This series celebrates 50 years of the “Planet of the Apes” film franchise. Here, we look back at the fifth and final film in the original series.
“Battle of the Planet of the Apes” (1973) is not a particularly revered film, but it is perhaps the most influential within the “Apes” franchise. Caesar’s (Roddy McDowall) attempt to be a benevolent ruler of an ape society while dealing with threats within and without would be further explored in 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and 2017’s “War for the Planet of the Apes.” In a notable parallel, the bloodthirsty gorilla General Aldo (Claude Akins) is the first to break the sacred law that “ape shall not kill ape,” much like the second Caesar’s rival Koba in the newer films.
The “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” team of director J. Lee Thompson and writer Paul Dehn reunite for a rather different film that brings at least some elements of the saga full circle. Bomb-worshipping, radiation-scarred humans emerge in the Forbidden City in the early 21st century on this timeline, just as they do in the New York ruins in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.” And apes are settling into their role as the planet’s opinion and cultural leaders, even though humans have not yet gone mute and taken to the forests when the credits roll.
Dehn, who came up with the story, and husband-and-wife screenwriters John and Joyce Corrington take us out of the city and into the country for more commentary on war and human nature. Between films, international nuclear warfare has left cities irradiated and knocked humans and apes back to a Renaissance lifestyle, as if Al Qaida had nukes rather than airplanes on 9/11.
I like the fresh imagery of Ape City, where apes and humans live in trees and huts, and the underground ruins, which are as bleak as what we see in the “Divergent” films but actually more so because there’s no hominess to it. The radiation-poisoned humans seem to be merely existing there.
Some lip service is paid to the fact that Ape City has abundant food, but Governor Kolp (Severn Darden) openly admits that he leads his “Mad Max”-looking mutant bunch into war because it’s been too long since they’ve had a good fight and he’s become bored. Aldo is equally blunt, preaching to his fellow gorillas that they need to raid the armory’s guns so they can take power in Ape City. With that accomplished, they lock up the humans in the style of FDR’s Japanese internment policy in World War II. In the battle that fills the third act, a viewer is perfectly fine with the mutants and gorillas killing each other off.
It’s not all medium-budget spectacle, though. Fitting with what we expect from the saga, there are some kernels to chew over. Aldo’s philosophy – which boils down to the tenets of “Guns! Power!,” and “Riding, not writing” – will lead to a rigid and unimaginative military state. But Caesar – despite essentially being this saga’s version of a “Chosen One” — doesn’t exactly have it all figured out, either. Although he has human friends, Caesar is very much a collectivist, believing that humans can’t be trusted, since “they” launched the bombs.
Armory keeper Mandemus (Lew Ayres) questions Caesar and his human ally MacDonald (Austin Stoker, playing the brother of the “Conquest” character) as to why they need guns on their quest for knowledge in the ruins of the Ape Management complex. Mandemus’ point of view is that knowledge isn’t worth seeking if it’s dangerous, which dovetails with Dr. Zaius’ viewpoint and explains why intelligent ape society in 1968’s “Planet of the Apes” is so stagnant compared to that of intelligent humans in the time of Taylor (Charlton Heston). Human protagonist Ulysse ponders this conundrum in Pierre Boulle’s novel.
Indeed, in “Battle’s” framing monologue set 600 years later, a wise ape called the Lawgiver (John Huston) is telling Caesar’s life story to young humans and apes. Caesar apparently won his battle of philosophies with the gorillas, as humans and apes still co-exist and “Ape shall not kill ape” is likely still revered. (Which raises the tantalizing question: What if “Human shall not kill human” held the same sway in real-world human civilization?)
Yet the children are sitting on rocks near a stream, wearing the same fashions as 1,000 years earlier. While we’re shown limited evidence, the film-shorthand message seems to be that technology has not advanced much in the 1,000 years since the nuclear war. This is a society of dictates rather than liberty, and even if those dictates are wise, the very structure might inhibit creative thinking.
“Battle” is a more personal piece than “Conquest,” Dehn’s sweeping opus taking authoritarianism to task. We get a feel for the family life Caesar has settled into with wife Lisa (Natalie Trundy, in her fourth “Apes” picture) and son Cornelius (Bobby Porter). He has set up schools where a human teacher, Abe (Noah Keen), gives lessons in reading and writing. Caesar’s sees these skills, as much as farming and horse riding, as building blocks of society.
Since “Battle” is openly billed on the poster as “The Final Chapter,” it’s odd that the filmmakers choose a “Terminator”-esque “You can’t fight fate” loop for the story rather than giving it a more hopeful ending, although I guess that’s just a matter of taste. Generally, the films have had downer endings, and “Battle’s” is basically neutral, although the statue of Caesar does “cry” in the closing image.
But it seems like the last installment should more openly point to a better future for apekind and mankind – after all, there was no Caesar the first go-around. I guess the lasting message is that the battle never ends (and indeed, the saga would continue into a TV series a year later), and we can’t count on a ruler – even a good and decent one – to turn the tide.