45 years ago today, the fourth of the Planet of the Apes movies was released to theaters – Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.
By this point, 20th Century Fox knew they had a marketable franchise. They hit it big in 1968 with the original Planet of the Apes that created a world where apes were king and men were not much more than beasts of burden. There are three main things remembered from the first film: 1) the original reveal of the gorillas hunting down humans in a cornfield, 2) “Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”, and 3) the end reveal that Taylor (Charlton Heston) had only time traveled to the future of Earth and not to a distant planet.
The movie made six times its budget in North America and was a certified hit. The second film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, worked on a smaller budget, but still grossed four times its budget. Considering Taylor blew up the planet with a nuclear device, the request for a third film might have seemed a bit odd, but Fox figured out a way to do this by sending the main apes characters of Cornelius, his wife Zira, and their scientist buddy Milo to the Earth of the past. They don’t explain it well, but Escape from the Planet of the Apes featured the apes in 1973 Earth, and it wasn’t without its fun – until the end when Cornelius and Zira were brutally murdered. The third entry cost half as much as the second, but grossed six times its budget.
The trend of diminishing of box office grosses actually wasn’t that big of a deal because Fox kept cutting the budgets with each subsequent film. So that brings us to today’s entry, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. It takes place about 18 years after the previous movie and follows Cornelius and Zira’s son, Caesar. Now being cared for by zookeeper Armando (Ricardo Montalban), Caesar must keep his ability to speak under wraps or risk capture. Apes are now being trained as slave labor, partially to replace dogs and cats who were all killed by a mysterious disease, but also because they were smarter and could do more than simply provide companionship. The film also fills in the cracks of how the apes rose up to overthrow the humans on the top of the food chain, and plays out the scene discussed in the previous movie when one ape stood in defiance of his human masters by uttering a single word.
There you have it. Before we get started, two things I will mention. First, I believe this is actually the best of original Apes sequels. It tells an interesting story of what a bleak future might be like and how we essentially let our hubris destroy our own society. Second, some themes in the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes film plays off of this movie, but not an official remake. I think it is at least safe to say that some of the themes and ideas, if nothing more than on a spiritual level, was good enough for these much more serious and higher budget Apes movies of the current era.
The movie begins in North America, 1991. Red suited gorillas and green suited chimps are led into an open area where they are taught various menial labor jobs. They are managed and wrangled by a near-militant force of police officers and the scene is set to what you might expect in a war movie. Next, Armando and Caesar arrive. The cops checking Armando’s papers are curious as to whether or not he’s allowed to dress Caesar in his leather jacket and more human-like clothing. Caesar also asked if he “did alright” when trying to impersonate a “regular” chimpanzee. Armando coaches him a bit on his walking to help hide his true intelligence and evolution a bit more. Armando recaps the events of Escape from the Planet of the Apes when telling Caesar needs to keep his abilities under wraps thanks to people being generally threatened by the existence of intelligent apes.
As they continue to walk through this plaza watching others walking with their apes and other apes cleaning windows and mopping the floor, etc., they are closely watched by jackbooted police officers who look straight up like SS officers from Nazi Germany. Whenever there are apes simply congregating or not with their masters, the fascist cops hassle the apes. Armando explains to Caesar (and the audience) how apes were originally treated as pets, but later turned into slaves. He shows Caesar a memorial set up for dogs and cats and explains that the virus that killed them all was brought back by astronauts in space. Humans and simians were immune and that’s what made the apes into what they are now. First pets, then as it was discovered that they could do more, slaves.
You know… I kind of wonder if there was a point in which this story’s most important background tidbit, astronauts bringing back a virus that killed the dogs and cats, was actually caused by Cornelius, Zira, and Milo coming back in time? Wouldn’t that be interesting? This plays to the whole idea that the Planet of the Apes was a self-sustaining cycle. Apes rose because apes came back from the future. They could also have brought the virus with them.
Just a thought about whether or not that may have existed in a previous version of the script.
Things go south for Armando and Caesar though when Caesar reacts negatively to police officers beating a prisoner ape. Armando says it was him who shouted at the cops. One cop buys into the idea, but another doesn’t. Soon, other people standing around when the incident occurred start claiming they saw Caesar speak. When the cops are distracted by their prisoner, Caesar runs away and Armando is able to slip away. Armando tells Caesar to wait where he is hiding which will give a chance for Armando to return to the cops and tell them his ape ran away scared of the big city.
In only ten minutes, you see an amazing relationship between Caesar and Armando. Despite all his efforts to protect Caesar, Armando can’t keep Caesar from being what and who he is. There’s a legitimate father-son relationship on display here and it’s touching. However, Armando’s testimony to the authorities isn’t believed. With ape disobedience on the rise, they fear that it only takes an ape of intellect to come along to lead them into full take over of society. They decide to detain Armando longer until they have questioned all of his staff at his traveling circus about his chimpanzee.
Caesar’s hiding doesn’t go all that well, though. He hides himself in a cage with Bornean orangutans – the first and only time these are seen in the original Apes series. But that cage is sent directly to a training facility loaded with other apes and cops. Maybe he ain’t so smart after all, eh?
Things get even worse. Not only is he taken to a place where he’s beaten and tortured whenever he doesn’t do what he’s told, but he has to lose his virginity in the most unromantic way possible. He’s selected as a superior male chimpanzee and taken to a room where he finds a comely female chimp waiting for him. She’s lounging there with some serious come hither eyes and showing off her nice figure.
Oh fuck, I might be into women dressed as chimpanzees…
Caesar’s reaction is that of a guy who just had his fifteenth beer for the night, and a halfway decent, somewhat fit, 47 year old woman just made a pass at him at a bar. He just shrugs as if to say, “Yeah, I’ll hit it.” Now, I’m really curious about what happened to the spawn of that union. Is he somewhere out there in the follow-up, Battle for the Planet of the Apes? Is he related to the ape Roddy McDowall played in the short-lived TV series? Did he become an angry young ape who turned to a life of crime in some way inspired by Elvis Presley’s hit “In the Ghetto”?
There are several moments underlying social commentary laced throughout the movie. Of course, there are lots of acts of cruelty – both to animals and how people treat each other. With the apes being more human-like in general, it’s like watching the police baring down on protesters, or, worse, black folks in a place they aren’t supposed to be. Also, everything in the world is pristine and white. As if humanity is no longer human themselves. There is no dirt, no crime, and the police state of this future uses fear to control the populace. People are cold and cruel to everyone and everything around them. Lastly, one of the people who runs numbers and works for the villainous Governor is a black guy. Despite being the smartest man in the Governor’s circle, and certainly the kindest to Caesar after Armando is captured, he’s also treated as less than the white employees of the state. When he makes a comment about how slaves were traditionally treated, the Governor smugly tells him to not be so touchy and that everyone was [at some point], slaves once [in one sense of the word or another]. You know, Mr. Governor Man… I kinda think you might be an asshole.
Alright, so Armando is going to be released. He’s told to sign an affidavit stating all he’s said is true. However, before they release him, they subject him to the “Authenticator” which forces him to tell the truth. He pleads for them to not make him do that and that he’s nothing wrong, but in a struggle, he flings himself out a window and to his death. When Caesar finds out, he is utterly inconsolable and loses all faith in humanity believing them to be nothing but cruel, heartless beings.
You know what? Caesar’s right. We are real assholes.
In the time that passes, Caesar has trained apes to resist their masters and outright defy them. They’ve learned to cause small disturbances and inconveniences. But they also start stealing knives and other things that could be used as weapons. He teaches them how to start fires and use what weapons they gathered.
When Caesar ramps up his collection by obtaining a Colt .45 and 100 bullets, his girlfriend, Lisa (not the sexy piece of chimp ass above, but a female he met in the early minutes of the movie) is saddened that he’s resorting to the violent ways of humans.
Earlier in the movie, Caesar, who, if you remember, stowed away in a crate with Bornean orangutans, was sold to the Governor after spending some time in the reconditioning compound to make sure he wasn’t too much of a threat. Now, the Governor and his cronies learned through the shipping manifest that they had Caesar all along and let him slip through their fingers. If this wasn’t a movie made for kids in the early 70s, I would say they kinda goofed here because they weren’t specifically told that the chimp they bought was from that shipment. If this was made in the current era of movies, it would not only be a 2 hour 43 minute movie with special effects out the butt, but it would have also had a scene of them doing their due diligence and discovering that the ape they bought came from that shipment, then have someone other than a government stooge say there are no chimps in Borneo.
The Governor calls his black lackey, MacDonald, who was the guy he said had his panties in a bunch over that slavery remark. MacDonald covers and says Caesar is not currently at his location so he didn’t have to turn him over to the cops. Caesar reveals his ability to speak and tells him that he doesn’t believe that there is such as a thing as kindness in humans. MacDonald allows him to escape and covers for him when the main inspector arrives. Caesar is eventually found by the police and captured. They use electroshock therapy on Caesar to try to force him to speak to prove he was the offspring of Cornelius and Zira. He asks for pity. The Governor’s men carry out an order to electrocute Caesar, but it’s all a show because MacDonald has disconnected the electricity. When the guard frees Caesar, thinking him dead, he is able to attack the guard and flee.
Caesar meets up with his followers and organizes them into action. The apes flood the streets with weapons and overtake the control center where the apes are subjugated to torturous reconditioning techniques. They also free a bunch of other apes that only help Caesar more.
Next up, Caesar takes his army toward the Governor’s command post. But first, they have to get past a fully mobilized police force that is positioned at the entrance to the city. When the police fire on apes, all out war breaks out and Caesar attacks the police. For the most part, those poor policemen that killed the apes were beaten to death and had their guns taken from them. Next up is an even larger group of cops face off against Caesar and his army, but despite orders to stop and go home, Caesar continues closing in on the cops. Despite the firefight that breaks out, there are too many apes and the police force is completely overrun. Inside the Governor’s compound, the apes who had previously been docile start to act out against the humans.
This revolution scene is like twenty minutes long and features lots of apes beating the utter shit out of people and lots of apes being gunned down by people. It’s a brutal scene. It was also the reason why this was the only of the original Apes movies to be rated PG as opposed to the G rating the others had. Additionally, there had to be an edit made to the beginning to cut out a scene of an abused ape being killed by the police after he murdered his owner in revenge. It’s a long scene of all out war.
And these movies were mostly made for kids!
Yes, you could say that toys and cartoons and comic books and all that was what was really made for kids and that the movies were harder sci-fi and that the fact that kids liked the movies was only an added bonus. You can’t deny the themes laced into each of these five films were pretty high brow. Shit, this movie alone is all about slavery and how we treat things people of power say are inferior. That’s some pretty heady stuff, kids! Buy some toys on your way home from the movie!
So in the big conclusion to our movie has the Governor drug outside by the apes and forced to watch dead policemen get heaped around him. MacDonald begs for mercy and humanity. Caesar points out that he was not born in humanity, but MacDonald, a descendant of slaves, says that Caesar’s actions in this slave uprising is only going to turn into more violence and bloodshed. Caesar then delivers a jarring, and haunting, speech:
“Where there is fire, there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch, and conspire, and plot, and plan for the inevitable day of Man’s downfall. The day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind. The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble! When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland out of which I will lead my people from their captivity! And we shall build our own cities, in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you NOW!”
Hey kids! Get your Conquest of the Planet of the Apes Happy Meal now from McDonald’s! Included in it is one of the following toys: a can of kerosene, a knife to stab your oppressive parents, a billy club to beat down the cop helping kids cross the street after school, or your very own Ricardo Montalban with “Leaping Through Windows To His Death” action!
Just as the apes who are holding the Governor under threat of getting his head bashed in with the butts of rifles, Lisa pleads to Caesar, “No…” A new audio track is added to save yet another threat of an R rating which gives Caesar a slightly lighter, friendlier tone:
“But now… now we will put away our hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the night of the fires, and those who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God, and if it is Man’s destiny to be dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion, and understanding. So, cast out your vengeance. Tonight, we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!”
A close up of Caesar’s eyes are used with the new audio track that was used because the change came only about four weeks before the movie was released to theaters and there wasn’t enough time to film this new added bit.
I certainly understand the reason behind changing it. Originally, the apes beat the Governor to death and they are lifted by Caesar’s call for the destruction of human society. It doesn’t cast your sympathetic hero in a very good light. I agree that we should be rooting for Caesar, but the rest of the movie doesn’t fit that final monologue about putting way hatred and let God decide what man’s fate will be. The entire movie was leading up to Caesar avenging Armando’s death and setting things right – at least to end the cruelty of man and place apes as something of equals. Also, the fifteen minutes prior to this big ending set a war into motion. If you are going to kill the police, you have to also carry through with your execution of their leader. At the very least show him being detained and put through some of the torture at the rehabilitation center. The gears shifted on us and suddenly the movie ends on a completely different note than we should expect.
However, then again, if you put an ape that looks like Cornelius in a situation in which he executes people, even bad people, you might be hurting your own franchise. Remember, the chimpanzee characters were friendly and altruistic in the previous films in the series. They were mostly considered scientists and even shown as believing in some more liberal, hippie ideals. Zira’s nephew was a “down with the establishment” kinda guy that Charlton Heston had some fun with. So maybe having a militant chimpanzee character would have been against type.
If this was a gorilla leading the uprising, then you kill that fuckin’ Governor with as much hostility as you can bear.
Even for as uneven the ending is and as short as this movie is, it is still the best of the sequels in this original run. Sure it’s ham-fisted and lays on its commentary pretty thick, but it’s still a fascinating idea of what life is like when you have little fuzzy slaves doing everything for you. It even portrays being well off as being a stuck up way of life. These rich people live in a sterile world where they basically dress alike, adhere to a police state that imposes what appears to be curfews, and own apes as slaves they expect to be totally obedient and do as they are told without mistakes. It’s not a great future seen here and, frankly, I welcome our new ape overlords.
That raps up this week’s B-Movie Enema. Happy 45th birthday to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Next week, I’ll be breaking the mold a little bit for our Summer of Anniversaries event. I’m still look at a movie that is celebrating a 10th anniversary, but the movie I picked is coming into the fray less for its release date as much as it is the release of another movie starring the same character. So, make sure you’re here in one week when I breakdown Spider-Man 3!