Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

20th Century Fox's band of writers had learned from their mistakes. The totally close-ended conclusion of “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” was not repeated for “Escape from the Planet of the Apes.” Instead, a window was left open for a future installment. Zira and Cornelius' child lived on and so did the franchise. Accordingly, “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” followed the next year, picking up where the last one left off. Veteran action filmmaker J. Lee Thompson, who nearly directed the first film, would put his stamp on the “Apes” universe with this one. The film would prove to be one of the more controversial entries in the series, being more violent and politically volatile than any of the previous “Apes” adventures.

In the early 1980s, a strange plague has killed off all the cats and dogs in the world. Apes would take their place as the common household pets. Soon afterwards, the population of the world realized apes could be trained to do complex tasks. Some time after that, America is overtaken by a militaristic police state. Now, it's 1991 and Cornelius and Zira's son has come of age. Naming himself Caesar, he is sold into slavery and witnesses, first hand, the cruelty apes face from humans. The time for revolution is at hand. Caesar leads a bloody uprising against the humans, apes rising up to attack their oppressors.

Cornelius was dead but Roddy McDowell's association with the series was far from over. In “Conquest,” McDowell is called upon to play Caesar as well. The son presents different challenges than the father. Caesar is more vulnerable than his dad ever was. He runs and hides, terrified. A fantastic scene occurs when Caesar realizes Armando, the human who raised him, has died. His silent tears rise towards anguished cries. Yet he's more passionate than Cornelius was too. Seeing an ape beaten by a human cause him to cry out in anger. He silently plots a revolution, building an army and an arsenal, planning acts of insurrection. McDowell's performance is impressive. He creates a separate character, finding new expressiveness beneath the make-up, his shouted words of protest leaving a mark on the audience.

Caesar is a believable character. Less so is the world “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” inhabits. America's transformation into a police state is left unexplained. The entire film is set in a sterile city, composed of straight-lined, modern architecture. Jackbooted officers in black leather watch every street. There's odd future technology, like invisible force fields or a glowing light that can force people to tell the truth. The idea that apes would evolve from pets to a disposable workplace within twenty years strains plausibility. Most unbelievable is the film's villain. Governor Breck is a cartoonish evil dictator, all of his dialogue relating to how inferior the apes are. It doesn't help that Don Murray barks every line in an authoritative tizzy. It's odd that the series' version of 1991 seems far less plausible than its version of 3159.

Despite this serious flaw, “Conquest” does work well as the story of a vicious rebellion. The film takes great pains to show how brutal Caesar's revolution is. Mobs shatter windows and set fire. An especially memorable moment has a gorilla setting a guard on fire. Knives and meat cleavers are the apes' primary weapons, stabbing their enemies to death. The unrated version includes even more intense violence. There are graphic close-ups and apes and humans being shot. One especially grim scene shows the apes piling up dead guards, each one with their throat slit. J. Lee Thompson's direction is intense and frenzied, making these sequences feel especially vicious.

The social commentary inherent in the “Apes” franchise reaches a boiling point in “Conquest.” Caesar, along with countless other apes, are sold at auction. They are paraded before a crowd, touted for their obedience. Eventually, someone buys them and puts them to work in their house. Does this remind you of anything? The film runs with this parallel between the oppressed apes with slavery and black revolution. The scenes of apes rioting were directly patterned after the Watts Riots. The guards, who beat protesters with truncheons, also bring the civil rights movement to mind. It's an interesting but uncomfortable choice, due to the tradition of racists comparing black people to apes. That the film casts a black man as one of the humans that help Caesar, but still in a somewhat patronizing manner, makes this barely subtext even more awkward.

After eighty-five minutes of ape revolution, Caesar gives a rousing speech to his troops, promising a world where man is subservient to ape. It's a powerful moment, Roddy McDowell screaming his lines with an unnerving conviction. What happens next depends on which version you're watching. As originally conceived, and as presented on the unrated Blu-Ray, the  apes beat Governor Brock to death and the film ends, continuing the series' tradition of downbeat endings. In the theatrical cut, Caesar gives another speech. He urges ape to rule with compassion, to peacefully co-exist with humans. Even to audiences in 1972, the truth must have been apparent. This second ending was the result of poor test screenings, who demanded a less brutal conclusion, I guess. It was hastily assembled, using-dubbed over dialogue and pre-existing footage. The theatrical ending runs against everything the rest of the film was attempting to accomplish. The original ending, finally restored, is obviously superior.

“Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” is, in some ways, one of the most audacious films in the series. The film's embrace of a racial subtext is daring. It's sequences of brutal violence are bracing. The conclusion, as originally intended, is impressively bleak. Yet other factors hold “Conquest” back. Such as the odd setting, slightly unbelievable story, and preposterous re-cut ending. The result is a decent film that will never be my favorite trip to the Planet of the Apes. [7/10]

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