Major Spoilers Ahead!
I had the privilege to grow up in a household where my parents exposed me to so many great films: both old and new. One of those films was the original Planet of the Apes. I must have been quite young as I don’t remember what age I was when I first saw it, however I do remember being captivated by the film’s mystery. And when the now iconic ending was revealed, I was mesmerized. Unfortunately, I didn’t fully understand the implications of the film until I was a little older, after all I never grew up during that time when impending nuclear war was a possibility. I’ve since seen the movie many times, catching something I had previously missed with each subsequent viewing. Upon watching it recently, however, I was surprised that I never realized one of the major themes that ran throughout the original film: Religion vs. Science. In this post, I shall explore this theme in Planet of the Apes, and explore in another post later, the role religion plays in the sequel: Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
By 1968 man had already been into space, and one year away from landing on the moon. Thus it came as no surprise that on everyone’s mind were all the potential possibilities that awaited mankind. Sci-fi films too where beginning to enter a new realm, where the B-Movie alien monster-of-the-week was being replaced with more cerebral, complicated themes. 1968 alone saw films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Countdown (an early Robert Altman film), and Planet of the Apes released, introducing complicated themes and social commentary to the genre. And while the shocking ending of Planet of the Apes is what will forever identify that film, it’s the theme of religion vs. science that makes the film relevant in a whole new way.
As many know, following World War II, the two countries to come out of the war essentially intact were America and Russia (known at that time as USSR). With America representing democracy and Russia being communist, tensions soon arose, with both countries preparing for nuclear war. The idea of another potential World War, this time involving even more powerful nuclear weapons, was on everyone’s mind. That war never came, obliviously, but at that time it did provoke fear in Americans that it could happen at any moment. It was that fear that soon made it’s way into many films of the 50s and 60s. Fail Safe, On the Beach, and even Dr. Strangelove (which tackles the subject from an absurdist point of view) all dealt with the potential consequence of nuclear war. Thus, it was this element that made Planet of the Apes so impactful in 1968. The way the film delivers this message was brilliantly done as we shall soon see.
Planet of the Apes begins with a manned mission in space. Astronaut George Taylor (played by Charlton Heston) is the last to enter into hibernation, but before doing so, gives a monologue about humanity and his hope that it is better than when he when last left it. “Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox that sent me to the stars, still make war with his brother?,” inquires Taylor as he sends his last transmission to earth. After joining the crew in hibernation, the spacecraft falls out of the sky for no explicable reason, like a missile heading to earth. Three of the four crewmen survive, including Taylor, who observes that the year is currently 3978. After taking in their surroundings, they begin to search for life on the miserably dead planet they seem to have landed on. They soon come across life, and no sooner do they make contact with other humans who are mute and primitive in nature, their group is attacked by gorillas on horseback. Taylor sustains an injury to his neck and awakes in a cage in Ape City. It is here that Taylor learns of the dominance of apes, while humans seem simple and docile, not capable of talking or cognitive skills. Taylor is soon able to gain the attention of Zira, an animal psychologist, but because of the wound to his throat, is unable to communicate. Zira’s fascination with Bright Eyes, as she call him, leads her to seek the opinion of Cornelius, an archaeologist and companion to Zira. Cornelius’ research in the Forbidden Zone, where Taylor and his crew crash-landed, has led him to believe a non-simian civilization once thrived there many years ago. However, he believes Taylor isn’t any more special than the other humans. It isn’t until Taylor is able to steal paper and pen, that he is able to communicate with Zira, confirming her suspicions and drawing the ire of the Dr. Zaius, Cornelius’ and Zira’s boss. A tribunal is held to determine what is to be made of Taylor, but it soon becomes obvious that there is no intention to determine the truth. After the tribunal, Dr. Zaius confronts Taylor about his origin, alerting Taylor to a secret that Dr. Zaius seems to be hiding. When Taylor reiterates his story about being from Earth and crash-landing on the planet, Dr. Zaius determines that a lobotomy is necessary to keep Taylor in line. Cornelius and Zira come to the rescue, however, and flee with Taylor and his new mute woman, Nova, back to the forbidden zone in hopes they can unravel the mystery that seems to dwell there. Upon arriving at Cornelius’ dig site, they are surrounded by an army along with Dr. Zaius, who agrees to enter the cave and look at the evidence Cornelius has to offer. After refuting all evidence offered up by Cornelius, an old human doll Nova is playing with calls out “Mama”, leaving Dr. Zaius to finally admit that a human civilization lived in the what is now the Forbidden Zone many years ago. Dr. Zaius proclaims, “The Forbidden Zone was once a pradise, [man] made it a desert…ages ago.” After a brief altercation, Taylor is allowed to leave with Nova and search for clues of this past civilization, with Dr. Zaius warning that Taylor wouldn’t like what he found. But a determined Taylor rides on, following the shoreline until he comes across a towering remnant, The Statue of Liberty, buried waist deep in sand. Upon realizing that he is on earth, Taylor laments, “you maniacs! you blew it up! god damn you!” Thus, the secret Dr. Zaius was trying to hide, was that it was man’s self destructive nature that led to apes taking over the world.
The twist ending reveal at the end of the film was Rod Serling’s contribution in his early version of the script. His story was never used, however, as his version had the apes living a more technological life which would have involved expensive sets, special effects, and makeup. And while the script was re-written by Michael Wilson, the ending remained in the final version. It’s interesting that Michael Wilson wound up writing the final script, having been blacklisted in the 50s for allegedly being communist, Wilson was well aware of the effects the cold war had on society. Thus it comes as no surprise that nuclear destruction plays such a big role in Planet of the Apes. Taylor longs for a humanity that has reached a point without war , but in the end, discovers that it was war that caused the upside-down world he now dwells on. But underlying all of this is an even deeper theme, one that has been relevant since the Age of Enlightenment: Religion vs. Science.
Religion has been a part of civilizations since recorded history and probably even before. It was religious restrictions that drove the Puritans to pursue a new life, eventually coming to New England. Following World War II and the growing concerns of communist ideas infiltrating the U.S., religion became a way of weeding out communist sympathizers. Atheism was embraced by the Soviet Union, therefore America took the extreme opposite stance, embracing Christianity more tightly then ever before. The short phrase, ‘Under God’, was added to the pledge of allegiance in 1954, to further separate America from other countries and their pledges. Religion became another way to help identify communist sympathizers. After all, if one weren’t Christian, then they surely must have been communist. This is why it is so interesting to see the theme of religion vs. science throughout Planet of the Apes. While the final take-home message was that man is invariably destructive with the potential to obliterate the world, it’s more interesting to see one of the causes of that destructiveness. Throughout millennia, man has been waging war in the name of religion. But with the Age of Enlightenment and growing scientific understanding, it seems that lately, religion has be waging war on science. In Planet of the Apes, Dr. Zaius represents religion, continually quoting the Sacred Scrolls and renouncing claims of scientific understanding. Therefore, it’s ironic that Dr. Zaius holds both the title of Defender of the Faith and Minister of Science. Both seem contradictive, and when Taylor points this out, Dr. Zaius confidently replys, “There is no contradiction between faith and science… true science!” For in Dr. Zaius’ eyes, religion is the true science. At first it seems that these are Dr. Zaius’ firm beliefs, but it soon becomes apparent that he may not hold so firmly to these beliefs as it originally appears. In the end, Dr. Zaius has known the whole time about man’s self-destructive past, and in turn, used religion to manipulate his people to keep from them that secret. It isn’t divine instructions from the Sacred Scrolls that is meant to keep apes from entering the Forbidden Zone, it’s what may be found there that is so dangerous. Dr. Zaius’ intentions may be good, but by using religion to help safeguard his people, he is in turn holding back scientific achievement. Perhaps, this is way the apes haven’t progressed beyond a certain point, living out a somewhat primitive lifestyle when compared to the technological advances man achieved. Thusly, science is portrayed as evil and unnecessary, and with it’s growth stifled, left to those dedicated enough to pursue it (for example: Cronelius and Zira). Unfortunately, it is through mistakes that lessons are learned, both in science and history. By holding back scientific pursuits, Dr. Zaius may have created a buffer from potential destruction, but has also ensured that previous lessons never be learned. In a way, he is almost setting up the possibility for religion to be the catalyst that ensures war, as it has in years past. For centuries, religion has played a role in the development of mankind, but with new scientific achievements exponentially made each passing day, religion is no longer as important to that development as it used to be. And yet, in a world where religion is so heavily pushed upon people, it’s a shame that many have forgotten the scientific achievements that have brought us to where we are today. Perhaps this is why Planet of the Apes seems more relevant today then it ever has.