In the fifth installment of Great Apes!, we stumble over the cheapest, shoddiest, and perhaps worst film in the apes franchise. At least it has John Huston in it.
One should perhaps keep in mind the frequency at which the apes films hit theaters when judging J. Lee Thompson’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The first film came out in 1968 and the fifth in 1973. That’s one apes film a year for five years. If you ever have the good fortune of watching all five films in the original series in rapid succession, you will definitely see a budget shrinkage at work. The films got small and smaller, and the law of diminishing returns was in full effect. By the time we got to the fifth film in the series, the crew was essentially shooting in a public park, and the scope – however ambitious – started to feel littler and littler. The cheapness on display hinders and nearly cripples Battle for the Planet of the Apes. There are certainly things to enjoy, but for the most part, this is the whimper that would end the series.
In Beneath the Planet of the Apes, there was a lot of talk about a great ape messiah called The Lawgiver. This film opens with a history lesson The Lawgiver (played by John Huston) is giving to ape children in the distant, distant future. He tells of the time when human society has just fallen and apes has just risen. In a flashback, we see Earth about ten years after the events of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Human beings have wiped themselves out with nuclear war, and the surviving apes (how did the apes survive exactly?) have moved into rudimentary villages in parks. Some humans live amongst them, but they are treated like second class citizens, despite still being intelligent. It’s never explained how the previously mute animal apes from Conquest can now suddenly speak English. Maybe it was the radiation.
Caesar (Roddy McDowall) rules over the apes, and the central rule of their society is that “ape shall never kill ape.” Seems wise. Although a violent gorilla named Aldo (Clause Akins) seems itching to murder someone. I understand the general dramatic thrust of Battle for the Planet of the Apes; we’re meant to see the first steps of a planned society, wherein apes are deliberately positioning themselves as the new dominant species. There is an imperial tragedy hiding in there, of course (is outright domination really the best thing?), although it is laced with optimism; the origin of a country is a delicate but hopeful time. Sadly, these themes are swallowed up by a boring plot, some not-very-interesting supporting characters, and some boring visuals. Seriously, this is the flattest and cheapest film in the series, and it really, really shows.
Also, any actual continuity in this series is pretty much gone by Battle. The fudging of the timeline is to be expected by now, but this film has mutants (humans are living underground, clearly slowly becoming the ghouls in Beneath the Planet of the Apes), speaking humans, and all the apes are intelligent. How did we eventually get to the events of the original Planet of the Apes from here? Has the timeline been altered? The myriad plot inconsistencies and continuity contradictions will likely occupy you more than the plot will.
Here’s my critical theory on Battle for the Planet of the Apes: Since this film is told in flashback from the lips of The Lawgiver, then we are hearing an ancient – and perhaps not entirely accurate – account of ape history. That means the events of the fifth film could be entirely fabricated or merely in error, the way a lot of history becomes oversimplified, condensed, and smoothed over by centuries of hearsay. If one was to accept that The Lawgiver is embellishing history, the one can swallow the events of the film a bit better.
Battle did not do well at the box office, and pretty much sounded the death knell for the series as a whole. It would take 28 years before another Apes film would be made. Sadly, that one is not very well-regarded either.
Join me next time for Planet of the Apes (2001).