50 years of Planet of the Apes: why the original series still holds a warning for us all

Beginning in 1968, an unusually bleak sci-fi franchise sounded a warning about the way our species was going. Fifty years later, can we be sure that Planet of the Apes was just monkey business?

Jon Towlson

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Planet of the Apes (1968)

  • Spoiler warning This article gives away the plots

The astonishing ending of Planet of the Apes (1968), with Charlton Heston screaming in despair as the camera lingers on the shattered remains of the Statue of Liberty, is unremitting in its bleakness. And even watching it 50 years later, we can hardly rest easy.

Premiering on 8 February 1968 before US release in April (the same week as that other sci-fi milestone 2001: A Space Odyssey), Franklin J. Schaffner’s provocative allegory led to four sequels, which were no less downbeat. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine such a grimly apocalyptic movie series existing today. The modern reboots are decidedly less nihilistic.

For audiences, seeing civilisation as we know it come to an end in the apes movies seemed to have a hypnotic effect. What’s more, the franchise’s commentary – on America’s interracial conflict, the country’s love-hate of immigrants, its violent protests, clashes between youth and authority, feminism, and (most pressing of all) the impending extinction of the human species in nuclear war – resonates just as strongly now as it did then.

When interstellar explorer George Taylor (Charlton Heston) crash lands on a seemingly barren planet and is captured by gorillas that kill his fellow astronauts, he realises he has entered a world where evolution has seemingly gone backwards: apes govern and humans are subordinate. Man is now the dumb animal, and talking monkeys run the show.

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Only the chimpanzees Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and his wife Zira (Kim Hunter) demonstrate any compassion for poor Taylor’s plight, while Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans), the head of the ape assembly, tries to cover up Taylor’s existence, for fear that it might lead to an unearthing of the truth about the ape revolution that took place centuries before.

The apes’ world is starkly authoritarian, operating on strict race/class/gender divisions, with humans designated to slavery. Planet of the Apes – like all the best science fiction – holds up a mirror to our world. We may have swapped places with them but the apes are us. And we are doomed to blow ourselves up – the films tell us – just like the Statue of Liberty has been blown up.

Indeed, the great conceit of the series is its time-loop premise, which makes our extinction inescapable. The first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), presented the ruins of human civilisation buried underground and run by mutant survivors of a nuclear holocaust who continue to worship the doomsday machine.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Brent (James Franciscus), a fellow space traveller, is sent to investigate the disappearance of Taylor’s ship. Like his predecessor, Brent is captured by apes and manages to escape, only to find himself stumbling into the clutches of the mutants. There he finally locates Taylor, who, driven insane by it all, proceeds to exact revenge on humanity by detonating the Alpha-Omega weapon himself, thereby bringing history (human and ape) to an end.

Scenes in Beneath depict anti-violence demonstrations held by the peace-loving chimpanzees wielding placards (“Wage Peace Not War”), while the war-mongering gorillas led by General Ursus (James Gregory) mount a campaign to storm the Forbidden Zone, and the progressive minded Cornelius and Zira clash with the arch-conservative Dr Zaius.

Beneath again reflects the mood of America in the Vietnam era, when the younger generation rebelled and police fired live bullets at student demonstrators in university campuses. It ends in a frenzy of machine gun fire, with Brent and Taylor mown down, and even the mute flower-child Nova (Linda Harrison) shot dead by the rampaging gorilla army.

The third entry in the series seemed to take a lighter tone in comparison, but even this proves to be deceiving. In Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Cornelius and Zira manage to repair Taylor’s spaceship and take a reverse trajectory back to Earth in 1973. There they are treated like celebrities by the media until the authorities begin to realise the implications of Zira’s becoming pregnant. The two chimpanzees are forced into exile as the military tries to hunt them down before they can trigger the end of human civilisation.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

The film resonates as an allegory on migration in America: Cornelius and Zira are ultimately viewed as illegal immigrants and a threat to the American way. Escape also had much to say about the then-burgeoning second-wave feminist movement: Zira emerges as a strong, intelligent and politicised female who puts the males around her to shame. In the end, though, the time-loop narrative of the series prevails; the conclusion of Escape is another despairing one, as the saga drives relentlessly towards the predestined cataclysm.

The race relations subtext would come to the fore in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), with critics of the time reading social comment into scenes of the enslaved apes taking to the streets. Set in 1991, Zira’s baby has now fully grown and is named Caesar (Roddy McDowall). Emerging from his circus hideaway, Caesar is shocked to find America a police state, his fellow simians imported by the boatload to be used as slaves to the humans. He leads them in an uprising, the moment of ape revolution on Earth.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Conquest ends with Caesar’s triumphant proclamation: “Tonight we have seen the birth of the planet of the apes.” Those words might perhaps have offered a salvation of sorts, the possibility of negating the saga’s self-fulfilling prophecy, but the final film in the franchise, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), dashes any such hope. Indeed, Battle sees the survivors of the apocalypse (it’s revealed that humans eventually resorted to nuclear weapons to try to quell the ape uprising) engaged in a final – ultimately futile – war for control of the planet.

By its close, we are left with no doubt that the series has come full circle; we are back where we started, staring at the shattered remains of liberty.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

“This one has a message,” Charlton Heston reputedly told nervous 20th Century-Fox executives about Planet of the Apes. Hollywood was doubtful that audiences would take such a message, one that spoke to revolution and history repeating, to the symbolic destruction of freedom and democracy, to mad men with their fingers on the doomsday button. Half a century later, however, that message remains as urgent as ever.

“You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! Damn you all to hell!”

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