Racism, Repression and Revolution – 50 years Planet Of The Apes
Updated: Apr 20
by Phil Butland
It’s one of the most celebrated scenes in film history. A man kneels in rags on an empty beach. As the camera pans out we see a familiar shape in the distance – the Statue of Liberty, waist deep in the sand. The man looks at the statue and shouts “Oh my God. I’m back. I’m home. All the time it was – We finally really did it!”. He falls to the ground screaming “You maniacs! You blew it up! Oh, damn you! God damn you to hell!”
A brief summary
This is the final scene of Planet of the Apes (1968), a film about astronauts discovering a strange planet, where humans have been enslaved by apes. The lead astronaut, Taylor (Charlton Heston) has just realised that the planet is not so strange after all. It is a future Earth which has been devastated by nuclear war.
In Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), two further astronauts are sent to find Taylor, only to discover a subterranean human society which worships a holy atom bomb. As the conflict between apes and humans intensifies, Taylor detonates the bomb, destroying the world.
In Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), the chimpanzees Cornelius and Zira escape the exploding planet and land in 1973 USA. Zira becomes pregnant and a Presidential Commission orders a forcible abortion. The apes are eventually shot dead. Their son is also apparently killed, but he has been switched with another ape baby and is smuggled out in a circus.
In Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), Cornelius and Zira’s son Caesar, leads an ape revolution. This leads to Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), Caesar’s benign dictatorship is threatened by a coup from the gorilla Aldo. After an attack by a farcical group of radiation-ridden humans, the apes are forced to come back together.
That should have been that. A television series in 1974 revisited many themes from the first two films. And in 2001, Tim Burton made a largely forgettable remake of the original Planet of the Apes whose $100 million budget appears to have been spent more on expensive CGI affects than on intelligent screenwriting.
But then something interesting happened. In 2011, there was a new remake Rise of the Panet of the Apes, based not on the first film but on the much more radical Conquest. Now the apes inherit their abnormal intelligence as a by-product of dubious drug testing. The ape Bright Eyes passes this on to her son Caesar. Caesar leads an escape from a primate centre, resulting in an ape riot across the Golden Gate Bridge.
In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), the apes live peacefully under Caesar’s rule. After humans try to extract hydroelectric power from the local waterfall, the gorilla Koba calls for resistance. Koba shoots Caesar, claiming that humans were responsible, and leads a rebellion. Caesar recovers from his injuries, has a fight with Koba and saves the day.
In the final film, War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), Caesar’s wife and son are killed by a human soldier known as The Colonel. The Colonel interns all apes in a concentration camp, as he awaits army forces which are coming to relieve him of his command. Caesar organises a jailbreak. All human soldiers die, some of them in a bizarre avalanche. Having saved his people, Caesar dies.
The politics of POTA
What are we to make of it all? For a start, all art is a product of its time, not least the Apes films, some of whose writers were victims of the McCarthyite purges1. Quite obviously they are about much more than the strange behaviour of monkeys.
The first film was released one week after the Tet offensive showed that the US could possibly lose the Vietnam war. The final tv programme was broadcast just a few months before the fall of Saigon. In other words, the first set of films and tv series were released to an audience that was witnessing the defeat of the world’s greatest imperial power to Vietnamese peasants.
The remakes were made as US imperialism once more went out of control. It is no coincidence that War, released in the early months of the Trump administration, centres on a megalomaniac military leader who makes a coming war seem both inevitable and irrational.
The Apes films are socially progressive on several issues – Rise is clearly a protest against Big Pharma – Koba’s aggression is the result of torture in a laboratory. Many of the films are foreshadowed by the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation. Indeed, in the late eighties, Greenpeace used a still from Planet on a poster warning “Do nothing, and nuclear testing will eventually come to an end”.
Regarding women’s rights, though, there is still a way to go. It is true that in Escape, Zira tells the Bay Area Women’s group “a marriage bed is made for two, but every damned morning its the woman who has to clean it.”, but in the 9 films, few other women are allowed to speak at all. In both the first and last films, the main female character – in both films called Nova – is literally mute.
In Planet, Nova’s main role is to look good in a fur bikini and to wait until Taylor saves her. She reappears in Beneath, when she utters her first word (somewhat inevitably “Taylor”) and is immediately killed by a pursuing gorilla. In War Nova is a cute child. That film contains not a single speaking role for any female – human or ape.
The question of race
The crucial issue addressed by the Apes films is the one of race. The first film was written by Rod Serling, who had created and written The Twilight Zone, a superior science fiction tv series. Like most Twilight Zone episodes, Planet started with a liberal thought experiment – what would happen if white men were oppressed in the same way as others in our society? We are thus encouraged to identify with the victims of racism.
Yet can we really identify with the characters of the first film? Taylor is in Eileen Jones’s words “the most punch-worthy human being ever conceived, a macho cigar-chewing egomaniac who believes only in his own superiority”2. David Rieff compares the confused Charlton Heston with “a befuddled parent wondering why his kids were burning the flag and smoking pot.”3
When Taylor screams “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”, is he objecting to racial oppression or acting as an old colonial master who can’t accept that he no longer holds the whip hand?
In Tim Burton’s 2001 remake, the ape Ari spends most of the film flirting with the human Davidson. The contrasts with the 1968 film, whose writers briefly discussed (and quickly rejected) the idea of making Zira and Cornelius different species of ape.
This would have been a provocation at the time. Miscegenation, or interracial sex, was banned by the production code of the Motion Picture Producers and Directors of America. One year before the film was released, 16 US States still had laws against miscegenation. In the end, Taylor is allowed to chastely kiss Zira goodbye. Zira agrees, but protests “but you’re so damned ugly”.
When Planet was released in 1968, it was just about possible to make a film about racism where the main victims of racism were white men. Yet the world was changing. Between 1965 and 1968 there were 300 race-related “riots” in the US, involving 500,000 African Americans. In the year that Planet was released, John Carlos and Tommy Smith made the Black Power salute at the Mexico Olympics and James Brown released “Say it Loud (I’m Black and Proud)”.
In Escape, the black-furred chimpanzees Cornelius and Zira are the victims of racism, and by Conquest the Apes are fighting back. Screenwriter Paul Dehn said that he based the uprising in Conquest on the Watts riots, when tens and thousands of mainly black Los Angelenos took to the streets against police racism4. Incidentally, LA police chief William Parker likened the Watts rioters to “monkeys in a zoo … throwing rocks”5
Towards the end of the film, Caesar makes a rousing speech, calling for “the inevitable day of man’s downfall”. In the original script this speech ended the film. But after poor pre-release screenings, film distributors Fox persuaded Dehn to change the ending. In the version that was released, Caesar’s girlfriend Lisa, stammers “No”, and persuades him to hold back the uprising for the sake of peace and conciliation.
By the next film Battle, Fox had ordered director J. Lee Thompson to tone down the politics and make a kids’ film. Dehn was replaced as screenwriter by the reliable liberals John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington.
Joyce Corrington believed that Aldo, the villain in Battle “couldn’t live in the state of nature, whose natural proclivity was toward violence and power”6. She said that she had “a fear at that time of black militancy”,and worried about “reverse racism”7. The result is an anti-racist film which is prepared to use stereotypes which see racists and their victims as being equally culpable.
In Battle, Aldo is mocked for his problems at school, and portrayed as an aggressive thug – a stereotype that our society often uses against young black men. And the film appears to join in with the mockery, using this to portray him as someone who is not to be trusted. Aldo seems to be the model for Dawn’s Koba, a gorilla with very dark skin indeed. Koba was also, incidentally, the pseudonym of one Josef Stalin.
The portrayal of Aldo and Koba as being inherently violent is in part a continuation of the racial essentialism that appears in all the early Apes films. Although the films take place in different eras and forms of society, orang utans are always wise, chimpanzees are clever and gorillas are aggressive and stupid. All members of a species wear the same coloured clothing. In most scenes, chimpanzees, orang utans and gorillas only tend to mix with apes of their own kind.
There is one exception. In Conquest, when the apes take to the barricades, chimpanzees and gorillas intermingle (for some reason the orang utans are missing), united in their joint struggle against oppression.By the way, this mass uprising – and the equivalent scene in Dawn – is the closest that any of the apes come to showing a collective solution to society’s problems which is collective and not dependent on the Caesar’s benevolence.
The first Apes films were made towards the end of the Vietnam war, a period described by the great film critic Pauline Kael as one with “no longer a right side to identify with and nobody you felt really good about cheering for”8. This is a good liberal position but does it make sense politically?
When the Viet Cong are successfully resisting US imperialism, when black people are fighting back against racist cops, is the position “they’re all as bad as each other” really tenable? In the words of Desmond Tutu “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.“ We must take a side.
This problem is revisited in the final film, War. War should logically end with a confrontation between human soldiers and apes. Yet each time that this confrontation is imminent, an unlikely natural disaster happens. The oppressors are punished, but not by the oppressed but by nature. The world doesn’t develop and ultimately conservatism is rewarded.
In a perceptive article, subtitled “Koba should’ve won”. Eileen Jones notes that the film writers “seem to be working from a mandate that says the corrosively vicious humans have to die somehow, but not at the hands of apes.”9 She compares the film’s ending to “a great old Daffy Duck cartoon called The Scarlet Pumpernickel, in which Daffy, pitching a script and trying to come up with the most awesome climatic action, starts desperately improvising catastrophes: ‘Then the dam broke! … The volcano erupted! … The price of foodstuff skyrocketed!’”10
Jones argues for a film where revenge is successful and regrets that “though we almost never get revenge in real life, and any working-class person knows what it’s like to be kicked around while never daring to kick back, popular films rarely give us complete, uncompromising, feel-good revenge.”
Just saying “No”
In the revolutionary film, Spartacus, Kirk Douglas as Spartacus says “When just one man says ‘No, I won’t’, Rome begins to fear”. To take a cultural reference from a different era, Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name of”, with its Refrain “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” became the anthem of the Occupy generation.
In Escape, Cornelius describes how the Apes revolted: “at first they just grunted their refusal, … but … there came [an ape who] did not grunt. He articulated. He spoke a word which had been spoken to him, oh time without number by humans. He said ‘No!’”. This description is re-enacted in Conquest (and incidentally inRise, where the first word that Caesar utters is “No!”)
If apes say “No” to their rulers, it is a revolutionary act of defiance. But in other contexts, the word can take on more reactionary meanings. We have already seen the ambiguity of Lisa’s “No!” at the end of Conquest – is it a plea for a common struggle or as applying a handbrake on the developing revolution?
Speech has different meaning in the mouth of the oppressor and the oppressed. In Battle, humans are forbidden to say the word to apes. We are reminded that in the past humans had electrically conditioned apes to fear the word.
The difference between refusing to accept oppression and denying other people their rights should be obvious to all. And this is the crux of why any attempt to view the revolutionary Apes and oppressive humans as morally equivalent fails to deal with the objective
circumstances in which each group is operating.
Revolution and the importance of Class
Conquest contains one of the most important exchanges in the series, between Caesar and MacDonald, a black human who works for the State and feels torn between his job and his personal experience of oppression:
M: How do you propose to gain this freedom?
C: By the only means left to us: revolution.
M: But it’s doomed to failure!
C: Perhaps … this time.
M: And the next.
M: But you’ll keep trying?
Dan Hassler-Forrest calls the Apes films “Hollywood’s most provocative contemporary dramatization of political revolution”11. Their central message is that we must fight for change, even at times when this change seems impossible.
Unlike most liberal films, the oppressed are shown time and again to have agency. Eric Greene notes that “In Conquest, the apes are not passive objects waiting to be emancipated by enlightened humans who finally realize that apes have feelings.”12
Similarly, at the end of Rise, the sympathetic scientist Will offers to take Caesar home. Caesar whispers into Will’s ear “Caesar is home” and springs into the giant redwoods. Faced the choice between being tolerated by liberals or organising his own community, he goes for the latter.
And yet the films often stumble over the question of how we can change the world. Too often. changes are made because of a diktat from Caesar or as the result of the conflict of different species, each of which has their own specific interests. In the films which show a stratified feudal society, changes seem unimaginable by any other way.
Yet some of the films are riddled with class antagonisms. In Beneath there is a chimpanzee anti-war demonstration, and in Escape there is a Labour dispute by Apes who are losing their jobs to slave humans. These are only glimpses, and the idea that apes and humans could come together based on common class interests is never really pursued. But that isn’t really the point, is it?
I’ll finish by saying this. There is a bad habit in left wing film reviews which denounce the artistic quality of any film that doesn’t explicitly call for a revolution. We should judge films by their artistic value. Having said this, it is interesting that the Apes films actually do call for a revolution. And – with a greater or lesser success rate – they engage us about a number of social issues. That’s not bad for a few films about a bunch of monkeys, is it?
A version of this article in German will appear in the next marx21 magazine
1For example, the co-writer of the first film, Michael Wilson, was also originally uncredited on The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia due to his suspected Communist allegiances
4Dehn also noted in a later interview “it’s a very curious thing that the Apes series has always been tremendously popular with Negroes who identify themselves with the apes. They are Black Power just as the apes are Ape Power and they enjoy it greatly” (quoted in Dale Winogura Dialogue on Apes, Apes and more Apes, Cinéfastique, Summer 1972)
5Quoted in Races: The Loneliest Road, Time magazine August 27 1965
6Quoted in Eric Greene Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics and Popular Culture
8Commencement Address, Smith College May 27 1973 , cited in Susan Rice, Teaching Apes. A Review of Planet of the Apes
12Greene, op. cit.