This series celebrates 50 years of the “Planet of the Apes” film franchise. Here, we look back at the fourth film in the original series.
The “Apes” series simultaneously moves into a more immediate nightmare scenario and a less personal sci-fi commentary with “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972), which is a cinematographically black answer to George Lucas’ sterile, white “THX-1138” from a year earlier. In the final nighttime act of this film set in the future of 1991, apes turn on the human society that has molded them from pets (replacements for the dogs and cats wiped out in a 1983 plague) into smart slaves. A little too smart, as it turns out.
As in “THX” and other classic dystopias, an unseen man on a loudspeaker often makes announcements to keep this society orderly. Owners are reminded to control their servant apes, or face consequences. Apes have been seen congregating in groups, so troops are ordered to break it up. An ape riot has broken out, but the authorities will quell the uprising and everyone will be safe if they remain indoors.
This is a bald and bold autocratic state, and it strips the humanity from humans and apes alike, not just in a moral sense but also legally. Over the loudspeakers, human labor protestors are reminded that they must disperse after their allotted protest period, lest they lose their right to “collective bargaining.”
In his third “Apes” picture, writer Paul Dehn again taps into an element of Pierre Boulle’s novel – the notion that apes eventually learn to turn the word they had heard most (“No”) on their masters. In the novel, it’s a bloodless transition: The apes take over the humans’ homes, and the humans flee into the jungle. But soft-pedaling doesn’t work as well in cinema, so Dehn aims to show a rebellion as it would happen, with the governmental body (in this case, Ape Management) holding on to its power until it is forcibly taken away.
“Conquest” is a prime example of 1970s dystopian sci-fi, but that also makes it the least personal film of the saga so far. The pre-make trilogy that started with 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” would add nuance to relationships between decent-hearted apes and decent-hearted humans in the midst of the running conflict, but “Conquest” is colder.
Caesar (Roddy McDowall, who had previously played Caesar’s father Cornelius) has one human friend, the circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban), and one other whom he respects enough to refrain from killing – the Ape Management official MacDonald (Harry Rhodes), whom the film points out is a descendant of slaves. Caesar had two other human friends in “Escape from the Planet of the Apes,” but they are apparently not privy to Armando’s plan to keep the intelligent Caesar – formerly known as Milo — safely secreted away. Governor Breck (Don Murray), the head of Ape Management, is the personification of the autocracy, and even more of a stark archetype than Dr. Hasslein in “Escape.”
Taken literally, “Conquest” is too harsh on the human race. In reality, a lot more than two humans would object to the inhumane treatment of apes. For one thing, Zira and Cornelius were widely popular figures 20 years earlier. For another, humans would begin to see their slaves as members of the family. Part of why humans love dogs and cats, rather than abusing them, is that these animals display expressions and behaviors we see in ourselves. With apes, that would be even truer (and in the real world, humans do get along well with primitive apes). But in “Conquest,” almost every human displays enjoyment of their brute power over apes, or at least views the state of this society as normal, even though it was not normal a mere decade earlier.
Directed by J. Lee Thompson, “Conquest” plays more like a satirical warning than the previous films, which hew closer to likely scenarios. Ironically, it shows the massive amount of work humans must put in to achieve a class of slaves. The film features two sequences in a massive training center where officials train apes in tasks such as pouring glasses of water, making beds and mopping floors. I think Dehn is making the point that it’d actually be cheaper – in addition to being less bloody — to simply grant apes basic human rights and pay them for their labor.
But is this systematic oppression simply about cheap slave labor? Caesar poses that question to his captive, Breck, in the final moments, when “Conquest” transitions from its epic street battle to a climactic moment of philosophizing. Breck says apes – as the ancestors of humans (not exactly right, but we get the idea) – represent the worst of humanity, and therefore must be kept down. He’s one of those classic sci-fi authoritarians who doesn’t realize he has it exactly backward, nor does he grasp that his heavy hand paves the way for the uprising.
“Conquest” is a hammer blow of sci-fi parable that’s more visually interesting than “Escape.” But it also makes me hungry for the more layered exploration of ape-human relations to be found in the pre-makes, which feature the second Caesar.