A touchstone of late-boomer pubescence that launched four sequels, a flop TV series, at least one book-length sociopolitical critique, and millions in merchandising booty, Planet of the Apes addresses racial animus with a boldness unusual for a Hollywood entertainment produced in the strife-torn America of 1968. The themes of intolerance are too explicit to even be termed subtext, but the cautionary-liberal tenor of the script credited to former blacklistee Michael Wilson and Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling has often been obscured by Simpsons–style takeoffs and decades of noisier, less ambitious pop sci-fi.
Planet of the Apes‘s very title was co-opted by white racists as a slur against everything from integrated schools to Black Power activism, a hateful inversion of the film’s sneaky allegory. Occupying the tale’s pre-industrial, Gaudiesque ape city is a talking-simian society roughly equivalent to the power structure of pre-civil-rights America: reactionary orangutans as the guardians of law and faith, chimpanzees as striving academics and scientists, gorillas as military and menials. WASPs, Jews, and “ethnics”? As for stranded Earth astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston), made a captive after time-traveling to a distant world where his breed are mute savages, he smolders angrily at being thought “inferior” even by his primate allies—restoring his status by seizing a rifle, as any oppressed militant might—and his objections to wearing a smelly loincloth are dismissed by his sassy chimp savior Zira (Kim Hunter) with “All men look alike to most apes, so put this on!”
Of course, Planet of the Apes became a blockbuster because it’s cannily crafted, in part, as a ripping adventure yarn, director Franklin Schaffner staging a long desert trek for survival by Taylor and his two surviving shipmates in the opening half-hour, a brilliant “hunt” sequence with gorillas pursuing the human brutes as targets and trophies (memorably enhanced by Jerry Goldsmith’s dissonant, percussive score), and a lengthy chase sequence where the escaped spaceman leaps and dodges past hairy denizens of church, museum, and marketplace. The action set pieces are an essential complement to the Taylor’s ongoing, futile argument for his right to survival with the wizened ape theocrat Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans, his sonorous Shakespearean voice venomously damning humanity through the foam-rubber makeup).
Though Heston’s jaw-clenched, hambone qualities are present here, with many iconic lines immortalized in an online audio shrine, never was a vehicle more cleverly built around the star’s epic persona as the embodiment of manifest destiny and Judeo-Christian civilization. Playing the last American male, he is netted, shot in the throat, probed in a lab, beaten with clubs, leashed, gagged, hosed down, stripped bare-ass, and threatened with castration and lobotomy. His Taylor, a misanthrope who undertook a 2,000-year space flight to abandon homo sapiens, becomes the species’ ultimate defender when an archaeological expedition to rescue Zira and her fiancé Cornelius (amusingly twitchy Roddy McDowall) from prosecution by the staunchly orthodox Zaius for “scientific heresy” uncovers evidence of an extinct human culture.
The immense appeal of Planet of the Apes to 12-year-olds of all ages—gorillas on horseback! A hot, silent chick (Linda Harrison)!—includes a few too many monkey jokes, and heavily laid-on allusions to the Scopes trial, Will Rogers, and Animal Farm. But Schaffner’s otherwise savvy, serious approach, highlighted by a persuasive monologue of despairing solitude from the caged Heston, gives the movie a forcefulness that’s survived the fever of its 40-years-past phenomenon. Its concluding scenes, with McDowall intoning from ape scripture, “Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn,” as Heston and his new mate go searching for the planet’s last mystery on horseback along a rocky shoreline, is given mythic heft by a celebrated fadeout. The much-parodied twist ending devised by Serling, which 20th Century Fox has spoilerishly taken the liberty of slapping onto DVD covers in recent years, still has apocalyptic impact in how it backs up the movie’s prime antagonist. Dr. Zaius has a point.