"Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbour's children starving?"
Of all the genres, science fiction is often one of the most effective ways in which to comment on the state of the real world under the guise of entertainment. What appears fantastical on the surface hides a scathing undercurrent, often leaving a lasting and indelible impact on its audience. In 1968, a science fiction film came along that achieved exactly that. Its concept was imaginative and thrilling, its execution breathless and sophisticated, and its subtext provided one of the darkest statements on humanity ever captured on film.
I would have been around fourteen the first time I watched Franklin J. Schaffner’s ‘Planet of the Apes’. It was same period I discovered ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, and in exactly the same way - through a casually borrowed VHS from the local library. I’d expected the kind of kitsch 60s blockbuster I’d always enjoyed, cheesy and breezy and fun, but this was something very different. What you don’t expect when you see it for the first time is how haunting and deeply unsettling it is, how disturbing its images and how sophisticated its ideas. Half a lifetime later of continuously revisiting it, I still find it just as haunting.
If you know the film, you’ll know exactly what I mean. If you don’t though, you’ll probably wonder how on earth a film about walking, talking apes could be one of the great social commentaries in cinema. It seems such an absurd concept, and certainly after 50 years, you would expect the make-up effects to have dated badly. Great works of science fiction don’t age though - it doesn’t matter that Orwell’s vision of 1984 differed from actuality, or Ridley Scott’s 2019, or Kubrick’s 2001. If the execution works and the meaning is resonant, it can defy the march of time and still deliver the same warnings with the same sucker punch.
The set-up is pure sci-fi - loosely based on Pierre Boulle’s novel, the film follows a group of astronauts led by George Taylor (Charlton Heston), who find themselves many thousands of years in the future and crash-landed on an unknown planet where the evolutionary order is inverted. Apes live as the dominant species, intelligent and advanced, while man is a mute savage, hunted for sport and used for experimentation. It’s a concept rich in entertainment value, and ‘Planet of the Apes’ is most certainly wildly entertaining, but it also taps into the allegorical possibilities that the concept offers.
From the beginning, Schaffner takes his time, building the tension and holding back what we want to see the most. We spend an unnerving amount of time watching the crash survivors meandering across the planet, so that when the apes finally appear on horseback in one of the most incredible character reveals in cinema, the impact is enormous. Thanks to its place in popular culture, we’re used to John Chambers’ ape make-up effects now, but in 1968 it would have been a huge shock, apes on horseback with nets and rifles hunting human beings, stringing them up and standing smiling for photographs with their corpses. There’s an extraordinary balance between humour and horror in the way the film draws parallels between their behaviour and ours, so that you giggle at the familiarity until you realise where we now sit within the picture.
Central to this is how Taylor moves within the narrative. Charlton Heston was pretty much the personification of American confidence and arrogance, the biggest star of his day, and yet we watch him being beaten, tortured and imprisoned, dragged behind horses and unable to defend himself. An accident renders him temporarily mute, and at one point he is literally stripped naked, gagged and judged before a tribunal of apes as an animal, denied a voice or any rights. This was a bold, potentially dangerous image to put on the screen in 1968, in the middle of the Cold War, the Vietnam War and, in particular, the civil rights movement. By inverting the power dynamic, it gives us an understanding of the injustice of living things being treated as a savage creature incapable of defending itself physically or intelligently. In ‘Apes’, a figure that represents the might of the white American man is emasculated from the moment he steps into this ape civilisation, and even with the fantastical setup, it’s still an image that feels deeply unsettling.
His only possibility for salvation lies in two chimpanzee scientists, Zera (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowell), who don’t believe that Taylor is from another planet but from their own, a missing link to prove that ape and man may be not be that much different. They are called out as heretics, but continue to pursue their beliefs, and while they still see man as a pet rather than an equal, theirs is the one "human" voice in ‘Planet of the Apes’, one that calls for understanding. Taylor becomes their friend and ally, but only to a point. Even after his mistreatment, when Taylor finds his way to reverse the hierarchy, he seems to ignore any potential lessons, instantly taking charge with an even more pronounced sense of arrogance. His belief in his biological superiority is unchanged, but this sets both him and the film up for the ultimate shock.
In ‘Apes’, a figure that represents the might of the white American man is emasculated from the moment he steps into this ape civilisation, and even with the fantastical set-up, it’s still an image that feels deeply unsettling.
Which brings us to the most famous aspect of ‘Planet of the Apes’ - its staggering ending, where Taylor has all his questions answered in one jaw-dropping image. Any doubts about the film’s intentions vanish immediately, making it crystal clear that, despite the fantasy, it was always a prescient warning, that we are entirely capable of bringing about our own destruction, that our superiority is not at all guaranteed and should be neither assumed nor taken for granted. Most people know how ‘Planet of the Apes’ ends, even if they haven’t seen it, but imagine what it would have been like in 1968, seeing the definition of the American Hero collapsed before the shattered symbol of America itself, with the country outside the cinema seemingly balancing on a knife's edge.
The allegorical subtext of ‘Planet of the Apes’ is immense, but what makes it all the more extraordinary is how, even with this heavy undercurrent and often unnerving imagery, it still manages to be a tremendously entertaining film. Michael Wilson and Rod Serling’s screenplay snaps with wild wit and humour, the performances (especially from Hunter and McDowell) are generous and playful, Jerry Goldsmith’s score is groundbreaking and utterly remarkable, and Schaffner’s direction somehow manages to make the long and complex dialogue scenes as thrilling as the action set pieces. Even Heston is at his best - who knows whether the staunch Republican understood exactly what the film was really about, but he throws himself at the mercy of it without hesitation.
A testament to its strength as a piece of entertainment was its enormous box office success and cultural impact, launching a franchise that would predict what was the come with 'Star Wars'. Unfortunately, even though some of the social commentary remained, the successive films never reached the sublime heights of the original, the series collapsing into a muddy mess with ‘Battle of the Planet of the Apes’ (1973). A TV series, animated series and ill-conceived remake attempted to revitalise the concept, but it wasn’t until the complete surprise of ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ (2011) that the series was returned to its roots, resulting in a new trilogy that honoured the integrity of the 1968 original while asserting it own place in the science fiction canon.
Even after fifty years, ‘Planet of the Apes’ still whispers its warnings to us. In fact, time seems to have provided new ones. Revisiting it for this retrospective, I was struck by what it has to say about animal cruelty, about the way we subject innocent animals to pain and suffering out of our need for sport or cruel investigation. The truest sign that this is one of the great works of science fiction cinema is that it has never stopped feeling relevant and immediate, that it hasn’t lost of any of its impact or its magic. We’ll still be talking about this film in another fifty years, because few cinematic masterpieces lay bear the faults of man with as much wicked precision. If that isn’t the sign of a classic, I don’t know what is.