Special Pages | Wes Alwan introduces Planet of the Apes (1968)

Wes Alwan: Good evening everyone. Thanks for coming. Thank you to the Brattle for asking me to do this.

I am here to talk to you about damn dirty apes and after that some philosophical themes. So I think that this is a really good film to be watching the day before Halloween. I actually wanted to find a good Planet of the Apes costume for Halloween tomorrow but I couldn’t find one. Even if I did, of course it wouldn’t come close to what they did with the make-up in that film, which is a kind of famous story in its own right. The movie almost wasn’t made because of the technical challenges in doing the make-up and presenting the apes as these humanized apes that really would just get a laugh out of the audience. One of the screenwriters, Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, really early on was asked to do some initial drafts of the screenplay and he went through like thirty or forty drafts. But, before he was convinced to go through all that work, he said he couldn’t be associated with the movie. He just didn’t think it was plausible. He thought everyone would laugh. The studios initially felt the same way. It took years for the producer Arthur Jacobs to convince them to do the film. To do that, he had to do a strength test where he had people in make-up. The make-up artist John Chambers actually ended up winning an Academy Award. The film actually spent the most money adjusted for inflation on make-up of any film in history. Twenty percent of the Planet of the Apes budget was spent on make-up.

Why do I mention all this? I think the greatest challenge and accomplishment of the film is to not to make humans convincingly apelike but to make these apes convincingly human. To do so, you need not just a mask. Chambers adapted techniques used during World War II to help disfigured soldiers. He used latex prosthetics in addition to make-up so that the actors could still make emotional facial expressions. They could use their eyes to act, they could wrinkle their noses, and they could convincingly speak underneath the latex and make-up. It’s still not perfect, however. Planet of the Apes has a very campy reputation because of that. There’s still a mask-like effect to the make-up, but I think that works better than full-blown CGI. There’s actually something important about the fact that the make-up is not perfect and there’s still a mask-like quality to it.—I think of it almost like a semi-mask or almost a Venetian half-mask. I’ll talk more later about why I think it’s so important that the make-up is done like that.

The humanness of the apes is one of the central points of the film. Screenwriter Michael Wilson—so, Ron Serling did the early screenplays and then they brought on Michael Wilson who wrote Lawrence of Arabia and a lot of other great films—revised the scripts. He did most of the dialogue and injected a lot of humor into the film but said that it was more about the human predicament than it is about the apes. The film is known as a trenchant critique of human self-destructiveness at a time of great social upheaval in the United States the late sixties: the race riots, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, etc. When I think of this film, I immediately associate it with that time. Film critic Renata Adler called Planet of the Apes “an anti-war film and a science-fiction liberal tract.” That doesn’t sound very positive. She actually didn’t like the film very much. But what’s important is that the apes share our flaws. They’re superstitious, they’re closed-minded, they’re prone to bigotry, violence, and oppression, and their society has a caste-based system. The orangutans are the politicians and chimpanzees are the scientists, and the gorillas are the warriors. And meanwhile, they have absolutely no empathy for the primitive human beings on the planet. So all of that is just another way of saying that the ape society in this film is civilized, which may sound weird if we associate civilization with progress. We might think, “the more civilization, the better.”

That’s certainly the way the protagonist Taylor, the astronaut played by Charlton Heston, in the film feels. One of the great things about this character is just how purely misanthropic he is, and the tension between that and the sort of more typical leading man Hollywood role. He has that sort of appearance, the braggadocio, the space cowboy kind of aura. That’s really intentional because he sounds like a late sixties activist. He doesn’t sound like the NRA Charlton Heston. I take Taylor anti-civilization. It’s anti-man but pro-civilization. Man is Taylor’s word for human beings in a fallen, debased sense, everything that is wrong with human beings. He says in the beginning, “Man makes war against his brother, thus his neighbors starves.” He distinguishes man from true human beings, which is what he’s seeking by leaving earth forever because of the time-travel implications. He’s seeking superior creatures that he thinks he can only find on another planet. He thinks of man as the missing link between ape and these superior creatures he might find by traveling through space. His thesis, which I call the misanthropic thesis, is that man is not civilized enough. We need more civilization. What’s really interesting about this film is that it completely rejects that thesis. Taylor holds onto that thesis hubristically, and it sets him up for a really big fall that we don’t fully get until the end of the movie, which we can discuss after we watch the film. The very, very famous ending, which I think is one of the big reasons why it became a cultural icon.

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I think the film actually seems to say that civilization is the problem not the solution. That idea is not new. It’s one amassed by many great thinkers, most notably Rousseau and Nietzsche and to some extent Freud. Rousseau’s idea in particular is that empathy is a double-edged sword, and so is self-awareness. We’re empathetic, we’re self-aware, but insofar as our self-awareness depends upon others’ awareness of us, insofar as we know what people think about us and worry what people think about us, we can be wounded by their lack of empathy or their lack of respect, and that can lead to violence and oppression. Rousseau is famous for this in the Discourse on Inequality and some other “anti-civilization” rants, which you might think are misanthropic but which as I see it the misanthropy is pro-civilization.

For Nietzsche, even morality is a product of the sorts of things that come out of self-awareness and the awareness of what others think of us so, pride and narcissistic injury. Rousseau thought this as well. Nietzsche expands on that and derives morality from resentments arising from power disparities and just the existence of social hierarchy. Freud famously argues in Civilization and Its Discontents that the repression of sexual instincts leads to a lot of misery and mental illness. Ultimately, it leads to eruptions of instinctual aggression that threaten, ironically to destroy civilization.

That’s the way I wanted to set up the film. One of things to think about is the damn dirty apes expression that Charlton Heston as the astronaut Taylor uses at the very middle of the film. It’s useful to think about what that actually means and what it actually does in the film because I don’t think it’s very obvious. You can ask the same question about a prolonged period where Taylor can’t speak, where he doesn’t have a voice, which seems not only like it reduces him to the same brutish level as other primitive human beings on the planet but that voicelessness also has large implications. The final point to bear in mind when thinking about the film is the way the make-up supports all of this. One of the problems with CGI—and I am less satisfied with the reboot of the Planet of the Apes series in that it’s so realistic that it almost makes the apes too human. We need some of the tension: my experience of going to the zoo and seeing a gorilla is truly uncanny, the feeling that they’re so close and so far away at the same time, that they’re so human and yet not human at the same time. If you’re going to take the idea of the Planet of the Apes, this reversal where the apes are humanlike, you still need to preserve that uncanny feeling, and the imperfection of the make-up does that.


Wes Alwan is a writer, cohost of The Partially Examined Life philosophy podcast, and student of psychoanalysis. He lives in Cambridge, MA, where he thinks a lot about the political and moral psychology of film, literature, and contemporary American culture. 
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