Astronauts Taylor, Landon and Dodge are in deep hibernation when their spaceship crash lands in a lake on an unknown planet in 3978 A.D. They awaken to find a fourth astronaut, Stewart, has died in space and their ship has started to sink. They use the inflatable raft from the ship to safely reach shore. Once on shore, Dodge performs a soil test and pronounces the soil incapable of sustaining life.

The three astronauts set off through the desert, finding first a single plant and then others. They find an oasis at the edge of the desert where they decide to take a swim. While swimming, their clothes are stolen by unknowns. Pursuing the unknowns, the astronauts find that humans, who are apparently mute, had stolen their clothes. But shortly, the astronauts and other humans are being pursued by gorillas on horseback, hunting the humans for sport and capture. Dodge is shot and killed during the pursuit while Taylor and Landon are captured; Taylor is shot in the throat, an injury that prevents him from talking to the apes for some time. The captives are taken back to Ape City, where Taylor is thrown into acage with a woman who was captured on the same hunt, the beautiful Nova.

Taylor discovers that the apes, who can talk, are in control and are divided into three classes: gorilla police and military, orangutan administrators and politicians, and chimpanzee intellectuals and workers. Humans, who cannot talk, are wild animals, hunted or used for scientific experimentation. This latter fact is illustrated when Taylor eventually finds Landon, who has been lobotomized after revealing his speaking ability. Taylor had already found Dodge in a museum, stuffed as an exhibit (as Dodge is of African descent, and dark-skinned, he is an anomaly in a world of Caucasian light-skinned humans. Therefore, the apes put him on display).

Cornelius and Zira are scientists who take an interest in Taylor because of his lip movements that resemble talking. In one scene, Taylor writes in the dirt and attempts to call Cornelius and Zira's attention to it, but he becomes frustrated when they do not notice the writing. Dr. Zaius sees some letters on the dirt and realizes that Taylor possesses verbal intelligence. Taylor's voice eventually heals sufficiently that he can talk to Cornelius and Zira, who take a liking to him.

The political leader, Dr. Zaius, soon discovers Taylor's ability to talk and puts him on trial when he tries to escape. But Cornelius and Zira execute a plan (with the help of Zira's nephew) to free Taylor, who insist that Nova be brought along. The five of them flee to the "Forbidden Zone", where Cornelius (an archeologist) had, a year earlier, discovered a cave with artifacts of human technology. Zaius and a band of gorillas manage to find them and after a brief battle, Taylor and Nova are allowed to escape on horseback. Zaius lets them go without further confrontation as he thinks it best for everyone if Taylor and Nova both just disappear.

But his experiences so far still do not give Taylor the "why" on how apes became intelligent, talking creatures and humans the slaves (a question we eventually would find the answer to throughout the film series). Soon after his escape, however, in probably the most well-known scene from the film Taylor discovers the Statue of Liberty half buried in the sand of a beach. He realizes that he's really back on Earth (albeit in the future) and that mankind has finally destroyed civilization by a nuclear war. This scene frequently makes 'best moments in film' and 'best endings' lists. In its few seconds length, it turns the viewer's whole concept of the film completely on its head (it is only retrospectively that the many clues throughout the film as to how it shall end become apparent). Dr Zaius' motives for increasingly obviously deliberately keeping the population ignorant of his findings and knowledge turn out to be benign, not malignant ones, and Taylor's ego and arrogance are shattered in a second as he comes across the ruined Statue of Liberty, the signal that his race - which up to that point he had always assumed superior to the apes - had managed to destroy its own planet.

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