Cornelius, Zira & Questionnable Science

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.



  1. It is a dreadful thought that even in imagined socieites, bureaucrats come out on top. Red tape is universal.

    “Planet of the Apes” is exciting and thoughtful. It always works for me.

    PS: Charlton Heston made money in his youth as an artist’s model and I must say he could have continued in that line.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great stuff (aside from the questionable heading). I put off forever watching this movie, because I assumed it’s be sort of Mighty Joe Young updated and because I hadn’t been wild about Pierre Boulle’s novel, upon which it was supposedly based. But I was delightfully surprised when I finally succumbed — I think first to one of the sequels and then finally to the Real Thing.

    Sucks to the remake(s), though.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great job! I really didn’t appreciate Planet of the Apes in my youth. It was just too cheesy for me to get into. But in more recent years I’ve come to find it charming in its cheesiness, and just generally more interesting than I first gave it credit for.


  4. I found this an interesting look into a side of the Apes films that I didn’t consider when I wrote on my own blog a three part review of the franchise early this month. I found this take most erudite and illuminating.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. wonderful talk about one of my favorite movies all time. i love planet of the apes. I really love its follow up Beneath the Planet of the Apes so much more as its my favorite of the series. Is a joy very wonderful. I may have check out your other review of this movie too sometime.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great piece! I such have fond memories of this film, mostly because my dad and I took an afternoon to ourselves to see it. Oddly, elements of it seemed cheesy even when it was released, but we didn’t care. We enjoyed every minute, along with our popcorn. I didn’t remember until years later that Rod Serling had a hand in the script. The man did have a penchant for morality plays. 🙂 And, as you say, this one still rings true. Looking forward to more in your series!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the link to Serling’s memorial site. That’s a fascinating article on Who Wrote What re: the screenplay.

      What a wonderful memory to have, of you & your father taking the afternoon off going to see this film. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂


  7. I was probably about 10 or so when I first saw Planet of the Apes. It probably would have been one of first times they showed it on TV. I was blown away by the ending. To this day, it’s still pretty high on my list of top sci-fi films and is sort of the yard stick I use to judge others.

    I never thought about the thing about the color of the apes fur vs position in society. That’s brilliant. I like the way you look at the sociological aspects of ape society. It really is a theocratic dictatorship. In our current society, where states are adopting science text books that include Creationism as a valid alternate theory, it does make the film more relevant today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I was probably about 10 when I first saw the original series, too, so I can relate! A local TV station played the original series A LOT , and I watched them every time…even though a lot of the themes were over my head. I was all about the angry apes on horseback! Thanks for your kind comments and for dropping by. 🙂


  8. Poor Cornelius. He made the find of his career in the Forbidden Zone, only to have it hushed up–rather forcibly–by Dr. Zaius. It’s funny now to hear Charlton Heston, an arch-conservative in his later years, rail against Zaius’ dual roles of “science minister” and “defender of the faith,” and for that matter starring in a movie whose whole premise was based on the theory of evolution.

    The original POTA still holds up as one of the most interesting and thought-provoking sci-fi films of all time. Thanks for this article and a look at the man…er, ape caught in the struggle between science and religion.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This was the *first* film I saw in a movie theater (thanks, mom!), so it has a special place for a few reasons. Of the five, I like this one the most followed by Beneath, Escape and the more violent Blu-Ray cut of Conquest. Battle for the Planet of the Apes isn’t a very good film at all, but it is pretty funny if you’re in the right frame of mind.

    It’s amusing that each of the Apes films is poking at some sort of social commentary about different things but it takes looking past the initial entertainment value to find those things.


  10. I have such great memories of going to see Planet of the Apes back in 1968. It was mesmerizing. Then when I revisited the film years later and understood all the sociological underpinnings of the story, I naturally experienced it on a whole new level. You summed it up in your insightful and witty piece… perfectly… snappy pea-green wardrobe Haha by Morton Haack (Games, What’s the Matter with Helen) hilarious…

    As cheesy and campy as the entire franchise became, how you could not adore Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall’s impassioned performances. It’s memorable and completely reasonable that you could watch it over and over because of so many iconic images, and utterly frank and ballsy performances by Maurice Evans and James Whitmore too. Great choice for a great Blogathon! –Cheers, Joey

    PS: I actually took an elective in High School –Science Fiction Literature where we studied Pierre Boulle’s novel… Do i remember any of it. No! But the film is eternally fabulous!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. You made me laugh out loud at the “Flintstones” decoration!
    I really like this film for its philosophical tone. Indeed, mirroring our behavior in the monkeys makes us see how disturbed some things in our society relly are.
    Thanks for co-hosting this scientific feast!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a brilliant idea to have the apes enact our worst human behaviours, isn’t it? It’s very unsettling and forces us to examine ourselves. That’s what a good sci-fi movie does, in my opinion… Thanks for dropping by! 🙂


  12. My husband has always liked this film so I have seen parts of it, but never sat down to watch the whole thing. I didn’t realize how philosophical it is with analogies to our society. You have definitely given me reason to see this, Ruth, and it’s not just Cornelius’s “snappy pea green wardrobe”! 🙂 Thanks for opening my eyes to a movie I have always just dismissed.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Oh, how I remember sitting in the theater watching this film! You could almost feel the shock of my fellow movie goers as the Statue of Liberty appeared at the end. I find it remarkable that Zanuck had to be convinced to produce this film and did so only once “Fantastic Voyage” was a success. Today, much of the industry’s profits are from sci-fi and I cannot imagine the landscape if all we had to view were akin to “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” or “Tarantula”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha! Yes, can you imagine if movies hadn’t grown past “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”? (Don’t get me wrong – who doesn’t love a sea monster wreaking havoc on land?)

      What a thrill it must have been to see this movie on the big screen! I can only imagine how utterly shocking the ending would be, especially on such a large screen.

      Liked by 1 person

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