I believe that the original 1968 Planet of the Apes film really has little or nothing to do with the idea of actual apes taking over the world in some imaginary future, but that its true purpose is to graphically depict systems of oppression and mind control in human societies in the present day.
One of the most powerful messages conveyed by the film is that oppression and tyranny actually require the cooperation and complicity of three different categories of participants -- none of whom could actually be completely effective without the special skill-sets of the other two.
In the metaphor of the movie, these three groups are graphically and memorably depicted as the orangutans, the gorillas, and the chimpanzees.
Note well that it should go without saying that these different roles of "gorilla," or "orangutan," or "chimpanzee," are absolutely not intended to refer to different ethnicities or religions or other "labels" which are used to falsely divide us and turn us against one another and focus on externals instead of the fact that we are all spirit clothed in a body, and also to distract us from perceiving the real aspects of oppressive systems of control. No, the three different groups of apes depicted in the film represent different roles that any man or woman can find himself or herself playing in this world, if we are not careful (and sometimes even if we are).
Far from being "typical" of any one artificial division of humanity, each of the special skills displayed by these three groups of apes in the metaphor of the film (and the 1963 book by French author Pierre Boulle, on which it is loosely based) seem to represent aspects of human nature common to all men and women, aspects we each possess to some degree.
Each of these aspects of our nature actually has a very positive role to play on behalf of human freedom and individual consciousness and empowerment. But each can also be twisted into the service of oppression and tyranny and the suppression of human consciousness -- and it is this twisted side that is on display in the 1968 Planet of the Apes, where the tyrannical oppression is maintained by fraud, violence and cowardly collaboration, in a world that is portrayed as an inversion or 180-degree opposite of the way things rightfully should be (and which, the film implies, is the way our own society has somehow become).
The special skill of the gorillas, of course, is the application of physical combat power. This skill, it must be understood, is not inherently evil, but is in fact necessary at times, in order to stop violence, which is a subset of physical force when applied in violation of someone's natural inherent rights.
The application of physical combat force, whether with a weapon or without it, when used to protect someone from having their physical body damaged or violated by another, is not a violation and thus is not properly violence. If someone sees a person preparing to injure or violate another human being, and that someone uses physical force to stop that other person from perpetrating that violence, it is completely lawful and proper to do so.
Thus, skill at applying physical force is admirable and good, when coupled with the understanding that such force is only rightly applied to protect oneself or others from violence. The "gorillas" in the film, of course, unquestioningly and happily employ force in the service of oppressing anyone who questions the absolutist vision of the orangutans -- and especially in the service of oppressing the terrified, persecuted, huddled masses of pathetic and voiceless humans.
Were the gorillas to refuse to use their special skills in the service of the orangutans' criminal system of oppression, and instead devote themselves to only using force to actually protecting the helpless, the entire tyrannical system would cease to be able to oppress anyone. The orangutans are dependent upon the "muscle" of the gorillas and the special skill-set that the gorillas possess in order to impose their system upon the other apes and upon the degraded humans.
The orangutans, for their part, specialize in creating and maintaining the illusion upon which the entire fraudulent and criminally oppressive societal structure is constructed. It is extremely noteworthy that this fraudulent fabric of illusion depends upon a knowingly false narrative regarding the ancient history of the planet, and about the ancient capabilities and origins of humanity. It is also noteworthy that the orangutan system is built around religious dogmas, a literalistic adherence to certain ancient scriptures, and an ideological system that seeks to excuse and condone violence in support of this oppressive system -- to try to cloak that which is criminal and illegitimate in a "veil of legitimacy."
Once again, however, the special skills of the orangutans are not in and of themselves inherently criminal. The orangutans' special expertise is in the interpretation of symbol, in the examination of meaning and legitimacy, in the pursuit of that which gives purpose to existence and in warning against that which is wrong or harmful to oneself or others.
It is clear that in the twisted, inverted world portrayed in the movie, the orangutans have chosen to use their special skills to divide, to conquer, to oppress, and to deceive. At least some of them know the truth (Dr. Zaius being the most obvious example) but choose to teach lies instead -- perhaps even from a partly-understandable belief that the truth, if known, would lead to chaos or self-destruction (an insufficient excuse for perpetrating fraud, violence, and oppression against others, but one that Dr. Zaius at least seems to believe and which at least partly informs his behavior).
What the orangutans should do with their special skill is use it in the service of the empowering message that the world of symbols was actually designed to convey. There are certain aspects of the invisible realm, of the spiritual side of existence, which can only be properly conveyed or grasped through symbol -- and the orangutans, with their special proclivity for understanding the fact that reality can be created, should be helping individuals to grasp those powerful and liberating truths and pointing them towards greater consciousness, which would almost certainly have profoundly positive effects on society as a whole, far outweighing any imagined danger.
The chimpanzees, of course, have a talent for investigating, for searching for knowledge, for noticing new evidence and analyzing it, for thinking of new and innovative ways to do things, for exploring new and innovative ideas, and also for organizing knowledge and sharing knowledge and recording knowledge and communicating knowledge for the benefit of society. They are actually portrayed doing some of this positive analysis and seeking after knowledge during the original 1968 film, even at some risk to themselves -- but the film clearly implies that the "chimpanzee class" is naturally somewhat fearful, eager to please the orangutans, and in general they are overly-ready to accept the religious and ideological interpretations handed down to them by the orangutans and to support the oppressive social structure that is built upon the orangutans' outright lies about ancient history and the artificial limits the orangutans seek to impose upon the freedom of other apes and of the voiceless masses of the completely dispossessed humans.
The chimpanzees as a whole are essential enablers of the tyrannical system of the orangutans, just as much as are the gorillas. In modern "human" society, we can think of a variety of human talents or aspects of society which correspond to the chimpanzees, including academia, those in the news media, those in middle management at corporations, those in entrepreneurial roles, many of those in public service at government jobs, those employed as bureaucrats in the vast machineries that make modern society run the way it does.
If members of the media and of academia, for example, actively pursued anomalous evidence the way that Zira and Cornelius are shown to do in the film, the fictions upon which tyrannical oppression is built would dissolve. The gorillas might even begin to question what they were employing their special skill-sets to support. The message might get out that such skill-sets are properly employed only to stop violence, never to perpetrate it on the behalf of some ideology fabricated by orangutans defending their system. Anyone who doubts that the skills and roles denoted in the movie are not critical to systems of tyranny can try to think of any tyrannies in the era of mass media technologies (including radio and printing presses) that have not employed propaganda arms using those media.
Finally, the humans in the metaphor that operates in the 1968 Planet of the Apes are perhaps the most intriguing of all. Because, just as the film warns us against falling into the trap of being too unquestioning (if acting in the role of the gorillas), too fearful and supportive of evil and fraud (if acting in the role of the chimpanzees), or too cynical to pursue higher consciousness for ourselves and to empower others to do the same (if acting in the role of the orangutans), it seems to also be warning us against accepting a vision of humanity that is completely animal, mindless, irrational, and focused entirely on bare survival and fulfillment of physical needs and functions.
Of course, the humans in the film can also be seen as those "voiceless" members of society who are marginalized, exploited, and oppressed the most of all -- those who are brutalized by the gorillas, feared and despised by the orangutans, and seen as specimens to be studied or used by the chimpanzees. And that is certainly one aspect of the humans as portrayed in the metaphor of Planet of the Apes, and a powerful condemnation of the history of inhumanity and oppression and marginalization of huge numbers of people who should be allowed to reclaim their proper voice.
And perhaps this fourth group is the best hope, if they can be empowered to see beyond simple survival and "creature comfort," and if they can reclaim their voice, because unlike the gorillas and the chimpanzees, they are not beneficiaries of the fraudulent tyranny of the orangutans that the gorillas and the chimpanzees are enabling.
But it seems that the humans in the film also represent the tendency in each one of us to forget that special aspect of our existence, of being a mixture of both "animal" and "god" (as Alvin Boyd Kuhn puts it, in some of his discussions of the symbol of the cross, which has a horizontal "animal" or purely physical component, and a vertical "divine" or spiritual component -- see here, here, and here, for example). Remaining in ignorance or denial of our true human nature leaves us incomplete, and degraded.
The 1968 Planet of the Apes film is not exactly "uplifting" in its tone, but it is possible to perceive a very positive and uplifting message in what we are discussing. This post has focused on the film's unique and very memorable method of illustrating an important truth: that tyranny and injustice cannot really be perpetrated without the cooperation of people who are exercising skills from three different aspects of human nature: skills involving the use of force in actual combat (the gorillas), skills involved in the pursuit of knowledge, and its organization and dissemination (the chimpanzees), and skills involved in the creation of and interpretation of symbols and meaning (the orangutans).
This in itself is an important lesson, but it points to something else as well, and that is the fact that -- because each of these aspects of our own human nature can actually be used in a very positive way -- the entire system that is currently degrading humanity and perpetrating tyranny through fraud and through violence (because of the improper use of the orangutan, gorilla, and chimpanzee skills) could suddenly and smoothly become uplifting and empowering!
If those with skills in the interpretation of symbols devoted themselves to pointing out the empowering message that the ancient symbols were really meant to teach, and if those with skills in the application of force devoted themselves to protecting innocent people from harm, and if those with skills in seeking knowledge and innovating and discovering devoted themselves to looking at all the possibilities and having the courage to follow the evidence where it leads and the courage to communicate what they have seen, then the upside-down world would be turned back right-side up.
Of course, there will always be those who choose to try to gain mastery over others through fraud or through violence (or both), but the more "chimpanzees" society has who are ready to look for evidence and analyze it fearlessly and confront and expose falsehood, the more difficult it will be such fraud to remain unchallenged. And the more "gorillas" society has who refuse to use their skills for criminal ends and who instead pledge to use their skills only to stop actual perpetration of violence, the more difficult it will be for violent plots to stand a chance of success. And the more "orangutans" society has who are pointing people to the truth that they can do and be much more than they have ever been told they could accomplish, then the more difficult it will be for those who wish to use techniques of "reality creation" to enslave instead of to liberate and to empower.
Ultimately, this kind of shift will enable humans to be more human, and to exercise both halves of our unique human nature, to "bless" all things by identifying the spirit and seeing them as being more than simply physical, instead of "cursing" them by trying to reduce them to mere objects, lumps of material devoid of spirit.
We could perhaps distill the message of the 1968 Planet of the Apes (at least, the part of its message that we have been examining here) into a paraphrase that sounds something like this:
- "Wake up, gorillas! Don't perpetrate violence."
- "Show a little backbone, chimpanzees! Don't enable tyranny or propaganda."
- "Point to the right Way, orangutans! Don't cynically substitute lies for truth, but instead help to uplift others and point them towards consciousness, which you are supposed to be doing."
- "Find a voice, humans! Don't allow yourself to be told you are less than who you are."