The Apes of Wrath
The radical political history of Planet of the Apes.
The audience is clearly intended to sympathize with Caesar, and the implicit endorsement of revolutionary black power—coming, as it does, from a major Hollywood studio—is striking. (Contemporary reviewers pointed out that black audiences drowned out much of the dialogue by cheering "Right on!" right through the screenings.) Still, it's unpleasant to see chimps telling black men that they, of all people, should understand the monkey's lot. The implication is that human rights, having trickled down from whites to blacks, will continue to work their way down the evolutionary ladder. No wonder placards reading "NAACP: Planet of the Apes" became fixtures at white supremacist rallies. And no wonder the executives behind Burton's remake shied away from the original's racial and political overtones.
But the Planet of the Apes movies succeeded, in no small measure, because they tapped into the terrific pressures of their time. Given that history, it'll be interesting to see which analogies Burton embraces and which he ignores. If he turns away from all of them, very little of the original movies—aside from hairy prosthetics—may be left.
Alex Abramovich has been writing for Slate since 2001. In 2008, Riverhead will publish a history of rock 'n' roll he's been working on for the last four years.
Stills from: Planet of the Apes © 2001 20th Century Fox; Planet of the Apes © 1968 Archive Photos. All rights reserved. Illustration by Ruslan Karablin aka Ssurilla.