You know what? I had Charlton Heston pegged all wrong.
Growing up, I only knew Mr. Heston from two things: his overlong biblical epics when he was young and his active support of the NRA when he was old.
But when Charlton Heston was in his 40s, he made some great movies: fun, thought-provoking sci-fi adventures. “Planet of the Apes” was the first and the best.
“Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling wrote the script. As the story begins, three American astronauts from the 20th Century have traveled through space and time to land on a desolate planet orbiting a distant star.
The astronauts are surprised to find that humans on this planet are mute beasts. The planet is run by apes.
“Planet of the Apes” is a movie about ideas. But it remains watchable and compelling because of Charlton Heston’s magnetic performance.
As astronaut George Taylor, Heston is like Captain Kirk with chest hair and a righteous temper. He’s cynical but principled. He’s brave and unapologetically masculine, but philosophical and left-leaning.
The bland, cookie-cutter action stars of today could learn a lot from Mr. Heston.
We get a taste of Taylor’s iconoclasm early on, right after they land on the new planet. One of the other astronauts plants the Stars and Stripes in the ground, even though America is light years away. Taylor looks down at the flag and just laughs and laughs at the simple-minded absurdity of it.
“Planet of the Apes” argues that man is murderous by nature and that we are at risk of destroying ourselves with war. Most everyone who has thought about the subject knows that already.
The real surprise is that Serling and Heston make a forceful argument against animal cruelty. Through the arrogance of ape culture, the film shines an unforgiving spotlight on our own Speciesism.
The apes capture happy wild humans as slaves. They lock humans in cages. They mutilate humans and experiment on them. If they tasted good, the apes would certainly eat human meat without guilt.
When faced with an intelligent, empathetic man, the simians double down on their ape supremacy. “Only apes have souls,” they say. “The bible says that apes have dominion over the Earth,” they say.
Taylor exposes the ape’s arguments as mere excuses for the awful things that they were going to do, anyway. It’s a simple but powerful allegory. When it comes to our treatment of animals, humans are greedy and gluttonous – and we have no excuse.
Yes, Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea and saved our guns. But, more importantly, he brought thought-provoking, middle-brow sci-fi to the masses. Heston was a uniquely charismatic movie star and “Planet of the Apes” is his finest film.