Thursday, 22 March 2018

The Hidden Meaning of Planet of the Apes (1968)

1968’s Planet of the Apes will forever be one of my favourite films. For a film made half a century ago, Apes, in many ways, still remains decades ahead of its time, and much like a lot of cult genre films, doesn’t get taken as seriously as it should. Planet of the Apes laid the groundwork for many aspects of modern cinema and storytelling that we’ve become so familiar with today, both in the science-fiction genre and the overall sense of the blockbuster, and with the conclusion of the latest incarnation of the series with Matt Reeves' War for the Planet of the Apes, it’s important to look back and reflect at the legacy left behind by the original film. 

What we know today as Planet of the Apes was born from the mind of acclaimed French novelist Pierre Boulle, then-best known for work The Bridge over the River Kwai (adapted for film in 1957). Boulle published La Planète Des Singes in 1963, inspired by the 'human-like expressions' of gorillas in a local zoo, making him contemplate the relationship between man and ape. Inspired by such works as Jonathan Swift's ‘Gulliver's Travels’, Boulle’s original novel discusses the failings of human nature and mankind's over-reliance on technology.

La Planète Des Singes tells the tale of three human explorers from Earth who visit a planet orbiting the star Betelgeuse, in which apes are the dominant species, and human kind has been reduced to a savage animal-like state. While many aspects of the novel were changed upon its adaption to the big screen, the central themes of what became Planet of the Apes can be found in Boulle’s original work. And while the book was met with high praise upon its release, with The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describing it as "a witty, philosophical tale à la Voltaire, full of irony and compassion”, Boulle, however, considered it to be one of his lesser works. 

However, while Boulle seemed to dismiss La Planète Des Singes, there were many people who saw it as a masterpiece, and sought to bring the epic sci-fi novel to the big screen. One of these people was Alain Bernheim (then Boulle's literary agent), who brought the novel to the attention of American film producer Arthur P. Jacobs. Jacobs had recently come to Paris looking for new properties to adapt with his new company, APJAC Productions. Jacobs was looking for a franchise akin to the classic King Kong series, and as a result, Bernheim mentioned Boulle’s novel, not expecting Jacobs would actually be interested. However, Jacobs, intrigued by the fantastic premise, bought the film rights from Pierre Boulle immediately, just before the book’s original publication in 1963. 

After securing the rights to the novel, Jacobs pitched the production to many studios, but received little interest. It was only after Jacobs saw success as a producer with 1964’s What a Way to Go! for 20th Century Fox that he was able to bring Apes to life, with Fox vice-president Richard Zanuck green-lighting the project. 

In order to fully capture the futuristic, science-fiction tone of the novel, Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling was brought on to pen the screenplay in early 1964. While Serling admired Boulle’s original story, he felt that there were several important changes that needed to be made. He later told Cinefantastique that “as talented and creative a man as Boulle is, he does not have the deftness of a science fiction writer. Boulle's book was not a parody, but rather a prolonged allegory about morality, more than it was a stunning science fiction piece. But it contained within its structure a walloping science fiction idea.”

As a result, Serling oversaw major changes in translating the story of Planet of the Apes to cinema. For instance, one notable change was in the ending of the movie. Boulle’s original novel saw protagonist Ulysse escape from the Planet and return to Earth, only to find a similar fate awaiting him (which was later adapted into Tim Burton’s 2001 remake), but Serling sought to invent a new twist ending to shock audiences. What Serling eventually came up with ended up becoming one of the most iconic endings in cinematic history, as Captain George Taylor discovers the ruined Statue of Liberty, realising that instead of landing on a distant planet, as first though, he instead landed home, on Earth, some two thousand years after his departure. 

Around this time, Ben Hur star Charlton Heston was brought onto the project, to star as the lead, after being intrigued by the film’s concept by Jacobs, who in turn suggested bringing in Franklin J. Schaffner to direct. With a rough draft of the final script submitted by Serling, a director and an actor in place, a test screen was shot in order to convince 20th Century Fox that the film could succeed; Heston played the role of Thomas (later renamed ‘Taylor’), and veteran actor Edward G. Robinson was recruited to play the role of Dr. Zaius.

While Fox were enthused by the screen test, and encouraged the filmmakers to go ahead making the film, they were concerned with the more technically advanced ape society which Serling had written (much like how the apes were described in the book), believing that it would be too expensive to film, requiring many expensive sets, props, and special effects. As a result, Fox reduced the film’s budget to a more manageable $5.8 million, and hired veteran writer Michael Wilson to re-work Serling’s screenplay. In order to save on special effects costs, Wilson's script changed the ape society into a more primitive and rudimentary one, removing much of the futuristic elements, while also reworking much of the film’s dialogue, but retaining Serling's proposed ending, as well as the heavy themes of social commentary from the original draft. 

Social commentary played an interesting role in shaping the story of Apes. In both the film and Boulle’s novel, many thematic elements sought to discuss the state of society during the 1960's. At the time of the film’s release, America was going through a political and social breakdown; involvement in Vietnam had rapidly increased, as the North Vietnamese Army launched the Tet Offensive, the nation was grieving over the deaths of political figures such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the struggle for black equality continued, all while the Cold War continued to escalate, and the risk of mutually assured destruction continued to loom over the world’s shoulders.

Eric Greene, in his book Planet of the Apes as American Myth, describes the film as a “political allegory of racial conflict”, one which “created fictional spaces whose social tensions resembled those then dominating the United States”, allowing the filmmakers the chance to discuss these real life issues through the lens of science fiction. The genre has always been used to explore the problems with our world from a different perspective, and Planet of the Apes is a prime example of this. With the film presenting humans as the subdominant species, in comparison to the Apes, it plays on the idea of segregation and the struggle for equality which was still going on in 1968, looking at how humans are treated as second class citizens by the apes, and considered inferior to the apes. It’s about how power corrupts and can be used unjustly by those who have it, and that one isn’t always aware of the injustice until they experience it themselves, such as the characters of Dr. Zira and Cornelius, and their relationship with Taylor. 

In a much broader sense, the film discusses the grim future which many deemed lay ahead for the United States, and also the world. Greene describes it as “a gloomy account of America’s constant failure to solve its issues within the context of a racial, societal and political apocalypse”, and how this instability reflects the struggles within our own society, and this was captured perfectly in the film’s final image, the fallen Statue of Liberty, representing the loss of ideals, values and innocence by decades of unjust wars and lack of freedom and equality for all.

When Planet of the Apes was finally released in theatres in February 1968, it quickly became one of the most popular movies of the year, grossing over $30 million on its $5 million budget. And in addition, the film became something of a pop culture touchstone, setting the standard for aspiring science fiction films that would follow it, while serving as a mirror to our society, asking questions about the conflicts within humanity, and the issues which divided and tormented us at this period of time, all through a wildly outlandish and outrageous premise. And, I think that’s why the ending (in particular) became so iconic over time; while throughout the film, we follow Taylor on his quest to escape from the world of the Apes and return home to Earth, this revelation flips the entire premise on its head, painting the film in colours all too familiar for contemporary audiences. 

It’s revealed that the antagonistic Apes didn’t destroy human society, but the humans did, and through the exact same circumstances that audiences of the late 1960's feared. When Taylor says the infamous line “Damn them, damn them all to hell!”, it’s unclear as to whether he’s referring to the Apes, or to his own society. Throughout the film, Taylor is depicted as a cynic, someone disconnected and disillusioned with human society, and this gut-wrenching revelation brings him, and the audience with him, to his knees, realising that humanity’s worst fears have been exercised, and as a result, caused their own destruction. 

Much like Boulle’s original novel, the film serves as a grim warning about humanity’s future, but while Boulle believed human civilisation would fall just as all civilisations do over time, the filmmakers sought to warn us that the biggest danger we face isn’t so much that of nuclear war, but of ignorance and intolerance for one another. While mutually assured destruction is the danger, it can only be acted upon by the worst characteristics of ourselves. By displaying the worst parts of our humanity as the cause of our demise, the film reminds us that the world existed before humanity, and likely will exist after humanity, and that we, as a species, embody both the best and worst of ourselves. As Taylor states in the opening sequence, “somewhere in the universe, there must be something better than man”, and maybe that something is a Planet of the Apes

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