The Apes of Wrath

The radical political history of Planet of the Apes. 

Many of the facts in this piece were taken from the book mentioned below: Eric Greene’s Planet of the Apes as American Myth. However, inadequate credit was given to Greene’s book at the time of publication, and the author and Slate apologize.

The tagline for Tim Burton’s upcoming ape movie is “Rule the Planet,” but given the cavalcade of products pegged to the film’s release— PotA action figures, baseball caps, binders, board games, comic books, fanny packs, key chains, lunch boxes, scooters, skateboards, stickers, trick-or-treat bags, and temporary tattoos—“Rule the Playground” might be more appropriate. Doubly appropriate, since the new iteration of Planet of the Apes started not as a movie but as a marketing pitch. “A no-brainer,” according to one of the remake’s original producers. “A can’t-miss hit. A merchandising tidal wave.”

Judging from the previews, Fox ended up with a shadowy space-opera whose flash libretto was drawn up in crayon. It’s a neat reversal of the pattern established by five previous Ape flicks: There, the production values were comically shoddy but the story lines strikingly mature. Sammy Davis Jr. considered the first film, which premiered in 1968, the best allegory on race relations he’d ever seen. Newsweek’s reviewer thought it caught the audience “at a particularly wretched moment in the course of human events, when we are perfectly willing to believe that man is despicable and a good deal lower than the lower animals.” Peter Singer aside, humanity has a higher opinion of itself these days, and the old story lines seem so radical it’s a wonder the series—which is based loosely on a novel by Pierre Boulle—got made in the first place.

As it happens, Boulle’s own life would make a pretty good movie. Employed, at the outbreak of World War II, as an overseer of a Malaysian rubber plantation, the French expatriate served as a guerrilla and intelligence operative in China, Indochina, and Burma, was captured by Vichy loyalists on the Mekong River, and escaped from a POW camp in Saigon—experiences which earned him the Croix de Guerre, the Medal of the Resistance, and an appointment to the Legion of Honor, and informed his best-known novel, the epic Bridge Over the River Kwai.

Published six years later, in 1963, Monkey Planet was no less epic and a good bit darker. Stagnation was the metaphor Boulle was working with—it must have seemed a fitting subject for a Frenchman writing after the war—with apes forging a civilization not out of humanity’s rubble (as in the American adaptation) but out of its ennui. Boulle’s apes were more advanced than their American counterparts—they drove cars, lived in cities, and, aside from the convenience of having four prehensile thumbs, resembled people in most of their particulars. Boulle’s point was that, for all the progress, ingenuity, and enterprising spirit he saw in his fellow men, monkeys would do just as well.

But in an America rocked by race riots and sinking deeper into the quagmire of Vietnam, Rod Serling set out to make a different point: Maybe the monkeys could do better. Serling’s experience with The Twilight Zone had taught him that “it was possible to have Martians say things that Democrats and Republicans can’t say.” His fantastically misanthropic treatment for a Planet of the Apes film shouted those things from the rooftops. The archetypal Aryan hero, played by Charlton Heston, is bound and gagged, caged and (nearly) castrated, and finally made to stand trial for humanity’s crimes against the earth. “He is the perfect American Adam to work off some American guilt feelings of self-hatred on,” Pauline Kael wrote in her review of the film, catching an early whiff of what, as the series progressed, became an orgy of self-loathing.

Planet of the Apes was anything but subtle. Its metaphors—for race relations, imperialism, and the Cold War—were broad enough to reach a wide audience, and the audience responded wildly; the film grossed $100 million (in today’s dollars), spawned four sequels, a TV series, a Saturday-morning cartoon, a traveling theater troupe, and a slew of comic books (which, if childhood recollections serve me right, each came with their own 45 rpm record). But instead of marginalizing politics as it progressed, the franchise moved them to the fore.

Taken together, the films amount to a grand, if sometimes campy, tour of revolutionary and reactionary propaganda. “The only good human is a dead human,” a Gestapo-like gorilla says, by way of explaining Ape Power. “It is our holy duty … to kill our enemies—known and unknown—like so many lice.” [ Correction: This line is from the screenplay and never made it to the final film.] Other films feature slave auctions, selection tables, concentration camps, and villages modeled on My Lai. The index for one study of the series—Eric Greene’s Planet of the Apes as American Myth—references anti-Semitism, Attica, David Ben-Gurion, Stokely Carmichael, the Coleman Report, The Confessions of Nat Turner, George Armstrong Custer, Moshe Dayan, Frederick Douglass, Medgar Evers, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Kent State, Loving v. Virginia, Malcolm X, Manifest Destiny, Rosa Parks, Dred Scott, Watergate, Watts, and White Citizens Councils. This isn’t simply the work of an overheated academic pop-culturalogist; watch the films again, and you’ll see that none of these interpretations are much of a stretch. Paul Dehn, who took over from Serling as the series’ screenwriter, boasted that “they’re all terribly like Bertrand Russell, my chimpanzees,” noted in the margins of his scripts that slave apes were “to be whipped as the Negro slaves were,” and explained that the ape insurrection in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was based on the Watts riots.

Not surprisingly, the films’ identification of blacks and the underprivileged with apes could be problematic. Take the Watts-like ape revolt. Here, Caesar, the chimpanzee destined to lead his fellow apes out of bondage, is aided in his escape by MacDonald, a human administrator at the crypto-fascist Ape Control agency. The following exchange, which consists of alternating close-ups of MacDonald (who happens to be black) and Caesar is typical:

MacDonald: I wish there was some way that we could communicate, so you’d understand that I—Caesar: I understand, Mr. MacDonald. Yes, I’m the one they’re looking for.MacDonald: I never believed it. I thought you were a myth.Caesar: Well, I’m not. But I will tell you something that is—the belief that human beings are kind.MacDonald: No, Caesar. There are some—Caesar: Oh, a handful perhaps, but not most of them. No, they won’t learn to be kind until we force them to be kind. And we can’t do that until we are free.MacDonald: How do you propose to gain this freedom?Caesar: By the only means left to us. Revolution.MacDonald: But it’s doomed to failure!Caesar: Perhaps. This time.MacDonald: And the next.Caesar: Maybe.MacDonald: But you’ll keep trying?Caesar: You above everyone else should understand. We cannot be free until we have power. How else can we achieve it?

The audience is clearly intended to sympathize with Caesar, and the implicit endorsement of revolutionary black power—coming, as it does, from a major Hollywood studio—is striking. (Contemporary reviewers pointed out that black audiences drowned out much of the dialogue by cheering “Right on!” right through the screenings.) Still, it’s unpleasant to see chimps telling black men that they, of all people, should understand the monkey’s lot. The implication is that human rights, having trickled down from whites to blacks, will continue to work their way down the evolutionary ladder. No wonder placards reading “NAACP: Planet of the Apes” became fixtures at white supremacist rallies. And no wonder the executives behind Burton’s remake shied away from the original’s racial and political overtones.

But the Planet of the Apes movies succeeded, in no small measure, because they tapped into the terrific pressures of their time. Given that history, it’ll be interesting to see which analogies Burton embraces and which he ignores. If he turns away from all of them, very little of the original movies—aside from hairy prosthetics—may be left.