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: Battle For the Planet of the Apes (1973)
The Story: We pick up ten years after the events of the theatrical cut of Conquest — when Caesar decided to show mercy towards the humans like a total pussy. A huge war broke out between apes and humans and Central City got nuked. Now the surviving apes and sympathetic humans live together in an idyllic forest village. Well, it is not so idyllic. Humans are second class citizens, and there is still a lot of resentment for that whole slavery thing. Also, though apes supposedly never harm other apes, Caesar’s leadership is threatened by the rising power of a gorilla general named Aldo (Claude Akins), who ends up killing Caesar’s only son. When Caesar’s human assistant, MacDonald (Austin Stoker) – who is apparently the brother of the MacDonald from Conquest – informs Caesar that there may be audio and video records of his parents, Zira and Cornelius, preserved in the government vaults of the now destroyed Central City, Caesar decides he will risk the radiation to retrieve them. But when Caesar enters the city he comes into contact with Governor Kolp (Severn Darden) and his band of radiation poisoned humans. Kolp and his men follow Caesar back to the village and war breaks out once more… for the last time!
Singer-songwriter-actor Paul Williams is a welcome addition as the orangutan Virgil, the ape village’s resident brain. Williams isn’t mind blowing or anything – Virgil is certainly no Dr. Zaius – but it has been a while since we’ve had an appealing new ape character that wasn’t played by Roddy McDowall. General Ursus in Beneath feels like ages ago at this point. It just feels good to get back into the ape civilization mode. The sphinx-like Mandemus (Lew Ayres), the orang who guards the apes’ weapons room, is also fun — forcing even Caesar to answer a series of analytical questions in order to gain access to the guns. Severn Darden reprises his role of Kolp from Conquest (despite that name he is a human). And Darden really hams it up, in a good way. Kolp, who had been a government scientist in the previous film, is now the leader of the surviving irradiated humans, and has grown bored and rather demented from living underground in the Central City ruins. I enjoyed pretty much every moment involving Kolp.
John Huston was in full on whore mood with his appearance here as The Lawgiver in the film’s opening and closing framing segments. But I shamelessly love Huston in everything. He has such a weird presence, and he’s not really an actor to begin with, so even when he’s “phoning it in” I find him aesthetically pleasing. Money well spent.
At least a small amount of love should be given to Natalie Trundy. Like Linda Harrison, Trundy demonstrates that a great way to get a part in a major motion picture is to be boinking someone with creative control over the project. In Trundy’s case she was married to producer and Apes mastermind Arthur P. Jacobs. To Trundy’s credit, she was an able enough actress that she fit inconspicuously into her roles without causing Harrison-like embarrassment. And she had three different roles! She appeared as the female super mutant in Beneath, kindly Dr. Stephanie Branton in Escape, and Caesar’s main squeeze Lisa in Conquest and Battle. Unfortunately for Trundy, Jacobs’ untimely death in 1973 saw the end of her acting career. I don’t know if that was by choice or if being married to a high profile producer was the only way she could get a gig, but her final screen credit was also Jacobs’ final film (1974’s Huckleberry Finn).
I kinda liked the sequence where Caesar faces off against Aldo for killing his son, chasing him up into a tree and eventually causing Aldo to fall to his doom. It’s not particularly amazing or anything (all the vivacity that director J. Lee Thompson showed in Conquest is not present in Battle), but it is appropriately dramatic.
This isn’t something that “works” about the film, but both John Landis and girl of my childhood dreams Colleen Camp have blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit roles as humans.
What Doesn’t Work:
Battle is not a terrible film, as its reputation seems to be, but following four previous entries that each made major statements and leaps forward in the Apes mythology, the film feels boringly inconsequential. The original ending of Conquest (found on the Blu-ray) is where the first run of films should’ve concluded. With Battle the franchise feels like a good comedy bit that has now gone on several minutes too long and is mucking everything up.
The biggest piece of retcon in Escape was when Cornelius told the apes’ (previously nonexistent) origin story, which involved a legendary ape named Aldo. Aldo was the first slave ape who gained the power of speech. His first word being “No,” in response to a human command. I thought it was interesting in Escape that Zira and Cornelius didn’t name their baby Aldo. The fact that they named their baby Milo seemed like an overt statement that Cornelius and Zira traveling to 1971 and giving birth to Milo/Caesar wasn’t a case of Kyle Reese traveling to 1984 and fathering John Conner. Cornelius and Zira altered the timeline by traveling to the past. Things didn’t necessarily need to work out the same for humanity. The fact that shit still went south was the tragedy. But now in Battle we have a character named Aldo, the villainous gorilla general. I’m not sure I see the thinking here. Is this supposed to be the Aldo? Had Caesar never shown up would Aldo have learned to talk and said “No” and started the revolution himself? If that’s the case it doesn’t really make sense. General Aldo is stupid, petty and spiteful. He is also the first ape to break the cardinal ape law, Ape Does Not Kill Ape. Surely this impulsive clod couldn’t have lead a successful uprising in Caesar’s absence. So why is he named Aldo?
Also, despite our alternate timeline here, the film is clearly going for something circular with the presence of underground dwelling mutated humans. At the end of the film (the non-theatrical cut that’s been on all the DVD releases) we see a scene in which one of Kolp’s underlings is about to set off their giant Alpha/Omega nuke, but Mendez (Paul Stevens) stops her, saying they need to keep the bomb as assurance and insurance. Mendez was the name of the main telepathic super human in Beneath and the bomb is obviously the same golden super nuke the mutated super humans worshiped. But… in Beneath the super humans (and the apes for that matter) live amongst the ruins of what was once New York. These peeps live in the ruins of Central City. We have no idea where that is – somewhere in “North America” – but we do know where it isn’t. New York. It has none of New York’s landmarks or buildings, so this seems like a safe assumption to make. Look, either we’re in an alternate timeline or we aren’t. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, Battle.
Speaking of nukes. Trying to tie into the emotional context of the first Apes at this stage in the retconned mythology just doesn’t work. As we previously discussed, the implication in Apes was that humans destroyed their civilizations fighting each other (giving the apes room to evolve). If all humans everywhere were fighting apes, and all nuke-possessing countries nuked their own cities to defeat them — how the fuck did we lose? I mean, I guess we could extrapolate that this tiny ape village run by Caesar is the only surviving ape population on Earth. Although if this is the case I’m curious how Caesar (leader of the uprising) and his followers were able to stay out of the fray. Did he just set humans and apes against each other, then run off to the hills to wait for them all to kill each other? Cause that’s not cool. In any case, humans blowing themselves up fighting apes is not at all the same as humans blowing themselves up fighting each other. I’m sorry, but fuck the apes. Racism is bad, but I think I might be on board for speciesism — at least if its coming down to a war. Battle can’t continue with the “blah blah man is destructive blah blah” commentary – which has been the philosophical backbone of the series – if humanity was wiped out fighting apes. Yes, it can still be a comment on the folly of using nuclear weapons, but that’s not really the same. Do you imagine Taylor would have had the same response upon seeing the Statue of Liberty if Cornelius had been standing there and told him, “See, you kept apes as slaves, so the apes rose up against you and there was a huge global war, and you guys blew everything up in your attempts to kill us all.” I feel like Taylor would’ve punched Cornelius in the face.
As long as we’re talking illogicalities, why do the apes have the exact same clothing style that they had in the original film? Are we to assume they keep the exact same style for 2000 years? (I know the actual reason; budget; I’m just being facetious.) And how is it that all these apes rose from their intelligence level in Conquest to an intelligence level on par with Caesar in just ten years? Virgil is smarter than Caesar! And why is Austin Stoker playing a guy named MacDonald, who is the brother of the MacDonald from Conquest? That’s weird. Couldn’t they get Hari Rhodes back to reprise the character? If that was the case, why bother with him being MacDonald’s brother. Just name him something else. The MacDonald thing adds nothing to the story and is merely perplexing.
Most Subtle Plothole Line: When Virgil says that Mandemus taught him everything he knows “as a boy.” Wait… how old is Virgil? 17? Just ten years ago apes were stupid and couldn’t talk. But that line gives the impression that ape society has been around for a while. I mean, who taught Mandemus? Caesar right?
Awkward Inter-Species Moment: It is against the law for humans to say the word “no” to apes. Apes really need to reclaim that word for themselves, destroy it of its negative power. I can see an ape future now with TV shows like “No Eye For the Yes Ape” and popular comedy specials from the boundary-pushing comedian Chris Aperock.
Best John Huston Primate Anecdote: Huston was married to actress Evelyn Keyes from 1946-1950. During this time Huston kept a pet monkey. As the story goes, Keyes hated the noisy/messy little guy and gave Huston an ultimatum — either the monkey went, or she did. Huston’s response? “Honey, it’s you.”
Fucked Up Ending: Apes and humans live in harmony? That’s not really fucked up. Though it is kinda fucked up closing with John Huston and realizing how he spent his time between The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and Chinatown.
Should There Have Been a Sequel: No. I think they said all there was to say by now.
Up Next: Planet of the Apes (TV series)