above: 1968 film trailer for Planet of the Apes (link).
The original 1968 film Planet of the Apes received an honorary Academy Award for the amazing makeup used to create the expressive ape characters (the human actors shine through in a way that is truly wonderful to behold, while at the same time looking spellbindingly simian), as well as nominations for Best Costume Design (the costumes create a blend of dignity and cool for the cynical orangutans, a blend of utility and academia in the earnest chimpanzees, and a feeling of raw menace in the militaristic gorillas) and Best Original Score (for a remarkably unsettling musical soundtrack that sets your teeth on edge from the outset and keeps them there for the remainder of the film).
But as outstanding as all those achievements truly were, and as essential a role as that artistry played in creating the disturbingly immersive world of the screenplay, to praise the 1968 Planet of the Apes merely for its groundbreaking effects, makeup, and music misses what I believe to be the film's towering achievement in the epistemological realm.
To be fair, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does not actually have an Oscar category for "Best Epistemological Film," although they do not have an Oscar for "Best Makeup" either, and that didn't stop them from awarding an honorary award for John Chambers (1922 - 2001) for his makeup effects in the film (he was also the makeup legend responsible for Mr. Spock's signature ears). The film deserves to be recognized in the "search for truth" department, because in addition to all its other memorable and ground-breaking aspects, its real theme centers around the question: "Do we have the courage to face the truth?"
The movie gets right into that theme with the important lead-in sequences, after the ship has crashed and the three survivors are making their way through the barren and inhospitable terrain of the Forbidden Zone. Right away, protagonist George Taylor (whom we have already seen from his opening monologue to be both cynical and philosophical) launches into a series of verbal jabs at officer Landon, establishing the theme of "letting go of illusions that prevent us from seeing the truth" (sequence begins at 0:13:17):
Taylor: We’ve got food and water enough for three days.
Dodge: How long is a day?
Taylor: That’s a good question. Landon . . . Hey, Landon! Join the expedition.
Landon: Sorry, I was thinkin’ about Stuart. What do you suppose happened?
Taylor: Air leak: she died in her sleep.
Landon: You don’t seem very cut-up about it.
Taylor: It’s a little late for a wake: she’s been dead nearly a year.
Landon: That means we’ve been away from Earth for eighteen months.
Taylor: Our time. You’ve gone grey. Apart from that you look pretty chipper for a man who’s two thousand thirty-one years old. I read the clocks: they bear out Haslan’s hypothesis. We’ve been away from Earth for two thousand years, give or take a decade. Still can’t accept it? Time’s wiped out everything you ever knew: it’s all dust.
Landon: Prove it! If we can’t get back, it’s still just a theory.
Taylor: It’s a fact, Landon. Buy it: you’ll sleep better.
This exchange establishes Taylor as a devotee of the unvarnished truth and an enemy of cherished illusions, although he will soon face challenges which will reveal his own difficulty in getting past some of his own assumptions.
In case the above exchange does not signal to us that this film will be pushing boundaries in areas that go far beyond makeup and costume, the next character dialogue (which follows several minutes of trudging across the eerie and forboding landscape) continues where that one left off, and amplifies it. The three travelers collapse in the shelter of a large boulder after escaping an avalanche of rolling rocks, and check their supplies (sequence begins at 0:17:54):
Taylor: Everybody all right? Water check.
Dodge: Eight ounces.
Dodge: It doesn’t add up: thunder and lightning and no rain. Cloud cover at night. That strange luminosity.
Landon: If we could just get a fix.
Taylor: What would that tell you? I’ve told you where you are and when you are.
Landon: All right-all right.
Taylor: You’re three hundred light years from your precious planet. Your loved ones are dead and forgotten for twenty centuries – twenty centuries! Even if you could get back, they’d think you were something that fell out of a tree.
Dodge: Aww, Taylor, quit ridin’ him.
Taylor: There’s just one reality left: we are here and it is now. You get hold of that and hang onto it, or you might as well be dead.
Landon: I’m prepared to die.
Taylor: He’s prepared to die! Doesn’t that make you misty! Chalk up another victory for the human spirit!
These two exchanges are vital to setting up the biting social commentary that the film will later deliver through the portrayal of a society of apes that is every bit as intolerant and as unwilling to give its citizens access to the truth as . . . well, societies that might be found on other planets in the galaxy where orangutans are not yet in charge.
Primarily, the film achieves this critique through the words and actions of the exalted, orange-clad, perfectly-coiffed and terribly human orangutans, including Dr. Maximus (Commissioner for Animal Affairs), Dr. Honorious (Deputy Minister of Justice), an orangutan identified primarily as "Mr. President" (President of the National Academy), and most importantly the memorable Dr. Zaius, Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith. There are plenty of humorous "human-ape inversion" lines and gags delivered by the chimpanzees and the gorillas, but it is the casual, self-assured, ruthless and utterly cynical orangutans who are the most chilling -- and the most human. They are completely confident in their ability to use smooth argument, condescending ridicule, and the well-placed reference to the scrolls of scripture to triumph over any challenge to their unquestioned authority, and they demonstrate a relish in doing so which is absolutely believable to the viewer -- as if they truly had been doing it their entire lives.
We learn that Dr. Zaius, at least, knows that the dogma in his scrolls cannot stand up to the evidence: that he is aware that humans once ruled the world and even possessed technologies that far surpassed anything the apes have achieved. But he has little fear that his system of mind control will ever be overturned: he ruthlessly wields the power of the military establishment -- and even more frighteningly, the power of the medical establishment -- to keep any inconvenient evidence from spreading doubt among the intellectual class of the chimpanzees.
The climactic scene in the cave by the sea shows that, although he says he will happily admit he is wrong if evidence can be found to support a different view of history, Dr. Zaius possesses skills at sophistry that are capable of defusing almost any evidence that can be presented to him -- but that he is not above dynamiting the evidence if any is found that cannot be explained away even by such a talented and charming sophist as himself. Here are two exchanges that dramatically bring out the battle between those with access to paradigm-shifting evidence, and those who are willing to protect that paradigm (whose motto might be, "You can't handle the truth!")(sequence begins at 1:32:30):
Cornelius: We never meant to be treasonous, sir. But up there, in the face of that cliff, there is a vast cave . . . . and in that cave a fabulous treasure of fossils and artifacts.
Dr. Zaius: I’ve seen some of your fossils and artifacts: they’re worthless.
Taylor: There’s your minister of science! Honor-bound to expand the frontiers of knowledge –
Cornelius: Taylor, please!
Taylor: Except that he’s also chief defender of the faith!
Dr. Zaius: There is no contradiction between faith and science – true science.
Taylor: Are you willing to put that statement to the test?
Cornelius: Taylor, I would much rather that –
Taylor: Take it easy – you saved me from this fanatic: maybe I can return the favor.
Dr. Zaius: What is your proposal?
Taylor: When were those sacred scrolls of yours written?
Dr. Zaius: Twelve hundred years ago.
Taylor: All right – now if they can prove those scrolls don’t tell the whole truth of your history: if they can find some real evidence of another culture from some remote past, will you let them off?
Dr. Zaius: Of course!
Taylor: Let’s go up to the cave.
And, inside the cave, here is part of the critical dialogue in which the evidence that overturns the false timeline of history that the orangutans have been pushing on society is revealed, and Dr. Zaius deftly turns it aside. Cornelius describes evidence at a layer he believes to be about 1300 years old, showing "barbarous" apes and "carniverous gorillas," and then he goes still deeper, to find evidence of more advanced societies (sequence beginning at 1:35:05):
Cornelius: But the artifacts lying here were found at this level – and date back seven hundred years earlier. That’s the paradox! For the more ancient culture, is the more advanced! Now admittedly, many of these objects are unidentified, but clearly they were fashioned by beings with a knowledge of metallurgy! Indeed, the fact that many of these tools are unknown to us suggests a culture which in certain ways equals our own! Some of the evidence is uncontestable.
Dr. Zaius: Don’t speak to me in absolutes! The evidence is contestable.
Cornelius: I apologize, sir.
Dr. Zaius: To begin with, your methods of dating the past are crude, to say the least. There are geologists on my staff who would laugh at your speculation.
This little exchange is very enlightening, and ironic! Because, while in the fictional allegory of the Planet of the Apes, they are talking about evidence that comes from about the time of Taylor's launch (recall in the very first conversation cited above that the astronauts have been away for two thousand years, give or take a decade), and hence are talking about a human civilization as the "more ancient more advanced culture," abundant evidence exists to assert the very same thing about evidence that we ourselves (meaning human beings on this planet) have found from the time before the earliest recorded civilizations!
In many ways, the more ancient the artifacts, the more advanced it is -- think for example of the evidence which shows that sites as ancient as Stonehenge and Giza appear to have been placed on our globe by builders who knew the precise size and shape of our spherical earth, and who what is more had the ability to place monuments around the planet along geometric great-circle lines and separated by numbers of degrees of latitude that are significant precessional numbers (showing that their locations were no accident, and that very ancient planners could measure longitudinal location better than anyone from any known civilization until the time of Captain Cook).
And yet such evidence is scoffed at and smoothly explained away by the human counterparts of Dr. Zaius and the other members of the Simian Academy. Evidence which is too difficult to explain away has often been destroyed after immediately being proclaimed to be the product of simple hoaxers. Some of this evidence, and the likely reasons why it is so rapidly dismissed, is discussed in The Undying Stars; other examples can be found in previous blog posts such as those found here.
One of the undeniable themes of the 1968 Planet of the Apes, of course, is its opposition to the literal interpretation of scripture. This aspect is quite clear in the tribunal scene in which radical theories that apes might have evolved
from more primitive creatures such as humans are mocked, and ape-scriptures are cited which are tellingly similar to Biblical teachings.
We could even argue that this aspect of the film is established much earlier, in the opening dialogues cited at the outset of our investigation, in which Taylor derisively jabs at Landon with the fact that they are now two thousand years past the world that Landon wants to hold on to (give or take a decade). That these two thousand years (give or take a decade) could also be seen as referring to the now-vanished "Bible times" and that this time span was chosen for that very purpose is evident from other clearly Biblical references in the same dialogue: the voyagers are informed they have enough food and water for three days, and there is a pointed reference to "thunder and lightning and no rain," which clearly describes the weird weather experienced in the Forbidden Zone but which would also recall scriptural verses such as Proverbs 25:14 and Jude 12.
The film is thus obviously attacking literal interpretations of ancient scriptures, if not every aspect of the scriptures themselves, as obstacles to the goal of knowing the truth which forms the film's overarching theme. And certainly the way they are portrayed as a tool for control, oppression, and the excusing of violence in the ape society makes this a valid criticism, for they have been used in just such a way for at least seventeen hundred years in human society, and continue to be so used to this day, as the film makers no doubt intended to say in their movie.
It is even possible that the film intends to point out some connection between those who accept illusions instead of facing the truth and those who ultimately destroyed human civilization -- a destruction that has been evident throughout the film but which Taylor somehow keeps himself from seeing until the very end of the film in the dramatic scene at the beach by the ruined Statue of Liberty (as if apes speaking English and writing in Latin characters should not have clued him in to the fact that he wasn't really on a planet three hundred light years from home all this time).
It is a poignant symbol.
The 1968 Planet of the Apes is a true piece of classic literature, and a masterful exploration of the pursuit of truth and knowing -- and the obstacles and illusions that impede that pursuit of truth and of knowing. It speaks as loudly to us today as it did to the first audiences who saw it in the theater, forty-six years ago and living in a very different world than the one in which we find ourselves, but a world as in need of those who are willing to pursue the truth as the world of 1968 -- or of 3978.