“By the Slave’s Right”: Looking Back at CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

     July 6, 2014


[With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opening on Friday, July 11th, I’m taking a look back at the Planet of the Apes movie franchise. These reviews contain spoilers.]

Even though the film mostly has an upbeat tone, Escape from the Planet of the Apes ends on a tragic note.  Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) are dead, and although their orphaned son Milo has survived, he now lives in hiding.  Furthermore, his mere existence signals the end of humanity.  “It is the unalterable will of God,” Armando says.  Rather than show a slow side towards our species’ demise, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is a powder-keg.  The political commentary of the first film has been reactivated with a vengeance, and the vengeance belongs to the apes.  We’re back inside the madhouse, and although the humans are the wardens, the uprising isn’t only inevitable; it’s imminent.

Picking up about twenty years after the events Escape, the pre-history we learned in that film has mostly come to pass: a plague wiped out dogs and cats in 1983 (there’s even a statue commemorating the lost species), and now in the year 1991 apes have been enslaved to do menial work ranging from waiting tables, hairstyling, and other jobs we associate with low-wage income.  Circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) is still protecting Milo, who has been renamed “Caesar”.  While Zira and Cornelius were initially silent in Escape as a matter of cautious, Caesar has to be silent as a matter of survival.


Conquest depicts a cold, unforgiving world that is as brutal as the one seen in the first movie, but readjusted to give it a futuristic yet familiar sheen.  The police wear Gestapo uniforms and everyone, whether they’re a cop or a civilian, is dressed in black clothing.  The film’s palette is muted and almost entirely colorless except for the apes’ jumpsuits, which pop against the background and also foreshadow the robes they’ll wear in the future (e.g. the chimpanzees wear green jumpsuits).  As for their surroundings, L.A.’s Century City provided a chilling, sterile backdrop that mirrored the heartlessness of the human characters.

Before I saw Conquest, I was told it was a crazy film, and while I expected that to mean bonkers in a fun way, what I found was a deeply disturbing picture on multiple levels.  Aside from the setting, the treatment of the apes is painfully cruel.  Any ape who steps out of line even the slightest bit is thrown into a “re-education center” (i.e. prison), a revolving door where they’re continually broken down and tortured before being pushed back into enslavement.  In another horrific example, where we previously saw apes using sticks to beat humans in the first movie, the humans use flamethrowers to scare apes in Conquest.


When Caesar is separated from Armando and thrown into a re-education center, we’re taken not only through its cruel practices, but the race metaphor hits even harder as one of the guards refers to some of the apes as “uppity”.  When combined with a harsh class system and prison, we know the metaphor for racial tension is going to take us someplace we don’t want to go, but show us something we need to see.

The picture moves at a quick clip, and once Armando is killed by the loathsome Governor Breck (Don Murray), Conquest rushes to get the revolution moving.  Caesar’s grief quickly turns to anger as the last “good” human has been killed by the system, and there’s nothing left to but to destroy that system.  He manages to communicate non-verbally with his ape brethren, and it’s unnerving yet fascinating to see them start amassing weapons.  Caesar can speak, but he doesn’t necessarily need to because he’s so damn smart.


In a bit of inspired casting, the film brought back McDowall to play Caesar, and his multifaceted performance is absolutely captivating.  Aside from the small mannerisms we appreciated from his time playing Cornelius, McDowall now adds on to a wide range of emotions, and many of them have to be communicated with facial expressions and body language.  It’s a task made even more remarkable when you consider that he was encumbered both by his makeup and had to keep some level of apelike movement.  Zira and Cornelius were endearing, but Caesar is indelible.  He is the leader of the revolution, and the revolution is terrifying.

Director J. Lee Thompson did a masterful job of not only building a dystopia, but also ripping it apart.  We’ve seen the pre- and post-apocalypse of the Planet of the Apes saga, and now we’re witnessing the beginning of the end.  Thompson plays the uprising perfectly by making it clear this isn’t just a rampage nor is it an isolated riot.  The director puts us into the middle of the race riots previously only seen on black-and-white TVs and in the comfort of viewers’ homes.  Now we’re in the midst of not only the flames and the bloodshed (the unrated version is pretty violent), but we’re past a riot.  A riot is a release in the hopes of social change.  This is revolution and Caesar is its leader.  He was always meant to be its leader.


Although the film’s acknowledgement of racial tensions and the Black Power Movement is undeniable, Conquest never forgets the historical dialectic and how it relates to the larger mythology of the franchise.  I love when it’s revealed that the plague that wiped out the dogs and cats originated with Zira and Cornelius’ arrival in the present-day.  Within the series, it shows a loop.  The apes are inevitably going to win because they carry a plague that sets off a chain of events leading to their domination.  It’s a failsafe, and while the pre-history can be tweaked in minor details—for example, his revelatory word wasn’t “No,” but “Have pity,”—it still ties to the larger point about destiny.

This loop and how it ties into the mythology is a reflection of human history.  “All of us were slaves at some point,” Breck tells his chief aide MacDonald (Hari Rhodes).  As we’ve seen in the previous movies, the Planet of the Apes series has a Marxist view of history by showing that class struggle is inevitable.  We keep repeating the mistakes of the past, and although Breck may have a glib assessment of our history, this repetition will continue into the future because we reject social harmony.  We won’t “have pity,” and neither will the revolution.  Even Caesar clings to the misguided notion of violence leading to peace as we see when he tells Macdonald that humanity “won’t learn to be kind until we force them to.”  Just as humanity’s downfall is inevitable, so is class conflict because it’s caught in a loop of dominance and submission.


To the script’s credit, screenwriter Paul Dehn wasn’t making some wishy-washy, “Give Peace a Chance” statement.  The film recognizes that there is a fundamental dysfunction in society, and the repercussions—race riots and the Black Power movement—are understandable outcomes.  The problem is that there is no easy solution, and that’s terrifying because it means we’re stuck in the loop.  We can’t find an answer, so the problem persists.  Even more terrifying is that, as shown in the previous movies, that flaw may be in our nature (there’s a reason “apes”, our evolutionary predecessors, were chosen as antagonists as opposed other creatures).

The world is doomed to madness, and Conquest embraces that insanity.  Moments that should seem silly like apes working in a barber shop or serving people drinks become tremendously bizarre through Thompson’s lens.  When the apes are instructed to mate, Caesar passes by a “comely” ape lying on a bed, which is odd considering the poor treatment of apes throughout the picture.  It’s a quick shot, but it’s deeply twisted.  In another movie, it could be played for comedy, but there’s no humor in Conquest and after Armando is killed, there’s no longer any warmth.  There’s nothing but anger, and although the climatic battle goes on for a little too long, it does match the righteous fury that’s been building throughout the picture.


So if the film’s ambivalent ending seems off, that’s because it is.  As the Blu-ray featurette explains, in addition to reducing the amount of on-screen violence, the movie ended with the gorillas brutally beating Breck to death following Caesar’s mad speech.  Test audiences didn’t care for this conclusion, and so, through skillful editing, the film was amended to provide a more conciliatory and hopeful tone.  That’s what we would like to see: the violent revolutionary tells his followers that they should be benevolent leaders rather than murder their former masters.  So instead of ending Conquest of the Planet of the Apes with a bang, tensions continue to simmer.  In a way, it’s an even more upsetting conclusion.  Yes, Caesar has chosen to be merciful, but it’s because humanity is now at the mercy of the apes.

Rating: B+

[Tomorrow: Battle for the Planet of the Apes]

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