Following the incredibly successful role reversal screenwriter Paul Dehn executed in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the series had a new life to it. Heading into the fourth film, Dehn decided to tell the tale of the ape uprising against the humans described by Cornelius in Escape, and to that end drew heavy inspiration from the civil rights movement taking place in America at the time. Dehn drew particular inspiration from the Black Panthers, a revolutionary group of African-Americans who ascribed to the theory that the pacifist route to equality suggested by the likes of Martin Luther King was severely hampering the movement and that the only alternative was responding to violence from whites with violence themselves. Dehn’s script was an obvious parallel to the movement; a scathing indictment of racism but one with a clear message that violence only begets violence. It’s daring, dark and bold and it remains confronting to this day.
Almost twenty years after the conclusion of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Zira and Cornelius’ orphaned son Caesar (Roddy McDowall, who played Cornelius in previous entries) is still under the care of the kindly circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban). Everything else has changed drastically, however. Following a devastating outbreak of disease that wiped out dogs and cats, humans were forced to look to other animals for companionship. They chose apes, but as time went on it was discovered that apes could be trained to perform menial tasks, like wait tables and clean houses. Quickly, the entirety of human society grew to be supported by ape slave labor, a system built upon brutal and inhumane conditioning techniques and animal abuse.
After Caesar inadvertently blows his cover as the lone intelligent ape on the planet, he’s forced to leave Armando and go into hiding within the system itself, entering into the conditioning laboratories and eventually being assigned to the personal household of the villainous Governor Breck (Don Murray) who rules this Orwellian version of America with an iron fist. As Caesar bears witness to the hardships and atrocities committed against his kind he becomes increasingly certain that there is only one to stop them: revolution.
Planet of the Apes movies had always been somber in tone, but the first three entries have nothing on Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. The first of the series not to receive a G rating in America, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes needed to be edited down in post production after 20th Century Fox began to fear an R rating (the highest of the three ratings for mainstream movies before the overhaul of the MPAA in 1984). A bloody opening scene was removed in which an escaping ape was gunned down in the street, while action sequences later in the film had several shots removed, including one of a man engulfed in flame and another of an ape being graphically shot in the head at point-blank range. The movie managed to score a PG rating with these edits, but the dark tone remains throughout and at the time movie-goers were shocked by the extreme shift in gears.
This move into more adult territory pays off however, offering an unflinching look at a totalitarian society in which all of humanity’s worse instincts are brought to bear on those they feel they are the masters of. It’s this ponderous examination of a system that betrays its least powerful that makes Dehn’s parable of racial tension work, as the story draws clear parallels to both the then fever pitch battle over civil rights in America as well as older conflicts like the Russian Revolution of 1917 and even the biblical tale of Moses.
This new mood is ably handled by incoming director J. Lee Thompson, who addresses the subject matter with an eye that is both sympathetic and sinister and effectively illustrates the revolutions eventual descent into chaos and violence. Roddy McDowall really shines in this, his third Apes movie. As Caesar, the former child actor displays an incredible charisma and deep humanity that slowly hardens into efficient ruthlessness as the tale goes on. It’s a career defining performance for McDowell, and is perhaps the best of any in the original series. Less successful is Don Murray as Governor Breck, who capital-A acts his butt off in this film. He’s shrill and over the top, clearly basing his performance on the behavior of Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi officers, but he fails to realise that by dialing it up to eleven the whole way through he robs the character of a much-needed sense of realism. It’s hard to ever take Breck seriously, as he just comes off as a ranting lunatic with no indoor voice.
Another area the film stumbles in is lighting. This is a poorly lit movie, a huge problem when so many critical scenes take place in the dark of night. It’s sometimes difficult to even make out what’s going on, and while wreathing much of the movie in darkness is probably the right idea from a tonal perspective, there comes a point where it just confuses.
A final critical mistake is the last scene. I mentioned earlier the edits mandated by 20th Century Fox in order to avoid an R rating. The most crucial of these was the ending scene which originally concluded in a much more brutal fashion then it does in the final cut. Forced to rewrite the scene, but unable to refilm it due to budgetary constraints, the ending of the film is a poorly edited hodgepodge cobbled together by running footage backwards and the use of awkward narration. It makes no sense in the context of what has come before and it betrays some of the more confronting themes of Dehn’s script. An alternate cut is included on the Blu-ray release of the film, with the original ending as well as much of the gore reinstated, and it’s a far more honest and affecting conclusion to the story then the studio-mandated theatrical edit. I’d have been fascinated to see where the fifth and final entry in the Planet of the Apes saga would have gone had that original, unflinching finale remained intact but it was never to be and the final installment of Fox’s very first franchise would take an altogether more pedestrian route to resolution.