I love The Planet of the Apes, not only for its superb writing, underscored by its pathos, subtle humor and biting social commentary, but also for its unapologetic misanthropy.
The film was released during what is widely considered a watershed year in American history: 1968, when millions of Americans were convinced that the nation was sliding into anarchy – the year that marked the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the Tet Offensive, which signified to many the turning of American fortunes during the Vietnam War.
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had alerted Americans to the threat of environmental holocaust, while Nuclear proliferation, which raised the specter of yet another manmade calamity, remained a fact of life.
Needless to say, legions of Americans did not foresee a balmy future for humanity, and this pervasive pessimism was evident in The Planet of the Apes.
George Taylor’s Misanthrophy
The star of the film, the late Charlton Heston, acknowledged the same misanthropic attraction to The Planet of the Apes, especially as it was reflected in the character of Col. George Taylor, the commander of the ill-fated space mission.
Taylor had left an earth consumed by selfishness, bigotry, avarice – the maladies that have always plagued our species. He left hoping to find something better.
“I’m a seeker too. But my dreams aren’t like yours,” he explains to the far more idealistic Landon, one of Taylor’s fellow astronauts. “I can’t help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be.”
Hunting Humans for Sport
Of course, Taylor got more than he had hoped for: an intelligent simian species that not only held Homo sapiens in profound contempt but that also hunted them for sport and even as subjects for dissection, with the aim of advancing simian neurological science.
Dr. Zaius, the high minister of religious faith and science – not having experienced an Enlightenment the apes apparently discerned no contradiction between the two – condoned and even actively encouraged this genocidal behavior.
We eventually learn the motivations behind his animus: Zaius was the keeper of a terrible secret, one eventually uncovered by the resourceful Taylor. All that the apes possessed – their culture, their science, their technology, virtually everything that defined advanced simian culture – had been acquired from their former human masters.
Taylor, having developed a healthy revulsion for this “upside down society,” abandoned his misanthropy and marshaled a passionate and eloquent defense of humanity’s legacy.
He had discerned part of the truth: that apes had somehow supplanted humans as the dominant planetary species.
Humanity created a civilization that far surpassed anything that apes could achieve. Ape culture was a shadow of human culture, a mere borrowing from what had survived in the ruins. Zaius knew this.
This was the first irony established in the film, one that seemed to challenge Taylor’s misanthropy.
But the other great irony was Zaius’ vindication in the end. As he intimates to Taylor, he had been engaged in a lifelong struggle to quarantine his species from the pathologies that he knew had led to humanity’s near extinction. Perhaps this even accounted for the arrested development of simian culture: Zaius and other elites, based on their knowledge of humanity’s fate, had perhaps anticipated the costs that inevitably would accompany technological progress.
“You are right, I have always known about man,” Zaius tells Taylor. “From the evidence, I believe his wisdom must walk hand and hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him, even himself.”
Taylor, holding firmly to his newly acquired passion for humanity, expresses stupefaction over the fate of Homo sapiens.
“A planet where apes evolved from men?” he asks. “There’s got to be an answer.”
Zaius’ warns him: “Don’t look for it, Taylor. You may not like what you find.”
Shortly thereafter, Taylor stumbles onto the beached torso of Lady Liberty. The full secret of humanity’s demise is revealed and his misanthropy returns.
“Oh my God. I’m back. I’m home. All the time, it was… We finally really did it,” he exclaims, to the befuddlement of Nova, his mate.
“You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”
Only then is the reader treated to the full significance of the Cornelius’ previous reading from the Sacred Scrolls, the Holy Writ of ape society:
Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.
Many of the threats that preoccupied human beings in the late 1960s are distant memories. To be sure, we have made some progress. But some of the threats evident in the Sixties have taken on an even greater sense of urgency. That is why I consider The Planet of the Apes to be one of the great science fiction masterpieces: The wisdom of Homo sapiens will always walk hand in hand with its idiocy.
Here’s is hoping that wisdom will always stay ahead, if only by a nose.