Primate and Prejudice

Have you ever thought that in some ways prejudice, like beauty, is only skin deep?

During the filming of the science-fiction cult classic Planet of the Apes  in 1967, lead actor Charlton Heston noted “an instinctive segregation on the set. Not only would the apes eat together, but the chimpanzees ate with the chimpanzees, the gorillas ate with the gorillas, the orangutans ate with the orangutans, and the humans would eat off by themselves. It was quite spooky.” 

Planet of the Apes

Actor James Franciscus noticed the same thing filming Beneath The Planet Of The Apes in 1969. “During lunch I looked up and realized, ‘Wow! here is the universe,’ because at one table were all the orangutans eating, at another table were the apes, and at another table were the humans. The orangutan characters would not eat or mix with the ape characters, and the humans wouldn’t sit down and eat with any one of them”. All the ape actors and extras were required to wear their masks even during breaks and in between shots because it took so much time to make them up. Because of this, meals were liquefied and drunk through straws.

“I remember saying, ‘Look around — do you realize what’s happening here? This is a little isolated microcosm of probably what’s bugging the whole world. Call it prejudice or whatever you want to call it. Whatever’s different is to be shunned or it’s frightening or so forth. Nobody was intermingling, even though they were all humans underneath the masks. The masks were enough to bring out our own little genetic natures of fear and prejudice. It was startling.” 

Made on ever-decreasing budgets, each film in the series was profitable and entertaining, but also known  for political, social commentary, and allegorical treatment of race relations. The various apes, who can talk and are depicted as in control, are in a strict caste system: Gorillas are the police, military, hunters and workers; Orangutans are administrators, politicians, lawyers and priests; and Chimpanzees are intellectuals and scientists. Humans, who are believed by the apes to be unable to talk, are considered vermin and are hunted for sport, killed outright, enslaved, or used in scientific experiments.

Charleton Heston, Kim Hunter

One of the biggest stumbling blocks preventing 20th Century Fox from committing to the project was their fear over how the ape faces would appear on screen. How do you feel at the sight of Charlton Heston kissing Kim Hunter in the above film still?  The script reads: (Taylor) I’d like to kiss you.. (Zira) Alright, but you’re so damned ugly!..Eventually the studio paid $5,000 for a test scene to be shot with Charlton Heston playing alongside the made-up Edward G. Robinson as Dr. Zaius and James Brolin as a character called Mr. Cornelius. They were very excited about the results of this test but still delayed. It was only after Fantastic Voyage (1966) became a hit and showed the viability of science fiction as a genre that “Planet of the Apes” was given the go-ahead, but without Robinson, as he suffered from a weak heart and didn’t think he could endure the day-to-day rigours of performing in the ape make-up.

Thanks to:
Planet of the Apes Revisited: The Behind-The-Scenes Story of the Classic Science Fiction Saga by Joe Russo and Larry Landsman (2001)

For those who groaned at my title, sorry, I couldn’t help it…