The Planet of the Apes series is one of the longest running and most lucrative franchises, one that spawned four sequels, two television series, book tie-ins, several comic runs, a remake, and two prequels (with another on its way). What may be surprising to the uninitiated, is that it is also politically progressive, often allegorical, and subversive. The series is vehemently anti-war, condemning the involvement of religious fundamentalism in law and science; and in the case of the two recent instalments of the reboot/prequel series, has a focus on animal rights and the cyclical nature of conflict. The original film was written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling– the former being blacklisted for supposedly being a communist, and the latter well-known as the ‘Angry Young Man’ of Hollywood for his clashes with executives over racism and censorship.
Yet the original Planet of the Apes (1968) has an often overlooked theme that isn’t really explored in its sequels: in ways both deftly conscious and unwittingly antiquated, it deals with ideas of masculinity. Specifically the differing societal expectations and prejudices experienced by black and white men during this time. Taylor’s treatment and opinion of women, his colonial instinct, and belief in his own superiority is one that stands with the historical actions of the white man. So who better than Charlton Heston to play him.
Deconstructing the Screen Icon
From his first lines Taylor shows us his disdain for humanity, and his need to find something better out in the cosmos. He remarks that he is a “seeker” and “can’t get rid of the idea that somewhere in the universe there must be a creature superior to man”. It seems like a noble enough goal, but it’s hard not to read into the first comment Taylor makes when he sees the primitive humans on the planet: “If this is the best they’ve got around here, in six months we’ll be running this planet”. He may be critical of what mankind has achieved on Earth, but his choice to leave is also to conquer what he finds, much in the same way that the ‘adventurers’ of the Empire sought out new lands.
Casting Charlton Heston in this role is a fascinating choice. He is the leading man, the epitomised image of Hollywood: a white, male dominated industry. A significant portion of Heston’s previous films participate in the narrative of whiteness and Christianity as civility, rationality and order, while defining the non-white and non-Christian as ‘hostile, chaotic, untrustworthy, irrational, and deserving of domination’. Taking Heston, the recognisable symbol of white masculinity at the time, and imbuing him with a cynical outlook on a world dominated by that same masculine construct, allows for the film to deconstruct the image entirely.
One of the most important ways this deconstruction occurs is through notions of power and ego. Taylor’s speech at the beginning of the film is not a man filled with pride for the efforts of humanity, but a declaration of insignificance:
“This much is probably true – the men who sent us on this journey are long since dead and gone. You who are reading me now are a different breed – I hope a better one. I leave the 20th century with no regrets. But one more thing – if anybody’s listening, that is. Nothing scientific. It’s purely personal. But seen from out here everything seems different. Time bends. Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely. That’s about it. Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?”
For Taylor, mankind is an abject failure, though maybe a tragic one. He takes this cynicism and ridicule to the planet where they crash land, as he laughs uncontrollably at the sight of Landon planting a tiny U.S. flag in the barren soil. This mocking of U.S. imperial ambitions is powerful given the context of anti-colonial movements around the world in 1969. His ridicule also highlights it as an extension of Landon’s male ego, now flaccid in the face of their species’ likely extinction:
Taylor: You’re more than three hundred light years from your precious planet. Your loved ones have been dead and forgotten for twenty centuries. […]
And the glory, don’t forget that. There’s a life-sized bronze statue of you somewhere. It’s probably turned green by now, and nobody can read the name plate. But never let it be said we forget our heroes.
Taylor’s pontificating clashes with his superciliousness: he wonders why humankind doesn’t treat each other equally, whilst simultaneously thinking of himself as above them. He doesn’t abide by the principles he mourns the loss of, and is full of the pride he mocks in others. He removes himself from the equation, and is only shaken from his apathy when his masculinity is threatened.
It is often easiest to approach a film/text’s sense of masculinity through its narrative and symbolic treatment of women. Planet of the Apes makes for an interesting case, as it gives us three vastly different forms of female representation– a genuinely well-developed character, an objectified prize, and an empty vessel:
“In Planet there are three women: Zira, a desexualised, highly intelligent ape whose stolen kisses with her fiancé Cornelius are more humorous than passionate; Nova, a hyper-sexualised mute human, played by former Miss Maryland, Linda Harrison, who spends the entire film clad in an animal-skin bikini; and Stewart, a woman astronaut […] who is dead before the events of the narrative begin”
While the brains/beauty divide of Zira and Nova is an unfortunate simplification, Zira remains one of the most interesting parts of the series. And the fact that a woman is dispassionately examining Taylor, defining his sexuality while he has no voice to object, does carry with it a certain weight. It’s one of many reversals that take place in the film, as he is confronted with oppression that, as a man, he is normally exempt from. Nova, however, is less of a character than she is a trophy that follows Taylor scene to scene (when he is told “Zira doesn’t want your female”, he forcefully responds “I want her”). It’s something that’s eye-rolling but more symptomatic of the era than pernicious. What is perhaps more interesting is how Taylor refers to both Nova and women in general.
“Imagine me needing someone. Back on Earth I never did. Oh, there were women. Lots of women. Lots of love-making but no love. You see, that was the kind of world we’d made. So I left, because there was no one to hold me there”
While I don’t think it is a deliberate reference, this does connect to the Madonna-Whore Complex. In psychoanalytic literature this refers to men who are unable to maintain sexual arousal within a committed relationship, whereas in sexual politics it’s the artificial construct that women are either saintly or debased depending on their sexual expression. Freud put it more succinctly – “Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love”. Taylor’s pride deflects any blame for the lack of love in his life on “the world we’d made”, as addressing it personally would be to admit a failure of his masculinity. He later tells Nova of the one astronauts on their mission who died before they landed, in what is the crassest moment in the film:
“Did I tell you about Stewart? Now there was a lovely girl. The most precious cargo we’d brought along, she was… to be the new Eve. With our hot and eager help, of course. Probably just as well she didn’t make it this far”
This is a difficult passage to translate, given that this would have garnered a different response from audiences at the time, even amidst the sexual revolution. There is a bluntness to it that almost makes it feel self-aware, and together with that last line and Heston’s performance, it comes across as bitterly self-loathing.
The White Body Punished
Much of the duration of Planet of the Apes is spent watching the abuse of one of cinema’s greatest icons. He is beaten, stoned, gagged, imprisoned, stripped and mocked. On a surface level, this is a reversal of the mistreatment of animals by mankind, but given the era and the politics of the screenwriters, it does point to a reversal of the injustices visited upon the black body by white society. The prevailing symbol of the rich white man of the moment is tortured, detained and robbed of his voice. Once he speaks up, he is beaten and deprived of the right to define himself, and his difference in culture is treated as an inability to reason. The lobotomy conducted on Landon threatens the loss of identity entirely, and is a procedure that was still performed on primarily black men in the 1960s. The final abuse, and for Taylor the ultimate one, is the threat of castration, a physical and symbolic defeat of his concept of masculinity. Dr. Zaius, in this case, embodies the white establishment, limiting Taylor’s expression due to outdated stereotypes:
“Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death”
This calls back to older ideas of blackness and ‘the other’ that supported slavery and continue to reinforce prejudice as well as the construct of black male sexuality as inherently destructive. Dr. Zaius has an expectation of mankind, and his oppression of the species forces Taylor to act in one of two ways – the subservient prisoner or the violent beast. By the time he is heading off on horseback, with a beautiful woman as his prize, holding a rifle and claiming that “I’m pretty handy with things like these”, Taylor has met Zaius’ expectation of him as the hyper-sexualised violent male.
During an attempted escape, Taylor is surrounded by a group of chimpanzees and gorillas who proceed to stone him. Director Franklin J. Schaffer shoots this alternately from the protagonist and the antagonists’ point of view, and the audience is thrown into the position of being both the punisher and the punished. In the same way, Taylor takes on the role of both the abused and the abuser, and this disregard for the women and the apes that oppress him settles when he is in a position of power once again. The white, hegemonic masculinity he displays is unstable, wrestling with itself. The unrealistic expectations of his role as a man push him to assert his dominance, and this abuse hurts him in much the same way as patriarchal expectations have a detrimental effect on men.
Up until the twist ending (which really shouldn’t be on the cover of every DVD) it seems that his arc will be to realise the error of his ways, that instead of “something better” he found something worse; that humanity is its own wonderful thing. Instead, we come to one of the most nihilistic endings in movie history. Once Taylor loses his privilege, and his manhood is threatened, he ends up defending the human race for all he’s worth. It’s at this point that he returns to the cocky demeanour that he began the film with, leaves his newly-found friends to their fate and ventures off again. The twist is not just that it was Earth all along, but that his misanthropy was justified. The film works as a complicated black joke on its hero. This is the desolation we ensure when we allow ourselves to be driven by pride, anger, and a sense of superiority – all symptoms of toxic masculinity.
 Eric Greene & Richard Slotkin, ‘Planet of the Apes’ as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture, (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1996), p. 45
 Ibid p. 37
Emilie Raymond, From My Cold, Dead Hands: Charlton Heston And American Politics, (The University Press of Kentucky, 2006)
Ronald L. Jackson II, Scripting the Black Masculine Body: Identity, Discourse, and Racial Politics in Popular Media, (State University of New York Press, 2006)
Derek A. Burrill, Die Tryin’: Videogames, Masculinity, Culture, (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2008)