PLANET of the Apes has no shortage of great sci-fi moments to enjoy. (including some spoilers – if you haven’t seen the film, don’tt read on)
And while everyone remembers Chuck Heston snarling ‘Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!’ or his despairing lament of ‘You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah damn you! God damn you all to hell!’ at the film’s twisty-turny climax, my sci-fi moment of choice is to be found elsewhere.
It comes near the beginning, when after crash-landing on an – apparently – alien planet, Heston’s character Taylor and his colleagues discover primitive humans wandering through a idyllic field.
When fellow astronaut Landon says they got off at the wrong stop, Taylor calls for optimism and, gesturing at the humans, he adds casually, arrogantly: “If this is the best they’ve got around here, in six months’ time we’ll be running this planet.”
As the clip shows, he could not be more wrong as the growing, nagging sense of unease and dissonance that had been building from the first minute is thrust front and centre.
Although Planet of the Apes is set in the far future, like a lot of great science fiction it holds a mirror to the time and place it was made – in this case, late 1960s America.
Entering the decade, America was secure and confident, buoyed by the post-war industrial boom and a society certain of itself and its national identity.
In the year PotA came out, 1968, change was in the air as protests against the Vietnam War reached their peak and US soldiers struggled to beat back the Tet Offensive by the communist North Vietnamese – a struggle the public saw first hand in the victorious but costly Battle of Hue.
At the same time, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, the latter’s death fracturing the civil rights movement and prompting an outbreak of racial tension and violence across the country.
The crew of Apollo 8 – led by Jim Lovell – also orbited the moon for the first time in 1968, going at least some way to reinforce America’s superpower status and its sense of technical and industrial superiority over the rest of the world.
In PotA the parallels are clear, with the futuristic technology on Taylor’s spaceship allowing them to leave contemporary society behind, society which Taylor hopes will have improved by the time they return.
“This much is probably true – the men who sent us on this journey are long since dead and gone. You who are reading me now are a different breed – I hope a better one.”
However that same mastery of technology and knowledge fails in the face of an apparently primitive enemy, the Apes.
Backed by fast editing and Jerry Goldsmith‘s unconventional and jarring score, Taylor and his colleagues are reduced to the level of the humans they mocked – ruthlessly hunted down or killed.
It is shocking to watch as they are the heroes of the film supposedly, astronauts with the right stuff who in the 1960s were as high-profile as movie stars and pop singers in America.
And in Charlton Heston – who had already played the likes of Ben Hur, Moses and El Cid – we had the ultimate example of the all-American hero. Surely he will escape, surely he will make things ‘right’?
But like America itself, his world is turned upside down and the certainties he believes in and represents are brutally rejected and wiped away. That process is not easy to watch, but it is compelling.
Taylor is unable to impose his version of order on the world around him, perhaps in the same way the established order struggled to manage the changes in America which – like Taylor – they could not fully understand.
Instead he is reduced to vainly screaming ‘It’s a madhouse!’ when he is not silenced by his bullet wound or a gag, as the apes humiliate him at every turn.
By the end, Taylor – like America – is heading into a dangerous and unknown land where he will find his destiny, as Dr Zaius says.
That prediction come true in the film’s climax, when Taylor sees a half-buried and rusted Statue of Liberty and realises his attempt to escape the past and the consequences of that society’s actions have failed.
It is – by any measure – a jaw dropping piece of cinema and reveals the influence of Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling on the script. (As well as exposing the woeful 2001 remake for the soulless piece of garbage it is)
It was augmented by the decision to end a film in which sound has played such a role with a silent fade into the closing titles, a masterful touch.
Suddenly the madhouse makes perfect sense to Taylor, who realises he and he alone is paying the price for humanity’s past folly and the world he left behind – a world now trapped in the Forbidden Zone.
He – and we – have come a long way.
It is a journey of discovery that started with a single, throwaway line in a cornfield which is why it makes the Great sci-fi moments hall of fame.