TIME PERIOD: CIRCA 1991
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is a bleak tale that begins with a mirror of one of the most disgraceful periods in our history and ends with bloody carnage and ape revolution (it's worth noting this review will be talking mainly about the director's cut of the film, with the original ending), ushering in, as Caesar states in the original version, "the birth of the planet of the apes." As prophesised in the previous film - Escape From the Planet of the Apes - the earth has been beset with a plague in the years since that has wiped out the planet's population of cats and dogs (humourously referenced with a statue of a dog and and a cat, with the nameplate "Rover" under the canine) and, in their desperate search for an inferior companion, the humble ape has become the new pet du jour.
Unfortunately, due to apes' superior intelligence and skills (at least compared to your average mutt or kitty), they have been moved beyond pets into what can only be described as slavery. Chimps, gorillas and orangutans wait on tables, wash dishes, pick up shopping, and carry out basic manual labour. Overseeing the whole operation in Los Angeles is Governor Breck, who will be your fascist dictator for the movie. Luckily for the apes, or a certain ape, Breck's chief aide is McDonald, who is African-American and therefore has a bit of sympathy for what the simians are going through, even so much as to occasionally stand up to Breck.
And he ends up playing a crucial part in the story. But first, we have Caesar, who gets his owner Armando (the legendary Ricardo Montalban) in a spot of bother by shouting 'Lousy human bastards!' at a mob of over-enthusiastic police officers beating and drugging a fellow ape. As no ape can yet talk, Armando takes responsibility and is taken off to be interrogated, leaving Caesar alone. When he doesn't return, Caesar pretends to be an ape coming in a shipment from Borneo, and is processed. When he's found to have pretty good skills - at least for an ape - he's put up for auction, to be purchased by Breck who puts him to work in filing.
That is, until Armando is accidentally thrown out of a window. This is a significant sequence, and it's a brilliant job by Roddy McDowall, who has to be distraught over the whole thing through two inches of latex. The scene is poignant and upsetting, and marks itself out as clearly a landmark in the development of the character and the future of mankind: What out, Earth! Caesar is pissed and has a lot of subjugated brothers and sisters who feel the same.
So he sets his ape friends out to steal weapons, cutlery, explosives, anything that can help their cause. Because he can write and understands words, he cleverly adds items to the shopping lists their masters give them, so ends up with all kinds of things. But things go a bit tits up when Breck finds out Caesar is Caesar, and orders him to be executed. However, McDonald secretly turns the power off, and Caesar plays dead, only to escape when Breck has legged it.
So, they electrocuted him, they put apes into slavery and even killed Ricardo Montalban. Thus, Caesar decides the time is right and unleashes his army, so the apes go forth (and nuts) and kick the living shit out of every human around. This ends with Caesar and his fellow apes surrounding Breck, with Caesar giving a madly apocalyptic speech that - especially with the iconic image of the ape amongst the flames of revolt - just gives chills:
'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!'
And lo, the apes beat Breck to death, and the film ends silently. Probably should have been called Conquest of the Planet of the Humans though.
It's amazing having an ending that shocking and that downbeat, not just to a major Hollywood film but also a big franchise. Which is probably why they didn't go for it. Yep, when test audiences apparently looked on in horror as Caesar declared that the human race was pretty much doomed, 20th Century Fox and Arthur P. Jacobs lost their nerve, and added a new coda to the ending, where Caesar basically just takes it all back.
After he gives his speech, he prepares to have Breck killed when the chimpanzee Lisa - who has been mute all this time - suddenly says 'No!' Caesar subsequently wusses out and states:
'But now... now we will put away our hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the night of the fires, and those who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God, and if it is Man’s destiny to be dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion, and understanding. So, cast out your vengeance. Tonight, we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!'
So much for revolution. Can you be dominated with compassion and understanding? I suppose it's relatively noble that Caesar seems to want to suddenly treat the humans better than they did the apes, but it still rings false, especially after the surprising emotion he's displayed when things haven't gone his way previously, such as when Armando takes his little dive and when he's electrocuted by Breck. While this isn't the only difference between the different cuts (there's a lot more violence in the unrated cut), it's what sets up the next film, where man and ape live in relative harmony.
It's hard not to look at this film and see the pretty allegory there, especially as it's not really subtle at all. The film is pretty open in its depiction of not only fascism (the police officer uniforms are right out of Nazi Germany) but also some pretty incendiary imagery from the race riots of the sixties, as well as the rise of the Black Panthers. Some of the best science fiction is allegorical (indeed it was one of the founding principles of Gene Roddenberry's original Star Trek) and those that do it well usually get praise for it. In Conquest, the allegory certainly provides a powerful emotional background for the audience to latch onto, although while at least now most people would probably appreciate which side needs empathy, back in 1972 perhaps that sadly was not the case.
And it's emotion that is a key factor in Caesar and the film. If you've seen the trailers for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you'll notice they're playing heavily on the emotion factor of the apes being mistreated, a factor which has undoubtedly played on the success of the film so far critically (and which led my wife to cry when she saw the trailer, although admittedly she is pregnant and hormonal). While it's less overt in Conquest at first (and not augmented by music as Tom Scott's score is, like the rest of the films, pretty stripped down and atonal), Caesar is our audience surrogate as we see through his eyes the treatment his species gets and his breakdown and subsequent anger at Armando's death, putting us firmly on the side of him, even when he's reading the human race the riot act at the end of the film with even McDonald asking for restraint.
But it's what sets everything up, although while this is - according to writer Paul Dehn - his example of a circular timeline, it's still a whole new timeline with a few changes, especially with what happens in the sequel (which was not planned) so it's still possible that the upcoming Rise is the actual proper story of what happened. In the original timeline, an ape named Aldo was the first ape to speak, and revolt. Obviously now this was changed with the birth of Caesar and the arrival of his parents previous, and instead, Aldo is a fierce gorilla in the next film.
The film itself is well-directed, although it never attempts to be flashy, which is good as it keeps the somber tone of the film in check. What really stands out is the acting, mainly by McDowell who really gives in a fantastic performance with great range, especially considering the restraints involved. Natalie Trundy as chimp Lisa is pretty good without saying anything, and just gets by on facial expressions and body language. Don Murray's Breck almost steals the show, he's pretty despicable right from the start and there's a great moment at the end where he says he hates the apes because they remind him of the beast inside, which must be tamed.
It's double-edged, it's a convincing speech but also there's a part which sounds like it's rhetoric used to try and save his life. No matter, in the version that matters he gets taken down. Hari Rhodes is pretty good as McDonald, someone who must disguise his hatred for his boss as well as his sympathy for the apes. But, as I imagine James Franco has probably learned, in these movies the ape is the star, unless you're Charlton Heston.
In any case, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes did well enough for 20th Century Fox to return to the well for one last time, and it's fairly well-regarded critically. Personally I think it's an excellent film, and I appreciate how stark and serious some of it is (which itself is a hallmark of the series considering these are generally movies about talking apes). I think it maybe could have done with a bit more humour to make the final act more biting in contrast, and Escape probably edges it because of that. But the acting is brilliant, and McDowall makes the film. It's a shame he never really got to make a real name for himself outside of the makeup, although obviously he was a well-respected genre actor up until his untimely passing. Overall, this one gets three and a quarter apes out of five.
Join us next time as Earth's fate is (possibly) decided in Battle for the Planet of the Apes!