By Gary Gerani, reprinted from
Planet of the Apes (UK) Issue #33 (1975) - Planet of the Apes (UK) Issue #33 (1975)
The often underrated genre of science fiction offers imaginative writers and film producers a unique playground for concepts and theories that might emerge as heavy-handed or “message-laden” in other more down-to-earth fiction formats. Over the past few decades, numerous science fiction stories and films have carried moral and societal chips on their shoulders, utilizing the genre’s built-in advantages to dramatically comment on the state of our lives and man’s usually-stormy relationship with his fellow man in society.
H.G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine is a typical example of SF serving as a social commentary. Wells’ envisioned the future as a desperate struggle between the working class and the elite, a concept explored by many learned philosophers and historians. But this author, not content with merely developing theories based on past experience, embellished and added a new degree of fascination to the concept by letting science fiction take free rein.
His tale of the Eloi - innocent child-like creatures - and the Morlocks - animalistic cannibals who maintain and breed the little people like cattle - is far more striking and memorable than most realistic comments on class differences, for the idea is exaggerated and magnified until the symbolic message triumphantly hits home.
By etching these images and arguments in science fictional terms, the writer can effectively get his point across, while at the same time entertaining his audience with an imaginative storyline. This, at long last, leads up to The Planet of the Apes!
Boulle’s original novel is perhaps the most perfect example of social commentary in science fiction clothing. Embraced by an enthusiastic public as a marvellous satire of the human condition, the plot pokes fun at the reader, but does not insult his intelligence or cut short his enjoyment with a rampant display of self-indulgence. It is indeed an adventure story, a science fiction tale, as suspenseful and intriguing as the best of them. But the elements of satire are important, and the symbolic significance of the class structure, while never overly emphasized, is still deeply felt.
In an age when scientific advancements and human rights are at an all time high in the public mind, there seems to be a certain tendency for people to assume too much. Our works, our achievements, our very universe seem to be taken for granted. What if, quite suddenly, things were strikingly different? Would we be able to cope with a new world and a new set of rules that changed our relationship with life? Could we survive without a legacy to sustain us; on our own, using our individual minds and bodies? Boulle toyed with the answers to these fascinating questions by projecting his hero (and his readers) into a topsy-turvy existence, challenging all the logic and knowledge accepted throughout a lifetime. The results are at once both satisfying and disturbing.
For the crux of Boulle’s commentary lies in man’s peculiar institution of class separation. As far back as the history books can trace, societies have been divided into different groups, each sporting a distinct character and personality, and each living on a different level of economic stability. When money didn't create separations, religious beliefs, or blatant prejudices divided people and created sectionalism. Pierre Boulle, utilizing those inherent advantages of the SF genre has taken us one tremendous step further in his fantastic vision: Man is ruled and dominated by a race of animals, living creatures that we never once considered in matters of society, because of their obvious, unquestioned inferiority! It is an exaggerated symbol, yes; but by turning the tables on ourselves in this fashion, we can appreciate a stronger reality than our narrow-minded, purely “human” outlook on life. The world does not necessarily revolve around us alone. Somewhere in the universe - or perhaps right here on Earth - there might truly be something better than ourselves.
Both astronauts Taylor and Merou (the latter from the novel) found their individual life-styles shattered by the change of world. Taylor, more self-centered and arrogant, found it particularly difficult to begin a new existence under the degrading house rules. Here was a man of intensity and fortitude, not to mention ego. In this respect, the film transcends the novel. Charlton Heston, in both his personality and his role, is the embodiment of self-assured 20th Century man, and a perfect choice to be thrust into a reversed world. Everything he has held as truth - all his knowledge and convictions and views - are meaningless now. He emerges as a man stripped of heritage and importance, naked in the face of an unsympathetic environment. The odds are overwhelming, yet in his book, Boulle is perceptive enough to applaud the basic ingenuity and integrity of man while exploring his misconceptions about society. Taylor (in the film) and Merou (in the book) succeed in impressing certain factions of their dominators, and thwarting others. There is no question of humanity's will to survive under the most pressing circumstances; but whether or not the human astronaut emerges victorious over the confused social order (which, after all, is a symbol of his own social inadequacy) is at best debatable, and his acceptance and relationship with the new world remains intriguing.
Although Planet of the Apes draws its most effective symbolic power from the dramatic simian-human societal relationship, Boulle adds a further dimension to his satire with the mocking details of the ape structure itself. By dividing the race into three distinct groups, Boulle offers a reasonably realistic vision of a functional society, albeit a rather far-fetched one. Basic physical characteristics apparently governed the separations. The huge, ugly gorillas, menacing and altogether brutal in nature, are cast as the power-mad warriors and military officials. Distinguished, wise, and with a peculiar archaic air about them, the orangutans represent the somewhat outmoded “elder" set. And the final faction, embodying all that is worldly, open-minded and curious, is the chimpanzee. It’s a pretty clever caricature of real-world simian traits and differences, and a great deal of plot conflicts arise from their varying temperaments and ideals. To further understand and appreciate the meticulous development of the Ape class structure, let us now re-examine the different functions of each group, from film to film.
The original Planet of the Apes seemed to suggest an overall domination by the orangutan elders. Although the chimps are quite perceptive and alert, they are exceptionally cautious with any revolutionary ideas and have little power. Weak also are the gorillas, although their weakness is primarily upstairs. It seems that, at this point of the Ape domination, the orangutans - who were originally entrusted with the secrets of Earth’s past - are still very much respected and feared by their fellow simians. There are enforced hints throughout, however, that their unquestioned control and policy of ignorance is steadily weakening as the Ape civilization progresses and expands. The inquisitive chimpanzees begin asking important questions, and the dim-witted gorillas develop a dangerous taste for power...
Beneath the Planet of the Apes illustrates the important transference of power from orangutan to gorilla. The Ape society, evolved to an era of militarism and brute control, replaces blissful ignorance with mindless force. Again, the progressive chimpanzees are helpless. The orangutans lead in name only, but are in reality subservient to the decisions of the aggressive gorillas, who turn to the former social leaders only for vague counselling. Beneath also introduces a new class of inhabitants into the already troublesome scene. Different from ordinary humans almost as much as they are different from the Apes, the bizarre race of mutations spawned by radioactive fallout possess powers and complexities that are extremely sophisticated and deadly. They, however, are considered merely “freaks” by the primitive gorillas who are not evolved enough to succumb to the mutant's mental attacks. As a final comment on the hopeless futility that finally destroys the world at the film's climax, it is the dim-witted, power-hungry gorillas who dominate Earth at the moment of its passing.
When Fox ingeniously reactivated the series by "having it happen over again," starting with Escape from the Planet of the Apes, they treated viewers to a closer look at some of the fascinating details of Boulle's original concept. In terms of class structure, we discover how it was a chimpanzee who led the apes in to rebellion - a curious circumstance, considering how the chimps eventually lose almost all their power in later generations. But this idea seems quite reasonable, in retrospect, for neither the gorillas nor the orangutans possessed the necessary imaginative spark to activate such a move.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the film which focuses on this initial movement, is the strongest film of the series in terms of recognizing and projecting the “class separations" as the integral core of its theme. The concept is so convincingly maintained, incidentally, that the film works as a viable and thought-provoking comment on human race relations, as well as a work of imaginative fantasy. We learn that mankind developed the apes as substitute pets after a mysterious cosmic virus destroyed all dogs and cats on Earth. From pets, the simians soon graduate to servant status, and then finally become slaves. It is never satisfactorily explained how special attention directed toward the apes is actually able to evolve them into thinking, rational beings. (After all, the same attention given to dogs and cats didn't breed intelligent members of these species.)
Is Boulle saying that apes are indeed thinking creatures, who only need slight encouragement to realize their potential? This seems far-fetched in realistic terms. But this important point of departure is amplified when a triumphant Caesar (Roddy McDowall) confronts his tormentor and asks why humans were not content treating apes as pets, and why they eventually had to turn them into slaves. The answer is obvious: An intelligent entity can never be a "pet", for he has a mind and can reason. Only slavery can contain a rational race. It was, therefore, inevitable that a struggle for power would ensue, and divide the world, until one group emerged victorious. Future history (from Zira and Cornelius in Escape) told modern man that apes would someday dominate the world and enslave the human race. Caesar, perpetrating the movement of conquest, apparently hopes to change this inevitable cruelty to humans by attempting to bring the two races together as equals.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes, with all its cinematic problems, at least functions as a continuation of ideas and theories originally established in Conquest. The apes have bested their former masters and resolve to live together with the humans in peace. Subordinate forces on both sides of the fence threaten to disrupt the momentary harmony, however, and this last episode ends on an ambiguous note. We have seen forces for good in both races, as well as forces of evil. The only reasonably conclusion to draw from this five-part parable is that all beings of intelligence - whether ape, human, or any other thinking force that might manifest itself - are united in sharing the same positive and negative traits. If any one theme is to be elicited from the Planet of the Apes series, it has to concern man’s place in his society, world and universe. It was sincerely the intention of the fine minds who created these films to comment on how we view ourselves and others. Science Fiction happened to be the route they chose to do so, and it is an extremely effective route, at that.
Through all the spaceships, time-warps, exploding worlds and monkeyshines, we now possess a clear - albeit somewhat tarnished - picture of ourselves.
THE PLANET OF THE APES CLASS STRUCTURE CHECKLIST
The Planet of the Apes class structure is composed of the following - APES: Gorillas, Orangutans, Chimpanzees. HUMANS: Astronauts in the future, 20th-Century humans, humans who enslave apes, humans who live side-by-side with apes. MUTANTS: Telepaths at the end of the world, revolutionists during Caesar’s reign.
Below is a chart indicating the social class order during the time period of each film. Principles are listed in order of their importance at that specific time.
(*Attempt is made for apes and humans to live equally. Film ends with offspring of both living happily in peace.)