Film and TV you might not have checked out but really should…
Starring: Roddy McDowall, Ricardo Montalban, Don Murray, Hari Rhodes, Natalie Trundy
Director: J. Lee Thompson / written by: Paul Dehn
What’s it about?
North America 1991 – sold into slavery like the rest of his kind, Caesar, the offspring of intelligent apes Cornelius and Zira, prepares to lead a revolt against his human masters…
Taking place twenty years after the events of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the fourth entry in the original Planet of the Apes film series sees Roddy McDowall once again returning to the franchise – this time as Caesar, the son of Cornelius (played of course by McDowall in Planet of the Apes and Escape from the Planet of the Apes) and Zira (Kim Hunter’s character in the previous Apes films) who was left in the care of circus owner, Armando (the late, great Ricardo Montalban). Now fully grown, Caesar’s true nature as an intelligent ape is kept secret by Armando in a world where his simian brethren have been enslaved by man and under the cruel whip of their masters are trained and sold off as household servants and labourers.
Presenting a somewhat bleak scenario and with unrestrained parallels to slavery, racial prejudice and the indecency of those in power (the Watergate scandal unfolding at the time of the film’s release in June 1972), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is arguably the strongest, darkest and most thematically interesting of the Apes sequels. The rise of a police state and the depiction of unabashed cruelty paints an ugly picture of humankind, putting the viewer firmly on the side of the apes and invested in Caesar’s journey from slave to revolutionary.
Whilst Charlton Heston was the indisputable star of Planet of the Apes, it’s Roddy McDowall that carried the franchise forward and his performance in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the finest of the series – his whole career even – combined with the exemplary make-up design and Paul Dehn’s sharp script, McDowall tackles the part of Caesar with passion and conviction. Supporting McDowall is Don Murray as the evil Governor Breck, whilst Ricardo Montalban reprises his Escape from the Planet of the Apes role as the benign Armando, proving that not all humans are brutal and unkind. Rounding out the cast is Hari Rhodes as Breck’s aide, MacDonald – an African American who has some sympathy for the apes’ plight – and Natalie Trundy (who also appeared in Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Escape from the Planet of the Apes) as Caesar’s future mate, Lisa.
Working against technical and budgetary limitations, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes non-the-less boasts some simple but effective set design that’s bolstered by the use of exterior location shooting at Los Angeles’ Century City providing the film with an appropriately sterile, semi-futuristic look. The Gestapo style costume design elements also help accentuate that sense of a near-totalitarian society.
The finale, where Caesar escapes interrogation and leads the apes in a revolt against their human overlords leads to an action-packed climax with a startling, yet poignant conclusion. It also provoked controversy amongst 20th Century Fox executives, so alarmed by the level of violence in the original cut of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes that they demanded certain scenes be edited and for Caesar’s closing speech to be softened by the recording of additional lines by Roddy McDowall. Thankfully the superior, unaltered version was restored for the film’s Blu-ray release.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes would bring the series to an entertaining close the following year but it’s the themes and Roddy McDowall’s performance that make Conquest of the Planet of the Apes a highlight of the series.
Lou Wagner, Lucius in Planet of the Apes, cameos in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes as a chimpanzee restaurant server.
Also worth a look…
Battle for the Planet of the Apes : the final entry in the original Apes saga, which posits a more hopeful outcome where apes and humans may ultimately coexist peacefully.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes : the first instalment of the more recent Apes series, the Rupert Wyatt directed reboot of the franchise shares a similar premise to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.