A 54-year-old movie’s warning to Putin


Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine hasn’t gone the way he planned. And he doesn’t seem too happy about it.
I suppose you wouldn’t be happy, either, if you spent nearly a decade pumping your people full of lies to prepare them for this invasion. After all, Putin has dedicated a ton of resources to making sure his people believe that Ukraine belongs to them, that Ukrainians are actually just confused Russians or Poles, and that Ukraine is ruled by Nazis.
First, Russia was going to take Ukraine in a week. Then maybe a month. That didn’t happen. Many months later, we are seeing Ukraine making considerable gains in Russian-occupied territory. And, unable to cope with this, Putin has gone to a new threat: nuclear war. Western leaders have met him stride for stride, and warned of counterattacks if he tries it.
This is something of a throwback threat. Many young people today don’t know what it’s like to live in a world where nuclear war could be looming. Given all the other problems we face today, it’s not something we think about often.
But nuclear war was prevalent in people’s minds not too long ago. The way warnings of the dangers of technology, mental health struggles and other, newer issues permeate today’s entertainment, nuclear war did so at the height of the Cold War.

Remember “Planet of the Apes”? No, not those movies that came out in the 2010s. Those, ironically, told the tale of how humanity destroyed itself when faced with a global pandemic. But much like they addressed the problems of today, the original addressed the problems of its day.
Released in 1968, at the height of the Cold War and not long after a nuclear confrontation nearly happened during the Cuban missile crisis, “Planet of the Apes” follows Charlton Heston’s character, George Taylor, a space explorer who crash-lands on a mysterious planet.
Taylor encounters humans, but they are mute and animalistic, and the society is ruled by apes that have evolved into something human-like. They keep the humans down with a passion, and Taylor is confused about why. One of the orangutan superiors, Dr. Zaius, played by Maurice Evans, pursues Taylor with religious zeal when Taylor, unlike all the other humans, speaks. Zaius interrogates him about where he came from, and repeatedly implies that he knows something more than the other apes do about humans.
When Taylor and Zaius discover evidence of an old civilization on the planet that was ruled by humans, Zaius confesses to Taylor that he has “always known about man” and, though he acknowledges that man’s civilization was once great, he adds that “his wisdom must walk hand in hand with his idiocy.” The sacred scrolls of the apes tell them to “beware the beast man, for he is the devil’s pawn” and that man would murder his own brother to possess his land.
This explains what drives the apes to oppress humans, but Taylor still doesn’t understand how they’ve come to believe this. Then, in a lifeless coastal desert known as the Forbidden Zone, once a lush paradise that was ruined by man, Taylor sees the Statue of Liberty, scorched, buried up to her chest in sand, the ocean’s waves crashing into her. He has been on Earth the whole time, where humanity had destroyed itself in a nuclear war.
Taylor falls to his knees, condemning humanity as maniacs who have “finally gone and done it.” The film ends with Taylor collapsed in the surf, doomed to live the rest of his life on a post-apocalyptic Earth.
Putin’s threat has made this film, and the 1968 zeitgeist, relevant again today. Are we going to finally go and do it?
It’s easy to watch “Planet of the Apes” and think of the apes as the bad guys, brutes who are treating humans like animals. But at the end of the film, Zaius is proven right about humanity. In that world, we indeed were the devil’s pawn.
And as Putin threatens to use nuclear war to take Ukraine, the idea that man would kill his brother to possess his land seems to ring true. Perhaps those of us who would dismiss his threat — or worse, dare him to follow through on it so we can retaliate — should give this classic film a watch. It provides a stark warning not only to Putin, but to anyone who thinks nuclear war is a feasible solution to the world’s problems.

Michael Malaszczyk is a Herald reporter covering Wantagh and Seaford. Comments about this column? mmalaszczyk@liherald.com.