Planet of the Apes

by Pierre Boulle

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 813

Pierre Boulle published Planet of the Apes in 1963, at a time when the French colonial empire was coming to an end. In 1954, the country suffered a humiliating military defeat, losing its Southeast Asian colonies in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In much of Africa, it granted independence peacefully—to Tunisia and Morocco in 1956, to Guinea in 1958, and to its remaining West African holdings in 1960. The French withdrawal from Algeria in 1962, however, was especially traumatic. Not only did the former colonizers lose possession of the vast reserves of oil recently discovered beneath the Sahara Desert, but a million French settlers, many from families that had lived in Algeria for three generations, had to abandon everything they owned and flee the country. A powerful French conservative faction insisted on holding Algeria at all costs; when they learned that President Charles de Gaulle had decided to abandon the country, many high-ranking military officers formed the O.A.S. (Organization of the Secret Army), tried to foment a civil war in France, and at least twice attempted to assassinate de Gaulle with bombs.

Boulle’s fantasy reenacts France’s worst nightmare of being defeated by the “dark-skinned,” “inferior” beings who had originally been invaded and colonized by the mother country (la mère patrie). His description of ape society satirizes racism by schematically depicting black-furred gorillas (equivalent to African Blacks), orange-furred orangutans (equivalent to Arabs), and brown-furred chimpanzees (equivalent to Asians), who combine to overwhelm pale-skinned caucasians. It simultaneously dramatizes the absurd view that racial others are bestial.

Boulle does not depict a historically accurate conflict between the colonized—whose main weapons were political assassinations, sabotage, and terrorism—and the colonizers—who denied free elections, resorted to torture in interrogations, and accepted the death of many noncombatants as “collateral damage.” Instead, he imagines a dominant species that becomes so soft and self-indulgent that it loses its will to resist rebellion. Boulle’s other major novel, Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai, (1952; The Bridge over the River Kwai, 1954) also tells a story of captive caucasians—the British in Burma during World War II—dominated by captors of a darker-skinned “race,” the Japanese.

It is probably inaccurate to dismiss Boulle himself simply as a racist, however. Although the British captives in The Bridge over the River Kwai call their Japanese jailors “monkeys” (six times), “gorillas” (twice), “barbarous,” “savage,” or “primitive” (seven times), and “children” or “brutes” (sixteen times), the three members of the British secret service demolition team, planning to destroy the bridge that their compatriots are forced to build, use no such language. These secret service agents are not frustrated or enraged because they are not helpless. Moreover, in Boulle’s memoir, Aux Sources de la Rivière Kwai (1966; The Source of the River Kwai, 1967), the author judges even his Nazi and Asian enemies dispassionately, and his footnotes more than once confess former racial prejudices that he has later overcome. He takes advantage of the historical moment in France, however, to give great emotional resonance to his fable.

Instead of self-righteously preaching proper moral behavior, Boulle adopts the Enlightenment satiric strategy of wry detachment that one finds in Voltaire’s Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759; also as Candide: Or, The Optimist, 1762; also as Candide: Or, Optimism, 1947): The sophisticated implied author remains hidden, while the naïve protagonist and the readers must witness scenes of outrageous cruelty in exotic places. These spectators may eventually recognize that similar cruelty exists in their own supposedly superior society, where they have done nothing to end it. Thus, Boulle argues indirectly for animal rights and against “speciesism” (the belief that humans have the right to do anything they want to lesser forms of life) by turning the tables against humans. In Planet of the Apes, wild humans are not only sacrificed to ensure that experimental space vehicles will be safe for apes but also hunted, wantonly shot for sport, imprisoned in zoos and laboratories, and crippled or killed by gratuitous experiments with brain surgery in order to satisfy ape scientists’ idle curiosity.

The blatant sexism in Planet of the Apes may also be satirical, judging by the circumstances in which it appears. In the framing narrative, the two chimpanzees on vacation illustrate a caricatural gender opposition. Phyllis, the female, is impulsive, sensitive, emotional, and not as educated as her mate. Jinn, the male, is competent and rational but somewhat dogmatic and close-minded. At the conclusion of the main narrative, the hero enjoys the devotion of an ideally beautiful woman, whom he trains to be human—a classic version of the Pygmalion myth—but the couple has no place to go in the real world. As at the conclusion of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death (1969), the phallocratic love nest in Planet of the Apes is frankly revealed as a self-mocking fantasy.

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