Battle for the Planet of the Apes
by Barry Meyer
Who will win the right to claim the Planet of the Apes?
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I remember the first time I saw Battle for the Planet of the Apes was in a small theater somewhere outside Buffalo New York. Normally I had viewed to all the Ape movies at the local Central Drive-in, but we were visiting out of town relatives and my cousin had never seen the Ape movies, so he took me and my brother to their local theater to see what would be the last of the Ape saga.
Of all the Ape films Battle for the Planet of the Apes was the perfect film to see at a Saturday matinee in a dark, small theater. It was much different from the rest of the Ape films. Bursting with wall to wall action and Saturday morning fun.
The film opens in 2670, some thousand years before Lt. Taylor had landed on the ape planet. Giving the film (and the entire Ape sage for that matter) the air of respect that it so richly deserves is an appearance by the great American director John Huston (The African Queen). Huston portrays the Lawmaker, an orangutan who recounts the story of the birth of the planet of the Apes. In a manner very much like reading from the Bible, he recites the plight of Zira and Cornelius, who had come to the planet Earth escaping their own destroyed planet of the apes. And just as Joseph and Mary had done some two thousand years ago (on Earth) they gave birth to the child who would one day rise up and save their people.
From here the story flashes back to roughly 2003, some 12 years after Caesar conducted the fiery Ape revolution depicted in the finale of Escape From the Planet of the Apes. The center of all the action in Battle for the Planet of the Apes takes place in the Ape Village, a community seemingly built out of the ground, and into the landscape. The housing is primitive on the exterior, homes built in trees, schools being platforms in the open air. On the inside of the buildings, in contrast, there are all sorts of up to date accouterments. It’s as if the apes instinctual side wants to revert back to nature and live in the trees and off the land, but their intelligent human side wants to indulge in all the industrious gadgetry.
Unlike the worlds portrayed in the other Ape films, we finally see ape and humans living in peace together. Ape and man work alongside each other, live together, educate each other, and most of all befriend each other. This New Testament lifestyle community is lead by their savior, Caesar (Roddy MacDowall), who governs the settlement with a very soft touch. At his aide are some close and trusted colleagues; Virgil (singer/song writer Paul Williams) is his wise and clever Ben Franklin-esque councilman, who oft times ponders on the odd topic of time travel; and there is MacDonald (Austin Stoker)), the young brother of the same MacDonald that helped Caesar rise up against the humans, who wonders if man has any right to declare equality with the apes, since man will kill man, while apes live in strict accordance to their golden rule—Ape Shall Never Kill Ape. Most delightful of all the councilman is Mandamus (Lew Ayers) the Keeper of the Armory, who protects the peace by subjecting all who request weaponry (even Caesar himself) to a battery of six philosophical questions geared to challenge the reasons why anyone would ever even need a weapon at all, let alone at that moment. The Apes of this village live so peacefully that even a playful game of war between some of the younger chimps is deemed inappropriate.
But all is not so bright and cheery within the Ape Village. Where there are gorillas there is trouble. On the ape planet, as we’ve seen before, the gorillas are the more aggressive of all the apes, and are assigned the role of soldier. It’s not just a job either—it’s a way of life. These gorillas just love to throw their weight around. General Aldo (Claude Akins), in particular, loves to be the heavy. This feisty fighting gorilla would love nothing more than to take a couple of the human villagers and play monkey-in-the-middles with their spleens. He’s not the joyful cheerleader for world peace as Caesar is. No, Aldo thinks humans stink, and should all be penned up. His animosity reaches boiling point when a human teacher scolds the General for knocking a slate board over. “No, Aldo, no!” the teacher orders, as if he’s yelling at a pet dog who’s just soiled the sofa. In the planet of the apes this is a no-no. The apes battled the humans to free themselves from their enslavement, and hearing this command barked at him enrages Aldo, and he uses this incident to attack Caesar’s alliance with the brutish insensitive humans.
Meanwhile, back in the Forbidden City, the very city which was destroyed by “the bomb” after the ape uprising, a band of radiation poisoned humans dwell under the city’s crumbled skeleton. They are lead by the sadistic Governor Kolp (Severn Darden), the diabolical Security Chief who once tortured Caesar to near death for his old boss, Gov. Breck (back in Conquest). Kolp’s main task—kill the apes. As much as Aldo hates the humans, Kolp loathes the apes and would love nothing better than to demolish the whole species.
Kolp gets his radioactive unders in a bind when he finds that Caesar has returned to the burned out city, along with MacDonald and Virgil. They are there on a peaceable mission (of course) to find old film footage of Caesar’s parents, Zira and Cornelius. Caesar is hoping that these reels will answer some nagging questions like “did intelligent apes come from outer space?” and “would it be right to kill evil, even if it were an ape?” But don’t even try and convince Kolp that these wanderers mean no harm, he’s sure that Caesar is up to his old destructive hi-jinks and is back to claim the Forbidden City once again. So the General sends his army of flesh-bubblers out to destroy the trio. Luckily, Caesar and his friends escape (by using only as much of their weaponry as needed), having learned what they needed from the film footage. Kolp is not through though. He makes plans to invade the Ape Village and annihilate it in a Mad Max style glory.
In Caesar’s absence, Aldo is planning his own invasion. He rallies his gorilla soldiers around and tries to persuade them that they need to take over, and that Caesar’s wimpy ways will be the ruin of the ape civilization. His secret meeting is found out by Cornelius, Caesar and Lisa’s son, and Aldo attacks the little chimp, injuring him severely. On his death bed Caesar asks him if one of the humans did this to him. “No!” he says before dying, leaving Caesar in another quandary. “Could ape have killed my son?” he wonders.
Caesar’s grief is set aside when the city mutants come to wreck havoc on his troubled village. The action becomes fast and furious. It’s a bloody mess of a war when the humans come out ahead in the armed battle. Kolp taunts the distraught and overcome Caesar. He crows, “Ape is lower than man, and always will be.” Not quite willing to retreat on all fours, Caesar, infuriated by Kolp’s crushing insult, sends out the battle cry—“Now, fight like apes!” To this the simians cast aside all guns and knives, and erect posture, to give the city mutants a good ol’ fashioned primitive ass-whooping. When the smoke clears and the apes have prevailed, Caesar orders that all the captive mutant humans be put in the pen, and not killed or hurt. The others who have not been captured shall be let to retreat back to the Forbidden City. Aldo blatantly ignores his leaders message, and has other plans for the escaped Kolp. He alone hunts down Kolp and his escaping thugs down and kills them as they try to flee.
Upon his triumphant return to the Ape Village, Aldo is chastised by Caesar. It’s been discovered that the General ape was the one who killed his son. Caesar is now forced to find the answer his own disquieting question—should evil be killed, even if it is ape? The answer would appear to be—yes. In a hand to hand dual, the savior of the apes slays one of his own kind, forever abolishing the first law of apes that he, himself wrote—Ape Shall Never Kill Ape. Upon witnessing this momentous, life-altering event, MacDonald muses, “It looks as though the apes have joined the human race.”
Paul Dehn (the usual Ape scribe) was once again tapped to write the script for this finale to the Ape saga. But Twentieth Century-Fox was a bit unsettled by some of the events that took place in his version of the script. Dehn decided that he would have Caesar killed off in the finale, and worst yet, another ape would be his slayer. Fox felt that this brutal murder would upset their family franchise, and hired the husband and wife team of John and Joyce Corrington (the team who wrote Charleton Heston’s Omega Man) Their task was to tame the ape story a bit. I don’t know if it was Fox’s intention, or if they even had that much insight into what it would mean for an ape (within this story) to kill another ape, but it was a very wise choice to change that plot line. The impact of Caesar slaying a fellow Judas-like ape, in revenge of his son, leaves a much heavier message. The struggle that Caesar had, throughout this story, was—how can peace endure the violence that surrounds it? The question is answered by the Lawmaker in the film’s epilogue, “Only time can tell.”
Battle for the Planet of the Apes didn’t dive very deeply into allegorical end of the hidden meaning pool, choosing to place the questions and thoughts directly into the dialogue, instead of leaving it up to the audience to figure out. Still though, this film leaves quite a lot for the audience to ponder upon while getting their dose of wild action.
And speaking of action—MTV had nothing on the quick paced editing that was seen in the final battle scenes. J. Lee Thompson (returning to the director’s chair for a second straight time) was presented a dilemma; he needed to make the battle scenes look huge, but with budget restrictions he found himself with too few extras to shoot the battle scenes the way he had planned to. So, with the help of his Director of Photography, Richard Kline, he tried a new method of filming action—move the camera in for close ups, rather than leave it back for wide shots. The result, a quick paced explosive battle sequence.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes is the perfect ending to this fantastic, one of a kind, film saga. I would have certainly enjoyed seeing more of these Ape films, but to go on would only weaken the integrity of these stories. Too often we’ve seen film franchise totter off into self-parody, and desperately try to plug new life into themselves with gimmickry. Planet of the Apes’ saga, much like the apes within the film’s finale, was left to ponder upon it’s own existence. “What will become of us? Only time will tell.”
Barry Meyer is a writer living in New Jersey. He’s worked in the film and television biz for the past 10 plus years.
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