Planet of the Apes (1968) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

The tables have turned and man is no longer in control. This monkey wants a word with you!

The original Planet of the Apes has one of the most iconic and shocking finales in science-fiction. People who have not seen the film even know about it, much like the shocking twist at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. But the film is so much more than just its twists and turns.

First Impressions

The trailer for this film very quickly lets the audience know that astronauts have crashed on a planet where “man is the lowest order of living thing,” and that Apes are in control. Charleton Heston is a prisoner of these simians, living in a world he can’t understand. “It’s a madhouse!” he screams over and over again. He then breaks character and talks directly to the audience, praising the work of the filmmakers, and introducing the cast. It’s a great setup for a film, imagining a reversal of the evolutionary process, as Heston states. You probably know where this goes, but venture forth to the Planet of the Apes.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Planet of the Apes

Planet of the Apes title card.

The Fiction of The Film

Six months after the launch of faster-than-light spaceship from Cape Kennedy, the four ANSA astronauts are being readied for hibernation by Taylor (Charlton Heston) who waxes philosophically into his duty log. He records that while only a few months have passed for him, it’s been nearly 700 years on Earth. He climbs into his capsule and goes to sleep. The crew is awoken after crash landing into an inland lake of an alien planet. Stewart, the only female on board, appears mummified, having died sometime into the journey. Taylor and the other two astronauts, Landon (Robert Gunner) and Dodge (Jeff Burton) escape the sinking ship, but not before Taylor glances at the chronometer, which now reads November 25, 3978 – 2,006 years after their launch in 1972!

They begin trekking through the rocky badlands in search of water and food. Following small plants sprouting from the ground they discover some strange scarecrow formations on a bluff. Investigating they discover an oasis on the edge of the desert. As they take a swim some unseen humanoids ravage their clothes and rations, strewing them around the jungle. The three men put back on some semblance of their clothes and investigate. What they see is a primitive group of humans foraging for food in the trees and field just beyond the jungle. Suddenly a strange cry fills the air and the humans scatter. Taylor and his men follow suit.

A group of talking gorillas riding horses and carrying guns roust the humans, killing some and capturing others. Dodge is shot in the head while Landon and Taylor are captured. Taylor also suffers a bullet wound to his neck that prevents him from speaking. He is brought into the care of chimpanzee, Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter), who sees an intelligence in this human that she has not seen in others. Taylor steals a piece of paper from her in an attempt to write a note, but is beaten down by the guards. Zira shows “bright eyes,” as she calls Taylor, to the orangutan minster of science, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), but he comments, “Human see. Human do.”

Zira brings Taylor to introduce him to her mate, another chimpanzee, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), where he writes note after note explaining who he is and where he is from. Cornelius doesn’t believe it’s anything more than a trick. Taylor gets word that Zaius is planning to geld him, so he escapes. He finds Dodge stuffed in a local history museum as he runs through the streets trying to find his way out of this “madhouse!” When he’s finally caught his voice returns, and he shouts the infamous line, “get your stinking paws off me you damn, dirty ape!”

Planet of the Apes

Dodge, Taylor, and Landon float to shore in order to explore this alien planet they’ve landed on.

Zaius brings Taylor, along with Zira and Cornelius, before the council to stand trial for heresy. The charge being that ape is created in the image of the almighty deity and therefore superior to man. Cornelius argues that if Taylor is being tried, then he must have some rights. Taylor speaks on his own behalf in a clear and concise manner, but is asked theological and cultural questions about ape law that he cannot possibly answer. Later, Zaius admits to Taylor that he is scared of what an intelligent man represents, and that he will lobotomize him just as he did with Landon. Zira and Cornelius make plans to leave for the Forbidden Zone with Taylor and the woman, Nova (Linda Harrison), that has taken an interest in him.

The group sets off for the restricted Forbidden Zone to find a cave where Cornelius, an archaeologist, had discovered items that proved man was here before ape. Zaius and his gorilla police find them, but Taylor can now speak, and has a gun and is giving the orders. He captures Zaius and the group goes inside to see proof. They find a human doll that says “mama” buried in a level hundreds of years before the “sacred scrolls,” which ordain ape rights, were written. Zaius allows Taylor and Nova to ride off. He then blows up the cave destroying all evidence of an ancient and intelligent human civilization. Taylor slows his horse when he sees something in the distance. He begins cursing the heavens as he realizes that he’s not on another planet. He sees partially buried Statue of Liberty and realizes that they’ve been on Earth this whole time.

From the evidence, I believe [man’s] wisdom must walk hand and hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him, even himself.” – Dr. Zaius

Planet of the Apes

The first look at the apes. A Gorilla soldier rounds up the wild humans.

History in the Making

Planet of the Apes is one of the most iconic sci-fi films of all time. It was released one week before another classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Together, these two films defined the next decade of sci-fi films, pushing the boundaries on the popularity, subject matter, and the industry’s willingness to take risks of putting money behind genre films. Originally published in book form by French author Pierre Boulle in 1963 as La Planète des singes, the book serves as a basis for the film, but is not a direct adaptation–featuring a number of differences from the final on-screen adventure.

The original draft was credited to Rod Serling, who wrote his version based off the novel during the hiatus between his two television series, The Twilight Zone (1959-64) and Night Gallery (1969-73). The studio and producers thought that the Serling draft would be too costly to create, so director Franklin J. Schaffner suggested that writer Michael Wilson be brought in to streamline the story. Wilson had previously been blacklisted by the HUAC during the McCarthy hearings of the 50s which didn’t seem to limit his work, having contributed to films such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (also based on a novel by Pierre Boulle) and Lawrence of Arabia. Apes was one of the first films that he worked on upon returning to the States in 1964 after his self-imposed exile in France.

In order to sway 20th Century Fox on the ability to create believable ape characters, makeup artist John Chambers created a series of appliances in order to shoot some test footage in hopes that having actual footage would secure approval. At the time Edward G. Robinson was being looked at to portray Dr. Zaius, and numerous behind-the-scenes photos show him in the character makeup. The unique makeup appliances created by Chambers were enough to convince the studio that a believable ape could be brought to the screen. So with that, Apes became the film he was known for, even though he had already worked on the film adaptation of The List of Adrian Messenger, and the television shows The Munsters, Star Trek, and Mission Impossible. He would continue to design the ape makeup for the remainder of the four films in the franchise and received an honorary Academy Award, which is an award not covered by existing Academy Awards, for his outstanding make-up achievement on this film.

Planet of the Apes

A group of gorillas pose with the kill for the day in a similar fashion to the way game hunters will pose with the animals they kill.

The film also housed a whopper of an ending. At the time, only the reveal in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho might have had more of an impact on audiences. The discovery that Taylor and crew had been stuck on Earth the entire time blew audience’s minds. As fans of Rod Serling might guess, the twist was entirely his idea. It seems like a perfect extension of the types of endings that he hosted on The Twilight Zone. Certainly that ending inspired other films to take a risk with an off-the-wall ending or unexpected denouement. The Charlton Heston sci-fi thriller from a few years later, Soylent Green, also had a shocking climax. Nowadays it seems as if most genre films try to mislead the audience’s expectations of the climax, sometimes at the expense of the plot and characterization leading up to that ending.

But that was not the only element that Planet of the Apes provided to Hollywood. It started a franchise that would continue for four more films throughout the 1970s, a TV series, comic books, and then a revitalization of the same in 2001 followed by a series of prequels in 2011. While there were other franchises that made sequels prior to 1968, such as EON Productions James Bond series or Blake Edwards Pink Panther series, they were not cohesive movie universes. They were just a series of loosely connected films that surrounded themselves with either similar characters or plot elements, as with the Universal Monster films or Toho Pictures kaiju films. Planet of the Apes was really the first “cinematic universe,” and certainly the first one in science-fiction. Certainly there are dozens of examples of sci-fi films and their related sequels today, as every studio seeks to create a unique (and profitable) interconnected universe of characters and storylines.

Planet of the Apes

Cornelius and Zira question Taylor about where he’s come from.


Besides the business and technical advancements of Planet of the Apes, the film advances many of the existing genre conventions while also bringing new themes and ideas to the sci-fi genre. Nothing in this film is particularly new. Individual elements of the film had been done in sci-fi movies before, and fans of pulp stories or sci-fi comics had most likely encountered stories of astronauts landing on planets run by anthropomorphic animals. But the combination of these elements with the studio-funded special effects created the beginning of a new wave of sci-fi.

Time travel films had been made before, most famously with 1960s The Time Machine. It too showed a post-apocalyptic vision of the future, now ruled by strange creatures. But that future was one in which the audience understood when and where the character was. Other films have also depicted apocalyptic futures of one kind or another. The Last Man on Earth showed the events of a recent plague, while This Island Earth depicted the destruction of an alien world where a never-ending war laid waste to all civilization. Other films have shown sentient animals, like the 1932 film Island of Lost Souls, which is based on the story The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. Those animals are somewhat different than the apes in Planet of the Apes, due mostly to the fact that they were human/animal hybrids created by a mad doctor, and not the evolutionary endpoint of breeding. The combination of these previously used, but not necessarily “tired,” genre elements helped set this film apart from anything else in the theaters at the time.

Apes also was one of the first films to use allegorical “aliens” to mimic human cultures or subgroups. For so much of sci-fi cinema history, aliens were presented as humanoids that looked and acted human. The Day The Earth Stood Still, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and Mars Needs Women all had aliens that looked and acted just like people from Earth, as did many B-movies. Obviously it was easier to use an actor, usually in a different style of clothing, to depict an alien rather than create a creature using makeup or special effects. Nowadays, using CGI effects to create non-humanoid aliens is quite common, but not so in late 60s. Having the astronauts encounter these ape-looking creatures on another planet presented an interesting change of pace. It created a planet that seemed to be very much like Earth, except for one crucial change in the evolutionary process. That is, until the ending was revealed. But having the apes able to talk and act very much like modern-day Americans created tremendous allegorical context in which to comment on modern society.

Planet of the Apes

The council of elders ape the saying “See No Evil. Hear No Evil. Speak No Evil.”

Societal Commentary

Regarding the quote written above from Dr. Zaius; he’s not wrong. Mankind can be idiotic, emotional and warlike. But then, so too can the apes. In the tradition of great allegorical stories, such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and to a lesser extent H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes subverts the plights of man’s society by hiding it behind the guise of an “animal society.” Presenting societal issues, like religion and slavery, in a metaphorical manner allows the filmmakers to demonstrate broader concepts than could be presented in a standard context. But perhaps, the idea of allegory is too grand, for the apes in this film and their society does not seem far off from America of the late 60s.

Taylor’s philosophical opening remarks include the question, “Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who has sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother, keep his neighbor’s children starving?” He recognizes the “paradox” of man which is that the race creates wonders, but also destroys with abandon. This too is the knowledge that Dr. Zaius possesses which provides him great pause when a “talking, rational” man arrives at his doorstep. Zaius knows the fiction of the sacred scrolls, and how man at one point in the planet’s distant past had destroyed themselves. He does not want that same mistake to be repeated, so he will stop at nothing to squash Taylor’s presence. Castration, lobotomization, and execution are all tools within the ape arsenal to be used to keep man as a docile and unthinking “beast.” It’s a metaphor aimed at the perils of America’s history of slavery and racism.

Planet of the Apes

Dr. Zaius explains that he won’t let Taylor ruin the society he’s fought so hard to keep alive.

The ape society presented in the film is one of a theocracy. For those that failed to pay attention in Civics class, a theocracy is a form of government led by faith in a deity as the supreme ruler, where law is inspired as divine providence. At some point in the ape’s past (1,200 years ago) a lawgiver wrote the “sacred scrolls,” which are the tenets of ape society. As described in the film the scrolls give the divine truth that “the almighty created the ape in his own image. That he gave him a soul and a mind. That he set him apart from the beasts of the jungle and made him the lord of the planet.” The scrolls also tell of the evils of man, who is described as “the devil’s pawn.” They warn the apes that man “kills for sport or lust or greed,” “will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land,” and “is the harbinger of death.” For these reasons, and others that soon become apparent, Dr. Zaius rightfully hates Taylor and what he represents.

The fear that one individual can bring down an entire system indicates that is is a fatally flawed system. Taylor is a pragmatic individualist that has no interest in destroying ape society. He would rather just live his life. But as Zaius sees it, his freedom is a threat to their system. The theological doctrine that keeps the ape world running, falls apart in the presence of Taylor’s human-ness. The film also calls out the apes animosity against general threats towards their theocracy. Dr. Honorious, the orangutan prosecutor in Taylor’s “trial,” talks about Zira and Cornelius in a thinly veiled way regarding “perverted scientists who advance an insidious theory called evolution.” Apes suggests that the lie in which the ape society is built on, that ape is created in the creators image, and that man has never been more than a beast, is in danger of being exposed by Taylor’s existence. Dr. Zaius’ conflict between being minister of science and chief defender of the faith puts him in a unique position to hold the society together. His position as science minister allows him to suppress discoveries that would patently contradict the scrolls that he is in charge of honoring. His role as defender of the faith allows him to promote the idea that man is a danger to ape society. When fear dictates the societal or interpersonal interactions, people suffer.

Planet of the Apes

Taylor captures Zaius outside the cave, which contains proof that man was here long before apes.

The Science in The Fiction

At the point when Planet of the Apes was made, there was not a lot of time travel stories in sci-fi films. Time travel wouldn’t become a popular genre trope until the mid-1980s. But the usage of the plot element is delivered in a more scientifically accurate way than Back to the Future, or Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Described only as “Dr Hasslein’s theory of time,” the astronauts are depicted as moving at a different relative time frame to that of the planet Earth. The viewer is left no further information on who Dr. Hasslein is, or what his theory is about, but it seems much like the consequences of Albert Einstein’s law of relativity.

Einstein’s theory contends that as objects approach the speed of light (and if they can attain that same speed), time will pass at a much slower rate, relative to objects that are not moving at that rate. The demonstration usually being that one twin is placed in a spaceship and blasts off at the speed of light for a duration of one year–by that twin’s perception. The twin that remained behind would have aged more than a year, appearing older when their one-year older twin arrives home. That’s the effect the filmmakers present. For the crew of the spaceship only six months and change have elapsed since they blasted off in January of 1972, but for the people on Earth, 700 years have passed. After the crew gets into hibernation, supposedly for the return trip home, the ship crashes onto the “alien” planet with the chronometer reading that an additional 1,305 years have passed. This might seem to explain why Stewart appears to be mummified, but in the reality of the ship, only another 11 months or so should have elapsed.

This usage of time dilation is an interesting principal to base the story on. It makes sense that the crew would need to experience many millennia away from Earth in order to make the ending plausible, but not so much time that the characters would be old. Hence, faster-than-light travel that causes time dilation. This of course, is a property of spaceflight that is either used or ignored depending on the needs of the story. For example, the starship Enterprise from Star Trek, often travels at various warp factors, with warp one being the speed of light. The crew, relative to Starfleet Headquarters on Earth and any other planets they meet, suffers no noticeable effects of aging or time dilation, as that would run counter to the story needs.

Planet of the Apes

Zira and Zaius watch Taylor and Nova ride off to find answers. Answers that Zaius is sure Taylor won’t like.

The Final Frontier

Planet of the Apes was the first successful sci-fi franchise, spawning four sequels in th 70s. It was followed by Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), 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). The fact that 20th Century Fox could produce these films at the rate of one per year was pretty amazing. Each film built on the events of the previous, with Beneath seeing a rescue mission come for Taylor and crew and ending in the characters discovering a race of mutants with a final nuclear missile, which is detonated at the finale, destroying life on Earth forever. Luckily, as Escape shows, Zira and Cornelius escape in Taylor’s repaired spacecraft and pass through a time warp returning to 1973, where they meet Dr. Hasslein (mentioned in the original), before working in a circus. Zira has a baby, who becomes the leader of an ape revolution in the 1990s in Conquest Of where apes are now household pets. Battle For depicts the final uprising of the apes and how they became the leaders of the world, which would lead into Planet of the Apes. A full cycle of movies, that loop forever.

These films became less and less successful as time went on. By 1974 CBS invested in a 14 episode single season of Planet of the Apes, followed by an animated series in 1975. Gold Key and Marvel Comics also capitalized on the Apes phenomenon in the mid-70s with a pair of comics series, before everything abruptly stopped after the animated series. Interest resumed in 2001 when Tim Burton released a reboot of Planet of the Apes, starring Mark Wahlberg which reinvigorated the franchise (even though the film was less than acclaimed). Dark Horse Comics, Boom Studios and IDW Publishing have all published Planet of the Apes comics over the last two decades. And finally a trilogy (as of this writing) have told the origins of the intelligent apes, and how they might have risen to power in 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).

Apes also influenced creators like Jack Kirby during his run on Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth for DC Comics, who created a series of races based on the evolution of animals, including tigers, lions, and yes, gorillas. Even the cover of issue #1 boasted a half-submerged Statue of Liberty in a post-apocalyptic future. It has been spoofed in films like Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, and on television shows such as The Simpsons (who turned it into a musical called “Stop The Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off!”), proving that the film has truly transcended filmed entertainment and entered the lexicon of pop culture.

Coming Next

2001: A Space Odyssey

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