Wed
Jul 27 2011 3:31pm

Who’s Your Caesar? Rewatching Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

Who’s Your Caesar? Rewatching Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

Of all the Apes films, this fourth entry in series seems to have the most in common with the forthcoming Rise of the Planet of the Apes film insofar as it depicts the apes actually taking over the planet. Conquest is in a separate category of films as it serves as both a sequel to the previous film and a prequel to the first two films. How is that possible you ask? Come on, this is science fiction! And it’s the Planet of the Apes series; a really long house party where continuity is treated like a bong the writers take a hit from every once and awhile to keep themselves on track. Anyway, if the last film was a comedy which turns into a tragedy, Conquest is a tragedy all the way through. The bad news is it’s a little one-note. The good news is Roddy McDowall is probably at his best in this one.

When we last left the child of Zira and Cornelius in Escape from the Planet of the Apes he was a little baby chimp named Milo living in Señor Armando’s (Ricardo Montalban) circus. At the start of Conquest we’re told it’s no longer the 70s, but rather the 90s and Milo has been renamed Caesar. This isn’t explained onscreen, though we have to infer Armando changed Milo’s name to Caesar to protect his true identity. At the start of the film Armando has shifted from being the slightly comic character he was in Escape to a grim, deadly serious man who is painfully trying to protect Caesar from the harsh realties of this brave new world. Armando’s attitude toward Caesar is paternal and Montalban pulls off some pretty emotional stuff right from the start. Roddy McDowall also manages to make the son of Cornelius a separate character entirely. I’ll point out here that the triumph of McDowall’s performance in all the Apes movies (along with Kim Hunter) is a conveyance of emotional range almost exclusively through the eyes. Pretty impressive stuff.

Who’s Your Caesar? Rewatching Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

The reason I lean so heavily on the acting with this one is that this movie would likely be totally unwatchable if it had a schlocky cast. The actual plot isn’t that great. It’s not confusing like Beneath, in fact, just the opposite. Ultimately this movie is just about a slave revolution, which isn’t inherently uninteresting, but when faced with the more complex evolutionary inversions and mediations on intelligence and morality of the previous films, this premise feels a little basic. But between McDowall’s Caesar, Montalban’s Armando, and Hari Rhodes as the levelheaded human MacDonald, the almost theatrical chops of everyone involved are pretty awesome. However, they do have to contend with a plot!

In the time that has passed from the previous film the epidemic that wipes out all cats and dogs has actually happened. To prove this to the audience, we are shown a statue in memory of all the cats and dogs, which Armando explains to Caesar at the start of the film. Post cat and dog extinction, in just a few decades, the apes went from replacement pets, to servants, to slaves. As in the previous film, if you can bring yourself to either accept or simply forgive the notion that cats and dogs dying is the trigger that really causes all of this, then you can move forward with the movie. If you can’t you’ll be stuck laughing at the tiny little dog and cat memorial statue forever.

Anyway, Armando takes Caesar around the city (essentially just a shopping mall) to show him what society is really like. Caesar immediately gets incensed by the treatment of the various apes and cries out “you human bastards.” Of course, a talking ape is a big deal to this new fascist society, and everyone starts to freak out big time. Armando tries to cover for Caesar by claiming he was the one who yelled out, but “the man” isn’t buying it and chaos ensues. Armando tells Caesar to run away while he’ll go to the authorities and try to sort everything out. This ends up with Armando getting chucked out of a window. Yep. Not even halfway through the movie, Ricardo Montalban is totally dead.

Who’s Your Caesar? Rewatching Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

Meanwhile, Caesar gets apprehend and processed in Ape Management where he’ll essentially become part of the slave labor force. Conquest is a lot heavier handed than perhaps any of its predecessors in these scenes as the depictions of the conditioning of the apes is pretty brutal. What exactly is the analog for these scenes in terms of social commentary? Well, I don’t think there is a specific one, which is sort of why it works. Though MacDonald later makes some allusions to being descended from slaves, it comes across not as preachy, but as something someone would probably say when faced with a super radical, revenge-driven ape. In short, Conquest is not making direct commentary about past slavery, nor is it critiquing contemporary animal rights issues. Instead, it is speculating on humans turning a blind eye to highly inhumane behavior in a potential future society.

Eventually, as we knew was coming, Caesar organizes a massive revolution complete with Gorillas wielding machetes, explosions and lots of grunts from the various apes. Roddy McDowall gets to perform perhaps the most rousing speech in all the films during the climax in which he basically says “we’re in charge now.” Because MacDonald assisted in freeing Caesar, he challenges the new revolutionary leader to spare the lives of the remaining humans. Between this and Caesar’s girlfriend Lisa (Natalie Trudy) saying “no,” he sort of amends his speech to say that the apes should “cast out their vengeance” before reminding us that this is the birth of “The Planet of the Apes.” Interestingly, the original ending to this film did not include Caesar’s decision to be merciful. Instead, it ended with the all the apes beating the humans to death with the butts of their guns. Apparently the test audiences hated this so much that it was changed. Personally, I prefer the change, as I think it’s more consistent with Caesar’s character, and it’s also how I remember the film the first time.

However, the speech is really the best part of the movie. It’s better to sit through the whole thing to get to this point, but it’s great out of context too. Here’s the final version, plus the original ending below that.

Caesar’s Speech from Luis Caballero on Vimeo.

 

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes effectively completes a paradox in terms of trying to explain how the ape-dominated Earth came into being. Though the notion of an ape-dominated society being created by involvement from the future sort of undermines the whole evolutionary inversion concept presented by Boulle’s original novel, I’ve always liked the ending of Conquest. It’s not a twist or anything like that, but it does feel satisfying. Again, the speech and McDowall’s performance sort of carry these over-the-top themes, but if one is worried about the Apes films being over-the-top, now is not the time turn away. Because before you know it, Caesar will be back to Battle for the Planet of the Apes!


Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.

7 comments
Dave Slaven
1. Dave.41
I haven't seen these for awhile, but I think this is my favorite of the sequels. I actually found this to be a powerful movie, and the line near the end where Caesar asks (approximately) "When did we stop being your pets and start being your slaves?" has stuck with me. I think of it whenever horse racing or the Iditerod comes up on the news.

The movie also has a really neat look to it, as I recall.
Michael Burke
2. Ludon
I agree that too little time had passed for that much change to have taken place in the simians - that is unless they had been genetically modified - but I was willing to let it ride because the series had already proven that it didn't let scientific facts spoil the storytelling. When I was a kid I thought of the series as an allegory for racial tensions and race relations. I have to admit that that's part of why I loved the series.

Back in college a group of us sci-fi geeks got to talking about this series and I suggested the possibility that the timeline had been changed by Zira, Cornelius and Milo coming to 1970s Earth. Maybe they became the carriers of the disease that wiped out the dogs and cats. Maybe to the apes it was something that was always with them but not serious or only flaired up in youth then just stayed with them without effect the rest of their lives.
Robert Evans
3. bobsandiego
Aside from the first film this is my favorite of the series and I totally prefer the original ending versus the more compassionate ending. I think this film touched on a lot of fears about race relations in the USA at the time. The 70s were a very dark time in many ways and this film capture that very well.
I am looking forward to the reboot, but I'll always hold this one as the true prequel to "Planet Of The Apes"
Ryan Britt
4. ryancbritt
@3 bob
I think the reason I like the second ending is because it was the one I remember. Of all the sequels, this is the one that really freaked me out as a kid.
John Laudun
5. johnlaudun
I'm afraid that if you didn't see this movie in a downtown theater in a city in the South, then you completely missed the political dimensions of this film and you completely missed the importance of the representations of brutality. (But you have seen newsreel footage of what was done to Civil Rights protestors, yes?)

I did see this film with such an audience — me, a white kid from a suburban middle-class family — and I can tell you that watching this film with that audience was life changing: the black audience cheered when the apes revolted. Clapped, shouted, stood up and cheered them on. It was a little disorienting, but some part of me got it. It made the film a little less frightening but the overall scene got a little more scary, and a whole lot darker.

There are a few typos throughout this series of posts, a la "Gorilla’s wielding machetes." Damn that mistaken apostrophe in a simple plural.
Ryan Britt
6. ryancbritt
@5 Johnlaudun

When Gorillas are wielding machetes, I tend to get jumpy with my apostrophes. Thanks though! :-)
Mello
7. Mello
I'm very late to the party, but to johnlaudun's excellent point, I think the overall feeling of this film, cross-culturally is very different indeed, and it made sense that the majority White audience at the time would feel unsettled about the true ending. Another tardiness of mine is that I just finished watching all of them just two days ago, but at the climax of "Conquest" I found myself also cheering for the apes (even now in 2013), and compelled at Caesar's speech.

This is the reason why I have been dissapointed with the reboots. It totally diluted the socio-political context of the story, making it lean almost solely on the PETA and pandemic end of things. Don't think I'll enjoy "Dawn" with this in my mind already. Funny, I liked "Rise," but liked it less after I saw the originals. It made me slightly aggitated; seeing how 20th Century Fox deodorized the film, and robbed the audience of its essence. It's like, that's their critique of American audiences, today, that somehow they can't take it.

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