Film Review: “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (1973)

Well, we’ve finally made it to the last of my write-ups of the original Planet of the Apes films. Sometimes derided as the worst of the series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes occurs some time after the previous installment. Mankind has nearly destroyed itself with a terrible nuclear war, while Caesar has led a group of exiles–comprised of both humans and apes–into a sort of peaceful coexistence.

Not all is as serene as it might appear, however. While the apes have quickly adapted and evolved in their social habits–having already donned their signature suits and attained the use of speech–humans remain a somewhat subservient class. They are not quite reduced to slaves, but it’s clear that Caesar has not forgotten the hard lessons learned during the reign of Governor Breck, and that he is not foolish enough to give them the same power that they possessed before they brought about their own destruction. They are almost, but not quite, equals to their ape companions.

One of the things I’ve always found utterly fascinating about this film was the decision to cast it as basically an extended flashback recounted by the aged Lawgiver several centuries after the events have taken place. It’s a bit of a stroke of brilliance to have John Huston play this venerated ape figure, as he always adds a touch of class and gravitas to the proceedings, and this Lawgiver, at least at this point, embodies the principle of peaceful coexistence that seems to be the film’s endpoint. He is even shown teaching his wisdom to a mixed group of ape and human children. This, at least on the surface, represents a more promising, optimistic future than the one presented in the film that began the series.

Throughout the narrative, the film essentially pits four different groups against one another:  the reasonable apes led by Caesar and his loyal followers such as Virgil, the bellicose gorillas led by the general Aldo, the humans led by MacDonald (the brother of the character of the same name from the previous film), and the mutants that remain in the ruins of the radioactive city (led by a new governor named Kolp, the chief interrogator under Breck). Each of them represents a different vision of the future, whether it will be one of peaceful coexistence of humans and apes or whether it will be one in which the two races remain locked in conflict until one utterly destroys the other.

In that respect, Kolp and his fellow mutants act as some of the most compelling characters. Kolp has clearly been driven mad by his confinement in a world increasingly restricted and poisonous. For their part, the mutants that still dwell in the ruins of their former home are just as disturbing and compelling as any other creations from this film series. Of particular note are Alma, Kolp’s right hand, and Mendez, one of the few mutants who understands the need for a more peaceful world. Indeed, their final scene in the film shows him declaring that they use the doomsday bomb not to bring about the end of the apes–which were Kolp’s last orders before his death–but instead serve as a source of inspiration for generations to come. Clearly, he is meant to be understood as the progenitor of the Mendez cult that will come to rule the mutants in the centuries and millennia to come.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Aldo is the other primary villain in this film. Canny fans will remember that when Caesar told of how apes came to dominate the world, it was an ape named Aldo who first uttered the word “no” and struck the first blow in the revolution. Now, in a timeline in which that revolution has been accelerated by several centuries, Aldo has been reduced to little more than a failed revolutionary, a belligerent, not very intelligent gorilla general who fails in his attempt to mold the future in his own image. The fact that he is portrayed by Claude Akins (known for his portrayal of bluff, belligerent types in many TV shows) heightens the contrast between him and the more cerebral, thoughtful Caesar.

What I really love about this film, however, is how truly ambiguous it remains. Unlike each of the previous installments, which struck a decidedly bleak and despairing tone about not just the future but about human nature itself, this film seems a bit (just a bit, mind you), more optimistic. The final shot of the film, in which a statue of Caesar appears to weep is, by all accounts, a touch from the screenwriters to suggest that the more peaceful vision of the future this film offers ultimately failed. This, of course, leads to all sorts of questions. Does something happen during the lifetime of the Lawgiver that makes him turn against his human pupils? When does the final break between human and ape occur? These are all fascinating questions, and the film (rightly so, IMO), leaves them unanswered.

While some might regard this as the weakest Apes installment, it will always occupy a special place in my heart.

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