The success of Escape From The Planet Of The Apes demanded another sequel and this time, producer Arthur P. Jacobs and sequel screenwriter ace Paul Dehn were fully prepared. The latter parts of the prior film laid out conceptual thoughts that connected the events of the past to the futuristic world presented in the first two Apes movies. Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes offers a fuller exploration of the events that form that link – and the result is unexpectedly incendiary in both tone and content.
The storyline jumps forward about 18 years into the future after the events of Escape, focusing on the character of Caesar (Roddy McDowell), the now-grown son of chimpanzee heroes Cornelius and Zira from the prior films. He pretends to be a conventional chimp under the care of kindly circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) in a future where a virus has killed conventional house pets, leading to apes being bred to take their place and ultimately converted into a form of cheap, easily abused slave labor.
Caesar’s fortunes take a dark turn when Armando gets in trouble covering for him and Caesar is forced to hide amongst a group of apes being trained for domestic service. He quickly learns how dire life is for his kind outside the circus, particularly with Governor Breck (Don Murray), the cruel head of Ape Control, ruling over primate life in a vicious, dictatorial manner. Seeing the cruelties visited upon his primitive brethen fills Caesar with rage and he uses his superior intellect to organize a rebellion. The terrifying results of his actions will determine the future of both man and ape.
There is a tradition of subversive themes and political/social commentary in the Apes film series but Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes pushes this element to its ultimate extreme. Dehn’s script realizes the middle part of the series mythology that was hinted at in Escape From The Planet Of The Apes, using Caesar’s struggles in a hostile human-dominated world to as a direct allegory for the struggle of mistreated minorities in a society where the ruling class embraces totalitarian methods.
No symbolism is presented lightly here. Breck is unambiguously presented as a fascist operating out of fear. A direct connection is drawn between the abuse of the apes in the film’s world and slave-era brutality in American history: we see ape training centers reminiscent of slaver compounds, using fire and beatings to instill “lessons,” and a sequence where an ape is sold to the ruling elite that is presented as the futuristic version of a slave auction. The climax of the film shows the vicious side of Caesar’s revolt, particularly in the film’s unedited version, but sides with his band of revolutionaries by presenting it as the inevitable outcome of human cruelty.
The hard-hitting approach of Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes gets a boost from the direction of J. Lee Thompson. He digs into both the stylization and the political content of the film: despite a modest budget, he creates an impressively stylized future world via inspired use of Century City business complex locations and color-coded uniforms reflecting the regimented, caste-driven mindset of the film’s future society. In a telling touch that reflects the film’s “confrontational pulp” approach, Breck and his squad of Ape Control troops wear black uniforms that evoke the look of the Gestapo.
Thompson also brings a kinetic verve to the film’s visuals. For example, it opens with an impressive handheld camera sequence that takes us through the cruel, clinical routine of ape training. He establishes a tense tempo in the film’s editing early on and isn’t afraid to use dramatic flourishes like zooms or quick cutting to accentuate the way the film’s world can suddenly put the screws to characters on the wrong side of the fascist regime. When the time for revolt arrives, Thompson brings these techniques to a boil in a series of impressively staged battle sequences that represent the bloodiest, most violent finale any Apes film. The results hit even harder because of their politicized tone: it’s like The Battle Of Algiers in monkey masks. By the credits roll, the viewer is likely to be winded from the sturm und drang that Thompson displays here.
Finally, Thompson gets strong performances that fit in with his visceral approach. McDowell shifts to a new characterization here and really digs in: he does an impressive job of charting how cruelty and the anguish it brings shape Caesar into the fiery, fierce revolutionary he becomes. He was skilled at giving a complex performance while in full makeup by this time and communicates the depth of his character’s rage in an impressive manner, particularly in the speech that Caesar gives at the finale. Murray matches him for energy with his turn as Breck, creating a character who has total belief in his cruel methods and is driven to maintain his status quo at all costs. Montalban lends a nice touch of humanity in his scenes and there’s also noteworthy work by Severn Darden as a Himmler-ish secret police type and Hari Rhodes as the only Ape Control staffer capable of understanding the apes’ pain.
In short, Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes is the best of the Apes sequels, daring in both action and rhetoric, but also one of the most subversive mainstream films of its time. It’s hard to imagine a major studio having the guts to make a film like this today.
Blu-Ray/DVD Notes: this film was so intense that Fox studio execs forced the filmmakers to recut and redub the finale to soften its final blow. Thankfully, modern DVD and blu-ray releases include the original version of the film. Schlockmania recommends that you stick with the uncut version because it’s the only one that matters.