Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Planet of the Apes — chronicling the epic and turbulent history of a civilization of evolutionary advanced apes – particularly the bloodline of two chimps, Zira and Cornelius – and their relationships with humankind. The franchise spawned from Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel La Planète des singes, and spans five original-series films, a theatrical remake, two television series, and a new prequel-re-boot hitting theaters August 5.
The Installment: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
The Story: The events of this film take place in the futuristic year 1991, somewhere in the rather vaguely labeled “North America” (I bet it’s no good Canada). As Cornelius foretold in Escape, humans now keep slightly advanced apes as servants and slaves, following a plague that killed all cats and dogs. Despite humanity’s assumption that Cornelius, Zira and baby Milo were all successfully killed back in 1971, humans are still extremely paranoid about the possibilities of an ape uprising. You’d think that knowing what they know, humans wouldn’t have taken apes in as pets. But I suppose if history books have taught us anything its that people are fucking stupid.
After twenty years touring the sticks, circus impresario Armando (Ricardo Montalbán) returns to the big city to pass out fliers for his show. With him he brings baby Milo, now all growed up and renamed Caesar (Roddy McDowall). When Caesar witnesses an ape servant being beaten by the police he blows his cover – his cover being that of a regular stupid chimp who can’t speak. Caesar panics and runs away, and winds up hiding in plain sight by actually becoming a servant/slave. When Armando dies Caesar is sent into a fury, which builds into a revolution after Caesar discovers he has a dominating power over the other apes. He forms a small army and shit gets hardcore.
On just the conceptual level, Conquest has the most interesting story of any of the sequels , or at least it simply focuses on the most interesting moment in the Apes mythology timeline — the moment the apes turns against humans. As we discussed in the previous column, this is a major break from the mythology of the first two films. The impact of Apes‘ big twist hinged on Cold War fears. We blew it all up! “We” being the relevant word here. The implicit backstory to be gleaned from the Statue of Liberty twist was that as a species, we shit the bed. We destroyed ourselves and this allowed the lower primates their chance behind the wheel. It’s a tragic paradise lost tale. The Apes 2.0 mythology introduced in Escape is more akin to The Terminator or The Matrix. Out is paradise lost and in is a classic Frankenstein tale in which man’s own creation rises against him. While it is odd to get this shift midway through a franchise, it is hard to knock it after watching Conquest, which is the smartest and most interesting installment we’ve had since the original film.
It was a shrewd move to keep Roddy McDowall around to play Caesar. If we were dealing with human characters this would have been moronic (only comedies can get away with re-casting the same actor as a descendant or relative), but under all that make up it doesn’t matter. After all, they replaced McDowall in Beneath and most people never noticed. But hearing that familiar voice and seeing those familiar eyes helps connect these cast-shifting films. And McDowall gives his finest performance of the series. Because of his airy and foppish qualities, McDowall wasn’t an actor who was handed many angry or intimidating roles, but the guy kills it as angry Caesar. His two best moments in the film are his initial freak-out after learning of Armando’s death, and his venomous monologue during the film’s climax. But even with the anger, McDowall always keeps a smirk of humor about him. And he’s got some very funny moments, such as when Caesar is brought into a breeding cell to mate with a female chimp. The female is making “come hither” eyes, and McDowall’s subtle facial reaction is genius, a look that seems to say, “When in Rome…” I guess not all aspects of ape slavery are so bad, huh, Caesar?
It is kind of weird that Caesar can psychically communicate with the regular apes, but I don’t think there would have been any other way to effectively do the movie. A montage in which Caesar teaches all the other apes to speak would have been unbearably stupid. We just need to roll with it. Plus, the scenes of Caesar sinisterly nodding to random apes out in public, inspiring them to rebel, is some good cinema. McDowall does some good work with those nods.
Gotta give some love to Armando, who sensing the jig is up, jumps through a window and plummets to his death rather than be arrested. Ricardo Montalbán knows how to die like a boss.
While certain aspects of ape slavery are rather on-the-nose (ever-present loudspeaker announcements about unauthorized ape gatherings out in public) or over-the-top (the conditioning facility seems pretty unrealistic in its layout), overall the details are great and it is engrossing just seeing how this 1991 reality works. Seeing the apes conditioned using electrical shock to fear the word “no” is a great touch, and the scene in which Caesar is auctioned off is handled very believably. Unlike Escape, Conquest very successfully weaves in silly gags without needing to drop the dramatic through-line — bits like a scene in a hair salon where a chimp worker starts “grooming” a woman’s head as though looking for bugs to eat.
After seeing what a slashed budget did to group shots of apes in Beneath, you would be entirely in the right to fear and assume the worst for Conquest, but the make-up looks splendid.
J. Lee Thompson was a great choice of director. Cape Fear showed he could do tension, The Guns of Navarone showed he could do action. And this was important. While Caesar’s time as a lowly slave is interesting, it is the titular conquest of the apes that sings most beautifully here. The film explodes with very serious violence. I say “serious” because this isn’t meant to be Commando, this violence isn’t meant to be a fun thrill. Human cruelty has driven Caesar to a very dark place. He’s no Gandhi. This isn’t just about gaining freedom. There is a lot of vengeance. When asked by what right Caesar is wantonly killing humans, he responds “By the slave’s right to punish his persecutor.” The film’s final stand-off is Thompson’s tour de force in the film. It is a great slow burn of tension. It begins with a human SWAT team standing at the ready, looking out over a bridge. Then, slowly, silently, we see Caesar come up over the bridge’s horizon line, flanked by his ape army. The tension keeps building as the apes move towards the humans. The moment seems to drag on forever without anyone making the first move. The humans aim their guns. The apes keep creeping in. Then Caesar gives a signal and a Molotov cocktail provides enough of a distraction for the apes to attack without being totally gunned down. A heavily edited, but nonetheless palpable bloodbath ensues until finally Caesar has won and has the governor (Don Murray) down on the ground. MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), the governor’s #2, who earlier saved Caesar’s life, pleads with Caesar to stop all this violence. Caesar responds with a bellowing and brilliant “humans are fucked” speech, while a wall of flames licks the air behind him. Then…
What Doesn’t Work:
…his poorly developed as a character chimp girlfriend, Lisa (Natalie Trundy) inexplicably gains the ability to speak and says “N-n-no.” Caesar then changes his mind and decides that there shall be peace.
Wait, what? Boooo! Fuck off.
As those of you with the Conquest blu-ray know, this isn’t the original ending. Originally Caesar has his gorillas bash the governor to death, keeping in stride with the previous three film’s fucked up endings. But test audiences didn’t cotton to that ending much. And the studio was hoping to get another G rating (as the other films had), so a lot of the violence was removed from the climax and this sunnier ending was crudely crafted using alternate takes and some awkward dubbing from McDowall. Lisa speaking was also an new addition. It still got a PG ending anyway. The ending isn’t terrible, but it feels weird and once you know the original ending there is simply no way to not view Caesar’s sudden change of heart as a lame cop-out. If they had actually gone in and done a reshoot, rewriting Caesar’s climactic speech so that it doesn’t end with him basically saying “And now we kill everyone,” this ending would’ve been just fine. As is its clunky as all hell. Alas, though most Conquest fans would surely prefer the original cut, that film’s grim ending doesn’t fit in with the continuity of the next film Battle For the Planet of the Apes — which obviously was following the theatrical cut.
Making the near future overly futuristic is an age-old sci-fi cinema gaff. Conquest doesn’t go overboard with the gizmos; there are no flying cars or anything. But I think it was a small blunder to film the entire movie on Fox lot common areas and the nearby Century City mall. In a film like Logan’s Run, about an inclosed distant future society, it is effective to make the entire civilization look uniform and brand new. But this is only 20 years in the future. Why is every structure new? What happened to all the older buildings? Where are the houses? The cabs? Where is this city? What happened America that our setting is referred to simply as “North America”? We get a snazzy futuristic vibe, but we lose a certain relatability. There is a disconnection. I don’t fully see myself in these humans, these denizens of “North America.” Conquest is a powerful film, but I think it could have been even more effective if they’d just shot it in New York (whose remnants we see in Apes and Beneath) or downtown LA or any place that felt like an actual American city.
Most Badass Caesar Line: His climactic speech. “Where there is fire, there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch and conspire and plot and plan for the inevitable day of Man’s downfall – the day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind. The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble! When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland out of which I will lead my people from their captivity! And we will build our own cities in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you… now!”
Most Petty Ape Revenge: The shoe shine ape who simply rubs black shoe polish on his customer’s white socks.
Best Revolution Line: Announcer voice over loudspeaker. “Ape Management… is in the hands of the apes.”
Awkward Inter-Species Moment: Caesar’s assumption that the African-American MacDonald “of all people” should by sympathetic to the apes.
Fucked Up Ending: The apes gun down groups of humans, and bash in the brains of others with the butts of their rifles. Caesar assures the remaining humans that this is about to happen all over the world. We’re all sortsa doomed.
Should There Have Been a Sequel: Why not.
Up Next: Battle for the Planet of the Apes