itself.
Planet of the Apes is a known classic, a pop culture phenomenon, and the precursor to Hollywood's franchise obsession, but at the end of it, it's still just a brilliant, brilliant film. It still amazes me how it approaches the matter of talking apes, and that it pulls it off in such a serious tone. While the better sequels have a fine grasp of allegorical science fiction, none of them really have the class of this film, with probably much of the credit going to Franklin J. Schaffner's direction, although I'm sure the dwindling budgets of the later films didn't help. Still, I think it's the best of the lot, and as such gets five apes out of five.
Next time, the saga draws to a close as we go Beneath the Planet of the Apes!