Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture

By H, George, Jr. | Ethnic Studies Review, April 3, 2000 | Go to article overview

Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture


H, George, Jr., Ethnic Studies Review


Planet of the Apes (1968) was such a hit movie that it spawned several sequels. They included Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). In the 1974 television season CBS broadcast the series "Planet of the Apes." NBC followed with the animated Saturday morning series (September, 1975-September, 1976), "Return to the Planet of the Apes." Eric Greene clearly demonstrates that the Apes saga is little more than the support of the American myth of triumphalism: "the conquest of `savage' and `primitive' non-Whites by advanced and civilized Whites" (84).

Greene's criticisms, combining political plus racial and sexual interpretations of ape films, are not new. Thomas Cripps in his book Slow Fade to Black noted that the movie King Kong (1933) had been billed in Germany as King Kong und die Weisse Frau-King Kong and the white woman. Whites kidnapped a mindless black brute from his jungle home and he dies because of his obsessive love of a white woman. Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949) continued that tradition. James Snead in White Screens/Black Images, for instance, informs us that Mighty Joe Young is the story of a white girl who barters for an ape and raises it to a giant. Joe is always under the control of his mistress who is not only white but also pretty. He barely escapes a lynch mob after destroying a nightclub, rescues a white child, and returns to an uncivilized Africa. Race is symbolically figured in these and similar films, including the Apes series.

Ed Guerrero in his book, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film, has also commented on The Planet of the Apes quintet. To him they demonstrate "the struggles and reversals between futuristic apes and humans for a sustained allegory not only for slavery but also the burdens of racial exploitation, the civil rights movement, and the black rebellion that followed it" (43). …

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