Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Written by Paul Dehn
Coming off the transition from the future world to the modern world with Escape from the Planet of the Apes and into this film, it’s starting to be very clear to me that these last three films very well be the story of how the apes rose to power in the first place, which is an interesting story arc given the subsequent prequel trilogy. Having not been familiar with almost any of these films before, this comes as a surprise to me, but perhaps it shouldn’t. The arc across Escape, Conquest, and Battle will tell the story of how apes came to rule, thereby completing the circle of the story that started in the middle, with Taylor travelling to the future and finding man the slave of apes. It’s a very logical direction and ultimate conclusion to the story. And yet, I guess knowing that this story would be retold with the modern prequel trilogy, I still wasn’t expecting it. I will be curious to look back after completing all 9 films from the series, to see which origin trilogy I like better. The newer films have a tremendous reputation, while these originals are hardly ever talked about, so I suspect I know the answer, but it will be fun to compare notes nonetheless.
Some twenty years after the conclusion of Escape, where Zira and Cornelius were murdered and their baby Caesar (Roddy McDowall) placed into the hands of a circus manager named Armando (Ricardo Montalban) for safe keeping, Armando decides to bring Caesar back into the world, which now features apes as slaves. After a mysterious disease killed all the dogs and cats in the world, humans adopted apes as pets, and discovering their relative intelligence, turned them into servants, slaves to do their bidding. We see the horrible conditions these apes now have to live in, with Caesar the one ape possible of leading a revolution for their freedom. Disguising his level of intelligence as a slave to the governor (Don Murray), Caesar uses his skills to organize and train the other apes to fight back against their “masters” and lead them to their very own freedom. The beginning of the Planet of the Apes.
Coming off the disappointment of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, it’s once again very pleasing to see such an overtly political film, taking on slavery and the black American experience head on in a way that, true is not very subtle, but nonetheless extremely effective. What I’ve been constantly amazed by these films is the fact that they all manage to be pretty different from one another in various ways. For instance, this film feels very solidly like a grimy city crime drama from the 70s, full with the same aesthetic and cinematography. It looks like The French Connection, Dirty Harry, and other such films of the era. It’s also a very slight film, coming in under the 90 minute mark. It’s straight to the point, doesn’t feature a lot of exposition, and just does its thing without much fluff or distraction. I really appreciated that from this film, but its very different from the previous 3. And that’s not to say that this is the style and approach they should have used for all the films, I actually quite appreciate the subtle differences, to keep things fresh. But the other approaches don’t always work for the story being told. Here, the approach is pitch perfect with the little tale being communicated.
I will say that after Escape and Conquest, its feeling very much like these last three films covering the rise of the apes to power on earth could have been a single film. Seeing Battle will inform this opinion better obviously, but I see no reason why the first two films couldn’t simply be the first two acts in a much longer/larger film that tells this story. That being said, I like short films, especially when they work, and in many ways this “middle” act of the trilogy fits perfectly as its own story, in which the filmmakers no only effectively communicate the horrors of the apes enslavement, their rising anger, but also the parallel to American slavery and the revolutions which took place over the course of history as men fought for their own freedom. Roddy McDowall is fantastic this time around, playing his own son, Caesar, after many three films as Cornelius. There is a level of silent communication, of knowledge of the atrocities befalling his kind. Probably the best ape performance of the series to this point. Conquest is a surprisingly sparse, yet extremely effective film in the series.