Is Planet of the Apes Really Accurate?
See, I’ve been interested in apes ever since fourth grade when I learned that apes are different from monkeys (no tails, for one thing), and I became so obsessed that I wrote what I believe is the only elementary-school report I ever wrote that I didn’t crib word-for-word from the World Book Encyclopedia. (Instead I cribbed it, in pastiche fashion, from a book called Apes, by the editors of National Geographic.) And that’s the difference a motivated pursuit of knowledge makes: the facts in this report actually stayed with me. Of course, I only rarely get to use these facts, so they sometimes rush out in my excitement. The last time this happened was about eight years ago at Hallmark. Five of us humor writers were walking to the commissary, and one of my co-workers said, speculatively,“I’ve been thinking. Why do we only use chimpanzees on our monkey cards? I mean, aren’t there a lot of other kinds of monkeys we could use?”
“Actually,” I said, “chimpanzees aren’t monkeys at all. They’re classified as apes, along with gibbons, gorillas, and orangutangs.”
There was a pause, and then my friend Steve King said, “Uh, speaking of animals, Dave, would you like to see the rat’s ass that I give?” This was only one of many indications that I didn’t really belong at Hallmark, and that eventually I was going to have to either return to academia or develop social skills.
But my brain won’t be silenced, and I’ve been musing all morning about the absence of gibbons from Planet of the Apes. Why the oversight? And if we were going to add them, where would they fit?
A quick look at the caste system of India isn’t much help. They divide into the brahmins (priests and teachers), the ksatriyas (warriors and rulers), the vaisyas (farmers, merchants, artisans), and the sudras (laborers). Since the orangs take over two of the castes—priest and rulers—and the chimps take over two of the others—artisans and laborers—it’s pretty clear that the Hindu model isn’t the one that ape culture is based on. I was tempted to suggest that maybe the gibbons were an outcaste of untouchables—but then I realized that humans are the untouchables in ape society, and that was the whole goddamn point. So that won’t wash.
The other problem is that if the characters didn’t actually say differently, I would have sworn that the alleged “orangutans” were actually gibbons. Of course, I can’t imagine they could have done “real” convincing orangutans with ‘68 makeup technology. As anyone who knew how to post pictures could demonstrate, orangs have huge flat pudgy faces, beanbag-shaped bodies, and orangutans, even more than most brachiating animals, have incredibly long arms—much longer in span than their bodies are tall. (Orangutan, by the way, is Malaysian for “old man of the woods.” Oh, and “brachiating” means “traveling by swinging from branch to branch.” I can’t stop!) And, of course, they’re noted for their red fur.
Now look at the alleged orangutans in Planet. They’re relatively slim! They move swiftly! They’ve got blond hair, for Pete’s sake! That’s a gibbon, you damned dirty screenwriters! So I think what must have happened is that, over the many years since the Statue of Liberty was destroyed (gee, did I give anything away?), gibbons must have slowly encroached on the orang’s territory, until gradually they began to fill the same biological niche, and even got called by the same name, sort of the way “tit” gets applied to any small bird who happens to occupy a titlike position in the local biome. Then, once there was sufficient confusion, the gibbons simply rose up and killed all the orangs overnight. No one ever noticed. It would sure explain a lot, including the fact that gibbons are evil and don’t want anyone to know their true identity. You learn a lot from the movies.
The other theory—and the one I currently hold, because I just thought of it—is that gibbons occupy the information technology class: the computer programmers, the e-traders, the game designers, etc.—and since ape society is only at medieval level, the gibbons all put themselves in hidden suspended animation chambers, waiting for ape culture to reach the level where they can unthaw and rule the world. Which merely reinforces the truth: Gibbons are evil.
By the way, I had a student once (hi, Mary Beth!) who was studying primatology, and after talking with her a few times I also got interested in prosimians—those weird monkeylike creatures that are basically nocturnal, wide-eyed, and insectivorous, and who actually predate monkeys. (Not “predate” as in “feed on” but as in “are older than”) They divide into four groups, too, including the loris, the lemur, the tarsier, and the galago (a.k.a. “bush baby”). I hope someone makes a movie called Planet of the Prosimians, because it would be just the cutest thing ever.
This post is dedicated to the following famous people:
Walter Gibbon, author of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire;
Leeza Gibbons, co-host of "Entertainment Tonight" whose name is often seen in the better crossword puzzles, as well as the one in Us Weekly;
Nick Gibbons, director of the 1997 movie Radioactive Crotch Man (Thank you, Internet Movie Database!);
and most especially Cedric Gibbons, art director for the classic The Wizard of Oz. Because after all, he must have helped design the flying monkeys! (Which were clearly not monkeys, but apes. Again with the no tails.) I don’t believe that monkeys can fly. But it’s heartening to know that, even in Hollywood, apes can dream.
(P.S. Thanks to Cary Pearsall, whose encyclopedic knowledge of Planet of the Apes prevented me from making an ass of myself in an earlier draft.)