I promised I would write this post over a month ago and I have finally done it! My only concern is that it’s been over a month since I’ve watched this movie. However, I took notes about some of the things that most stood out to me.
It’s not quite what I was expecting, though I did not expect it to adhere closely to the novel by Pierre Boulle. The book is a satire, an examination of the inevitable decline and de-evolution of civilization and a treatise on how the difference between civilization and savagery is wafer-thin. The movie, on the other hand, seems more about human hubris and self-destruction.
George Taylor (Charlton Heston) and his team of three other astronauts are in hibernation on a spaceship, but it crashes on a planet long before it was supposed to. One astronaut dies, while the other three go out into the new world, searching for any sign of life (even plant life). For the first twenty minutes or so, they travel through vast, barren wastelands and it’s visually stunning…as the men look small, insignificant and lost.
But eventually they run into human life…and simian life. But it’s all reversed. The simians are the sentient beings, while the humans are like animals. Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) are two chimpanzee scientists who try to help Taylor and who ironically seem like the most human characters of all.
But what first strikes one is what an irascible, egoistic misanthrope Taylor. is He hates humanity, but hates it even more when monkeys are on top while humans are on the bottom…because now it means that he’s treated like he’s on the bottom, despite his own feeling of superiority.
At first, it seemed like the film was going to being partly about religious bigotry, how religion is incompatible with science and Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) is presented as the dogmatic zealot who will squash the truth at any cost, persecute Taylor and the two scientists for their honest inquiring. But then the movie pulls a switch on the audience. Dr. Zaius is revealed to be – not a religious fanatic, but a pragmatist. Unlike Zira and Cornelius, he always knew that the religion was not true. He also always knew (mostly) the truth about Taylor.
But Zaius believes that humans are inherently violent and that the only way to protect simian civilization is to shun humanity and its civilization and arrogance. He hides the truth, because he believes it will lead to apocalypse. He seems to want to keep simian civilization from developing too far. Though one can’t help but feel that he is fighting a losing battle. One can usually only cover the truth for so long.
But in a way, the film seems to endorse his point of view. He warns about what Taylor will find in the desert (a nuclear wasteland, as it turns out). What Taylor finds is the half buried Statue of Liberty and he realizes that he’s on earth and it destroyed itself with nuclear weapons. Considering his low opinion of humanity, it is surprising how shocked Taylor is by this discovery.
What I was curious about, though, is how representative Taylor is supposed to be of human civilization. Is he an anomaly or representative of the people who nihilistically blew themselves away. I’m inclined to think he’s meant to be representative, since only a misanthrope would be capable of cynically retaliating with nuclear weapons.
What made the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) effective between the Soviet Union and America during the Cold War was that neither side wanted to die. They wanted very much to live and one hears stories of government officials emerging from viewing the destructive capacities of their weapons with faces drained of all color, horrified at what could be done. I heard one story of a soviet official who noticed on his radar what looked like a nuclear weapon heading towards Russia. In truth, he should have fired back, but it didn’t make sense to him that America would only send one missal and he held back, believing it to be an anomaly. He was right and he saved the would from destruction.
But what it illustrates is the powerful drive to survive that people have. In that sense, Taylor’s misanthropic impulse to wash his hands of humanity and embark on a mission that will take him thousands of years into the future is nihilistic and an endorsement of the kind of death-wish that leads to mutually assured destruction
Taylor’s lack of faith in anything – religion, humans, civilization – and his endorsement of rebellion (he encourages Zira’s nephew to keep up the good fight of rebellion) does not, in truth, seem sympathetic. It seems symptomatic of what led to death and destruction in the first place. Making Dr. Zaius’s concerns seem oddly valid, if very possibly doomed.