Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes

US (1972) Dir. J. Lee Thompson

I do hope that producer Arthur P. Jacobs left screenwriter Paul Dehn something in his will when he passed away in 1973 as once again, Dehn saved Jacobs’s bacon by creating another cracking instalment of the Planet of The Apes saga, the fourth, after the miraculous and genius rebirth and saving of the franchise having effectively killed it off at the end of the second film!

Set in 1991, eighteen years after Escape From Planets Of The Apes, we meet Milo (Roddy McDowell), the son of original talking apes Cornelius and Zira who were killed at the end of the last film. He is now working for circus owner Señor Armando (Ricardo Montalbán), who switched Milo for another baby chimp so the authorities believe he is dead.

In the city, apes have now gone from being pets to slave labourers, subject to daily abuse and poor living treatments by their human overlords, just as Cornelius predicted in Escape. When Milo and Armando witness an ape being beaten Milo can’t help but vocally object, leading to Armando to claim it was him speaking. Armando is arrested while Milo escapes and infiltrates the ape labour camps where he is singled out for his intelligence.

Milo is sold off at an auction to Governor Breck (Don Murray), who is leading the mission to find the talking ape while advocating the brutal regime they are forced to live under. Milo, keeping silent, is allowed to choose his own name from a book and opts for Caesar. Whilst working for Breck Caesar influences the other apes into thinking for themselves and fighting back with acts of civil disobedience while planning something far greater to take their revenge against the oppressive humans.

The 2011 reboot of the franchise Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes owes a huge debt to Dehn’s story for this film and while it is not a direct remake, there are enough shared elements, both blatant and subtle to recognise its influence over the newer film. the main difference is that Dehn already had a launching point for this film following on from Escape while Rise was the starting point.

Since we know the outcome of the story we are put in the position of seeing exactly how it unfolds. Dehn again suffuses his script with a touch of social commentary as the US was in the middle of a tense race war in the wake of the rise of Black Panther Party – supplanting black Americans with the apes. As such, there may have been a certain sense of perspicacity in the casting choice of the one human ally Caesar had, along with Armando, Breck’s chief aide, MacDonald, portrayed by black actor Hari Rhodes.

Being the lone voice of reason as Breck continues his campaign against the apes, MacDonald follows Caesar’s game plan and manipulates the system from the inside while never letting on that he knows who Caesar is. On the simian front Caesar has additional help from a female, Lisa (Natalie Trundy in her third Apes film but her first under the mask) who also has internal access to Beck’s compound.

Breck is the archetypal callous villain, despite him largely being a man who believes in a principle strongly enough to uphold it even if his methods are deemed extreme. He gets to plead his case once the rebellion goes into overdrive and makes some sense with his distorted sophistry, proven somewhat correct by this simian uprising, yet refuses to accept that his heavy handed tactics were a complicit factor. This is countered by a fabulous Henry V-esque speech from Caesar whose words carry a deeper emotional weight in lieu of their slave status.

Here is where things get interesting: the original cut of the film had a violent ending which upset test audiences and producers alike and it was felt it didn’t support the non-violent message it was trying to convey, so a new ending was created. This one is less aggressive but due to budget cuts, only an extended audio speech was recorded and clever editing ensured it fit into the scene without being too obvious.

As seemed to be the trend and corresponding with the internal turmoil of Fox studios at that time, the budget for this film was again slashed despite its predecessor being another success. By setting the film in 1991 Los Angeles, a recently redeveloped Century City serves well as a futuristic looking location. Of course we now know that things in 1991 didn’t end up like so the fashions, technology and other predicted facets of “future life” still look the 1970‘s!

For Roddy McDowell, he may don the ape mask for the third time but he is tasked with creating a new character in Caesar. He may initially possesses some of his father’s peaceful mannerisms and beliefs but his experiences under the rule of Breck incurs a change of attitude to a more bellicose and vengeful Caesar. Eve the pro, McDowell rises to the challenge and delivers another exceptionally emotional performance despite being buried under layers of latex and hair!

It’s 86 run time minute means some salient story developments are rushed through too quickly – Caesar’s influencing the other apes and getting them on side is the biggest casualty – but its acute parallel on then modern America, which still resonates today, and the already rich pedigree which it represents does not let down returning viewers.

Without question the darkest of the series thus far, Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes successfully nurtures the plants which grew from the seeds planted by its predecessor with chilling results, and in turn paves the way for the fifth and final instalment of this legendary franchise.