The Canonical Planet of the Apes films
One of the most successful bits of popular culture of the late 20th century in the west was the Planet of the Apes film franchise and to this day it has seeped into our popular consciousness to such an extent that parodies and references to it are instantly recognizable.
In fact The Simpsons had a Planet of the Apes musical parody and a mattress commercial made a reference to the character Cornelius from 3 of the films.1 And that is just two examples of the influence of the film in popular culture.
After the original 5 films there was a short lived TV series (1974), a cartoon series (1975-1976), and lots of comics based on the world created by the films.2
The two films made after 2000 C.E., The Planet of the Apes and Rise of the Planet of the Apes will not be discussed here has they basically occur outside the world created by the original 5 films and are reimagining’s of that world and basically stand on their own separate from the 5 canonical films.3
The 5 canonical films which together form a cohesive story that fits together are, The Planet of the Apes, (1968), Beneath the Planet of the Apes, (1970), Escape from the Planet of the Apes, (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, (1972), Battle for the Planet of the Apes, (1973).4
The first film was and therefore the concept on which the other 4 films were based, came from a book by the French novelist Pierre Boulle, whose novel Monkey Planet,5 gave us a world in which humans were replaced by Apes as the dominant creatures. In the novel all the main characters of the first movie are present.
The novel has a bleak ending that more or less prophesies the ultimate universal damnation of the human species throughout the universe. Also unlike the movies the Ape society represented is more or less similar to that of late 20th century Earth.
The plot arch of the 5 movies goes like this. In the first movie, Planet of the Apes, the Astronaut Taylor and his crew have been sent on an interstellar voyage during which they experience time travel. They crash land on an unknown planet c. the year 3900 C.E. There they encounter a race of peaceful but mute humans. They also discover that the dominant groups are apes. The Apes are divided into three castes roughly corresponding to Orangutans = Aristocrats, Chimpanzees = Intellectuals, Gorillas = Soldiers. This society seems to be similar in development to early 19th century Earth. Taylor is captured and studied by Chimpanzee Scientists Cornelius and Zira. Who quickly find out Taylor can speak. They want to use this to prove their theory that man evolved into Ape.
Dr. Zaius wants to lobotomize and failing that kill Taylor. In the movie there is some pretty obvious parodying of then contemporary politics and social issues. After various escapes and other adventures Taylor finally, with love interest Nova, escapes and finds the statue of Liberty which shows that the planet is Earth and the human race did in fact launch a thermo nuclear war.
Movie two, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, another Astronaut, Brent sent to find Taylor, crashes on the world and finds out it is Ape dominated. It turns out that the Gorillas with the assistance of the Orangutans want to invade the forbidden zone. They are looking for more food and worlds to conquer and think a threat might exist there. Brent and Nova meet Zira and Cornelius who help them. Brent and Nova enter the forbidden zone in search of Taylor. They find a race of mutated humans who have immense telepathic powers. Oh and they worship a nuclear doomsday device. Meanwhile the Gorillas accompanied by Dr. Zaius invade the ruined, radioactive city, (New York City). Brent finds Taylor, the Apes find the mutants. Taylor and Brent get killed trying to stop the bomb from blowing up. The bomb goes off and kills all life on earth. Virtually everyone dies.
In the third movie, Escape From the Planet of Apes, we find out that 3 Apes have survived. Zira, Cornelius and Dr. Milo. They found Taylor’s ship in the desert and repair it. Shortly after they get off the Earth they see it destroyed and attribute it to the war the Gorillas started. Their space flight is Taylor’s journey in reverse and they arrive on Earth a few years after Taylor had left Earth. Dr. Milo is killed shortly after they land back on Earth. Zira and Cornelius are found out to be able to talk. They keep more or less silent about what they know about Earth’s future and Taylor.
After various adventures the villain, Dr. Hasslein, finds out that Apes will displace Man in the future, further he finds out that all life on Earth will be destroyed in a war instigated by the Gorillas. Zira is pregnant and fearing that Zira and Cornelius could become parents to a whole race of talking apes Dr. Hasslein tries to arrest them; and when they escape chases and kills Zira, Cornelius is killed after killing Dr. Hasslein. Zira has managed to hide her new born child with the owner of a zoo by the name of Armando.
In the fourth move, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Zira and Cornelius' child has grown up in the care of Armando. Meanwhile a virus has wiped out all the cats and dogs in the world and humans tried to replace them with Apes. The apes proved so adaptable, although they can’t talk, that they are now being used for a whole series of occupations and are basically slaves. Armando and Caesar, Zira and Cornelius' child, run afoul the authorities, who are well aware of what Cornelius and Zira told about the future. Armando gets killed and Caesar goes into hiding as a slave. He is eventually found out and tortured into talking. He escapes and leads a successful local rebellion against the humans.
In the final movie, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, a nuclear war has happened and away from a devastated New York city a group of apes and humans have set up a community. The apes dominate and are already dividing into the three castes that characterize the first two movies. Caesar seeking knowledge, with his human friend Macdonald journeys to the irradiated forbidden city, to learn about his parents, Zira and Cornelius. While there they stir up the resident humans who are victims of radiation poisoning and seem to be the ancestors of the city dwelling humans of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Another plot involves the ambitions of a general Aldo, who to cover up his planes for a coup kills Caesar's son Cornelius.
The humans from the city attack the settlements of the Apes but Caesar rallies the Apes and drives them off. Caesar then as a show down with Aldo in which Aldo gets killed. A concord is worked out with the humans who live with the apes. Centuries later the lawgiver gives a brief speech about how everything worked out. On this apparently happy note the movie ends.
Because of the time travel component the 5 movies have the interesting property that if you watch them in order you can start watching them with any one of the 5 films. This is because each film due to the time travel components of the overall tale is both a sequel and prequel to other films in the series. Thus you could start with Battle for the Planet of the Apes, go to Planet of the Apes, than Beneath the Planet of the Apes, then Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and finally Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.
The films thus are a loop that continuously repeats itself. And this loop is in my opinion a circle of hell trapping all those within its universe in a predetermined tragedy they cannot escape.
The characters in this universe cannot escape their destiny and that destiny is that they are part of a process / movement that results in the death of the Earth has a living planet. For it isn’t just mankind that is replaced as the new dominant life form in the end life is replaced by death on Earth and its victory is complete.
It interesting to think about just how this movie series is a tragedy with the individuals in it caught up; trapped into an inevitable tragic destiny they cannot escape. Like all good tragedy this movie has its comic moments, especially in Escape from Planet of the Apes, but the underlying horror is not dissipated by the light comedy of some scenes. Further even the villains in the various movies are not that villainous. We get Dr. Hasslein whose brutal acts are motivated by a terror of what Zira and Cornelius mean for the survival of the human race to say nothing of life on Earth. His wicked acts are understandable. Even the Gorilla Aldo in Battle for the Planet of the Apes, is shown to be a creature hideously warped by ill treatment. In other words the series lacks real villains, but has plenty of people who make mistakes that led to one horrible result.
Now was the terrible circularity of the plot of these movies intended from the start? I can’t be sure but I suspect so. In the “first” movie, Planet of the Apes, Dr. Zaius admits to Taylor, Cornelius and Zira that he has known all his life about Taylor’s coming and has dreaded it and what it means. Further after Taylor and Nova ride away Dr. Zaius tells Cornelius and Zira that he has just saved them all. Now it is possible that Dr. Zaius would know about Taylor leaving the Earth but how could he possibly have known about him arriving? The only answer to that is somehow knowledge of the events of the first two movies filtered to the past. Hence the movie Escape from the Planets of the Apes. Now at this time Zira and Cornelius seemed to have known none of the real history of humans and apes. It appears that in the time between The Planet of the Apes and Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Zira and Cornelius were allowed access to the secret forbidden literature that Dr. Zaius knew about. Thus Dr. Zaius knows that the coming of Taylor to Earth likely means the end of life on Earth.
However like Dr. Hasslein’s efforts to stop the end from happening; Dr. Zaius’ efforts only help to produce the doom he is trying to avoid.
That is the painful irony of their efforts. Dr. Hasslein’s efforts to kill Zira and Cornelius help to produce the thing he wants to avoid, by driving Caesar, their son into hiding. Efforts to avoid this fate by keeping apes down help to produce it also in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.
In Battle for the Planet of the Apes Caesar finds in a ruined New York City tapes of his parents testimony to the authorities. Zira on the tape describes the destruction of the Earth as the result of a Gorilla instigated war. Caesar remarks that he now truly understands why humans hated him so much and wonders if this terrible fate can be avoided. I suspect at the same time he wonders if it might have been better if he had been killed or never born. This lends an aura of melancholy to him for the rest of the movie.
Caesar’s orangutan friend Virgil tells Caesar that fate is not inevitable and that this is just one possibility that can be avoided. I suspect that this hope against hope guides Caesar’s actions in the rest of the movie.
I doubt that Caesar really thinks this fate can be avoided and I suspect so did the filmmakers. In the first two Planet of the Apes movies a central historical character is the Lawgiver who gave the laws to Apes including laying down their attitude towards humans. He is still in this history. History has no changed to that extent and it seems Earths destruction to be fated to happen. Finally at the end of the picture we get a close up of Caesar’s statute and it is weeping blood.
Of course no one comes out well in this series of movies. In the first movie Taylor at the beginning wonders if men still kill each other and behave badly towards each other. In the movie series humanity treats apes badly, has a nuclear war that destroys civilization but not before developing a doomsday device that can extinguish life on Earth. The sections of Beneath the Planet of the Apes where the irradiated humans rationalize the having of such a weapon is a marvelous parody of the idea of nuclear weapons has rational weapons of war. It is important to note that the only intelligent (excluding the two astronauts), humans on Earth at this time are quite insane fallout freaks.
Meanwhile the apes aren’t much better; arrogance, pride, militarism and sheer stupidity exist among them. Dr. Zaius foolishly goes along with the attack on a ruined city in the forbidden zone and ignores all the clear signs that this is going to end badly. Taylor dies trying to save the planet and is refused help by Dr. Zaius. He remarks that man is evil. Taylor tries to turn off the device and fails. Life on Earth is destroyed.
Dr. Zaius it seems has incomplete information and does not until the very end realize, if he in fact ever does, that all of his actions in this matter haven’t prevented the destruction; they have in fact helped to produce it. It is Dr. Zaius’ pride, arrogance and inflexible attitude towards humanity that helps to produce this terrible end.
Has I mentioned I think that something like this was intended from the beginning by those who put together the first movie. The working out of a cosmically preordained tragic end in annihilation that loops back on itself endlessly.
Virgil’s speculations in the “last” movie give the bare hope that this tragic fate can be avoided. And I think was the source of the behavior of Dr. Zaius. Sadly all that Dr. Zaius’ efforts to avoid fate achieved was exactly that fate happening. In that respect it is like a Greek tragedy in which the hero by trying to avoid his fate merely helps to fulfill it.
It can be claimed that the end of the 5th movie gives ground for the idea that just perhaps that fate was avoided. I doubt it. Aside from the indications in the movie of impending tragedy there is the simple fact that if the earth is not destroyed Zira and Cornelius would not have gone back in time to “start” the whole thing. This idea of avoiding fate seems plausible because the 5th movie avoids dealing with just how the humans lost their speech in the 1st and 2nd movie, and just how the humans were driven away by the Apes. Also it appears that except for secret knowledge known to a few the Apes by the time of Planet of the Apes seem to have lost all knowledge that humans once spoke and had a technological civilization. Those who know the secret knowledge knew better but what they knew was distorted. How this happened is not explained in any of these movies.
It appears that in the mid 1970’s there were plans for a 6th movie which were shelved because the 5th one didn’t do that well. From what I remember reading this movie would show the Apes making the same mistakes has humans and humans losing the power of speech. Perhaps it would take place in the Lawgiver’s time and would show us the Lawgiver setting up the rules for the ape society and driving away the humans, thus fulfilling one more link in the chain of inexorable and tragic destiny that the movies tell.6
So the movies move along telling their tragic story of a terrible inevitable destiny that cannot be avoided and in fact the efforts to avoid are part of what makes that outcome. And it appears that even some of the villains. Dr. Zaius, Dr. Hasslein, who try to avoid the destiny through arrogance, cruelty etc., merely ensure that it happens.
Like Oedipus’ fate this destiny cannot be avoided merely endured.
2. The Planet of the Apes TV Show, Wikipedia Here, The cartoon series was Return to the Planet of the Apes, Wikipedia Here, Planet of the Apes (Comics), Wikipedia Here.
3. Planet of the Apes, (2001), Wikipedia Here, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, (2011), Wikipedia Here.
4. Planet of the Apes (Franchise), Wikipedia Here.
5. Boulle, Pierre, Monkey Planet, Penguin Books, London, 1975. Originally published as La Planète des singes, Livres de Poche, Paris, 1963. Pierre Boulle also wrote the famous war novel Bridge on the River Kwai . See Pierre Boulle, Wikipedia Here.
6. I am relying on memory. I cannot place what magazine I read this stuff in. It’s been more than 30 years.