With the release of Rise of Planet of the Apes, it seems a perfect time to revisit the original Planet of the Apes, released at a pivotal moment in contemporary US History in 1968. By this time, the optimism of the early 1960s has given way to cynicism as race riots, divisions over the Vietnam War, and assassinations roiled the country. In the film, which is conceived as an allegory for the civil rights movement, three astronauts, led by Charlton Heston, arrive on a world where apes rule over humans. The astronauts left Earth thousands of years ago on a journey to find alien life.
The film reflects a number of the key issues of the 1960s. Opening a year before the Apollo 11 moon landing, the use of the astronauts as protagonists demonstrates the centrality of the space program during this period. I discussed this in my earlier post on the end of the shuttle program.
The movie also reflects the racial tumult of the period. In a scene that is repeated in Rise, the apes use a fire hose on Heston while they hold him in prison. This scene was inspired by a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, when the Birmingham, AL police do the same to children protesting in 1963. This incident, which was replayed on television, led JFK to propose legislation that would eventually become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Echoes of the youth revolution and the generation gap of the period can be seen as well. One of the apes helping Heston tells him not to act like another adult giving orders. “Never trust anyone over 30,” jokes Heston to the younger ape, a common refrain of the New Left at the time.
Though the civil rights movement had achieved many legal goals by 1968, the women’s movement was still only in its infancy. Betty Friedan and other second-wave feminists had only formed the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. Heston is accompanied by three other astronauts, including one African American man. However, the crew only includes one female astronaut, who was brought for little other purpose than procreation and died during the flight. Though the Soviet Union had already sent up a female cosmonaut, Sally Ride only became the first American women in space in 1983.
Of course, the most famous scene in the movie is still the ending (Spoilers), when Heston discovers that the planet he landed on is actually the Earth of the future. When he sees the remains of the Statue of Liberty, we are left to believe that there has been a full-scale nuclear war, which was one of the central fears of the Cold War. This had been a theme of a number of films of this period, including Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe, both released in 1964. Of course, we had come perilously close to that outcome in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which had occurred a few years earlier in 1962. It’s possible that younger viewers don’t make that connection.
Finally, in a preview of his later role as head of the NRA, Heston carries a gun throughout much of the film.