Did the original Planet Of The Apes movie revive the fading creationist movement by unintentionally preying on the racial fears of rural and suburban white Christians?
Planet Of The Apes was one of four major ground-breaking / trend-setting sci-fi media concepts that landed within an 18-month period of one another in 1967-68. It was the biggest popular hit of the quartet, launched a successful series of features, a not-so-successful live-action TV series, a somewhat more successful animated series, numerous novel spinoffs, comic books, and a host of imitators and rip offs.
Then as now the film was viewed (at least on one level) as a parable of American racial politics, with the apes implicitly understood to represent the downtrodden finally getting the upper hand over the previously dominant white culture.
Michael Wilson and Rod Serling’s script followed the lead of Pierre Boulle’s original novel to show a satirical (albeit not particularly humorous) view of “normalcy” turned upside down. In many cases it was done by showing humans used the way we use animals: For taxidermy, research, and sport. In others, it was an implicit criticism of dominant white culture with the promise / warning: “You’ll get what’s coming to you.”
While the apes were presented as antagonists in the first two films of the series, African-American audiences tended to sympathize with them more than they did with stalwart Chuck Heston (even before his NRA days).
By the times Escape From… and Conquest Of… rolled around, the identification of African-Americans with the apes was clearly overt (albeit it in a sympathetic and not denigrating manner). Conquest in particular hammers the apes / slavery issue home with a 12-lb sledge, and it’s pretty hard to whip up any sympathy with (predominantly white) humanity in either of those two films.
Recognizing this, and desiring the success of the series to continue, 20th Century Fox watered down the message in the fifth and final film of the original series, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, which ends in a bright future where apes, humans, and mutants co-exist peacefully and happily.
That vision of the ape-ocalyptic future flopped miserably at the box office and the films series ended, tho it continued thriving on the small screen and in comics with the original potent message.
It’s hard for modern audiences to understand the impact of these films when first unleashed from 1968-73. First off, nothing quite like this had ever been seen before. The closest anyone might have come to it is The Wizard Of Oz with its myriad of bizarre cultures in an even more bizarre world, but that was a fairy tale and not meant to be taken seriously. With the exception of a few post-apocalypse movies that featured mutants in cheesy make-up, nobody had ever tried to create not one but three entire species of realistic non-human characters for a film, complete with costumes, props, and buildings designed with apes in mind.
And despite the nervousness of the studio, producer Arthur P. Jacobs & co. pulled it off with remarkable aplomb. There had been serious sci-fi films before Planet Of The Apes, to be sure, but Apes was one of the first that easily crossed over into main stream audiences instead of relying primarily on the (admittedly growing) sci-fi fan base.
But the cinematic / literary / pop culture impact was only a small fragment of what the world of 1968 – especially the United States of America – was going through at that time.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was only four years old at the time Apes was released.
Had the nation not been in a period of shock and mourning in the aftermath of President Kenney’s assassination, conservative southern politicians would have probably blocked the act until the 1970s.
The nation was only four years away from segregated bathrooms, segregated diners, segregated water fountains. Loving v Virginia was only one year old!
African-Americans were still pretty much invisible in their native land. They were starting to make a few token appearances in TV shows and movies but they were far from ubiquitous.
Planet Of The Apes, without directly referring to the apes as analogs for African-Americans, pretty much forced audiences to draw that unavoidable parallel.
And, yeah, there were some who sneered and hooted and derided contemporary blacks by likening them to the monkeys on the silver screen…
…but the inescapable conclusion was that
those damned monkeys were in charge!
…and things were not going to be
so rosy for Mr. Whitey in the future.
This was the first time a lot of white people were forced to realize that the times, they were a’changin’ and what they were changing into was not going to resemble the world they grew up in where everyone knew (and kept) their place.
Planet Of The Apes did not present its topsy-turvy world as one laid down by divine fiat, a wrathful God punishing sinners by letting apes rule over them.
Planet Of the Apes said pretty plainly that humans – white humans in particular – were not fit to survive, and that a more vigorous, more capable breed was going to take over.
That was classic evolution,
and there wasn’t a damned thing
white humanity could do about it.
Creationism was not unheard of or even unargued in the late 1960s, but it was pretty much losing its steam. Evolution existed; there was no denying genetic changes in various species with common ancestors, and even prehistoric humanity had been guiding evolution along for their domestic plants and animals (“survival of the fittest” in this case meaning those most fit to serve humans). Creationists were pretty much giving up on the new earth / six literal twenty-four hour days version of creation and instead arguing what is now referred to as Intelligent Design (only with God explicitly in control).
Their basic point was that God had a plan, and that everyone in the world was assigned a place in that plan, and if God ordained one race to be the
masters leaders and another to be the slaves servants workers helpers then who are we to argue with God?
Planet Of The Apes pretty much says God is no respecter of species, much less persons, and in fact famously ends with Heston ranting and screaming that God has rightfully damned humanity for being a buncha murderous self-centered pricks. It was a pretty shocking ending for mainstream audiences at the time and has been lampooned so often and so successfully that contemporary audiences have no idea just how chilling it was to Joe Six-Pack and Mrs. & Mrs. Suburbia.
…especially in light of the ongoing societal change / upheaval and
the rapid advancements in civil rights by African-Americans.
Mind you, the majority of white audiences seeing the film for the first time were not racists in the classic sense of the term: They burned no crosses, lynched no victims.
But they kinda liked the fact that they got to live over here while those people had to live over there, and while many of them knew and genuinely liked black folks they encountered daily, few of them realized they held a protected and privileged position that was paid for by the sufferings of others.
Apes kinda sunk home the message that there might not be a soft landing for their genteel lifestyle, that rude awakenings and abrupt changes may be the order of the day.
And yeah, Planet Of The Apes is at heart a big budget goofy Hollywood movie, with a whole bunch spectacle & action and a smattering of smarts, not really the sorta thing that can withstand close logical scrutiny for long…
…but that didn’t matter.
The message is what mattered.
And the message was: Time’s up. Things are changing.
A lot of people did not like that change.
They rendered lip service to it, but were willing to do so only so long as things didn’t change for them.
Now, when faced with major changes in one’s life, there are two basic approaches one can take:
You acknowledge the change even if you don’t willingly embrace it; life may get rough but at least you’ll be prepared for it and it won’t catch you by surprise.
The other is to double down on the old system, to bet the heart transplant money that the way things are is The Way Things Are Meant To Be, and that if you just hold fast this faddish craze of modernity will pass and things will once again be good and wholesome and sweet with you in the driver’s seat, just like when you were a child and your father was a child and your great-great-great grandfather was a child.
It’s no accident that the big push towards homeschooling – which originally began among hippy-dippy parents looking to raise their children outside the conforming standards of the dominant class public schools – took off among rural and/or white and/or conservative religious fundamentalists in the south and midwest during this period.
And it’s no accident that creationism takes – nay, demands – a centerpiece of that movement.
Because creationism allows the believer in it to deny the humanity of others, to deny their rights, to deny their equality.
Creationism allows the believer to dismiss all claims for justice with a derisive “God doesn’t want that” and never examine the basics of the question.
Creationism, as has been pointed out, is the handmaiden of Mammon, the self-righteous belief that one’s personal enrichment is God’s master plan for the universe, that every sub-atomic particle in every atom in every molecule of every speck of dust and wisp of gas up to and including the hugest of stars exists solely for the purpose of making your life materially easier and more comfortable…
…and maybe the lives of your immediate family as well…
…and perhaps even a few of your closest friends…
…but certainly not the lives of them – and especially if making their lives any easier requires you to give up an hour of TV or some outrageous demand like that.
Planet Of The Apes is downright terrifying
to people with that mind set.
Small wonder so many conservative whites willingly and eagerly embrace a disproven anti-intellectualism that denies the reality of the world around them, because embracing that fantasy makes it possible to deny the change going on around them.
Like little children threatened by a big mean dog, they sincerely believe if they squinch their eyes closed reeeeeeeeal tight that it will go away.
No, one single silly movie does not a religious heresy make, and in a different time it’s doubtful that the film would have had much more impact than as a popcorn muncher
(much like the recent remakes and sequels have landed with resounding thuds).
But one thing Planet Of The Apes sure did was to give millions of scared white people a very very frightening glimpse of a future where they would no longer be in charge, when the first would indeed be last, and the low would be risen high.
And rather than embrace that spiritual truth, they flock to a self-serving myth that not only will fail to protect them, but will make the eventual change that much more painful for them.
As for me,
like Mark Twain wrote:
When it’s steam boat time,
you steam boat.
 It isn’t an exaggeration to say the shadows from these projects – both in film, TV, comics, and other media as well as literary and other pop culture influences – is still being cast today. The other three were the original Star Trek TV series, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Barbarella. Of the four, Barbarella received the worst response from the public, a critical drubbing, and a commercial flop…and yet each year a loyal cult grew and grew around this film. Today it’s a fondly remembered classic of the era and has aged better than the other four. Go figure…
 I may be wrong, but I can’t remember any African-American actors among the primitive humans in the original film, not unless one counts the ill-fated astronaut who ended up lobotomized.
 Tho who wasn’t an antagonist in Beneath The Planet Of The Apes? It’s the only major studio Hollywood production ever to end with the hero thinking that blowing up the entire planet was A Real Good Idea.
 The world of the final film was much different that the original concept and script. Jacobs originally wanted a world like the one in Boulle’s novel with full size cities, cars, and helicopters designed for apes. By scaling the size back to a few isolated middle-sized towns with low grade industrial age technology, the film actually became more convincing than a modern version. An exact ape parallel to our own world would have only invited laughter, but changing it significantly enough while still leaving it basically recognizable helped sell the idea to audiences.
 And basically, because of all the projects of that era, Planet Of The Apes offered the one concept that every body in the audience, including the dullest witted, got right away: The five-fingered shoe is now on the other foot.
 And more importantly, cast in commercials as users of the product being sold, not servants making white folks’ lives easier, thus tacitly acknowledging them as part of the American fabric and not just an accessory after the fact.
 …or words to that effect…
 No matter than we fan boys saw it marching down the avenue from the moment the film started talking about archeological digs involving humans.
 No, I am not saying Planet Of The Apes was responsible for that; it was the general societal upheaval of the late 60s and early 70s that scared much of the mostly white religious right into fleeing society with the hopes of one day leading a counter-rebellion against it.
 And mind you, screenwriters Michael Wilson and Rod Serling managed to have their Darwinian cake and theologically eat it as well: A strong argument could be made for the film as the mene mene tekel uparsin of mainstream American values, a judgment handed down from on high and executed with our own hands around our own throats – but holding to that argument requires denying human supremacy in general and American exceptionalism in particular and recognizing both our personal and national sins and shortcomings and, hey, who wants to believe that becuz America! Right? Right?!?!?
 And embracing it not in a little way but going all out: None of this namby-pamby “God created the universe billions of years ago and guides the natural processes in it” but “Bang! Done! Full and complete in six twenty-four hour days and you can’t change it – ever!”
 Since the original posting, I’ve been delighted to see the quality of the new Apes sequels has risen dramatically and the series is turning into a solid success. Bravo!