A man and woman, clad in the clothing of primitive humans, make their way across a beach on horseback. He smiles at her and she smiles back. They ride on. Eventually they come to stop and the man, Taylor, gets off the horse and stares agape at something we cannot yet see. The camera pulls back and we see the half-buried ruins of the Statue of Liberty. The man sinks to his knees. “Oh my God. I’m back. I’m home. All the time, it was…We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” The ending of Planet of the Apes is without question one of the most famous, if not the most famous ending in film history. For many of us, we knew of the ending before we ever saw the film. It’s an ending that not only reconstituted the significance of the entire film that preceded it, but spawned four sequels, a television series, a Saturday morning cartoon, a reboot, and a second reboot which spawned two sequels of its own. Yes, high-concept films are often defined by franchising, merchandising, and rebooting, but there is no franchise as all-encompassing, as odd, as reflective, or as important to the human experience, as the franchise that emerged from Pierre Boulle’s 1963 French science fiction novel, Monkey Planet. Not only does each film showcase the evolution of our societal concerns, but also provides a layered inter-connectivity that’s far beyond most of the science fiction we see today. The Planet of the Apes franchise, while filled with moments of spectacle and some great effects work, isn’t simply sci-fi for entertainment’s sake. It’s science fiction with a purpose, with an aim to change. What Taylor realizes as he sets his sights on the ruined visage of our lady liberty is that it was never about ape versus man, but about humanity unmoored to species, and what it ultimately means to be an immigrant on one’s own shores.
Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968) picked up the torch that was passed down by the giant monster movies of the 50s (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Them!, Godzilla), and took that era’s fears of nuclear holocaust and examined them in a new light, within a new age, over 2,000 years removed from our own. While so much of the science fiction of the 50s and early 60s showed immediate fallout from our nuclear testing, and our inclination towards violence, Planet of the Apes held that blame close to the vest until the final moments. It’s a film that shifts its gaze from suggesting that they are the inciting issue, when it is ultimately us. It’s no surprise that Rod Serling co-wrote the script, as the last act reveal and resulting finger-wagging make Planet of the Apes feel like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. Taylor and his fellow astronauts, along with the viewers, are given the opportunity to become immersed in this world, to marvel at its alien strangeness, to pin villainy and ruin to those who are not like us. Only when there seems like a chance for hope and the start of a new age of man by way of Taylor and Nova, only then are they (and we) made aware of the fact that it’s too late and hope has passed us by long ago.
Taylor, played with swaggering, square-jawed masculinity by Charlton Heston, lacks the empathy that defined so many protagonists of the era. He has a bitter disdain for Earth’s people and he mocks mankind’s inability for peace. When one of the astronauts who died after the crash landing is buried with an American flag on top of his grave, Taylor laughs madly in mockery of everything that flag symbolizes. He believes he is better than the humans he left behind, a theme that runs throughout the franchise with damning results. Taylor’s emotional journey, provoked by the fact that he has found beings worse than man with few exceptions, makes the ending of the film all the more tragic. Taylor requests the empathy of apes Zira, Cornelius, and Dr. Zaius, but he finds his own empathy belatedly. Screaming at accusations at the dead, Taylor blames those he left behind for Earth’s ultimate fate. But it is the passive, blind men like Taylor who are also to blame for the fate that befell the world.
There’s an interesting turn that happens within the first Apes. As Taylor is pulled into this world he doesn’t understand, or simply refuses to comprehend because of the mad sight of it, we become aware of the class systems, and division between religion and science that rule this world. The apes lose some of their strangeness, and as the film aligns the viewer with the perspectives of Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), we’re granted a look at a humanity that Taylor, and certainly the silent Nova (Linda Harrison) cannot provide. Here we have characters who care about their world, who feel empathy, and respect for one another. For all the ape cruelty, violence, and villainy we witness in Ape City, there is this flicker of hope for the future that no human can provide. The humans’ time is past, both within this post-apocalyptic setting and in terms of character perspective.
While the second film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), retained focus on the humans, it’s really the ape characters who took to the forefront as the franchise’s worthy and complex protagonists. It was through them that we best came to understand our present-day societal struggles. Most of the sequels, with the exception of the third film, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, get a bad rap, but they all inform each other and introduce important ideas and concepts to tell a complete narrative. It is largely screenwriter Paul Dehn whom we have to thank for how the Apes franchise evolved and paved the way for the current trilogy of films. While Beneath is regarded as a sub-par sequel to the original, it continues the first film’s important examination of human worth in the face of ape superiority. While the idea of having Taylor and Nova procreate and attempt to usher in a new age of man, and ultimately lead a revolt against the apes, was discussed during script development, that story arc was ultimately dispatched for something far bleaker. Beneath’s tale of Astronaut Brent, who arrives in a second ship on a mission to find the first, initially suggests a kind of retread of the first film. But that quickly changes upon his discovery of telepathic, radiation scarred humans who worship an atomic bomb as their god beneath the ruins of New York. With “Where are we?” now answered, the next question to ask “Is what’s here worth saving?”
The apes are almost secondary in this film, which acts as a swan song to the human race. But amidst the ape-driven scenes we are shown scenes of chimpanzee peace rallies held by the younger generation, an emphasis on military force by the Gorilla army, and the desire for controlled expansion—echoes of our own struggles in Vietnam. It’s clear that the apes are destined to go down the same road that ultimately led the near human extinction that allowed their rise. While Cornelius and Zira have small roles in this film, they are ultimately ancillary, and the film provides no character for us to connect with on an emotional level. That is ultimately the point of Beneath, in all of its nihilistic fervor, there is no one left to care about. In the film’s violence-filled finale, which pushes the limits of its G-rating to the extreme, the human characters, Brent and Nova, are savagely and bloodily dispatched as the apes begin their war with the underdwelling mutants. Yet before the apes can claim victory, Taylor, the man who rejected the violent principles that ruled his world, hits the button on the doomsday bomb and destroys the entire planet, and eternally damning both man and ape. The answer is ultimately: No, there is nothing worth saving. Beneath truly pushes the franchise forward in a way that few sequels do, and it set the course for the uncompromising gloom of the rest of the franchise. But in order to go forward, the Apes franchise had to first go back.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), found Zira and Cornelius, by way of repairing Brent’s ship, arriving back on Earth in 1973. Of course, hijinks ensue as the apes are forced to get acclimated to what was then modern America. It’s the funniest film in the franchise, glibber and in tune with the wild 70s, but it’s also the darkest in terms of its subtext. Hunter and McDowall both do incredible work within the film, navigating the fish-out-of-water storyline, but also tapping into the immense fear that comes from being an outsider on a planet that is just as much their home as it is for the men and women of the 20th century. While in some ways Escape works as a reverse of the original film, the humans seem far crueler than the apes ever were, perhaps because they mask their sinister aims under the guise of friendship. Escape is situated within the post-Civil Rights Movement era, and everything in the film reflects that. The interest of white people in these new individuals that have been integrated within their society, their attempts to dress them and teach them acceptable behaviors, their friendly and exhaustive behavior mirrors the sometimes flawed progressiveness that blacks had to face, still have to face, upon their right to inclusivity. On the other side of that is the conservative population and right-wing politicians who see Cornelius and Zira as a threat, even more so when they learn about the future they come from and Zira’s pregnancy. The President’s science advisor, Dr. Hasslein (Eric Braeden) chillingly suggests that the only way to prevent the future they fear, is to abort the apes’ unborn child and sterilize both Cornelius and Zira. The subsequent incarceration of the apes, their provocation to violence and the reference to them as monkeys (used in a comparable way to “nigger”) establishes a viewpoint based in the black experience, one that would come to a head in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. When Cornelius and Zira, the apes that have been our window into the human perspective and the strongest protagonists of the series, are executed simply out of fear, it’s hard not to think about the deliberateness in which blacks and immigrants are executed within this country. If the first two movies held a mirror up to its viewers to force us to reflect on how the current actions could affect our future, Escape held, and still holds, a mirror up in an effort to force us to consider how current actions effect our current social dynamics. Their deaths are this film’s Statue of Liberty moment, the realization that this harbor of Earth, and more exclusively America, is no safe haven.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), which provoked ire from parents’ groups due to the R-rated violence of its original cut, centers on an ape revolution. Borrowing elements from the Blaxploitation films at the time, Conquest saw the son of Cornelius and Zira, Milo, take on a new name, Caesar, and lead the ape revolution through the streets of a dystopian future. Conquest, and its subsequent film Battle for the Planet of the Apes, served as the basis for the current Apes trilogy (Rise, Dawn, and War), but Conquest is far angrier than any of those films. This is fuck the police, fuck the established order, and fuck these chains, by way of ape militancy. Roddy McDowall who had made audiences fall in love with Cornelius twice over (the character was played by a different actor in Beneath due to scheduling issues) took up the mantle of Caesar and, like a forefather of Andy Serkis’ craft, found new layers within his role as ape. Conquest exposed the ape experience on the streets, the beatings, the servitude, and auctions of apes brought over by ships. Not only did the slave revolution create ties between the apes and the black experience, but Conquest featured a prominent black character, MacDonald, whom Caesar finds himself allied with. When we’re first introduced to MacDonald, a cop makes a remark that it figures the guy’s an ape lover, the insinuation being clear. Caesar draws a parallel to himself and MacDonald, saying ‘we cannot be free until we have power,” and suggesting that MacDonald knows that struggle firsthand. Even though MacDonald is Governor Breck’s assistant, he still lacks respect and trust. His sharp attire, and position give him the allusion of power while he has none. This becomes an intriguing point in Caesar’s quest for power, and the subsequent film’s suggestion that it is merely an illusion, or at best fleeting. But before we get to that point, Caesar and his apes, reject their conditioning to the word “No,” and lay siege on the Governor and his military force. Confronted, Governor Breck admits to Caesar that man doesn’t hate apes, he hates what they represent, the dark side of themselves. This fear of being supplanted, of unspoken species-driven guilt for past atrocities, again parallels America’s minority experience. After a bloody battle through the streets, Caesar’s army stands over Breck, the butts of their assault rifles held high and ready to come down with deadly force upon their enslaver. MacDonald pleads with Caesar, “Violence prolongs hate, hate prolongs violence. By what right are you spilling blood?…I, a decedent of slaves am asking you to show humanity.” Caesar responds with impassioned matter-of-factness, “But, I was not born human.” And in the uncut, original version of the film (which is the cut to view), Caesar delivers a Malcolm X-tinged speech before commanding his apes to execute Breck in an all too human act.
In Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), the original franchise ends with a whimper that points towards an inevitable bang. In the conclusion, Caesar fights a war on two fronts, one against a mutinous army of gorillas led by General Aldo (who would serve as the basis for Koba in the new franchise) and the tattered human resistance who are the ancestors of the mutants we met in Beneath. Partly due the controversy the previous film elicited and partly due to the needs of story, Caesar in this film is a far calmer figure who has attempted to maintain a fragile peace between apes and humans. This peace, mind you, is preserved by using humans as a slave work force and forcing them to teach the apes English, and the ability to read and write. Through their instruction, Caesar introduces the rule that serves as the basis of ape life, “Ape must never kill ape.” It is through preserving this ideal that Caesar believes they can be better than the humans. While the film’s production value doesn’t compare to the earlier entries, there’s something fascinating about Caesar’s characterization as burdened King torn between violence and peace through subjugation. Battle really drives home the cyclical nature of this franchise perfectly setting up the events we see in Planet of the Apes and Beneath. The death of Caesar’s son forces him to break his rule and kill Aldo, cementing, in Cain and Abel fashion, that apes are not superior to humans. While the human threat retreats back underground, where we see the doomsday bomb from Beneath which they promise to venerate. The other humans, the apes’ slaves, are freed by Caesar and it seems a better future is possible. Going back to Escape, there’s a moment where Dr. Hasslein and the President are discussing the future, and its ability to branch and change. This discussion, and its implied effect on our notions of free-will, are sci-fi staples now, but the Apes films carefully played with viewer expectations, telling new stories while leading to a point where the future would be clear. In the film’s epilogue, the historic Lawgiver is telling Caesar’s story to a group of ape and human children, who seem to be living in equality. An ape child asks if Caesar’s dream for peace is possible. The Lawgiver responds that only time will tell. In the back of this class we see a human child push an ape child to the ground. The camera pans to a statue of Caesar, zooms in, and we see a single tear running down his stone face. The future we saw in Planet of the Apes is unavoidable, and like an ouroboros, all that has happened before will happen again in a tragic time loop.
While often regarded as a B-movie franchise with diminishing returns, the original five Apes films, through their careful continuity and willingness to stray from the boundaries of the original film, form an epic tragedy that results in the absolute destruction of home as both a physical space and an ideal. Through the loss of liberty, we become damned as a society. While each film can stand on its own and has its equal merits and flaws, the strength of these films are in how they operate as a whole. To quote Caesar, “Apes together strong.” The new Apes trilogy, directed by Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves, still operates within the strength of those original films. They take numerous cues from the past films while modernizing our fears and still managing to say something about us (something Tim Burton’s 2001 reboot, despite its aesthetic value, didn’t manage well). Within the new Apes trilogy, it’s the threat of incurable disease instead of nukes that enables the ape rise and human fall (though, under our current presidency, that fear of nukes is not quite assuaged). This new series supposes that in our attempt to better ourselves and improve our quality of life we will ultimately damage the natural hierarchy. Rise of the Planet of the Apes offers a slightly more Utopian view than that of Conquest, but when that dream collapses we humans find ourselves in the same dirt and cages as those humans in the original films. Regardless of era, or tone, or strides in special effects, we’re driven to this franchise because together they expose this human madhouse like no other. The Planet of the Apes franchise suggests that in our efforts to preserve home, through our xenophobia, our control of science and religion, and our lack of control on violence, we find ourselves on the outside of it, strangers washed up beside a Lady Liberty who can no longer welcome the masses, human or otherwise.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox