A ship in space, Colonel George Taylor (Charlton Heston) is at the controls. He’s making a log entry about the journey so far. Although nearly six months out from Earth since they took off in 1968; they have travelled 700 years into the future due to their faster than light speed through a wormhole.
Taylor takes an injection and returns to a stasis chamber to wait out the rest of the voyage with his three fellow astronauts. As he sleeps the ship continues on before encountering a planet and crashes into a lake. The ship awakens the crew, who immediately realize their situation. One of the four (a young woman) has died in stasis.
Suddenly one of the bulkheads collapses and the ship begins to sink. The remaining three crewmen scramble to escape after being unsuccessful in sending a message to Earth. As Taylor leaves the ship he sees the ship’s clock showing the year as 3978. They have been in space for over 2,000 years, yet by traveling through a hyperspace wormhole they have aged only about 20 months, with long beards to prove it.
The three men, Taylor, Landon (Robert Gunner), Dodge (Jeff Burton) take to a raft and begin paddling along the shoreline looking for a safe place to camp. Taylor surmises that they are some 320 light years from Earth on a planet orbiting a star in the Orion system. Landon calls him out on this information claiming Taylor didn’t have enough time to read the tapes before their ship sank.
Coming ashore they take stock of their situation, they have food and water for three days and a handgun. Taylor tells the others about the clocks and proof they offer about the theory of relativity. Landon stops to plant an American flag before moving off.
They begin their journey in the rocky desert, around them unseen figures move across the cliff tops watching their progress. Slowly the country changes and stray vegetation is seen. Passing an out crop they see wooden crosses planted in the ground resembling a borderline fence. Evidence something intelligent lives on the planet.
Passing the crosses they see trees and can hear a waterfall. Realizing they may survive, they take all their clothes off and go for a swim in the lake. Further along on a muddy bank they find footprints, which seem human. As they investigate someone steals their clothes. The crew give chase seeing fleeting glimpse of humanoids through the thickening vegetation.
Working their way to a clearing they find a tribe of native men and women harvesting food from a tree. The humanoids freeze as a bizarre noise echoes over the area, the sound sends the tribe into a stampede. The crew become swept up in the human tide and become part of the rout. Ahead they hear horses and gunfire, the men change direction realizing it is a trap and they are being hunted by ape like creatures. Landon is knocked unconscious and captured. Dodge is shot and killed. The apes continue to herd the rest of the tribe into various traps till Taylor is shot in the neck.
As quickly as it began the hunt ends. Dozens of humans have been captured, even more killed and collected as trophies. At a clinic, ape surgeons remove the bullet from Taylor’s neck and continue to treat him.
Doctor Zira (Kim Hunter), a chimpanzee scientist, wants Taylor kept alive so that experiments on his brain can be conducted. Taylor wakes later to find himself in a cage. Zira visits to see how the captured humans are going. She has given him the nickname ‘Bright eyes’.
Taylor tries to communicate but can’t speak because of his throat injury. Doctor Zaius (Maurice Evans), the orangutan Minister for Science, arrives at the lab to investigate the latest captured humans. Zira points out ‘bright eyes’ to Zaius, again Taylor fails to communicate. Zira is convinced of his intelligence but Zaius is unconvinced, and cautions Zira about her behavioral studies.
Zira give Taylor a human woman, Nova (Linda Harrison) and she is now assigned to his cage. Days pass and Nova tries to bond with Taylor, but his own moral code stops him. Zira, becoming more excited by ‘bright eyes’ each day, invites her fiancé, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) to the clinic see the progress she’s made.
At an outdoor confinment area near a large cage where the humans are kept, Zaius meets Cornelius who is an archeologist and planning another expedition into the so-called ‘Forbidden Zone’ (the vast desert where Taylor and his crew marched overland from their crash site) search of artifacts. During the conversation, Taylor attempts to communicate with them by writing a message in the dirt ground, but the other humans see this and wipe the marks away, impling to Taylor not to try to communicate with the apes. Then a fight between Taylor and another man breaks out. Taylor is removed by the gorilla guards to an isolated cage. However, Zaius discoverers the message Taylor was writing on the ground and rubs it out before anyone else can see it.
Later, Zira gets close to Taylor’s cage and he grabs her note book and pencil. Julius, (Buck Kartalian), the gorilla guard, enters the cage to beat up Taylor and retrieves the stolen items. Zira notices that Taylor has written a note that she understands that says ‘my name is Taylor’. Stunned she speaks to Taylor one on one, realizing he really is intelligent.
After taking Taylor out of his cage to her office, Zira tries to convince Cornelius of Taylor’s origins. He refuses to believe that Taylor is no more than a hoax. Still mute because of his throat injury, Taylor points out a map and describes the journey the crew undertook. Cornelius is even more disturbed that any creature could survive in the Forbidden Zone. Taylor takes an interest in Cornelius work and Zira explains in more detail that Cornelius theory that the apes evolved from a lower form of life such as the humans. In the Forbidden Zone, Cornelius claims to have discovered artifacts that point to a civilization that predates the current ape society. Zaius arrives and interrupts the discussion, and orders Taylor returned to the compound.
Later in his cage, Taylor overhears orders that he is to undergo brain surgery. As the gorilla guards prepare him, he escapes into the ape village, first taking refuge in a church during a funeral. Discovered, he again escapes through a market place, then into a museum with various humans have been stuffed and put on exhibition. There he finds the body of Dodge. Back in the market place he is surrounded and subdued by apes. Suddenly Taylor discovers his voice has recovered and tells the crowd: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty apes!”
Back at the compound, Nova is removed from Taylor’s cage. With his throat completely healed and able to speak again, Taylor reflects on the humor that for the first time he needs someone and she taken away. He muses about Earth and the life left behind. A group of apes come in and restrain him before taking him to a special hearing at the town’s national ministry building. It becomes apparent that this hearing is actually a trial to decide Taylor’s fate. Three orangutans are the judges of the case (orangutans seem to be the ruling classes, while gorillas appear to be the military and law enforcement, and chimpanzees are of the middle classes, often having careers in science, in this ape society). Zira and Cornelius are appointed by the panel of judges to defend him. Taylor tries to speak, and is immediately restrained from doing so by the orangutan President of the Ministry (James Whitmore) since by ape law, humans have no rights. A speech is given by one of the orangutan judges defending the First Article of Faith that only apes should study apes.
Dr. Zaius is called to testify where he argues before the court claiming that since Taylor was operated on his throat for his bullet injury, that Dr. Zira ‘programmed’ his vocal cords so he could appear to speak. Dr. Honorius (James Daly), the orangutan prosecutor, challenges Taylor to explain the Second Article Faith and why humans have no soul. Taylor cannot because he claims to have no knowledge of the ape’s society or rules. Taylor then asks Cornelius to read a statement to the tribunal for him. But the tribunal refuses to allow the document to be entered into evidence since it was written by a human. Taylor claims there were others when they arrive. The tribunal adjourns to inspect the survivors of the hunt. Taylor recognizes Landon in the group of humans brought out that were captured during the last hunt. He goes to talk Landon, only to discover the man has had most of his brain removed. Taylor attacks Zaius for performing a crude lobotomy on his friend, but is restrained before he can do any damage.
The tribunal resumes where Cornelius steps in and concedes that Taylor could not have come from outer space, but he clearly came from somewhere such as the past. Cornelius goes on to tell how accurately Taylor described the Forbidden Zone to them, and Cornelius own research shows a civilization predating the apes lived out there as well.
The biased orangutan tribunal rejects the theory and counters by charging both Zira and Cornelius with contempt of court and heresy. The court adjourns to consider their fate as well as the fate of Taylor.
Dr. Zaius takes Taylor to his private chambers and explains what Taylor’s fate will be. He challenges Taylor to admit where he really came from, but Taylor stands firm claiming to have come from a distant planet 2,000 years in the past. Zaius then admits that he knew Landon could talk, and intentionally had a lobodomy performed on him to prevent him from talking and keeping the knowledge of intelligent humans suppressed from the ape public. Zaius tells Taylor that he belives that Taylor and his tribe originated from the other side of the Forbidden Zone and worries what they might do in the future. Zaius again tries to make Taylor admit that he comes from a tribe of intelligent humans, but Taylor continues to maintain that he comes from a distance planet in the past. Realizing that Taylor won’t budge, Zaius orders the gorilla guards to send Taylor back to the clinical compound.
A few nights later, a chimpanzee attendant arrives at the compound to explain to the gorilla guard, Julius, that Taylor is being transferred to the zoo. Julius becomes suspicious and the attendant with the help of Taylor subdues him and escapes. Taylor insists on Nova coming on the escape.
They meet up with Zira who disguises Taylor and takes them across country in a horse-drawn wagon. Later, Cornelius meets up with them bearing fresh horses and more supplies. To escape Cornelius is going to lead the party back into the Forbidden Zone desert to where he found the artifacts a year before.
They travel across the desert and reach the dig site at a cave overlooking a beach facing a vast ocean. Taylor examines the artifacts that Cornelius has discovered. As they do so, Zaius and a group of gorilla soldiers arrive and a brief fire fight develops before a truce is called by Zaius. He then tries to negotiate with Cornelius for him to retract his findings and Cornelius will get off lightly.
Ultimately Taylor negotiates with Zaius that if Cornelius can prove his theory Zaius will let him off his charges. Zaius agrees and they enter the cave. Cornelius shows the diggings and explains that the deeper they dig the more advanced the culture seems to be come.
Zaius brushes off Cornelius’ argument as primitive and undeveloped. Finally Cornelius shows Zaius a human doll. Zaius does not understand the significance of the doll and dismisses it. Taylor looks over the other items and identified what they were. Again Zauis refuses to believe the evidence. Finally Nova presses a button on the doll and it speaks. Taylor challenges him as to why apes would make a human doll that speaks.
Outside the cave the firefight erupts again. Taylor manages to kill a number of the gorilla soldiers before faking an injury to draw Zaius out of the cave. Zaius is trapped and he is forced again to order his soldiers to retreat. Taylor tells the gorillas he wants food, a horse and ammunition and he will let Zaius go free.
Taylor challenges the captive Zaius that he knew about the older civilization and covered it up. Zaius admits he did know from the ancient writings. Those writings give a dire warning about man and the danger he presents. Zaius argues that nothing Taylor has done proves the writings wrong. Zaius then admits that he always knew that a human like Taylor would come along sooner or later. He admits he fears man. Not for what he is, but what he was. Zaius claims that man’s intelligence mixed with his need to war; to destroy. Zaius explains that the Forbidden Zone was once a paradise, destroyed by man many hundreds of years ago.
Taylor argues he is going deeper into the Forbidden Zone to try and understand what happened, what brought the previous culture to an end. Zaius warns Taylor that he might not like what he finds. Taylor says his goodbyes to Cornelius and Zira and rides on his horse off along the shore with Nova. After Taylor rides off, the gorilla soldiers appear and release Zaius, but he tells them not to chase after Taylor. He instead orders the cave to be destroyed and sealed, and orders his gorillas to arrest Cornelius and Zira, telling the two chimpanzee scientists that they will stand trial for heresy after all, and that he and the ruling ministry will continue to cover up the true origins of humanity.
After a number of days later, Taylor catches sight of something sticking out of the sand on the beach. Overcome with grief he falls from his horse screaming to the sky. The camera pans out to show the Statue of Liberty half-buried in sand, and in a highly corroded state. He understands now that he has been on Earth the whole time, and Zaius was right. Humanity did destroy itself and apes became the dominant species.
“Maniacs!! You finally blew it all up!!!” Taylor screams in despair. “God damn you all to hell!”
The image fades to black.
Franklin J. Schaffner
Michael Wilson (screenplay), Rod Serling (screenplay)
Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter
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