I missed nearly all the seminal pop culture of my youth. When in eighth grade Andy H. asked me which I liked better, AC/DC or Pink Floyd, I honestly couldn’t answer the question. I was also much too tongue-tied to ask Andy if he’d ever heard of Doctor Who, which I’m quite sure he had not.
Anyway. One of the major events that I missed was Planet Of the Apes. True, Planet is from 1968, and I was only born in ’67, but even so, kids at my school through at least my sixth grade year sported Planet Of the Apes lunch boxes, thermoses, backpacks, and t-shirts. Planet Of the Apes (whatever it was) was cool.
My hipper-than-I friends informed me that Planet regularly played in re-runs on TV, and of course there was the short-lived spin-off series made specifically for the telly (1974). How was it that I had missed all this? Simple: I was building dams in the tributary streams of the Olentangy River, using whatever was handy: stone knives and bearskins, that sort of thing. I knew better than to explain.
Now that I’m older than Methuselah, or at least rapidly catching him up, I figured it’s time to see precisely what I’d missed.
And you know what?
If it weren’t for the execrable presence of Charlton Heston, it’s not half bad.
As a college drinking buddy of mine once opined, with more sarcasm than mere print can deliver, “Charlton Heston couldn’t act his way out of a wet paper bag.” I’d have to agree. Yes, he can champion the NRA, but how on Earth he ever got past a studio cattle call is beyond me.
That said, the film has a couple of killer aces up its sleeve. One is director Franklin J. Schaffner, the helmsman responsible for Patton (1970) and The Boys From Brazil (1978), among others. Another is Rod Serling, who co-wrote the screenplay. A third is Serling’s co-conspirator, Michael Wilson. Don’t be fooled by Wilson’s run-of-the-mill name; he was a heavy hitter whose pen contributed to It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), A Place In the Sun (1951), The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957), and more.
Wilson may have had the stronger resume, but it’s Serling’s Twilight Zone sensibilities that run roughshod over this script, not least at its start, in which three astronauts crash land on some distant planet and immediately debate the merits of their existence, the hopelessness of humanity, and the need to find food. If Heston’s next line had been “There’s a sign-post up ahead,” no savvy viewer would be surprised.
For a time, the scientists meander through a maze-scape of sandstone buttes, alkali flats, and denuded desert, only to stumble into a cornfield where a rabble of primitives are busily helping themselves to crops they clearly didn’t have the savvy to grow. Enter the apes, on horseback no less, and costumed wonderfully in jet-black vests. If their faces are somewhat immobile, the sin is minor; each ape is wonderfully individual.
Heston, as astronaut commander George Taylor, is captured alive and when he wakes in the hospital-cum-cave, he cannot believe what he hears. Surely those wacky ape doctors aren’t speaking…English?
Yes, friends. You’ve just entered the Primate Zone.
The reversal of having a human studied by a “higher” life form (and dismissed as being lower) is hardly new, but Planet Of the Apes succeeds in keeping the scenario lively. Heston’s commander demonstrates (eventually) that he is intelligent, leading the more sympathetic ape-scientists to hotly debate the value of all the truths they hold dear, notably about themselves and the useless evolutionary offshoot they call “man.” When one of the scientists refuses to question any farther and calls the other’s radical views heresy, his opponent says, “How can scientific truth be heresy?” It’s a line worthy of Gene Roddenberry or any of the better Star Trek scriptwriters, all of whom would presumably be horrified to be living today, when science is so routinely pilloried in favor of whatever opinion seems most convenient.
Not that Planet is perfect. Far from it. Leaden exposition abounds. Illogic rears its head. Example: Heston’s Taylor, having been shot in the throat, loses his voice — a terrific plot device, since this leaves him mute when he first becomes a prisoner of the local ape scientists. But once he gets his voice back, there’s no trauma, no raspy quality to his instrument; Heston sounds ready to burst into full-throated baritone song.
And how does clever George Taylor convince the apes he’s got an I.Q.? By tossing a paper airplane. The apes are baffled. “Why fly?” they demand. “And where would it get you?” This is absurd. The apes have potent, accurate rifles; they are capable of quality machining, the kind that can only take place in the Industrial Age. Do Serling and Wilson truly expect me to believe that nobody in this thriving ape culture had ever thought of taking to the air, in, say, a balloon? Human, earth-bound aeronauts pre-date the Industrial Revolution by centuries. They might not have gotten far, but they certainly got up, and were intent on doing better.
There is another enormous, hard-to-swallow tripwire that’s positively embedded in Planet’s script, but to explore that would be to spoil the fun – dare I say the monkey business — so I shall leave that stone unturned. Instead, let’s focus on content.
Heston’s lost astronaut winds up on trial in an ape court, but really, it’s Serling putting humanity on trial. The ape prosecutor insists, “The Almighty created the ape in his own image…and set him apart from the beasts of the jungle, and made him the lord of the planet.” If the prosecutor is myopic, it is only in imitation of homo sapiens. Serling, and Planet, means to hold up a mirror to our own anthropocentrism — and though he does so blatantly, with more bludgeon than cunning, the baldness of the attack works. I cannot think of a film more willing to skewer blind belief.
Ours, that is.
Planet Of the Apes is an adventure flick, certainly, filled with plenty of chases, escapes, beatings, and gunfire trauma, but the film’s heart is politically charged and philosophical from the get-go, and it wears a liberal heart on its ragged, hairy sleeve. Planet posits that to repress knowledge or the seeking of it is inherently evil, and the action of Planet’s script is designed to underscore the point.
As such, the film functions as a humanist essay. It makes statements, stamps edicts, and preaches. The drama is, at rock bottom, nothing more than window-dressing, cover for a film that’s more message than movie. Plot, it seems, can indeed exist primarily as a disguise.
Luckily, this humble viewer likes the message, its we-are-flawed-but-trying optimism, so I was happy to put up with Planet’s more didactic asides.
Although the ending, I must admit, is anything but optimistic.
Should we then file Planet Of the Apes under the headings “Diversion,” “Curiosity,” and “Fad”?
I think not. A generation of kids may have been raised by these apes, but unlike Tarzan, we appear to have learned little from the experience. The movie makes a strong case for tolerance, flexible thinking, and a questioning spirit, but as I look around, especially in the direction of Washington D.C., I must conclude that we have not yet taken these lessons to heart. “Why must knowledge stand still?” asks one ape, just before the (famous) denouement. Good question, and one that ought to be asked of, among others, a good many of our elected representatives.
And so it comes down to this: if we really want to solve budget crises, or anything else, I suggest we begin with a trip down memory lane, and mandatory viewings of Planet Of the Apes.
After all, we’re only human.
Now, I really must go. I may or may not be a higher life form, but I hear a local creek-bed calling my name. Time to build a dam — just for fun, mind — using nothing but stones, stone knives, and bearskins.
‘Til next time.
Mark Rigney has published three stories in the Black Gate Online Fiction library: ”The Trade,” “The Find,” and “The Keystone.” Tangent called the tales “Reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I highly recommend the complete trilogy.”