Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
d. J. Lee Thompson / 1972 / USA / 88 mins
It seems that every time a Planet of the Apes sequel turned a profit, producer Arthur P. Jacobs was surprised. So far, all had been written to be the last in the series and wrap the story up succinctly. But public interest had not diminished and with each success, writer Paul Dehn would be recalled and asked to call upon another interesting period from The Planet of the Apes now circular timeline. To write that the series was going through the motions would be stating the obvious. Since Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) travelled back in time, there was little for Dehn to do but wearily chronicle the events that led to apes usurping man.
McDowall takes up the role of Caesar, Cornelius’ son in this, the forth film. Set in 1991 (twenty years in the filmmakers’ future), a plague has wiped out dogs and cats, causing humans to taken on apes as replacement pets (a stupid decision seeing as they have been warned by Cornelius and Zira that the decision to do so will eventually destroy them). These new animals’ intelligence is soon exploited and the barriers between pet and slave shatter as the apes are required to fulfil domestic tasks and suffer terrible abuse if they do so incorrectly. Since Caesar is the only intelligent ape (inherited from his time travelling parents), it is up to him to rally his species together and earn their freedom.
The plot is barely stretched to an hour an a half, what should be the most interesting point in Planet of the Apes’ extended history is rendered tedious by the prosaic manner with which it is displayed. The human characters are divided neatly into either supporters of Caesar’s claim to civil rights or villainously attempting to assert their dominance over the slaves that once acted as their pets. Anybody looking for any dramatic intrigue or development of character will be hard pressed to find it. The third act consists almost entirely of apes and humans marching against one another, there is little tension to their struggle, all an audience can do is sit and wait for it to resolve itself. The frenetic action would at least be enjoyable were it not for the fact that each subsequent film since the original had suffered a significant slash in its budget and so the effects depicting an entire civilisation collapsing are limited to the occasional burst of fire and a few dozen men in riot gear. Unfortunately, the horrendous ape masks used to cover the crowds from Beneath the Planet of the Apes are used again but at least the film is swathed in darkness so they are less easy to spot. McDowall’s prosthetics on the other hand, are as good as ever.
It would help if the film was a little more visually enticing but one can’t help but feel supportive of the ape’s conquest of humanity for more reasons than an ethical quandary. Possibly for a dystopian stylistic look or for budget constraints we see nothing of this future society’s art or culture. Not showing fashions or technologies may be a way to future-proof the film from ridicule but what results is a depiction of a society so bland and uninteresting we willingly endorse its downfall. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is an interesting film in that it chronicles our civilisation’s downfall and actively asks us to support its catalyst but a huge amount of possibilities are lost when watching this revolution unfold and what should be prime for fascinating events, runs out of ideas far too quickly.
The fact that these are supposed to be regular apes on screen (and not their intelligent counterparts) leads to nearly every actor having to adopt an unconvincing hunch and walk that does not suit the film’s serious tone. Scenes with Natalie Trundy (her third appearance in the franchise) as chimpanzee Lisa batting her eyelids seductively on a bed of red pillows in what is known as the “insemination room” seem horribly misguided. Performances by McDowall and Ricardo Montalban (reprising his role as Armando) carry what interest we have although Dehn is capable of creating some interesting moments even if the film as a whole feels less than engaging, the sequence in which Caesar is named is surprisingly witty and proves memorable.
What is interesting about the film is that it is the first in the franchise to draw a direct comparison with the black civil rights movement. The movement itself had refrained from doing so because a comparison between apes and black citizens would not have proven productive but Conquest is able to acknowledge these parallels through Caesar’s human friend McDonald, an African-American who reminds him that his people are not the only ones with a history of slavery to bear. The fact that McDonald’s race feels at least partly incidental is a credit to the writing as it remains one of the only elements of the film that retains some degree of not only social weight but also subtlety.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is without a doubt the most violent in the series. It was heavily cut to achieve a lower rating as a large part of its demographic was found within a relatively young audience. In the original ending to the film, Caesar has become as bigoted and violent as his oppressors, sanctioning the film’s villain’s execution. After this proved unfavourable to test audiences, it was hastily (and slightly clumsily) re-edited with a new voice over by McDowall, with Caesar stating that he will not kill needlessly and that he will rule the human’s with compassion. It’s difficult to say which ending is an improvement, one is certainly more biting and memorable but also likely to alienate an audience and ultimately make them question why exactly they were watching the film if they are unable to empathise with its lead. An issue that would have been resolved were the revolution been expanded upon in even the least intellectual of manners. At one point Caesar asks McDonald how he is supposed to achieve freedom without violence, McDonald has no reply and for that matter, neither does Dehn.