Set 19 years after Escape From the Planet of the Apes, we pick up the simian timeline with Caesar (neé Milo), the chimpanzee son of Cornelius and Zira. For the past two decades Caesar (Roddy McDowall, of course) has been living in seclusion, lest the government find him. As you might remember from Escape, the government was worried that the child of intelligent chimps Cornelius and Zira might lead to a future in which mankind would be enslaved by damn dirty apes, and the smartest human on the planet would be Charlton Heston (as opposed to reality, in which he only thinks he is). Though the baby was thought to be dead, doubts remained.
As with all threats to humanity, Caesar was hiding in Florida, concealed by circus master Armando (Ricardo Montalban). Isn't Ricardo great? That man never gave less than 100% to any performance he made in his entire career. It didn't matter how bizarre the movie was. You could surround him with innumerable men in ape suits, or washed-up television actors, you could even slap a plastic chest on him, and he would still be great. When it came to charm, Ricardo could convince Texas to go vegetarian. He could convince Helen Hunt to make another Trancers film. He could convince Jennifer Lopez to put some clothes on. (But we hope that he would never do that.) He was so good that he made that creepy speech at the end of Escape about his wish to be dominated by Zira almost not creepy. Almost.
"Is this the line for
Monkey Antiques Roadshow?"
Armando and Caesar travel to an unnamed city (played by the newly-completed Century City, CA). The world has changed a lot since 1973. Around 1983 a space plague killed off all the cats and dogs on earth. Simians, however, were untouched, so they became the new house pets. Once it became obvious how smart primates were, the larger apes were pressed into mankind's service. Armando wants Caesar to see this, to see why it's necessary to hide.
It is interesting to note that the future as imagined during the colorful Seventies is nearly colorless. All the government officials wear black unisex clothes, and all the buildings are decorated in the popular colors of white, blanco, and eggshell. We suspect 20th Century Fox may have used up their color allowance for the series when they committed Cornelius' bathrobe to film in the last movie.
"You don't like it? Who do I look like,
Once exposed to the new status quo, Caesar finds he cannot contain himself when he sees an ape being mistreated. His shout of "human bastards!" draws much unwanted attention -- an ape with the power of speech? It is humanity's worst fear! (Take the unfortunate case of stereotyped Mojo Jojo as an example of the prejudice humans express towards our simian brethren.) Armando tries to cover for Caesar by saying that he yelled the phrase, but let's face it, the accents don't match. How did Caesar get a British accent, anyway? Did he spend the last 19 years watching episodes of Are You Being Served on PBS?
Armando is hauled in by the authorities and Caesar hides himself in the ape labor system. First our hero is processed in the training facility, where gorillas and chimps are exposed to nightmarish behavior conditioning techniques (not unlike working at a Disney theme park, we're told). Then, through a bizarre twist of fate, Caesar ends up working for the very governor who seeks his death. The governor, of course, is clueless, and thus Caesar is able to organize an ape conspiracy right under the nose of the government. The apes and humans finally clash when Caesar is discovered and nearly executed.
In the third season of Big Brother,
CBS struck reality TV gold.
The next-to-last film in the Planet of the Apes series is the most politically charged; its obvious parallels to the civil rights struggle that continued through the 1970's were tolerated by Hollywood censors because of the fantastic story line. There is no mistaking, however, the similarities of Caesar, the initially peaceful leader of a bloody revolt, to members of the Black civil rights movement who became more militant as their non-violent efforts were met with derision and gunshots. The ending was even toned down from its original bloody mess, but we still get a bit of a chill when Caesar announces "the birth of the Planet of the Apes!"
As an Apes film, Conquest marks a new, darker direction for the simians. In the first two films (Planet and Beneath) the apes may be in charge, but they are somewhat ineffectual and even buffoonish, the Gorilla soldier caste in particular. In Escape From the Planet of the Apes, chimps Cornelius, Zira, and Milo are the gentle, civilized victims of irrational human fear. But in Conquest, the apes are at first an oppressed group of semi-intelligent animals and then a frightening, dangerous gang. Apes with guns and machetes, is there anything scarier?
Donkey Kong fights back!
Roddy McDowall is in rare form in this movie; freed from the composed and too-civilized character of Dr. Cornelius, McDowall proves that acting through makeup can be powerful and moving, if melodramatic. Sure, it's tough for any actor to look good in the presence of Ricardo Montalban (who was still five years away from Fantasy Island and ten years from "Khaaaaan!"), but once that character is out of the way McDowall is free to wow us while playing his own chimpanzee son. That is, he is a chimpanzee, who is the son of a chimpanzee played by Roddy McDowall, not that Roddy McDowall had a chimpanzee son who he then played in a movie, or anything freakish like that. You know what we mean, right?
Desperately missing from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the presence of Kim Hunter as Dr. Zira (or in any other part, for that matter). Hunter's earnest manner and and bright personality were responsible for much of the appeal of the first three films, and Conquest's darker tone is in part due to her absence. Still, the series needed a different direction to remain interesting, and there's no doubt that Conquest is different from its predecessors.
While not our favorite of the Planet of the Apes films, Conquest goes a long way towards answering some of the most pressing questions about the fictional Ape history, and serves as an example of how to breathe life into a flagging franchise. Other long-running film series (we're looking at you, Star Trek) would do well to think hard about the lessons to be learned from Apes.