SUB-GENRES: Thriller / Drama
DIRECTED BY: J. Lee Thompson
WRITTEN BY: Paul Dehn (screenplay); Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle
PEW PEW: This film combines the action of the first two films, and a weakened form of the suspense of the third, with the drama that generally populates the entire original series.
CAT FOOD: The Planet of the Apes film series frequently dips its pen into the ink of social commentary and liberally applies it to in both the background and foreground of the pictures. This one tackles racism, human and animal rights, ethics and morality, slavery, and more.
There was no shortage of science fiction novels being published in the fifties and sixties, and many of them had powerful things to say about the world around their authors. While some of these novels went on to be adapted into film, many of them were too ambitious or bizarre to even attempt a faithful re-imagining. When French author Pierre Boulle (famous for The Bridge On the River Kwai) published La Planète des Singes (Monkey Planet) in 1963, it’s hard to believe anyone could picture a successful film coming out of it, with the limited production tools of the era, at least.
But blow me down, they did it. La Planète des Singes, a novel about a journalist’s experience on a distant planet populated by intelligent apes who wore suits and drove cars, and treated the less advanced humans like animals, went on to spawn eight feature films (with a ninth on the way next year), a live-action television series, a cartoon series, and a clandestine merchandising campaign that predates Star Wars’. So pull up a seat, cause over the next eight days, we’re going to talk about Planet of the Apes, easily one of the most profound and important science fiction film series’ in the genre’s rich history.
After ending the traditional story in the first two films (1968’s Planet of the Apes and 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes), 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes brought the two remaining main characters back in time to modern Earth just to see them murdered, but not before giving birth to a son that threatens to begin the cycle all over again. Fox certainly had the desire to keep making sequels year after year, it’s just a shame the budgets never quite rose to the occasion in order to provide the same kind of timeless and immersive feel that the original film had.
1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes begins many years after the third film. Most of the events described by Cornelius in said third film have transpired. A virus brought back from space has killed off all the cats and dogs on Earth and humans, unable to live without their beloved pets, have taken apes in to replace them. However, when it was discovered that apes could be put to work completing minor tasks, the term pet soon came to mean slave. Apes are conditioned, trained, and sold in slave markets and are beaten, shocked, and otherwise tortured by their human overlords if they fail to live up to the high standard set for them.
Enter Milo, the intelligent infant son of Zira and Cornelius from the last film, who is now a fully grown young adult. Now named Caesar (I can only assume the name change was to preserve his anonymity), the young ape keeps silent and pretends to be dumb like normal apes. He travels under the pretense that he’s circus owner Armando’s personal pet. Raised by the morally upright Armando, Caesar is a quiet, brilliant, and compassionate ape, if a tad sheltered.
After yelling out to curse abusive humans who are beating an ape servant, Caesar is separated from Armando, who throws himself out of a window so as not to be forced to identify Caesar as anything but a regular ape. Emotionally shattered but with no alternative other than to survive, Caesar must present himself as a slave ape and go through the brutal conditioning process required to do so. When he is sold to the tyrannical Governor Breck, Caesar finds himself in a prime position to piece together a large scale revolt to liberate his fellow apes.
Conquest is infinitely gloomier and takes itself far more seriously than Escape did, but the low budget ensures that the film remains no more than just better than Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The rebellion, while quite violent and set in a decently futuristic environment, doesn’t quite feel that it’s on as large a scale as it seems to suggest. A few shots are even recycled a couple times in the same film.
Unlike the last two films, however, which weren’t a whole lot more than systematic killings-off of every single main character, Conquest actually promotes character development, which is kind of the point of a good story. Over the course of the film, Caesar evolves from a quiet and compassionate ‘house ape’ to a bold and savagely charismatic leader who is ultimately fair. You can actually see the difference developing in the story that suggests that the new future founded by Caesar is going to be far more benevolent than the one founded by Aldo (present here as a mute gorilla) which led to the savage barbarism of the original Planet of the Apes timeline.
On the other hand, much like the last film, Conquest has a few far-fetched plot elements that will tax your suspension of disbelief. For one, how in the hell did the apes evolve into having human builds in the relatively brief (when talking evolution) period between Escape and this film? I mean, it makes sense that Caesar would be built like his parents, but the rest of the apes in Escape were large and, erm, incredibly ape-like (despite, of course, being portrayed by men in cheap suits). In actuality, it would take far more than 2000 years for apes to evolve into what they are in even the original movie. Anyway, it’s not terribly important for the enjoyability of the film, just a thought that arose more than a few times.
Like the last picture, though, it’s at least cool that continuity within the Planet of the Apes universe is being maintained. Last time, it was through the use of Hasslein, whose name was dropped in the first film, and references to Taylor. This time round, they include Aldo, who was referenced in Escape as the first ape to rise up and say ‘No.’ Caesar, however, is the first to rise up in this continuity, suggesting that a lane change has happened on this timeline’s highway that will lead somewhere entirely differently than the last timeline did. Caesar’s love interest, Lisa, is the one to drop the historical ‘No,’ and it is spoken to Caesar, instead of to humans. An interesting thing to note.
While the apes movies have always had brilliant casts, not as many stand out in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. The acting is mostly great, with no really terrible performances, but no one is really at Heston or Montalbán level… except perhaps for Montalbán himself, who reprises his role as the gentle Armando, and of course Roddy McDowall, who righteously takes the lead as Caesar, after playing the character’s father for the first and third films. To McDowall’s credit, there is a distinct difference in the look and demeanor of the two characters. Caesar is more timid, but also more bold. Cornelius was definitely more of a pushover, but was also firmly confident.
Natalie Trundy makes her third appearance in an ape film, this time putting on the ape make-up to play Caesar’s prospective lover Lisa. Severn Darden is intriguing and mysterious and gives it a great go as minor (for now) character Kolp. Other notable performances include Don Murray as the evil Governor Breck, and Hari Rhodes as MacDonald. Part of the reason, I think, that not too many people stand out is because, other than the development of Caesar, the story tends to focus more on the violence of the revolt, both as it’s developing, and once it is unleashed. The film attempts to be cerebral, and I will give it points for this because there is definite feeling here, but it ends up mostly being about the titular conquest.
Important social commentary does lurk just below the surface throughout the entire film and it pokes its head up out of the water to touch on things like slavery and civil rights. An important message Conquest of the Planet of the Apes sabotages for most of the film but manages to embrace by the end of its running time is that two wrongs don’t make a right. Fighting violence and oppression with violence and oppression is exactly what happened the first time this timeline played through. Caesar, with the help of Lisa and MacDonald, comes to realise that this is not the answer.
It’s not the greatest film in the world, and, despite having a more serious tone for a much longer time, it doesn’t outdo the previous installment, but Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is passably enjoyable. It has a decent story of the subversion of a tyrannical slave system that makes up for its lack of really engaging suspense with a great deal of violence and, erm, results. Caesar’s story is by far the most interesting thing the series conjured up since Taylor’s character-changing adventure.