“Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”
These are the first words that Taylor (Charlton Heston) speaks directly to the civilized apes in the 1968 cult classic Planet of the Apes. In fact next week, on Feb. 8th, it will be the 40th anniversary of the film’s original U.S. theatrical release. I caught it on cable this week, and was struck by how well it stands the test of time. What’s more, it didn’t depend on flashy special effects (like the 2001 remake did) to tell a great story. Here, it was all about the ideas — and considering the mess mankind was making of the world in 1968, it was right on target.
It was really just a B-movie, as was most science fiction up until the box-office explosion that was Star Wars in1977. But as B-movies go, POTA was one of the most thought-provoking and philosophical movies ever. It took on evolution, medical ethics, environmentalism, war… all the same issues we’re still bickering about today. It’s got plenty of action, and it’s even kinda sexy, but the social and political message was the key to it all.
By showing apes who act like us, and who treat the humans like animals, Rod Serling and Michael Wilson’s screenplay (based on the Pierre Boulle novel) exposes the brutality, arrogance, dishonesty and foolishness behind most of what we call “civilized” human behavior. Serling, as many of us already know, was the brilliant mind behind The Twilight Zone. He actually didn’t write many films for theatrical release, so his work on Planet of the Apes is significant.
Charlton Heston’s acting, of course, was over the top. But since it’s Chuck, we don’t mind. He was one of the finest over-actors of his generation, and nowhere is it more apparent than in POTA. And his chick (Nova, played by the lovely Linda Harrison) was hot enough to make any man want to crash-land his spaceship and be taken prisoner by talking apes. Meanwhile Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter, as the only reasonable apes of the bunch, do an admirable job of looking compassionate and concerned, even from behind those stiff masks that make it impossible to smile. They’re certainly kinder and more soulful than Dick Cheney ever was.
And then there’s that ending. That grand, glorious, goofy ending… I won’t spoil it for you, though. Instead,
Now say it with me, people: “Damn you! Damn you all to hell!”