Planet of the Apes and the Anti-Logic of Deterrence
By Jack Holloway
In June of 2015, Vladimir Putin announced that he is expanding Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Accompanied by the pressing question of Iran’s possession of nuclear arms, by people expressing their fear of Donald Trump having the nuclear codes, and by chilling studies that highlight the U.S.’s inadequacy in properly handling nukes (see, for example, the Last Week Tonight special on the subject), nuclear weapons are returning to public discussion. In order to sufficiently assess our current situation, it would behoove us to engage the discussions of the subject in the past, particularly in the 1950s and 60s, when nuclear war was widely understood as a serious possibility.
Hollywood was one of the leading voices in that public discussion. Many films were produced that exploited the public’s fear of nuclear war. Movies like Them! and Behemoth told stories of atomic radiation spurning giant monsters from the earth. Other films critiqued the use of nuclear arms, boldly claiming that such weapons are regressive in the pursuit of peace. One such film was Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes.
It was 1968. The United States had wept over the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagaski, and had experienced the anxiety of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The world had become familiar with the logic of deterrence, believing that military strength would provide peace.
Deterrence is the idea that if the enemy is made aware of the nation’s considerable strength (e.g. nuclear power), it will consider an attack too costly to risk, and so the nation will be secure. The problem that many recognized during this time, however, is that no one nation can interminably secure a monopoly on military deterrents. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. became insecure because of Russia’s equal possession of nuclear arms. Deterrence can only really work if a nation possesses a military strength that is unattainable to other nations.
Thus, instead of peace, many saw that deterrence can only provide an endless arms race, in which nations go back and forth attempting to one-up each other in developing mightier and mightier military power. Furthermore, the arms race led us to the possession of a military power that could destroy all of civilization, and so the inevitable fear arose that we eventually would indeed destroy ourselves.
Enter Planet of the Apes.
Astronaut Taylor, the film’s lead character (played by Charlton Heston), is an American of the year 1972, but the time dilation of his voyage places him 2,000 years into the future. His spaceship crash lands on an unknown planet, and he and the rest of the crew leave the ship to explore. They find that the humans on this planet are wild, beast-like creatures who do not have the capacity for speech or rational thought. The crew is then captured by the species that they find are the rulers of the planet—apes. These apes can do everything Earth humans can do, while the humans of this planet are exactly like Earth apes. This is an upside down world where the human-ape relationship of Earth is reversed.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is its commentary on the faith vs. science debate regarding evolution. There is an ape scientist named Dr. Zaius (played by Maurice Evans) who claims that apes evolved from humans. Most of the apes, however, consider this to be “scientific heresy,” because their religion states that God created apes in the image of God and to be the special rulers over all the other species. Because Taylor is a human who can talk and reason, Dr. Zaius suggests that he is a missing link in the evolution between humans and apes, and so most of the film is tied up in the debate between Dr. Zaius and the governing apes on evolution.
What we find out at the end of the film, however, is that its central point is not about faith and science (as captivating as its coverage of that issue is), but rather, nuclear war. In one of film history’s most famous endings, Taylor discovers on a beach the ruins of the Statue of Liberty and realizes that he has been on Earth the whole time.
“We finally really did it,” he says. And then, like Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, he falls to the ground and shouts, “You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! Damn you all to hell!” The screen fades out, but the sound of the ocean remains. There’s no music, no closing bang, just the lingering sound of the ocean as the credits role.
Before the journey that led him to the Statue, one of the governing apes, named Cornelius (played by Roddy Mcdowall), quoted to Taylor a passage from the apes’ sacred scroll, concerning the nature of humans:
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.
The implication is that an evolved ape (the author of the scroll) discovered how the humans had destroyed themselves in nuclear war and resolved to construct a religion that rejected the metanarrative of scientific advancement, believing it would only lead to self-destruction.
The film’s message is that the development of WMDs is regressive and counter-productive to evolution. We stoop to the level of the ape when we adopt the logic of deterrence.
The possibility of self-destruction is as present with us today as it was in the 60s, and if we continue to entertain the logic of deterrence, we will face the same crisis that was faced 50 years ago. Instead of providing security, expanding nuclear arsenals has only drained government budgets, distracted from the establishment of peace and justice, upset international relations, and even threatened civilization as a whole. It is counterproductive to the pursuit of peace.
The lingering sound of the ocean at the end of Planet of the Apes is evocative and poignant. It is meant to make the audience feel the weight of the film. Its pregnant devastation is meant to deprive military power of its glorification, and evoke a void, an awareness of the anti-logic of deterrence.
Jack Holloway studies Karl Barth and Marxist Theory at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He is Secretary-treasurer of the International Society for Heresy Studies, and he holds a B.A. in biblical and theological studies from Regent University. He is also a musician, an avid beer-drinker, and a lover of film.