I find it hard to believe that in all the time that I’ve been writing this blog I’ve not written about one of my all-time favorite movies.Fortunately this 1968-fest gives me a chance to rectify that.
I can’t remember how young I was when I first saw Planet of the Apes. One of the great things about the late 90s and early 70s was that studios would regularly re-release recent hits to theaters in what was both an opportunity for them to make a bit more return on investment and for audiences to revisit a movie they liked of to catch one they may have missed the first time around. This is how I saw a number of movies from Disney classics to Ray Harryhausen effects extravaganzas, to, yes, the Planet of the Apes films and yes, I got to see them on the big screen.
As a matter of fact, one of the local theaters would regularly have extra cheap Saturday morning matinees where they would, for instance, run a month of Sinbad movies or Apes movies or whatever.
Anyway, that was how my introduction to the Planet of the Apes films came about.
Now I don’t figure, at this point, that I need to go into the plot of the movie very much. It’s become so much a part of the cultural lexicon that even those who have never seen the movie know most of the plot points including the climactic ending. So that’s not where I want to put my focus today. Instead I want to take a look at the character of Taylor and how he reflects a lot of the feelings and concerns of the people and the world at the time the movie was made.
And that completes my final report until we reach touchdown. We’re now on full automatic, in the hands of the computers. I have tucked my crew in for the long sleep and I’ll be joining them soon. In less than an hour, we’ll finish our sixth month out of Cape Kennedy. Six months in deep space – by our time, that is. According to Dr. Haslein’s theory of time, in a vehicle traveling nearly the speed of light, the Earth has aged nearly 700 years since we left it, while we’ve aged hardly at all. Maybe so. This much is probably true – the men who sent us on this journey are long since dead and gone. You who are reading me now are a different breed – I hope a better one. I leave the 20th century with no regrets. But one more thing – if anybody’s listening, that is. Nothing scientific. It’s purely personal. But seen from out here everything seems different. Time bends. Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely. That’s about it. Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?
The movie opens with Taylor’s monologue which serves as an precis of his outlook toward mankind. He mentions that the people he imagines listening to his recording are a different and hopefully better breed, and then goes on to call man, with no small amount of irony and cynicism, a “marvel of the universe” and a “glorious paradox”.
We get even more insight into Taylor’s outlook in a conversation with fellow astronaut Landon as they begin their trek across the wasteland they have found themselves stranded on. First, Taylor engages in a little psychoanalysis of his crewmate:
“Straighten me out on something,” he says “Why did you come along at all? You volunteered. Why?” When Landon seemingly has no answer, he continues: “I’ll tell you. They nominated you for the Big One and you couldn’t turn it down. Not without losing your All-American standing”
“Climb off me, will you!” Landon replies. It’s obvious that Taylor’s words are cutting a little too close to the heart.
Taylor won’t stop, however, going on to say “And the glory, don’t forget that. There’s a life-sized bronze statue of you somewhere. It’s probably turned green by now, and nobody can read the name plate. But never let it be said we forget our heroes…Oh, and one last item. Immortality. You wanted to go on forever. (pause) Well, you damn near made it. Except for Dodge and me, you’ve lived longer than anybody. And with Stewart dead, it looks like we’re the last of the strain. You got what you wanted, kid. How does it taste?”
Finally, after a bit of a rest, Landon responds. “Okay. You read me well enough. Why can’t I read you?” Even though Taylor tells him not to bother, Landon continues: “Dodge … he’s not like me at all. But he makes sense. Held walk naked into a live volcano if he thought he could learn something no other man knew. I understand why he’s here. But you…You’re no seeker. You’re negative.”
“But I’m not prepared to die,” Taylor says, referring to an earlier conversation.
“I’d like to know why not. You thought life on Earth was meaningless. You despised people. So what did you do? You ran away.”
For a moment Taylor is quiet. Then he quietly responds “No, not quite, Landon. I’m a seeker too. But my dreams aren’t like yours. I can’t help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be. .”
Of course, the irony in all of this is that the culture that Taylor does find is truly no better than the one he left behind. It could even be argued that it is worse. Certainly it is for humanity. For the most part, though, it mostly resembles a pre-industrial revolution Earth, both in its technology and its mores.
The Apes, while not strictly segregated, certainly have a type of caste system that sets their place in society. They are also ruled by their religion which is embodied in the ape who is also their chief scientist, Dr. Zaius. Then their is their treatment on humans, whom they consider to be merely beasts with no thoughts or feelings of their own.
But let’s go back to Zaius for just a moment, because we find out that despite his outward facade, he is an ape with a secret, because while he may be willfully ignorant of the full truth about the relationship between man and ape, he certainly knows more than he is letting on, and that is enough to make him afraid of Taylor and what he may represent. At one point he even tells Taylor “All my life I’ve awaited your coming and dreaded it.” At another he states “You are right, I have always known about man. 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. ”
So where does this leave Taylor? Well, as we know from the climax, his worse thoughts about the world and people he left behind have come true. He hasn’t found that intelligence grater than man, that something better. And, especially considering what happens in the sequel, it seems that neither he, nor mankind, ever will.
In some way, it seems fitting to wrap up this look back at 1968 with Planet of the Apes. because in a lot of ways, and most especially in its ending, it encapsulates a lot of what was going on in that year. It is a film in some ways about hope for a better future. It’s a film that can be read as being about race relations. There’s even a teenage character who can be said to represent the burgeoning youth culture of the time. It’s a movie about the relationship between religion and politics. And it is, like many of the films that came out in that year and the next few, a film that ends on a decidedly downbeat note that leaves one with a question about just what humanity is doing to ourselves and our world.