SUB-GENRES: Thriller / Drama
DIRECTED BY: J. Lee Thompson
WRITTEN BY: John William Corrington & Joyce Hooper Corrington (screenplay); Paul Dehn (story); Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle
PEW PEW: This one does a pretty damn fine job of balancing action, drama, and suspense. It’s a ways away from perfect, but the action is decently executed.
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, elitism, war, murder, 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.
With the first two films, Planet of the Apes (1968) and Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), the series allowed us a glimpse at the year 3955, when apes rule the world and primitive mute humans are treated like animals. When nuclear holocaust brought on by a gorilla war against a cult of mutant humans destroys the planet that same year, a few apes managed to escape back in time to the 1970’s.
In the third film, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), one of the survivors, Cornelius, reveals that, according to the history of 3955, an ape named Aldo would rise up to challenge the humans and trigger the events that would lead up to what we saw in the first film. Setting out to prevent this from happening, humans track down and murder Cornelius and Zira, but their infant son manages to escape this fate thanks to the help of compassionate circus owner Armando.
The fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) sees the infant chimpanzee, Caesar, all grown up. When Armando dies in the hands of tyrannical humans, Caesar is introduced to an oppressive slave system that brutally conditions apes to serve humans. Because his parents traveled back in time and he survived, Caesar has already begun to change the future, and it begins in this film when he, instead of Aldo, becomes the first ape to rise up, eventually choosing to show the humans some mercy.
Jumping ahead in time yet again, we arrive at the fifth and final film in the original series continuity. While mostly derided by fans and critics alike, I have a peculiar love for 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The film uniquely begins in the 27th century with the famed Lawgiver introducing the story as something of a legend. The story proper begins a respectable amount of time after Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.
After a nuclear war wipes out the civilised world, apes and humans alike live under the rule of Caesar, who attempts to uphold some kind of order between ape and man. The other apes have since acquired the power of speech and a makeshift village functions. Despite his noble intentions, Caesar finds himself constantly at odds with Aldo, who leads militant apes in a stubborn crusade to dominate humans.
Finding his head heavy with the weight of the crown, Caesar wishes he could have met his parents. Eventually, Caesar, his orangutan friend Virgil, and the human MacDonald venture into the ruins of the human city to find archival footage of Cornelius and Zira, but they also find a handful of mutant human survivors led by Kolp, who is now governor. When Caesar attempts to find a peaceful solution to the problem, Aldo grows frustrated and plots to take the throne for himself. It seems inevitable that a war will be fought.
I absolutely love this storyline and find it tremendously refreshing after the last few movies. I’m sure the involvement of the Corringtons (who brought us a re-imagining of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend in the form of the Charlton Heston vehicle The Omega Man) had quite a lot to do with it. Battle for the Planet of the Apes still sports a low budget, but it presents a budding ape society which only hints at would could happen. In this way, it is able to present a feel a little more similar to the first film.
Like the last film, which introduced the fantastic Caesar character, Battle’s story is about growth, something I absolutely must champion at every turn. While these final two films in the regular series continuity show off the scrapes and bruises that are the product of any decent struggle, they ultimately tell a triumphant story of the rise of Caesar and a more balanced society in comparison to the one we first witnessed in 1968.
In the end, I maintain that what makes the less-than-impressive sequels just as magical and classic as the original Planet of the Apes, is the fact that effort was made to maintain a distinct sense of continuity that helps one believe that they are watching one continuous storyline. There are a few snags that people missed, however, like the first film declaring the year as being in the 3970’s when all the rest maintain Taylor arrived in 3955, but for the most part, the continuity is preserved through the use of subtle references.
We discussed how Hasslein, whose name was used in the first film, became a main character in the third film, and how Aldo becomes an actual character in the fourth film after being mentioned by Cornelius in said third film. In this film, it’s really cool to see things attempt to come full-circle, albeit differently do to a lane change on the timeline highway. For instance, the Lawgiver, who appears ubiquitously as a statue throughout the first two films, is finally seen in the flesh in this fifth film. Aldo also threatens to take back his legacy as the ape who founded the oppressive ape society.
Great references are made to the development of human society as well. Kolp, who was Governor Breck’s goon in Conquest of the Planet of the apes, is now the leader of the mutant humans. In turn, his second-in-command is Mendez, who will go on to form the House of Mendez, the mutants we met in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. But, just as Caesar high-jacked the history of the future, maybe this Mendez will be more benevolent. Food for thought. Also, MacDonald is the brother of the Mr. MacDonald we met in the last film.
Another really great thing Battle for the Planet of the Apes improves over Conquest is casting. While I certainly had no problem with anyone in the fourth film, the actors selected in this film are infinitely more colourful and memorable character actors. I mean, the legendary John Huston even makes a brief appearance as the Lawgiver. A brilliant move, as someone epic surely had to play that character.
Roddy McDowall returns in his signature role as lead chimpanzee. He played Cornelius in the first and third films, and Caesar in the fourth and fifth. As noted in my review of Conquest, McDowall portrays the characters quite differently. He would go on to play Galen, the lead chimp in the live action Planet of the Apes television series, who is again quite a different character.
I found Cornelius was portrayed as a bit of a pushover, confident in his knowledge, but respectful to his wife and to the system that he was forced to function in. Caesar, on the other hand, began as more timid, having been raised a bit pampered by Armando, but eventually he grew into something quite bold and charismatic. Galen is distanced even further, being quite a happy-go-lucky and playful fellow.
Natalie Trundy makes her fourth appearance in an ape film reprising her role as Caesar’s wife Lisa. Severn Darden also carries over from the last film as Governor Kolp, now completely unchained and able to let his evil run wild. He gives a great performance. The other antagonist, Aldo, is portrayed brilliantly by the imposing Claude Akins. He somehow manages to contain all the savagery of the 3955 ape society within one astonishingly belligerent character. Austin Stoker carries the MacDonald torch well, portraying the brother of Hari Rhodes’ character from the last film.
Caesar’s allies are an extremely colourful lot. The ever-talented Paul Williams plays Virgil, who represents the pocket of pure intelligence and reason that is the cornerstone of any great civilisation. Lew Ayres provides some great moments as the wise keeper of Caesar’s armoury, even going so far as to limit the amount of weapons even Caesar may carry.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes is steeped in social commentary, as we have come to expect in these ape films. Among the magnificent concepts it explores, Battle shows off the internal conflict within Caesar as he must battle with not only aggressive human adversaries, but also barbaric apes. It forces him to reconsider his judgement of all apes being his brothers. His apes are capable of incredible evil, just as many humans are capable of reason, compassion, and nobility.
The film ends hundreds of years later with both species living in harmony, but with a hint of uncertainty, as a statue of Caesar weeps. I like to think that the live action television series is the direct result of this timeline. It basically takes us to the time of Taylor and Dr. Zaius, but in this new continuity, the world is far more reasonable. While some apes still quarrel with humans, the two species do live in relative tolerance, albeit with the humans treated as secondary beings. It stands to reason that 2000 years later, the apes might have fallen into their oppressive nature, but with the teachings of Caesar instead of the dogmatic texts of the 3955 timeline, quite a bit of tolerance has been afforded.
END OF SPOILER
So yeah, when you’re done with this film, definitely make an attempt to track down the live action Planet of the Apes television series. It’s a really great watch for apes fans.
While, again, an increase in budget could have made the film a thing of brilliance, Battle for the Planet of the Apes is nonetheless a great return to form for the series and an intriguing display of conflict and character growth. The movie is fun, tragic, and crazy interesting all at once. In my opinion, it’s a near perfect end to the series and easily the best of the sequels.