Charlton Heston... Image:

Cornelius (left) disapproves of humans in the house. Image: Reel Antagonist

The original Planet of the Apes (1968) is a cheesy, but creepy, head trip.

Now, before we go any further, we (as in, yours truly) adore the original Planet of the Apes franchise and, even though it is a sci-fi cheese fest, it can do no wrong in our eyes.

Who cares about the dated soundtrack and cast-off Flintstones decor? Planet of the Apes still has important things to say about society, philosophy and science.

The Plot: A rocket carrying four astronauts crash-lands on a planet ruled by talking apes. By apes, we mean chimpanzees (the intellectuals), orang-utans (the bureaucrats), and gorillas (the muscle). It’s interesting to note that the lighter the ape’s skin/fur, the higher the position in society it occupies.

Now, there are humans on this planet, but they do not talk or form complex thoughts. They live in the wild and are regarded as dangerous animals, suitable only for museum exhibits or science experiments.

It’s a brutal world, this simian regime. It’s also a theocratic dictatorship, which makes things a bit tricky for certain apes.

Certain apes like Cornelius.

Zara (left) refuses ...Image:

Zira (left) is the smartest ape in the room. Image: Fairbanks on Film

You can’t help but feel sorry for Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), a genuinely nice chimpanzee and well-respected scientist.

On the surface, he seems to have it all: a canny fiancé, a spacious stone house and a snappy pea-green wardrobe.

But Cornelius lives in a society where there is no disagreeing with the State Religion, a philosophy so rigid, antiquities are blown up if they undermine religious texts. In such an environment, you can only imagine the difficulties scientists run into during the course of their research.

Not only that, Cornelius’ scrappy fiancé, Zira (Kim Hunter), doesn’t suffer fools, and says what she thinks regardless of the risks to her career and liberty.

Cornelius is forever negotiating with his political masters, his fiancé and his own scientific discoveries. It can’t make for a restful night’s sleep, but it’s a situation he can live with.


Until one of the crash-landed astronauts (Charlton Heston) is captured and brought to Zira’s lab. Zira, in a delicious bit of satire, is an animal psychologist who is astounded at Heston’s ability to speak. (Her experiments on humans are an homage to similar experiments done on chimpanzees.)

Heston enjoying a spa treatment. Image:

Heston enjoying a spa treatment. Image:

The boss of the scientists, an orang-utan named Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans) is, at first, dismissive of Zira’s findings. “Humans can be taught a few simple tricks,” he shrugs, “nothing more.”

But Zira continues to study Heston, which makes Cornelius very nervous – and for good reason. Soon he and Zira are dragged into a tribunal to defend their “perverted” view of science, and are charged with heresy.

Here is a film that forces us humans to look at ourselves in an uncommon way. By mirroring the worst traits humans have exhibited throughout history, these apes create a mind-bending horror: Are we actually like this?

Planet of the Apes is based on the novel La Planete des Singes (Monkey Planet) by Pierre Boulle. It grossed more than $32 million, and was one of the top 10 films at the box office in 1968.

Even though this film looks a bit dated, it’s almost more relevant today than it was in 1968.

  • For background on the Planet of the Apes franchise, click HERE.
  • For an academic review, click HERE.

Planet of the Apes: starring Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. Twentieth Century Fox-Film Corp., 1968, Colour, 112 mins.

This post is part of the Movie Scientist Blogathon hosted by Christina Wehner and yours truly. Click HERE to see today’s fab entries.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

50 Comment on “Cornelius, Zira & Questionnable Science

  1. Pingback: Movie Scientists Blogathon Day 1 Recap – The Good | Christina Wehner

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