Film Review: “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972)

Continuing onward with our exploration of the original Planet of the Apes film series, we come to what has always been one of the most genuinely disturbing and frightening entries in the franchise, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. In this film, Zira’s and Cornelius’s son (originally named Milo by his parents but renamed Caesar by the circus owner Armando), is brought to the (unnamed) city, where he witnesses the horrible treatments that apes endure at the hands of their human masters. In the years since his parents’ death, cats and dogs have been wiped out, replaced by apes who moved quickly from being pets to being servants. In this strange, disturbing space, apes fulfill the menial jobs previously filled by humans. Caesar, as the lone talking ape, is the spark that ignites this smoldering powder-keg of a world.

It does not take long for the film to show us that this is a stark and totalitarian vision of America’s future. The apes have already been degraded to the point where they are dressed according to their species, a key means of ensuring that they remain separated from one another, unable to form the bonds of solidarity that would, any good Marxist leads knows, lead to the revolution and overthrow of the existing power structure. However, even in this early point in the film their latent dissatisfaction is obvious, as it takes a great deal of human-inflicted violence to make them fully quiescent.

Indeed, Armando represents in the film’s imagination one of the few humans who actually possesses a sense of compassion, and his death at the hands of government-sponsored interrogators stands for Caesar as the final piece of evidence that there is nothing remotely redeemable about the world that man has created. Caesar knows that he only has two options:  he can either fulfill his destiny as the harbinger of ape revolution, or he can embrace the death that surely awaits him at the humans’ hands.

Thus, one cannot really blame Caesar for eventually leading the rebellion. Who could not, seeing the tremendous cruelty that humans continue to perpetrate against their ape slaves, ranging from the everyday abuse they suffer at the hands of their human masters to the more extended rigors inflicted at the Ape Management Center? The humans, in their desperate attempt to keep their simian cousins under control, end up producing the very catastrophe they so assiduously sought to avoid. Even at the level of narrative, humankind reminds trapped in a mesh of its own creation.

Formally, this is a tremendously complex and compelling film, and it certainly makes the most of an obviously-decreasing budget. The half-hour or so of the film is shot in very stark lighting, with the austere office buildings and too-bright light showing us that this is a world that has already slipped precipitously into totalitarianism. Humans have gradually abrogated any of their moral superiority, and by the time the night of fire and death arrives, we can’t help but cheer for our own downfall.

Governor Breck, the film’s primary antagonist, may be an absolutely disgusting and terrifying tyrant, but he is an utterly compelling villain. Like his predecessor Hasslein in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, he recognizes something fundamental that eludes most of the other characters; he knows that part of the reason that humans have enslaved apes is because they recognize in their simian cousins the aspects of human nature that he most wants to abolish and control. Within every human, he knows, lurks the dark, primate doppelgänger just waiting to leap out and wreak havoc. Caesar, for better and worse, is merely the inverted reflection of his archenemy Breck.

Now, there is one thing you should know about this film:  there are actually two very different endings, depending on which version you watch. The one that actually reached theaters was a more hopeful ending, in which Caesar declared a measure of mercy for the humans that he had just overthrown, sparing Governor Breck’s life rather than allowing his fellows to have their vengeance. In this vision, there is hope, however frail, of a rapprochement of sorts between the humans and the apes. It is one of the few moments of optimism in an otherwise quite bleak film series.

The restored ending, however (now available on the Blu-Ray), has Caesar unabashedly proclaim his desire to take the reins of power from the humans who, he knows with certainty, will one day bring about their own destruction. Breck is then beaten to death by the gorillas that have surrounded him.  This version also features a great deal more blood, as well as a scene in which human bodies are heaped on one another in the aftermath of the revolt (a scene eerily reminiscent of the hunt of the very first film). Being the person I am, I actually prefer this version, precisely because it denies us the optimism that so often acts as a opiate, dulling our awareness. If you can, watch this version and embrace its visceral bleakness.

Next up, I’ll cover the last film in the original film series, Battle for Planet of the Apes, in which the future fates of humans and apes will at last be decided.

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