The King is Dead, Long Live the King: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
It’s easy to forget how bleak things get in the Planet of the Apes series. The original film’s iconic ending signified the fall of mankind, Beneath literally destroyed the world, and Escape killed off two loveable characters and an innocent chimp baby in a one of the most ruthless moments in the series (up to that point anyway). The original themes of the series have always been entrenched in social commentary — The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling wrote the first film’s script, which eventually went through rewrites but still maintained the bite seen in Serling’s classic TV series. Religion, environmentalism, and class warfare were topics instilled in the original film. There’s a level of camp running through the first five films — people are running around in ape masks, yes — which might take your eye of the ball. The Apes films always strike a deep, dark cord (except for the 2001 remake, which I won’t mention again) and the fourth entry is no different.
Set nearly two decades after the events of Escape, 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is set in the futuristic world of 1991. A disease has killed all of the world’s cats and dogs, and apes start to fill the pet-less void. Because of this, apes have become smarter and are trained to do household chores for humans; they essentially becoming a new slave population in America’s new fascist police state. The film begins with a large group of apes being pushed down the streets of a concrete jungle (these exterior scenes were filmed in Fox’s soulless Century City), as they’re being forced to pick up mops and brooms, all to unwillingly serve their human masters. The hapless apes are yelled at and beaten, bringing things full circle as these sequences are reminiscent of the ‘mad house’ moments in the original film. With the events of Planet of the Apes taking place in the future (and the past, actually; the Apes timeline is one hell of a delightful Möbius strip), we see now where the gorilla soldiers inherited their ill will towards the lower class.
In these moments, Conquest tackles the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s and early ‘70s with fiery rage — the film’s violence actually had to be cut down considerably to ensure a more family friendly rating. There’s police brutality throughout and the final revolt by the apes is visually imitating the violence seen on TV news reports of the day — rows of officers come face to face with a Molotov cocktail-tossing ape army with blood spewing on the streets.
Leading the ape revolt is Caesar, the son of Cornelius and Zira, the talking apes who died at the end of Escape. All grown up now and talking, he visits the police-controlled city with his owner and parental figure Armando (Ricardo Montalbán), the circus owner who saved him years ago. It doesn’t take long for Caesar to speak — he screams at the police beating an ape, “Louse human bastards!” — which forces him to hide out amongst the slave ape community. The story of Cornelius and Zira’s offspring spreads, as the humans worry that there is in fact a talking ape who’ll help bring the end to humanity’s reign. Seeing that humans’ brutality towards the apes, Caesar sees no other alternative than to take control.
Roddy McDowall plays Caesar, re-entering the series after his character Cornelius was killed in Escape. McDowall, as with every one of his Apes performances, gives an astounding performance underneath the ape mask. Having played apes for so long, at this point, he perfectly emotes through the prosthetics. He puffs air through his mask’s cheeks to simulate anger, while his eyes portray everything from playful mischief to utter sadness.
Don Murray (a legendary actor who’s currently in the new season of Twin Peaks) plays Governor Breck, the leader of the militant troops; he gives a bombastic performance, treating his role as the Nazi-esque hatemonger with sufficient levels of chest puffery. Hari Rhodes plays MacDonald, a black man who serves as Breck’s chief aide. Rhodes’ role in Conquest is another evocation of the times; the film has blaxploitation elements throughout — the white man is clearly the enemy and MacDonald becomes an ally of Caesar because he understands the apes’ cause. MacDonald talks to Caesar about the fight for power and the false hope of revolution — MacDonald warns that violence will lead to more violence, while Caesar is defiant.
In the film’s final scene, the apes have taken over the police-controlled city. They have a cowering Breck on the ground, while Caesar calls for the rise of the apes and the fall of humanity. Caesar dismisses MacDonald’s call for mercy and watches as the apes savagely murder MacDonald. The film fades to black with apes shouting in the distance as the credits roll… At least that's how the unrated cut of Conquest ends; it’s my preferred version because it feels like the proper way to end a movie — two societies, man and ape, are in a never-ending battle in savagery with no winners. Violence begets violence. In the theatrical cut, the producers and director added a few more lines to Caesar’s speech while changing Breck’s fate. Caesar talks about putting away hatred and proceeding with compassion — the apes put their guns down and decide not to kill Breck. While it’s not my preferred ending, it does set up the next film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, quite nicely — the battle between man and ape rages on, and maybe there’s hope the two can come together for peace. In keeping in line with the series’ tragic endings, the unrated cut of Conquest is the way to go. The original Apes films and new reboot series have always had something about the world around them — Conquest is the most daring of any of the Apes movie, upping the violence while tackling difficult social issues with the intelligence that seeps through this classic sci-fi series.