The classic Charlton Heston film, Planet of the Apes examines a world where humans are mute animals held in cages by the advanced ape species. The reversal is not complete. The Apes live in a still developing society with limited technology (they have not discovered flight, still use horses for most transportation, etc.) that is divided into three sections. The Orangutans are the religious leaders and control interpretation of a religious law that governs the society. The Gorillas control the military/police force. Chimpanzees occupy the scientist and other non-religious or military positions. Taylor, an astronaut from Earth, and his crew are put in a spaceship that launches them into the future and crash lands. They trek through a desert surviving only to be captured along with another group of “wild” humans. Taylor’s throat is injured, but eventually heals and he is put through the humiliation of being treated not only as an animal with no rights but the horror of watching one of his crewmates be lobotomized in an effort to maintain Ape superiority. Taylor eventually escapes, but learns the terrible truth about what happened on the Planet of the Apes.
SPOILER (Normally I wish to avoid this, but it is critical to my point.)
The ship has landed on Earth in the future. Humans destroyed themselves and their society in some terrible war. As Apes evolved, they wanted to prevent humanity from ever doing this again, which lead to the religious texts the Apes now live by. The theme of “Man’s inhumanity to man” is cleverly presented with the Apes as the oppressors. It is easy to identify with Taylor; fed up with the way mankind has treated itself, and now subjected to more horrors by something he would have considered an animal. It poses the question “what if we were not the top of the food chain?” We have committed the same heinous acts of imprisonment, denial of rights, and cruelty against members of our own species for years, just for being different. It is White Supremacy taken to a new, frightening level. It even presents the issue of the cruelty being masked by the government. The religious leaders of the Apes know that man was once the dominant species, and wish to hide this fact from the rest of their society.
Tucked away behind and woven into these grand themes are a few values that are truly a product of the sixties. Taylor speaks of “lots of love-making but no love” and tells a young rebellious Ape “never trust anyone over thirty.” He also notes the divide in the Ape hierarchy and mocks that “Some apes, it seems, are more equal than others.” This Orwellian reference is appropriate considering the fight against communism going on in Vietnam at the time the movie was made and released.
Then there is the “What if?” scenario in which the human race creates a wasteland and nearly wipes itself out. The exact details are not given, but it seems a war, possibly nuclear, is the most likely scenario. The Apes exhibit the same properties that humans did. They are mirroring our prejudice, tendency towards fanaticism, and violence. The movie hints at a cycle that seems doomed to be repeated. Taylor, upon the moment of realization, with a fallen and broken Statue of Liberty revealing to him the truth, falls to his knees and says “God damn you all to hell.” It is with this shocking and accusatory ending that the viewer must decide if we are truly so cursed, or if there is a solution.