Remembering...CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972) [ARTICLE]


In this fourth entry of my Planet of the Apes retrospective (to get caught up, catch parts one, two, and three), I take a look at perhaps the most daring entry in the series.  Up until this point, the franchise has been widely considered to be a family-friendly affair.  But now we go from the lightest film in the series to the darkest, for there is no upbeat way to portray the inevitable...

CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972)

Now we are getting to the real meat of the Apes saga.  Escape From the Planet of the Apes was a fun-filled movie with comedy, bright colors, and an ending that, while a real downer, was also hopeful in a strange way.  But one thing that movie could not shake, was the terrifying implications of the ending.  Baby Milo, son of the talking apes Cornelius and Zira, has survived the attempts on his life.  While in one sense this is heartening to know that the forces trying to kill him have been thwarted, we also know that there is only one conclusion to his survival: the downfall of man.  And now he has grown up to fulfill that destiny he cannot escape.

 But hey, to offset that, we've got a chimp in a leather outfit!

But hey, to offset that, we've got a chimp in a leather outfit!

For the first time since the original Planet of the Apes, the films feel important.  They feel like they're trying to bring something more than just another popcorn-muncher.  Beneath the Planet of the Apes is just more of the first film, a fun yet ultimately tacked on entry.  Escape From the Planet of the Apes, on the other hand, is very necessary for the direction the story was taken, yet worked well only as a piece of filler to connect the second and fourth chapters.  Conquest of the Planet of the Apes looks at the story it's telling, one of social injustice and racial inequality, and decides to give it the gravitas it needs to portray the rise of ape to the dominant species on the planet. If Planet of the Apes served as an extended Twilight Zone episode, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes serves as an Owellian cautionary tale of the future.  We are introduced to a world set in the then near-future of 1991, where cats and dogs have died due to a mysterious space virus and apes have risen from dumb animals to pets to slaves in the span of 20 years.  Milo, now named Caesar by to fit his theatrical life as a circus performer, has been sheltered from the world by his kindly father-figure Armando (Ricardo Montalban returning to the role he introduced in the previous film).  The film opens with Caesar and Armando walking through the streets of some bustling city where we see that apes mingle with humans as everyday objects, although they are beaten and treated if they do not perform their servile functions as instructed.

 This can only end well.

This can only end well.

The subsequent story of Caesar's rise from a survivor hiding from the authorities to leader of the revolt against the humans works as a cautionary tale on multiple levels.  On one hand, you have the film's original intent of portraying racial inequality in a world where one social class essentially enslaves another.  This was obviously quite relevant during the 60's and 70's, reportedly when the film was screened to a black audience, the theater erupted in cheers at its conclusion.  But there is another, more modern way of looking at it that serves more as a warning more in line with the works of George Orwell (author of Animal Farm and 1984).  Note how in this world of human dominance, apes are practically more prevalent than humans.  They do everything from shining shoes and doing hair to even just handing books off and pressing buttons on a machine.  In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find humans doing anything servile, except perhaps beating and training apes. We have become so dependent on the apes that when they do decide to overthrow man, there is little we can do to stop them.  Through our lethargy we are overcome.  It's chilling, dark, and terrifying.  J. Lee Thompson, who prior to this was known to have directed The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear and after this would go on to direct the next Apes installment, decided to rightly show all the violent imagery that goes along with the tone of the story he was trying to tell.  This is the first Apes film to really show blood and violence in a brutal way, as the first film was disturbing at moments, this one was more visceral in its violent imagery.  Soldiers shoot apes over and over again to bloody effect, and apes beat men to misshapen pulps.  At one point the main villain, a tall, commanding, fascist leader named Breck who appears to control the state uncontested, has his men hold down a misbehaving ape so he can shoot it point blank in the head.  At another moment, he has Caesar electrocuted over and over again in an attempt to torture the hero into talking. The ending itself portrays Caesar giving a rousing yet undeniably disturbing speech on the slave's right to punish his masters before he allows the brutal killing of the villain as he's surrounded by the crushed corpses of his men.  It was so off-tone for the family audience the studio wanted to go for that they forced Thompson to record a second, more compassionate half of Caesar's speech, and through clever editing show the apes backing off on beating Breck to death, while also cutting some of the more violent images in the film.  Despite this, the film is still the first in the series to receive a PG rating instead of a G.  If you can find it, be sure to check out the original Unrated version as it is easily the most impactful.

 "Can you please make your racial violence allegory a little happier?"

"Can you please make your racial violence allegory a little happier?"

One returning aspect I have neglected to mention up until this point is Roddy McDowall's performance.  He played the ape Cornelius in the first film and returned to play the role again in Escape From the Planet of the Apes.  Now he returns to play Caesar and more than ever it is evident how he makes the role his own.  In all of these movies he lets his performance show through the layers of makeup, relying on small mannerisms and a haunting use of his eyes to give the character the gravitas he is due.  For the most serious Apes film to date he falls into a performance that, even without the ape makeup, would be worthy of recognition.  The fact that he shows such emotion without ever showing his face is a real testament to the man's talent and dedication to the role. One could argue that this is the most important entry in the series, as it works as a cautionary tale on its own as well as a bookend to connect the original film with the sequels.  We don't need to see what happens after this, it's self-evident that along this trajectory ape will dominate man and in 2000 years the roles of beast and master will be reversed.  It's a dark and fitting note to end the story on, and by all rights it should have ended there.  However, this is a franchise, and like all franchises the studio would want to milk it for all it's worth.  So of course we got another...