Favorite Film Series: Planet of the Apes (Shaffner, 1968)

“Take your stinking paws off me, you damn, dirty ape!”

George Taylor’s (Charlton Heston) use of a swear word, more so than even the film’s famous final reveal, was one of the most memorable movie moments in my childhood. I don’t remember the first time I saw the film — I would have been three when it was released in theaters — but I can’t ever remember a time when I hadn’t seen it.

It’s hard to pinpoint today any particular reason why the film maintains such a hold on my affections. I hate the reboots. The makeup is justly praised, but the cinematography consists of stuff like turning a camera upside down to simulate a plane spiraling out of control. Rod Serling, so imaginative and erudite when writing The Twilight Zone gives us an astronaut smoking a cigar on the deck of space ship and pondering into a tape recorder whether men on earth still war against their brothers.

Perhaps recognizing the film’s (not exactly hidden) potential as a racial allegory made an adolescent me feel smarter than he had any right to feel. Or maybe the film itself is irrelevant. Like some amateur photo a friend took at your wedding or graduation, it reminds you of a time in your life when you were happy even if it lacks the gloss and professional finish of someone else’s studio portrait.

The film also dabbles in critiques of institutional religion, with its ape leaders suppressing the shocking theory that apes evolved from lower life forms (man) and were alone created in the image of God. We, like Taylor know that Dr. Zaius is wrong, so it’s easy enough to draw the inference that humans who believe the same thing are also wrong. (The irony, of course, is that Cornelius is equally wrong; the apes did not evolve from men.)

Speaking of evolutionary timelines, I’ve never quite understood how two thousand years (Taylor’s ship calendar reads 3978) is enough time to create a replica of the Grand Canyon on the eastern seaboard or obliterate every single building in New York City while somehow leaving the Statue of Liberty intact.  I get that prior to the advent of VCRs — yes, kids, gather around while grandpa Ken tells you a horror story about the dark ages of cinema when the only ways to see a movie were at a theater or panned and scanned on broadcast television — continuity wasn’t quite as big a deal, but come on. Still, I digress. Who wants to be that critic?

The film’s ending (and its sequels) lends itself better to cautionary moralizing about nuclear weapons or trippy speculations about time travel conundrums than it does to any sort of serious sociological allegorizing. Taylor’s early misanthropy and concluding “damn you all to hell!” suggest a thematic connection between the nuclear weapons and ape evolution, but what that connection could possibly be defies any sort of sensible answer. Did the war lead to some sort of divine punishment? If so, that seriously undercuts any slavery critique. The apes maintain species prejudice among themselves, and unless one wants to bend over backwards to suggest Serling was addressing colorism as well as racism, it’s far easier to simply accept the situation as a surreal, horrific, existential nightmare. Perhaps the point of the end is not that any particular human sin led to humanity’s downward spiral but simply that there is no escaping these problems by running away. It’s fair to ask, for that matter, what difference the end makes to Taylor? Whether he’s enslaved in a world that used to be his own or on a new one from which he can never leave makes little discernible difference to his future prospects. Only as a prophetic warning to us, the viewers, does the film’s big reveal have any possible application. War and hate and slavery begets more of the same.

I realize, of course, that SLAVERY=BAD is hardly a hot take, but hey, a white-Anglo-Saxon-protestant has to learn this lesson somewhere, and judging by the reluctance of some of us to even say the words “black lives matter,” it’s a lesson I am glad was reflected to me, however clumsily, through the flickering lights of the movie camera. Planet of the Apes is hardly great art but then neither is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Maybe sometimes the cultural work done by popular art is as important and influential as that of works which are canonized and lionized. By the time I was old enough to watch Roots or The Birth of a Nation, nobody had to tell me that netting, caging, and terrorizing people was wrong no matter what institutions you thought you were protecting by doing it. Anyone who had seen Planet of the Apes had taken the first baby step towards imagining himself in the position of the reviled and enslaved. Each time you take that imaginative step, empathy becomes a little easier.

 

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