Sci-Fi as Race Allegory
By: Mitchell Corner
Attached here is an essay pertaining to the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes. Included is also a list of films that include race allegories as their center point. This essay would not have been possible without the essay “Signifying Monkeys: Politics and Story-Telling in the Planet of the Apes series" by Richard Von Busak and the book :Planet of the apes as American myth: race, politics, and popular culture" by Eric Greene and Richard Slotkin
Through the Planet of the Apes series there are a number of philosophical, socio-political and culturally specific questions that arise. Many of these have been discussed in great detail since the film came out over Forty years ago. Questions of mankind’s permanent stance on this earth. The question of what would happen to us if we were the test subjects and the beasts were the experimenters? Considering that Planet of the Apes has been around for as long as it has, many of these questions and comments have been addressed, debated and debunked but from a personal perspective it’s hard to avoid the underlining address and communication of the threat of Colonialism. The forthright and abrupt address of what would happen to the White Man if they were the ones colonized? It doesn’t even have to be as specific as race but of the primary Western history of colonizing countries, islands and lands in general, to add to an empire.
Planet of the Apes seems to turn that on its head. It introduces rebellion and points out the hypocrisies of religion and politics as weapons of manipulation. Merely by changing the context in which we see ourselves; changing the corrupt system of man into a primitive yet evolved city of apes allows us to see the current state of our world. All this is disguised as entertainment with one of the great macho heroes of the movies, Chuck Heston and iconic images and make-up. This is an essay on the reversal of fortune that comes to man in Planet of the Apes from 1968. The colonizer becomes the colonized and the tables turn on Man as he becomes faced with the notion of defamiliarization, destruction of his own world and the similarities and differences he shares with this strange yet not entirely unfamiliar world.
Consider the year in which Planet of the Apes was released, 1968. The turbulent years of the Seventies were just being laid right around this time. The Civil rights movements had already been prevalent in the news and the unrest was being felt everywhere in the United States (Macnab, 60). Here comes along this movie, based on a novel by Pierre Boulle in 1964. An interesting point is that in Boulle’s original novel, the Apes that Astronaut Ulyces comes upon, have comparable technological advances to that of the Fifties; around the time the novel was written and published (et al, 60). It’s as if the screenwriters and filmmakers felt some other meaning to set the Ape civilization to a more primitive and shantytown resembling environment (Greene & Slotkin 34). Lets think now of Colonizers. Whether it be the Spanish Conquistadors or British or American slave ships. The civilizations they usually came across would be described as “savage”. Now, I don’t mean to use that word in a derogatory sense but only to express the images of the ‘Other’ that these colonizers came across. They were usually indigenous people. Native Americans, African Tribes, Mayan Indians. They were all no match for the technological innovations of the Western world.
In Planet of the Apes the world inhabited by Apes such as Dr. Zaius, Zira and Cornelius is almost a mirror to how far Westernized man has really come (Greene, 34). Through all his hard work and savage colonization they are reverted back to the very townships and village structures and environments they spent hundreds of years trying to destroy, relocate and assimilate. It as almost if they cannot cage the ‘other’. The Apes are of course, the ‘other’ in the film and barbaric man is reverted back to their primitive state (Kirshner, 43). They represent the notion that we as humans can never be of another time and that our hypocrisies will always return to us in some basic form; to wreak havoc and punish us for our wrong doings (Vint, 225). As Cornelius reads from their profit the Lawgiver readings, “Beware the Beast Man”.
It’s interesting to note how we find it hard to relate to the different characters. Considering there are two groups; reverted humans and civilized apes. Now, as an audience member one would find it difficult (more so in 1968) to relate and feel at home with the ape civilization. Though they may seem very human-like. They joke as we do, they dress, they have class structure and it is all a bit skewed. The jokes we so very much attribute to being human are turned and misplaced slightly. Like for example: “You know what they say, human see, human do“ which is an obvious and rather didactic tip of the hat to the more human related: “Monkey see, monkey do”. It is in these minor displacements that we feel separated slightly (Greene, 35). We are familiar and yet defamiliarized to our surroundings. If one were to first see this movie on its own grounds an audience member would feel as lost as Taylor and certainly just as confused. We also find it hard to relate to the humans in the film. They are mute cave-men in a sense. Reverted back to primitive instincts of only wanting to eat, procreate and sleep. We recognize the humans but feel no real connection to them either. It is why the character of Taylor is so important. He is our fish in this ‘fish out of water’ story. (et al, 27) He is the colonizer we are so accustomed to. Much like Christopher Columbus he lands in a strange place by accident and soon sees an opportunity to rule. “In six months we’ll be running this place” Heston expresses to his two other Astronauts (Vint, 239). He is thrown off guard by the sudden attack of the apes on a group of humans that have been eating their corn. It is through his eyes that we experience this odd world.
Being of a primary Western audience and I myself having an innate Westernized perspective, its easy to see why Taylor would be so frightened. The obvious reason is six foot tall humanoid apes are talking, shooting and operating on him. They call him names and denounce his evolutionary achievements. The underlining fear comes from this idea of displacement. Taylor is stripped of his clothes, tools and ultimately (and only temporarily) his speech. Here is a species that is considered below man (Von Busack, 170). Such as the colonized people of Western empires saw indigenous, native and blacks as being less than equals and below the White Man. So its an interesting perspective when you consider that the person we relate to, Taylor, is only relatable because he fits the representation of the colonizer landing on a new land. Something he must conquer and tries to understand as quickly as he can (Vint, 238). Taylor is asked by Dr. Zaius `why are only apes given a soul and created in God’s own image?` Considering that most of the audience members are human they would assume that apes cannot have souls and are thus asked to question themselves and the beliefs they hold from ancestors originally not from their land (considering you are of Canadian or of American birth) (Kirshner, 43).
The film tries to switch our attentions away from Taylor and on to some of the more prominent ape roles such as Cornelius and Zira but we always comes back to Taylor (Besel & Smith-Besel, 53). The macho white man who does what he must with a rifle by his side. Taylor is our gateway to this world but the questions he is subjected to seem to question more the audiences’ sensibilities than confident Heston.
Many of the posters for the film had read “Somewhere in the Universe there has to be something better than man” (Greene & Slotkin 18). This line is also spoken by Heston in the beginning of the movie. One could almost reiterate that to say “…There has to be something better than a WHITE man. Taylor much like Gulliver in Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s travels” lands on a strange yet not entirely foreign world(s) where he is no longer the dominant being but in fact the dominated. A strange turn of events for a citizen of the British empire. Taylor find himself the dominated one, mediated by a world of Chimpanzees and overseen by the government/religious rulers of the Orang-utans (Green & Slotkin, 24). Though the character of Taylor is dominated and ridiculed there are specific scenes and images throughout the movie that point out an irony to the fact that in fact, Taylor still holds reign over these apes (Hofstede, 20). Take for example when Dr. Zaius first talks down to Taylor in his cage. Taylor had recently been captured and lost his ability to speak. Dr. Zira tries to convince Dr. Zaius of “Bright Eyes‘” uniqueness but the Doctor simply shoots it down by explaining that “Man has no understanding, he can be taught a few simple tricks. Nothing more” and maliciously stating that “The sooner he is exterminated the better”. Now even with all these tables turned, the dominant man is now under the control of a species he had once dominated and is at their beck and call. Taylor is situated on a raised platform. He is still above the apes and Dr. Zaius must physically talk upwards as he talks down to Taylor (Greene, 41) . This irony is not entirely singled out, Zira continuously looks up at Taylor in his cage. He’s positioned above her, looking down. Towards the end of the film as Cornelius tries to clear He and Zira’s name of heresy all of the apes are situated on levels below Taylor and even Nova, the mute female, until Dr. Zaius questions back at the folly of man‘s weakness over science, the field to which Dr. Zaius holds authority over in Ape society. As Cornelius explains that apes dominance was not always so we see Taylor situated above all their talk as if the colonized dominant race could never really be anything more as long as people like Charlton Heston are on the scene.
Taylor seems to always be staged above the apes. Heston, being an incredibly physical presence, a real Man’s man so to speak was cast perfectly and fits perfectly into this notion of the present day colonizer. The all-American explorer ready to conquer before he even knows where he is. Taylor’s mission could have very well been that to colonize a distant planet unknowingly landing on his own a thousand years later (Greene, 42). When it comes to Heston’s character even though he appears to be at the mercy of this evolved species his ancestors once dominated he is still in fact portrayed as a figure fully aware of his ‘supremacy’.
Now lets take into account the class structure of the Apes society in Planet of the Apes. Orang-utans are the dominators, the top of the food chain. They represent the politics and religion of the society, the Chimpanzees are seen as mediators, the middle ground, rational and scientific; they appear to be the most understanding to Taylor’s situation. Finally, man is the dominated; the species ridiculed and used for personal gain by the Ape society. One must not forget the Gorilla society in the film. Later in the series it would become more apparent that the Gorilla class in the Ape society represented the army, the military and security (Shatnoff, 59). Here is Taylor more or less defending himself against a dark-skinned force out to capture him. Call the Gorilla’s what you want but they represent a non-white race and therefore not of the colonizers but more times than not, the colonized (O`Hehir, 13).
Heston represents a white-male defending himself from the darker-skinned species. A race that was once hunted and captured has now turned itself slightly and attacks the white males. Another interesting parable is that the Orang-utans who represent the dominant species of the Ape class is the lightest and blondes of the species. They represent an almost Aryan version of the class (Hofstede, 51). This could suggest that not only does Taylor’s adventure on the Planet of the Apes represent a satire of colonization and race but that the class structure of the Ape society itself represents a satire of the structure within Westernized class systems (Greene, 33). Take for example a scene in which Taylor’s tribunal is on display. The Orang-utans are the judges and Zira and Cornelius are present for Taylor’s defence. As Zira begins to suggest that Taylor may have sprang from Apes; that his `mutation` comes from the origin of Apes, the Orang-utans project one of the oldest displays of physical ignorance. They shield their eyes, their ears and their mouth. They see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil (et al, 39). It appears didactic and was as unsubtle during its premiere as it is now but there is a extreme parable to this notion. These Apes, these Orang-utans who want to uphold the class structure; the culture of their people and knowingly (or perhaps unknowingly) revert to the oldest form of ignorance known to civilization. The film not only represents a fish out of water from its familiar position of dominant colonizer but represents a switch in that Taylor not only becomes struck from the top of the dominance chain but is even three levels below that as a species of new dominant species comes into play with their own class structure, socio-political guidelines and races.
By the film’s end we discover that Taylor was in fact on Earth the entire time. Being far out in distant space he was thrown through time without aging and landed once more back on earth thousands of years later. Apes had evolved and humans de-evolved and this scenario is explored through the rest of the series but this film leaves off on one of the most iconic endings every put to film (Von Busack, 171). The rusted and destroyed top half of the Statue of Liberty situated on the edge of a beach in the desert of the Forbidden Zone. Taylor ‘damns man to hell’ for inventing such things and damns all beings who seek it upon themselves to wage war on one another. As Cornelius read from their Lawgiver’s bible prior to Taylor’s departure “…He will wage war on his land and yours” and thus to shun man and drive him back to “his jungle lair”. It is a warning to all that man cannot escape that nihilistic and innate chaotic mindset to destroy ourselves. Suggesting that we as human beings blew ourselves up with nuclear armaments (Newman, 14).
This theory would pass just as much today as the Cold war era the film was originally released in. Looking at the stature of liberty one thinks of these dominant symbols of the Western world. Realizing the destruction of such a monument could suggest that the West, in all their power, could not hold off the inevitability of the end result of such power and control (Vint, 245). They were subjugated and forced to return to their more animalistic roots. In this weakness, the apes were able to rise. They took advantage and were no longer the animalistic species but the dominant and rationalized ones. Humans being representative of the dominant civilized and westernized populace and Apes representing the dormant and long forgotten indigenous people of jungles and far off lands (et al, 246). This iconic shot of the statue of liberty represents the folly of man and his inability to be able to repress that which they had kept down so long, the colonized races.
In summary, there are many layers to the Planet of the Apes series. One may look at it as just an entertainment piece, still being able to entertain and be enjoyed by generations of young people and science fiction lovers alike. One can also see its biting satire of race and class in North America and the hypocrisy that religion and politics holds over any society. For the benefit of this essay I hope one sees a clearer representation of he Colonization theory threaded through out this film. Planet of the Apes has been around for over Forty years now and is remembered for more than its make-up, iconic images and charismatic yet jaded action hero. It is remembered for its satirical mirror it holds up to human society. We are not watching Apes and an Astronaut but Human being in all their races and creeds, shapes and sizes. Planet of the Apes can be seen as a ‘Mad House’ of backward culture and society but it can also be seen as a testament to the ever cumbersome Western idealism brought to the rest of the world. How class structure returns to its Hippocratic roots time and time again.
We may change a thousand years from now in one form of another, Planet of the Apes is not trying to say otherwise but point out that we, us, now are not changing anytime soon. We didn’t change in 1968 and we continue to see the same patterns today. Indeed, we are maniacs and we have really done nothing. The Planet of the Apes is an allegory for our dystopia-like present disguised as matinee entertainment. It ends with the pinnacle of macho white man damning mankind to hell. He is damming us and we, as an audience seek the reasons after the lights come up as to why we earned that damnation. Colonization, Racism, Prejudice, religious fanaticalism and manipulation of science and state. All of these factors make the Planet of the Apes what it was and continues to hold to this day.
Besel, Richard. Smith-Besel, Renee. “Polysemous Myth: Incongruity in Planet of the Apes.” Millennial mythmaking: Essays on the power of science fiction and fantasy literature, films and games. Ed. John Perlich and David Whitt. N.C. : McFarland & Co., 2010. 51-67. Print.
Greene, Eric. Slotkin, Richard. Planet of the apes as American myth: race, politics, and popular culture. North Carolina: Mcfarland & Company, Inc. 1996. Print.
Hofstede, David. Planet of the Apes: An unofficial companion. Toronto: ECW Press, 2001. 4-56. Electronic copy.
Kirshner, Jonathan. "Subverting the Cold War in the 1960s: “Dr. Strangelove,” “the Manchurian Candidate,” and “the Planet of the Apes”." Film & History 31.2 (2001): 40-4. Print.
Macnab, Geoffrey. “Planet of the Apes.” Sight and Sound 12.1 (2002): 60, 3. Print.
Newman, Kim. “The Sci-Fi Issue: Apocalypse then.” Sight and Sound 11.9 (2001): 14-5. Print.
O’Hehir, Andrew. “The Sci-Fi Issue: Gorilla Warfare.” Sight and Sound 11.9 (2001): 12- 5. Print.
Shatnoff, Judith. “Review: A Gorilla to remember.” FIlm Quarterly 22.1 (1968): 56-62. Electronic. Viable URL: http://www.jstor.org/pss/1210042
Vint, Sherryl. "Simians, Subjectivity and Sociality: “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Two Versions of “Planet of the Apes”." Science Fiction Film and Television 2.2 (2009): 225-50. Print.
Von Busak, Richard. “Signifying Monkeys: Politics and Story-Telling in the Planet of the Apes series. The Science Fiction Reader. Ed. Gregg Rickman. New York: Limelight Editions, 2004. 165-176. Print.:
01Franklin J. Schaffner
06J. Lee Thompson
07George A. Romero
10William Cameron Menzies