Battle For The Planet Of The Apes

US (1973) Dir. J. Lee Thompson

And so we come to the final film in a series that many believed was done and dusted after the first!

In contrast to the other films Battle For The Planet Of The Apes is told in flashback as the Lawgiver (a surprising cameo by legendary actor and director John Huston under the make-up) regales his young students in the year 2670 AD of a time past in their history. Ten years after the atomic war which wiped out much of the human race, Caesar (Roddy McDowell) has created a peaceful new world order where ape and humans co-exist. The apes have ultimate governance and while humans work as teachers, labourers, medics and home help they don’t feel there is much equality.

Meanwhile gorilla General Aldo (Claude Akins) is a disruptive presence with his negative attitude towards humans and plots to overthrow Caesar. He is given an ironic helping hand by a group of radiation damaged human survivors of the war sealed up in the Forbidden City. A covert visit to the city by Caesar, scientist orangutan Virgil (Paul Williams) and human MacDonald (Austin Stoker) alerts the “mutants” to their presence. Naturally angry at the apes for their predicament the humans, lead by Governor Kolp (Severn Darden), they launch an attack on Ape City.

Similar to how Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes formed the basis for the 2011 reboot Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, the plot from Battle provide the framework for this year’s blockbuster Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. When the scriptwriter of the previous films Paul Dehn was taken ill from exhaustion it befall to husband and wife team John William and Joyce Hooper Corrington to complete the screenplay. The trenchant modern social parallels that featured in Dehn’s scripts are largely absent as a result but the Corringtons do take a wry look at what it takes to attain peace.

With the Vietnam War coming to an end the US was starting to lighten up a bit but the stench of armed conflict was still in the air. In their script the Corringtons questioned when it is right to fight and whether killing is ever right. At the start of the film a human is teaching the apes to write the mantra “Ape Shall Not Kill Ape” when Aldo questions if killing humans is okay – which Caesar insists it is not. Yet when Kolp and his rag tag army with their superior fire power launch their attack everyone is called to arms and Aldo gets his wish.

Interestingly, among Kolp’s men is Mendez (Paul Stevens) who is able to objectively observe that the visit by Caesar and co was in peace and they only responded to the ambush by Kolp’s men in self defence. He pleads with Kolp to open a line of communication with the apes but the bellicose leader is hell bent on extracting revenge against the apes. The moral that “two wrongs don’t make a right” is very much in play here and creates an unusual dichotomy for the audience – which side do we root for?

In the first two films it was the humans; in films three and four it was the apes – now both are at fault as much as they are both justified in their actions. In fact we find ourselves rooting for simple common sense and the idea that talking might at least answer some questions even if they don’t completely diffuse the situation. But the script has a trump up its sleeve with Caesar and wife Lisa’s (Natalie Trundy) son Cornelius (Bobby Porter) who inadvertently plays an important part in testing the long held tenets and laws of the apes that Aldo prides himself on adhering to.

Once again this film follows in the trend of the studio refusing to invest in it since it will make its money budget like the others did. With the lowest budget yet the ambitious script which called for a huge third act battle scene the production time were against the grain, having to reuse old costumes, sets and masks. At one point the jaw of Roddy McDowell’s ape mask breaks while speaking revealing his real mouth underneath it which director J. Lee Thompson tried in vain to hide. Elsewhere alternate camera angles of explosions were used to create more damage than actually occurred and even some of the gorilla outfits were made from leather car seat covers!

Despite these monetary restrictions Thompson and his team pull off another miracle on the visual front while bringing the saga to a suitable and satisfactory close. If there was a niggle it would be that the 86 minute run time doesn’t allow for some salient points in the story to be fully explored. Hardest hit by this is Kolp and his army about whom we are afforded little background then when the attack begins they suddenly grow in numbers and possess fully working military vehicles and weapons – and a school bus!

With Roddy McDowell delivering arguably his most conflicted and rounded performance yet and suitably contrasted by Claude Akins as the antagonistic Aldo, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes admirably holds up its end as the finale of the saga, rounding off what grew to be a sublime enjoyable and hugely rewarding, not to mention seminal film series.

The iconic ambiguous tear that falls in the final frame brings the tale to an end feels oddly fitting – not in the least as producer Arthur P. Jacobs died shortly after its release – but because we the audience have lived with these characters and this fantastic story for five films and this farewell indeed feels pretty final.

While modern technology may create a greater visual spectacle with the current reboots, for me, the earthiness of these original films can’t be replicated or replaced. Highest recommendations for sci-fi/film buffs to watch if you haven’t done so already.

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