Planet of the Apes
And She's None the Worse for Wear
by Dave Liljengren
"I left both earth and the 20th Century without
regret..." intones Charlton Heston as Astronaut Taylor in the original trailer to
Francis Schaffner's 1968 science fiction film, Planet of the Apes.
In this, the 30th anniversary year of POTA's
release, Heston's stray promotional patter rings more true than ever. In two years,
barring a nuclear flare-up of the kind said to have destroyed the humans in that treasured
piece of simian sci-fi, all of us will leave the 20th century behind, likely without
regret. And as Heston himself, born in Chicago in 1923, has spent 75 years with the weight
of this world on his shoulders, it's probably not long before the Oscar-winning Ben
Hur charioteer leaves this "green and insignificant planet" behind.
Meanwhile, back on what remains of terra firma and the
1900s, there is talk of a Hollywood "Apes" remake. Fan sources on the web say
this project has been "green lighted." A simpler effort in the direction of
reawakening POTA interest would involve a simple theatrical re-release of the
original with digitized soundtrack, but no such buzz is circulating.
The thirtieth anniversary of POTA means nothing so
much as the fact myself and my second generation TV baby cohorts are now comfortably in
mid-life. For a generation of boys, now men in their thirties, POTA was our first
free-vee taste of not only big-budget sci-fi, but of adult cynicism and the gripping power
of unmistakable, O-Henry-to-the-tenth-power, ironic plot twists.
When we reached the stage of primate development where The
Wizard of Oz as a children's story ceased to fascinate us we turned on in droves to
TV screenings of POTA and its four lesser progeny. The efficacy of POTA parodies
on "The Simpsons" and elsewhere is modern day proof of this 70s boyhood
Despite more of the heavy-handed gloom that had been so
appealling in the first Apes movie-- it's hard to arrive at a more dour plot twist than
Taylor's doomsday bomb detonation at the close of "Beneath the Planet of the
Apes"-- the sequels never captivated me as thoroughly as the series opener. When my
canon of unmissable reruns grew to include a dark little show from the fifties with an
enigmatic narrator, I would understand why.
POTA's screenplay was co-written by the Night
Gallery opening, Twilight Zoner himself, Rod Serling. The "You maniacs!
You blew it up! Awww... Damn you... damn you all to hell!" ending to POTA is
his grandest closing shocker in a career built on sledgehammer denouements. As the fullest
development, the magnum opus, of Serling's brand of preachy and allegorical, yet still
accessible, science fiction, POTA's place in the canon of mid to late-century
American Environments is as secure as Bill "Major Healey" Dailey's place in the
eternal honor guard of comic TV sidekickdom.
Serling's involvement with the Apes series ended (wisely)
after the first movie. Because of this, the other four movies differ so sharply in quality
and internal consistency that-- while cocktail party Apes scoffers should probably not be
allowed to make snide fodder of them-- they are of little use in a serious Apes
discussion. The qualitative distance between "Beneath the POTA" and
"POTA" is as clearly defined as the distance between "In the
Ghetto" and "Hound Dog." One rocks and the other doesn't. "In the
Ghetto" and "Beneath the POTA" can both be entertaining in small
doses, but they should not be confused with the genuine articles. Elvis' legitimacy ended
in the army and the Apes series' ended at the Statue of Liberty. All else is epilogue.
But there is enough material in POTA to sustain
worthwhile inquiry. A prophet of doom who succeeded best in warning us what not to do,
Serling uses men in ape masks to perfect certain of his quirky anti-themes. Religious
tyranny, human intolerance, and human shortsightedness all take center stage in POTA.
Serling's religious whipping boy is POTA's
enigmatic Dr. Zaius. When first we meet the bad doctor, the "Chief Prosecutor and
Defender of the Faith," as Heston's Taylor calls him, he is working like a medieval
pope to squelch the research of Cornelius and Zira, two chimpanzees pursuing the theory
that apes evolved from humans. This theory is dangerous to Dr. Zaius because he, an
orangutan, is the ecclesiastical numero uno of the ape civilization and the scriptural
creation account for his religion, given to the Apes by The Lawgiver, (perhaps a Serling
retro-snigger at Heston as Moses in "The Ten Commandments") clearly states that
Apes descended from the mute humans inhabiting their world.
But Zaius is not only a religious leader, he is the chief
of scientific inquiry as well. There is a reason for this, we will learn. When Cornelius
and Zira present their evidence of intelligent humans, Zaius does not behave in the way we
would expect an inquiring scientific mind to do. He attempts to force their silence by
threatening their careers. When Taylor breaks the rules of ape court and pleads for his
sentient and reproductive life in the reverse Monkey Trial at the center of the film,
essentially proving wrong Zaius's assertion, lifted from sacred writ, that there can be no
such thing as an intelligent human, Zaius refuses to listen and shuts down the proceeding.
Zaius then meets privately and talks ape to man with Taylor
in the movie's most moving scene. "I've known of your coming for years and I've
dreaded it," he says, explaining he's been privy to evidence of a human civilization
for years and has been actively covering up such ideas before they got to the ape
populace. The apes need an ordered society and an unchallengeable religion, he says, in
order to maintain an ordered society and not destroy themselves...
Later when Taylor escapes with Cornelius and Zira to
revisit one of Cornelius's archaeological digs. Zaius and a contingent of gorilla
(literally) soldiers catch up with them. Zaius is forced to examine Cornelius's
irrefutable evidence of an ancient human civilization. Zaius responds by destroying the
evidence and arresting Cornelius and Zira. In a shrewd display of mercy, Zaius allows
Taylor and Nova to escape in order for Taylor to find "his destiny." The destiny
to which Zaius is referring is the half buried Lady Liberty and Taylor's epiphany that
mankind both has and will always destroy itself. Thus, as Jesus allows the the rich young
ruler to go off and experience the spiritual dangers of wealth on his own, Zaius allows
Taylor to ride the beach and discover both mankind's impulse to self-destruction and
Zaius's essential rectitude in deep-sixing ape inquiries into a human past.
While Serling may have painted religious types as
retrograde deceivers and members of a decidedly non-holy Tri-lateral Commission bent on
impeding intellectual growth, it can also be said that he was no humanist. Serling was not
shy about sharing testimony of his belief in certain nuclear annihilation. Such sermons
loom large in both POTA and The Twilight Zone. Serling was the mad
prophet warning of both the dangers of enforced orthodoxy and of unchecked human
I'm guessing that Serling believed the societal acceptance
of the theory of evolution and rejection of biblical creation accounts would bring about
the end of religion. We're 30 years past POTA and such late century phenomena as
Marshall Appelwhite, the Promisekeepers, and car bumper fish have already proven him
wrong. If Serling were alive, however, (he left earth and the 20th century on June 28,
1975, as a result of complications during heart surgery) such targets as those three would
be high on his list of possible subject matter in any cable rebirth of Twilight Zone.
Serling's take on rascism is found in the three-tiered ape
society. In POTA society, orangutans, with their light colored fur, were at the
top, holding most of the positions requiring intellect, while chimpanzees were relegated
to glorified house servant status, and gorillas were left in the rain as field hands and
mercenaries. When Cornelius ponders the glass-ceiling he has reached at Ape University
because he is a chimpanzee and not an orangutan, Serling wanted America of 1968-- the year
of the Martin Luther King assassination-- to look at their own arbitrary distinctions
based on skin color. These conflicts are not resolved in the course of the film. Rascism,
Serling seems to admit, is something which can't be unwound in a screenplay.
Serling clearly had a soft spot for the fauna of this
world. It's hard to watch the caging of humans, and their use as test subjects, and not
rethink our own failures of compassion regarding the furry, and non-furry, friends with
whom we share this planet.
As for leviathan Heston and his acting skills, in POTA
and elsewhere, I'm not going to champion them. His unusual range was larger than myth, yet
still limited. When he took roles requiring him to precision tune the pomp and thunder
theatrics-- as was so in Orson Welles' "A Touch of Evil," where Heston tried to
portray an emotional Tejano-- the results were not for the squeamish.
But I will say Chuck was a bona fide movie star. His
pompous demeanor and dulcet tones were popular for a time with directors and moviegoers.
Movie actors, even the best ones-- even moody Leonardo and beautiful Kate-- are props that
talk. The director is the artist at work in the cinema. In that context, Heston as a young
hunk was a prop who spoke well. When mid-century movie makers needed a take-charge
elocutionist to further their American Dream propaganda, Heston was ready, willing, and
naturally gifted with Billy Graham's patrician good looks.
If we ask how come he didn't grow artistically and change
with the times, we already know the answer. For one, there are few who can do it. Paul
Newman is one, but the list is short. More accurately, it boils down to the range thing.
Audiences can stomach pompous men when they're cute. We'll deal with them through their
twenties, thirties, and a year or two into their forties, but after that, if there's no
wisdom of the ages, no likably vulnerable crack in their armor, no self-effacing charm or
bright smile, we'll look elsewhere when investing our $7.50 at the box office.
POTA came late in the game for Heston, (he was 45)
and it was his last shining moment. It would take him decades to realize this, but it's
nonetheless true. POTA worked as well as it did because Serling was an old school
Hollywood gangsta himself, still interested in fighting the ideological battles of the
fifties even as "Tet Offensive," "bad trip," and "seriously
overcrowded correctional facilities" became household phrases. And if a battle for
the soul of the 1950s is being fought, anywhere, at any time, who better to have on your
side than Charlton Heston?
There is a proto hippie ape in POTA, and an
inter-species kiss, but Serling's attempt at 1968 contemporaneity is half-hearted. Even as
Taylor tells the simian youth at POTA's end to "Keep them flying... the
flags of discontent," Taylor rides a horse into the sunset, his obedient, mute,
fur-bikinied, woman cuddling close behind him. Taylor is no Acquarian age hero, he is the
last Gary Cooper, the last western hero whom audiences will follow anywhere, even to the
Statue of Liberty and the sobering realization that their destruction is inevitable.
Charlton Heston Reads The Old Man and the Sea