Spanked by the Monkey: The Planet of the Apes Series continues with CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
I come back to this review series with somewhat mixed feelings. I originally conceived it in the Summer after Rise of the Planet of the Apes turned out to be excellent (Golden Chang winner, dontchaknow?). The idea was to follow the whole Planet of the Apes Chronology from revolution to destruction, and even throw in a bonus review of Burton’s piece of shit. However, on recollection, most of them are, to be absolutely honest, not very good. I am particularly dreading Battle, which I remember as being a boring and pompous piece of shit, where even the usually first-rate prosthetics aren’t up to scratch. Adding to the problem was acquiring Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which turned out to be a phenomenally difficult and annoying experience. Well, until I buy the forthcoming Evolution box set.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a remake of Conquest. Except without the added causality problems incurred by the element of time travel that runs through the Planet of the Apes series. Writer of Conquest, Paul Dehn, originally only conceived of four Apes films: Planet, Beneath, Escape and Conquest, with Conquest being essentially about “Ape Year 0”. The idea being that the four films would throw a loop around the time continuum, and thereby be a cyclical story. I’m not sure how effective this was, because it seems to create a lot of problems in Conquest, and more pertinently Battle, which is probably why Rise moved away and dealt with Caeser’s life from birth to escape.
Conquest, in comparison, introduces us to Caesar as an adult. He’s the son of Cornelius and Zira, hidden in a circus at the end of Escape. Armando (Ricardo Montalban) is taking Caesar for a walk through the city. The year is 1991, and Caesar is still being hunted by the authorities, as a talking ape will lead to the apocalypse. In the meantime, a strange disease has killed off all the pets, and so mankind has adopted Apes initially to replace cats and dogs, but as it became apparent how easily they could be trained, this eventually transformed into servitude. Caesar witnesses much of the brutality first hand, and in a fit of rage screams out “Lousy human bastards”. Armando takes the fall for this, and Caesar hides in captivity. Brutalised by the training (conditioning) regime, he’s eventually sold to Governor Breck (Don Murray) and his aide Macdonald (Hari Rhodes)- coincidentally the only black person in the film. I’ll come to why I’m mentioning this in a moment. Armando is murdered in custody, and Caesar tortured, before eventually leading a revolution of the apes and tearing Breck down. The film ends with a message of mercy, as audiences reacted so badly to the bleak ending of Caesar’s mob beating Breck to death that it was hastily reshot.
This is a surprisingly good film. The first third up to Armando’s death is riveting stuff, and contains the best acting of the film, by far, with Roddy McDowell absolutely excelling beneath the Ape makeup as Caesar. His tears of rage and pain when he learns of Armando’s death are heart-rending and the achievement overcoming the limitations of the makeup to convey emotion are superb. The rest of the acting is alright, I suppose, with Rhodes being passable as Macdonald, but in, in the aftermath of the revolution, Murray steps up to the plate and delivers the first of the message speeches in the film, and the scene is absolutely electrifying. As he’s confronted by Caesar who is consumed with righteous anger, and asked why mankind didn’t treat the apes with the same care as pets, he responds:
Man is formed from the Ape, and there is still the ape curled up inside the man. The beast who must be whipped into submission, the savage who has to be shackled and chained. You are the beast Caeser. You take us, you poison our guts and when we hate you we are hating the dark side of ourselves.
This is stupendously performed. Murray bites out the venomous words, and his voice rises in crescendo. It’s truly gripping.
Which brings me on to both the strength and the weakness of Conquest. It’s the writing. The Planet of the Apes films have always had a strong element of social commentary, usually anti-racist, but this is so spectacularly unsubtle that it’s actually a bit annoying on occasion. Honestly, this film is so shamelessly ham-fisted that even Romero would blush at the crassness of the metaphor. Fuck’s sake, there’s even apartheid era style drinking fountains for ape use only, and Rhodes seems to be the only black man in North America. Which is convenient, because it then allows Macdonald to say “As the descendant of slaves” and prompt Caesar’s big speech- which for the sake of completeness, I’m including here:
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 will 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!
Before he relents in the rejigged ending with:
But now… now we will put away out hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the Night of the Fires. And 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!
While racism remains a problem in the world, it was particularly relevant during the 60’s in America. However, the film is just too obvious, too strident. It’s standing there like a precocious brat screaming “LOOK AT ME! RACISM AND SLAVERY ARE BAD AND WILL BEGET VIOLENCE! AREN’T I FUCKING CLEVER”. It becomes, frankly, tiresome and the unsubtlety of the middle stages of the film is just fucking wearying.
I’m sorry, but it is possible to give a message without hammering it home over and over, and this insistence on placing the sloganeering front and centre detracts from the enjoyment of the film. Which is a shame, frankly, because the point was made eloquently during Caesar’s visit to the city in the first scenes up to the market place, where the apes shine shoes, comb hair, and perform other menial tasks while human handlers dressed in SS- type gear rule over them with an iron rod backed up with electric shocks and so forth.
This brings me round to the second problem with the film. The second act doesn’t half drag. It’s a seriously boring change of pace, and the film really doesn’t recover from it until Caesar’s harrowing torture scene. Furthermore, it’s stuffed full of questions that it doesn’t bother to answer- such as how the fuck is Caesar organising them, and what’s the spark for the accelerated ape intelligence? Rise handled this cleverly by making the cure for Alzheimer’s the focus of the film. However, here, there’s just no explanation that I can see, and Lisa the chimp’s speaking moment at the end just comes out of nowhere. There’s the occasional mention of a report that shows ape productivity going up by 3 points, but no mention as to the cause. I’m not saying that I need everything explained to me, but some thought would have been nice.
Overall, this is a good but heavily flawed film. While it has a lot to say about the general shittiness of the human race, it’s just too unsubtle for me. Nevertheless, the good here heavily outweighs the bad, and I do recommend it as one of the Planet of the Apes films that’s worth a look. Genuinely exciting in places, frequently gripping, but ultimately problematic, I give Conquest of the Planet of the Apes 2 and a half happy orangutans giving a thumbs up out of 4. Basically, not as good as the remake, and that’s unusual in itself.
Until next time,
About JarvWorkshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.
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