When it was released in April of 1968, it was not well received by many critics. However, Planet of the Apes would go down as a classic sci-fi film. Charlton Heston is George Taylor, an American astronaut who, along with his crew, crashes 2,000 years in the future on an unknown planet. Everything on this planet seems to be turned upside down. In this strange land, apes rule, and humans are hunted, caged, and enslaved.
At first, Taylor is injured and unable to speak. He tries various things to get the apes to understand that he is as intellect as they are. It is Zira (Kim Hunter) who sees something special in Taylor. At first it is evolution. She and her fiancé Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) want to study Taylor to see how humans are evolving. The dialogue, with intent, is similar to conversations humans have had about studying apes. After they get to know Taylor, a theory that was being forgotten returns to the surface. Cornelius’ archeological studies suggest that humans existed on the planet in a more civilized society than apes currently do.
It is perfect and brilliant commentary on the modern human condition. In the beginning of the film, in one of Taylor’s speeches, he says, “Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox that sent me to the stars, still make war with his brother?” A question, no doubt, theological and philosophically debated in 1968 in the midst of a war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. The effects of which were not lost on the film’s crew. Michael Wilson rewrote the original script by Rod Serling (the ending was the only contribution of Serling’s that Wilson kept). Wilson, like so many during the 1950s in Hollywood, was blacklisted for allegedly being communist. The Cold War and the changing tides of culture and thought and its effects on society hit close to home.
Nor is it a surprise the role of nuclear destruction (a great fear of the Cold War) plays in the film. Taylor’s longing for a war-free world is only met with a world destroyed by war. The iconic ending, with Taylor on his knees in the sand, yelling, “Damn them! Damn them all to hell!” reveals the truth. Don’t be mistaken, Taylor is not referring to the apes, but the humans he left behind. Taylor has not been on an unknown planet. He has been on his own, war-torn planet where everything has been turned upside down.
1968 was a turbulent time, as well, for people of faith. Many were trying to reconcile being at war for so long. Others were struggling with new laws of desegregation. Suddenly lives where changing, and not everyone was handling it well.
Since the beginning of time, religion has played a significant role in societies. It is appropriate that Planet of the Apes includes this as part of the story. The sacred texts, though only talked about and not seen, are a character in the film themselves. Dr. Zaius (Defender of the Faith and Minister of Science) and the others are the ape versions of Pharisees. While watching the film we know that Dr. Zaius is wrong in what he is doing.
And yet, how often do we do the same thing?
Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) and others like him, do their best to dissuade Cornelius and Zira from following these loftily ideals of humans being intelligent. They call upon the sacred scrolls to reason why the humans should stay in their place and things not change.
When we are scared of something or uncertain about changes in society, we use our sacred texts to justify who is considered “us” and who is considered “them.” The scriptures become security blankets for why we do not welcome those who are different from us. Planet of the Apes warns us against this narrow thinking. Dr. Zaius clearly understands that there is a truth and a reality beyond the boundaries of their land. It is safer if everyone believes what they have been taught. Only danger awaits them when they step outside the boundary. It could be argued that because Dr. Zaius knows about the destruction of humanity’s civilization by humanity, that they do not want to repeat history. That they want to be smarter than the humans and not make the same mistakes, and so they hide behind their religion.
It is safer when we hide behind our sacred texts.
As Christians, we follow a boundary crosser. We follow a Messiah who stepped over the social lines of division. Jesus sat and had lunch with the tax collector. He talked to the Samaritan woman. He touched the lepers. He healed the blind and made the lame to walk. All of those who were different and (sometime literally) isolated from the rest of society. It was taught that Jews and Samaritans did not interact. Jesus broke that “rule.” It was taught that you avoided lepers and bleeding women. Jesus broke that “rule” on both accounts.
And Jesus did so with love.
Planet of the Apes could have easily been a silly film about apes on Earth. Instead, it is filled with cultural commentary about the world in which we live and could live. And though the film has a few moments that are clearly reflection of the 1960s, it is a film that is ageless. Its message of peace over war, unity over segregation, balance of religion and science, is still a message to be heard today.