Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
by Barry Meyer
“If we lose this battle it will become a planet of the apes! The only men that survive will be the weakest!!”
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Out of all the sequels to Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is it’s true predecessor, able to match it’s intelligence and grit. This film is not only a blast to watch, it gives the brain some active time as well.
Jump twenty years forward to 1991 (it’s always fun to see how the future has been interpreted). Armando and Zira’s offspring, later named Caesar (played by Roddy McDowall), are visiting the city to promote their traveling circus. What they find is a militaristic society run by Nazi-type police, where apes have become man’s servants (apes do all menial jobs from street-sweeping to shoe shining to waiting tables to hair-dressing). Armando and his circus pal are witness to the brutal beating of one of these servant apes, and the circus chimp blows his cover of docility by crying out “Lousy human bastards!”
To avoid the capture and exposure of his intelligent, speaking ape friend, Armando hatches a plan. He has the chimp “hide” by acclimating himself with the rest of the apes, while he goes to the police to report that his circus chimp has run away. Once the heat cools off they will meet up and high-tail it out o’ Dodge. But what kind of action movie ever goes as planned?
Armando’s chimp is captured (but not found out) along with other apes and sent to the Ape Management center to be “reconditioned.” There the chimp is aghast to find that apes are beaten, shocked, and humiliated into submission, and forced to master all sorts of degrading servant tasks. Meanwhile, Armando is questioned by the harsh and unmerciful Governor Breck (Don Murray) who suspects that the circus ape might just well be the legendary offspring of the two chimps from outerspace from twenty years back (and you thought Terminator came up with the back from the future scenario). Under interrogation by the sadistically manic State Security Chief Inspector Kulp (Severn Darden), Armando spills the beans and confirms the Governor’s theory.
An all out chimp-hunt is ordered. The Gov wants the talking ape captured, for it’s feared that this intelligent ape will lead to the destruction of Mankind (a fear proven to be truth in the first Ape film). The circus chimp is cleverly able to elude his pursuers, and impress them all at the same time by jumping to the head of the class and mastering every task that is put forth to him. He, in turn, is allowed to mate with another chimp, Lisa (played by Natalie Trundy). The Gov himself unwittingly buys the impressive circus chimp in an auction. He then fortuitously allows the chimp to select his own name from an encyclopedia by randomly fingering a page. The chimp cunningly selects Caesar. “A king?” the Gov laughs (how did this dolt get elected to Governor?).
Caesar soon learns of his friend Armando’s death. Enraged he plants the seeds for a revolt, and entrusts the Governor’s black assistant, MacDonald (played by the familiar face of Hari Rhodes) with his secret. “You, of all people,” explains Caesar, “should understand that to be free, we need power.” MacDonald, who has sparred with the Governor many a time over the issue of the misuse of the apes, agreeably helps the chimp escape, and Caesar rallies the apes together to start a bloody, blazing, fiery revolution.
What a blast this movie is! It’s got all the guts and brains of the Planet of the Apes, and is such a refreshing return after the lightweight sequels that came in between (that’s not to say that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy every last stnkin’ one of the Ape films). Much credit goes to the writer and the director.
Paul Dehn, after penning the weird Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and the fluffy retread Escape From the Planet of the Apes, had finally nailed it with this thought-provoking, penetrating script, that can stand up there with other great science-fiction works. Just as Planet of the Apes did, the Conquest script thoughtfully and unblinkingly discusses the hot-button topic of race relations/racism, building a future world that starkly parallels our nations own inclement past. Director, J. Lee Thompson (who directed the classics Cape Fear and Guns of Navarone) gives proper treatment to Dehn’s script, building on the severity and brutality of the world in which Apes are man’s slaves. Thompson had said that he wanted this film to portray the true violence that was depicted in the 1968 newsreels of the Watt’s Riot. The ratings board, as well as Fox studios, felt the violence was too much though, deeming it the most violent film ever made at that time. Thompson was made to tone it down, so that Fox could maintain it’s family franchise.
Conquest is a fireball of a wake up call, that screams out for people to open their eyes to the injustices, the hypocrisy, the hidden bucolic brutalities that betide their tidy society. And the message is just as timely now as it was back in ‘72, speaking to all people. Most importantly, the message speaks in piercingly loud decibels to the white community. Afterall, it’s our white relatives and ancestors who were (and are) primarily the oppressors.
In place of plantations are the corporate Ape Management centers. The slave owners are now the citizens of the cities, who had at one time enjoyed apes as pets after a strange virus had made extinct all dogs and cats. When it was found that these apes were able to adapt and perform menial tasks, they were trained to be servants. The carefree days of being human’s amiable companions were gone, they were not the beloved pets anymore. Just as the blacks who were brought over to America, the apes were soon thought of as merely animals, and treated as such. They were shackled with chains, pulled out to the streets for display, auctioned off, beaten into submission, orders barked at them by ruthless men, their spirits essentially broken.
As in most of the Ape films, war and the military is also scrutinized. The Police in the city were separated into rank groups. There were the law enforcement officers dressed in uniforms that typically represent the usual donut-loving police. And then there were the elite officers, whose stark black uniforms resembled the frightening military dress of the Gestapo. These guys were not your bubbly buddies. They were the bullies who carried out Governor Breck’s direct orders. The Gov feared this legendary talking ape so badly that he was generally suspicious of all apes, and scribed his self titled Achilles List, naming any ape that displayed any remote sign of intelligence. (Sound like any certain square mustache-iod Nazi fink that you might know?)
Cinematographer Bruce Surtees (who lensed one of my all-time favs The Outlaw Josey Wales) accentuates the bleak living conditions, by imposing the frame with the colossal buildings of the city, seeming to trap everyone inside it’s oppressive confines. His suffocating city landscapes nicely counter the surreal wide open scenery of Planet of the Apes. The musical score (by Tom Scott) and the sound are also wonderful tools used to build suspense. One particularly tense moment, when the apes and humans are about to square off in battle for the first time, the soundtrack goes deathly silent - the calm before the storm - which only intensifies the imminent blasts of gunfire.
J. Lee Thompson does inject some light and clever moments to give our brains a break from all the headiness. In a satirical bit we find out that the skillful method that the Ape Management trainers use to train the apes is simply the monkey-see monkey-do method. My favorite bit takes place in a restaurant, where a woman demands that her husband short-change the raisins used to tip their chimp-waiter, after the baboon buffoon was caught grooming her coif for bugs. There’s a dose of dark humor, as well, when the military commanders try to thwart off the revolting apes by yelling one-word commands, like “no!” or “home!” The filmmakers have also cleverly predicted things like cordless phones, and VHS videotapes (cassettes and VCRs used to watch old news footage).
In a trivial aside, Natalie Trundy, the actress that plays Lisa, Caesar’s new mate, is the only other actor besides Roddy McDowall to have been in 4 out of the 5 Ape films. And to outdo McDowall, who wore virtually the same make-up for 2 different chimp roles, Trundy played 3 distinctly contrasted characters: a Mutant (in Beneath), a scientist (in Escape), and a chimp (in Conquest and Battle).
When push comes to shove (and in this movie it did) the fundamental message of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is decidedly two-sided. In the spirit of Malcolm X’s plural-interpreted credo - By Any Means Necessary, Caesar has made own declaration - Power Is Freedom. The power that he speaks of is on one hand storming the castle, and kicking human butt. He teaches the docile apes, through lessons and via a telekinetic-like power, how they will stage their revolt, and when they are properly prepared, he leads them in the violent revolution. But just as the apes have achieved domination over the citizens, and are about to slay the Governor - Caesar calls for armistice. Turning his hand and seeming to channel Martin Luther King Jr., Caesar urges a more composed, more peaceable conclusion. He proclaims that apes across the country, in other cities, shall soon rise up and they shall command power just as he has. He ends his impassioned and earnest speech with the prophetic declaration, “If man should be dominated, let him be dominated with compassion!” (Compassion?! Guess he didn’t see what Taylor saw on Planet of the Apes.) This open ended declaration sets up nicely the events that are played out in the final sequel in the Ape saga.
We’d like to thank MovieProp for having the best resources on the ‘net for the Apes series.
Barry Meyer is a writer living in New Jersey. He’s worked in the film and television biz for the past 10+ years.
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