*Spoilers Ahead! *
I previously explored how religion was a major theme in Planet of the Apes (1968), and will continue that exploration in the film’s sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). In the first post, I explained how impending threat of nuclear war influenced much of the story of Planet of Apes, a scenario that connected with audiences then more than it probably would if made today. However, another underlying theme was the roles both science and religion played in the simian society of the film and how it parallels to the role in which it plays in our society today. Beneath the Planet of the Apes expounds on both the theme of nuclear fear and religion vs science. And while the film is largely forgotten when compared to it’s predecessor, and understandably so, it still has much to offer regarding it’s message.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes picks up soon after the events of the first film. A second spacecraft is sent to find Taylor and his crew. But like the first craft, the second also mysteriously crashes onto Earth. This time only one astronaut survies as well, whose first name only is given- Brent. He soon discovers Nova, and through flashbacks come to learn of Taylor’s mysterious disappearance through a mountainside. They together make their way to Ape City, where Brent discovers that apes rule now. After listening to a speech give by a general named Ursus, it soon becomes clear that humans are not well thought of. Ursus insists the apes must take back the Forbidden Zone. Brent backtracks and, with Nova, tries to flee, but not before he is sighted and shot at, injuring his arm. They make their way to Cornelius and Zira’s residence, where he appeals to them for assistance and information on Taylor’s whereabouts. Cornelius and Zira obviously oblige and soon send Brent on his way, but not before Dr. Zaius makes a surprise visit, informing Cornelius and Zira that he will be accompanying Ursus to the Forbidden Zone. After Dr. Zaius leaves, Brent and Nova leave as well, and after a series of capture-and-escape scenes designed to pad the length of the film, Brent and Nova make their way to an underground cavern. It soon becomes clear that the cavern is really an old subway tunnel, leading Brent to realize he is on earth a 1000 years after it’s nuclear destruction. After an ominous buzzing sound leads Brent and Nova further into the underground realm, they come upon a courtyard where Brent is telepathically compelled to drown Nova. Before Nova dies, the telepathic command ends, leaving Nova to recoup while Brent makes his way into a heavily damaged St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Here Brent witnesses a human along with an nuclear bomb. Brent is then apprehended where he is led to a panel of telepaths who procede to interrogate him. They learn of the advancing ape army and reveal that their powers are weapons of illusion. They believe in peace and therefore have no way to thwart the apes beyond detonating the bomb itself. Brent wants no part in their war, leading him to be put in a prison cell where he discovers Taylor. Both Taylor and Brent escape, using the distraction of the ape’s attack on the underground dwelling. Nova is killed in the ensuing battle, leading Taylor and Brent to head to the church to prevent the bomb from being detonated. Unfortunately, the apes reach the church as well, and after pleas to Dr. Zaius to help stop the war go unheeded, a shootout commences. Ursus is killed, along with Brent, and after Dr. Zaius refuses one last request for peace, Taylor stumbles forward, falling and detonating the bomb. Whether Taylor purposely detonated the bomb or not will always be debated.
In the first film, one of the smaller conflicts that permeates throughout the film is that of religion vs. science. In that film, Dr. Zaius represented religion, referring to the Sacred Scrolls whenever conflict arose. Cornelius and Zira, in turn, represented science, believing progress and achievement were more important than dogmatic beliefs. Thus it is interesting that Dr. Zaius is more religiously reserved in this film. This, I believe, is due to how Dr. Zaius uses religion. In the first film, it seems that his overzealous nature for adhering to the Lawgiver’s laws is at first due to his dedicated faith to the Sacred Scrolls. It isn’t until the end that we learn of Dr. Zaius’ true motivation; to ensure no ape discovers the ruins of the cities in the Forbidden Zone and in turn learn of mankind’s role in it’s destruction. Dr. Zaius’ only true belief is that man is inherently destructive, and if given the opportunity, would destroy itself again with the apes as well. Thus, he uses the Sacred Scrolls as a tool to ensure the secret of humanity’s past, and the implications it may have on the apes’ future, stay hidden. At the end of the first movie, only Cornelius and Zira have a partial understanding of the past, but pay for their lives by remaining silent. Therefore, in the Beneath the Plane of the Apes, Dr. Zaius has no incentive to spew religious rhetoric, there is no one to prevent from discovering the truth, save for General Ursus. It immediately becomes clear Dr. Zaius does not care for Ursus. In his speech to the gathered apes in the beginning of the film, Ursus urges that the apes must invade the Forbidden Zone, using the lack of food as his motive. But concealed within his speech lies his true desire- more power. “The only thing that counts is power,” argues Ursus. “The Forbidden Zone may be closed,” continues Ursus, “but now there’s evidence the Forbidden Zone is inhabited… There we can expand the boundaries of our power!” With a final chant of “Invade! Invade! Invade!” Ursus successfully whips up the crowd into a frenzy. Thus it is interesting to see the reluctance on Dr. Zaius’ face, especially after Ursus appeals to the religious, offering up rhetoric from the Lawgiver to substantiate his plan. It seems that the only time religion can be used to influence ideals is when it aligns with what Dr. Zaius believes. So when Ursus decides to march an army to the Forbidden Zone to take it back from the inhabitants within, Dr. Zaius reluctantly accompanies him, no doubt to help ensure that man’s secret be kept.
Thus we see something new in this film regarding religion vs science. In this film we see the death of scientific pursuit manifested in the ruins Brent walks among. While traveling through the underground dwelling, Brent and Nova pass the ruins of the New York Public Library, the New York Stock Exchange, and Radio City Music Hall, signifying the death of knowledge, power, and art. Religion, however, plays an even larger role in the sequel. While in the first film it was mainly used to keep hidden a secret- one that science was literally beginning to unearth; in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, it is being used to wage war. It almost becomes ironic that the one tool Dr. Zaius hoped would keep apekind from becoming self-destructive as mankind had, has instead been used to lead the apes down the same path man had previously traveled. This path leads to a clash with the telepathic mutant-humans who dwell underneath the ruins of what must be New York City. The telepathic mutants, as Brent learns in the film, have built their society around the worship of a still-active nuclear warhead. Where in the first film, the theme of nuclear destruction and the role of religion are in no way related, Beneath of Planet of the Apes combines both, creating a religion that worships a bomb. In fact, so important is the telepaths devotion to their worship of the bomb, the mutant -humans seem to not have any other important tasks. This weapon- a holy weapon of peace according to the mutants- is inscribed with the greek letters Alpha and Omega, the first and last letter of the Greek alphabet. This no doubt holds a double meaning, referring to Christian ideology where God is the Alpha and Omega (first and the last), but also foreshadowing the role the warhead will play (both initially creating a world in which apes come to dominate and soon destroying that same world). Thus, in a way, the telepathics see the value in such a weapon and worship it for it’s power to create and destroy. And while the mutants have evolved to be telepathic, both projecting their thoughts and controlling the minds of others, in the end they divulge that their powers are merely “weapons that are purely illusion.” In many ways, the mutants parallel many fundamentalist Christians: they worship in a church setting, singing hymns and reciting passages that sound like they could have been lifted straight from the Bible. But more telling is the telepaths use of their power, for just like the priests, cardinals, and bishops of the world, they are able to subvert and control the minds of others. But just like the telepaths, their power is merely an illusion, creating something that first seems to be real, but is revealed to be false upon closer examination. Another religious parallel involves a huge statue of the Lawgiver bleeding from the eyes, nose, and mouth- an obvious reference to the stigmata.
In the end, Ursus’ desire to eradicate humans is grounded in religious rhetoric, while the telepaths desire to continue their religion rhetoric is dependent on eradicating the apes. The two scenarios cancel each other out, resulting in the destruction of both species. Religion plays a major role in their destruction, with Ursus calling upon it for justification and the telepaths defending it at any cost. Just like the many religious wars that have been waged in the past, the end never justifies the means.