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Great Apes!: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

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).

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Comments

  1. bastien says:

    You basically skimmed over the entire reason WHY Caesar staged a coup, and missed the entire point of this film. He didn’t do it because he’s a chaotic, murderous warlord, like you paint him to be. He did it because he and his people were utterly oppressed and subjugated. They were slaves. They were overworked, beaten, tortured, experimented on, laughed at, or outright killed.

    We weren’t simply “expected to love” the apes. We were meant to feel sorry for them. We were meant to identify with them. The film was essentially allegorical to African slavery in America and general oppression of a people, such as in Nazi Germany. This was directly alluded to by Caesar’s conversations with MacDonald–an African American man–and MacDonald’s own sympathizing with the apes.

    Caesar hasn’t created only violence and chaos. The movie doesn’t end on an ambiguous note. It ends with the apes having won their freedom from total subjugation. It ends with the apes winning their equality with man. It ends with Caesar himself calling for an end to violence and bloodshed for all, ape and human alike. It ends with Caesar calling for apes to treat humans with the respect and dignity, and humanity, that humans had been denying the apes. It doesn’t end on a sad note or a tragic ending. It ends on triumph of the downtrodden and calls for world peace.

    • Witney says:

      The “apes as slaves” notion was indeed what “Conquest” was going for, but even within the context of the film, using apes as a metaphor for a marginalized class of people doesn’t work because the apes are regular animals who don’t understand what they’re doing. 
      Sure, they are abused animals, but Caesar didn’t aim to free abused animals. He sought to overthrow human tyranny. The apes did not “win freedom.” They were merely re-trained to shoot guns. 
      Re: The final speech (about peace) was actually added at the last minute back in 1972, and has been since removed from the final cut of the film. 
      Caesar only fancies himself a revolutionary. What he actually did was train abused domestic animals to murder humans. It seems to me that the apes are being subjugated in both scenarios. 

  2. AnnieM says:

    Even as a kid, I wondered how all of a sudden chimps became human-sized.

    • Witney says:

      I recently learned that chimpanzees grown to an average height of 5 1/2′. We don’t see the larger chimps in movies because they’re much harder to train than babies.