The Original Planet of The Apes
A Touch of the Twilight Zone
The year was 1968. Our nation was cocooned from what was raging in Vietnam. Our humanity as a nation was in question. Rod Serling penned the original script. His trademark irony was present.
Charlton Heston’s character, the hyper-cynical misanthrope George Taylor, fled into space to find something better than man. But what he encountered was simians representing the worst of humanity. The gorillas, the soldier class, were tasked with hunting down the primitive humans for blood sport, and to provide the chimpanzee scientist class with experimental material. The orangutans that ran the society were as corrupt and murderous as the Nixon administration.
Filmmakers wisely knew that what was essential in pulling this off was for the apes to look realistic. Luckily John Chambers was on board and instead of putting the actors in tacky gorilla suits, used prosthetics that made the apes look much more realistic. But it was also the presence of A-list actors underneath the makeup that carried it over.
Rather than follow the Hollywood tradition of using poverty-row actors like Lon Chaney Jr. (Chaney specialized in werewolf and Frankenstein parts), the filmmakers used acclaimed actors. Playing off Heston’s unique combination of gravitas, machismo, and doomed qualities were other A-list actors. The corrupt and prejudiced orangutan leader of the society, Dr. Zaius, was played by the classically trained actor Maurice Evans. The dissident of the piece, the compassionate Dr. Zira, was played by the Academy Award-winning actress Kim Hunter.
It is only the original that the Library of Congress chose for preservation for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The films today cannot match the excellence of the original, even with CGI making the apes look even more realistic than the prosthetics used in the 1968 film. The scripts are terrible.The animals-nobler-than-humans theme has been done to rags. And without the threat of nuclear war, the films represent little more than a quest for tolerance.
I will always remember my surprise at the final scene when Astronaut George Taylor completes his journey, falling to his knees in front of a buried Statue of Liberty, swearing, and condemning humanity for destroying the earth. Todays Pandemic and Moral Dilemmas reminded me of the movie's ending.
“We are all in this together.” We’ve heard that claim frequently. It is a fine claim, a fine aspirational claim. We should see ourselves as all in this together, and we could make that aspiration more real. But we are not there now. And the gap between “is” and “ought” is even greater when we broaden the aspiration to all humanity, in all nations. Are we really all in this together?
Now, where can we converse, argue, debate, discuss, imagine, and deliberate about these and other moral dilemmas that stick out today like Lady Liberty’s torch on a fictional post-apocalyptic beach? The answer to that question may imply another moral dilemma.