In the fourth installment of Great Apes!, we find the historical and emotional crux of the series, perhaps the darkest chapter, and one of the better films in the entire Apes franchise.
J. Lee Thompson’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the pivot point on which the entire series hinges. The lingering mystery that hangs over all of the Apes films to date has involved the question of how apes became dominant on this planet, and humans became mute cavemen. In the first two movies, it was merely assumed that humans all but destroyed themselves with nuclear war, and apes, the survivors, merely became the dominant species. It was Darwinism in action. In the previous film however, we heard a more specific monologue about how apes came to be dominant, and it was a little less evolutionary than we previously thought. In Conquest, we see that monologue enacted, only now with a hastily accelerated time frame.
To catch up: We know that centuries after the events of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, a virus will wipe out cats and dogs, forcing humans to take apes as pets. Why not ferrets or something? Who knows? Apes it is. Apes will soon also be trained to be butlers and slaves. Eventually, living with humans, apes will learn to speak English and will soon overcome their masters. That’s not quite how evolution works, but I’ll suspend my disbelief for now.
The events of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes take place mere decades after the last film. Zira and Cornelius’ chimp baby has now grown up into an intelligent ape named Milo, and is also played by Roddy McDowall. It is the future, and that virus has already wiped out the cats and dogs, and apes (all played by human actors in ape makeup) are now being rounded up and forcibly conditioned in great underground factories to perform menial tasks. This film assumes that your sympathies lie with the abused apes, even though one could easily see the training and conditioning as mere domestication. Milo, still in the protection of Ricardo Montalban from the last film, has to pretend to be a regular ape, as he is still being hunted by the government.
Milo is eventually separated from Montalban (who is killed), and is taken as the slave in a rich government household. There, he takes on the named of Caesar, and begins sneaking out of the house to train his fellow apes to use guns and stage a revolution. This raises an interesting moral quandary. Are the apes intelligent enough to know what they’re doing? By arming animals, are we committing a revolutionary act, or is that act equal to training a pit bull how to kill?
I think, though, that by now, we’re expected to love the apes – even the regular type – and since they’re all played by actors, we are to naturally assume they are going to evolve. This film ends on one of the saddest notes in a series that is rife with tragic endings. Caesar, having risen up and staged a coup, essentially declares himself to be the new warlord of an ape-dominated planet. This is far, far afield from the pacifist chimps we have previously known, and this new war-like and murderous mentality is seen as a horrible change in Caesar’s character. He may be a hero of the ape world, but he has created only violence and chaos. The film ends ambiguously; we don’t know if this is a positive change, or an accelerated end of the world.
I like this film a lot, and it’s probably the second best in the series after the 1968 original. It also finally depicts the rise of the planet of the apes (sorry, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), which has been hanging over the series since the first.
Sadly, this film would not be followed up by something stellar and intelligent. The following film, indeed, will prove to be the worst in the series.
Join me next time for Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973).