Monday, May 27, 2024

Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Z: Your servant? Your creature? Your animal?


Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Written by Paul Dehn

Spoilers: high (high also for Pierre Boulle's novel)

As we discussed then, the original Planet of the Apes is probably best-attributed to its initial screenwriter, Rod Serling, but he was still adapting Pierre Boulle's novel, in some ways faithfully; it is left, then, to the screenwriter of the four sequels, Paul Dehn, to be the truest author of the franchise.  Yet until now, that authorship had been attenuated: when producer Arthur P. Jacobs and 20th Century Fox pursued their sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, it was too messily-made to call it "Dehn's movie"; Charlton Heston's larkish insistence on shattering the entire world he'd helped create required Dehn to deal with that in the next sequel, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, and, cleverly, Dehn did so, by bringing the only two recurring characters who could've survived Beneath's franchise-blasting finale back in time to the then-present day.  Even so, he did this by remixing several of Boulle's ideas that the original film had left out.

It was therefore only with the third sequel that Dehn found himself with a completely free handfreer even than I've suggested, since Jacobs assumed that this third sequel, this Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, would be the last, so nothing was off the table now (as if it ever had been before!)and Dehn certainly took advantage of that freedom, running so wild that he took this "final" entry in a matinee series for children right up to the edge of earning an R rating.  At this point, Fox did perceive a need to step in, rather fucking up their movie in the process, completely reversing its ending despite having zero dollars left to "fix" it: in addition to a startlingly phony accommodationist monologue crudely laid atop the soundtrack, several seconds of footage in the cut that made it into theaters in June 1972 were literally reversed, thereby removing a problematic death from the climax of the film.  In our latter days, Conquest is available as originally intended, and while that's what we'll be dealing with here, its first audiences got the weenie cop-out version, partially explaining why it spent decades being underappreciated.

It is, today, possibly overappreciated, and even if it is knocking on greatness's door, it's still my least-favorite Apes film to date.  Both of its previous two sequelsfrankly, this is true of the first film as well, though it's not half so aggressive about itrequire you to accept a certain amount of preposterous incredibility; to be smart, Apes films first must be dumb.  This usually amounts to several minutes of exposition in each sequel where you sigh and go, "okay, fine."  Maybe it's insultingly goofy, but you just have to take it, if you want to get to the fun part where future chimps gallivant around Los Angeles in the 1970s.  Fear not, for Conquest has its own unacceptably moronic inciting incident, probably worse because it's not just technobabble, but legitimate character idiocy.  But it also extends that contemptuous sensation of rotten pulp to the entire movie, because every scene, front to back, demands you re-accept some implausibility of the basic premise.  There's also the question of whether Conquest has "a fun part."

You'll recall Escape ended with our pair of time-lost talking chimpanzees, Zira and Cornelius, being murdered by the U.S. government, lest they multiply and bring about their own future history of an ape-dominated Earth.  Yet in what may be cinema's first time travel causal loop, though here it's more like a nihilistic self-fulfilling prophecy of violence begetting violence forever, Zira and Cornelius had already multiplied.  Zira gave birth to their child, Milo, who was switched with an ordinary chimpanzee infant at the circus of one Armando (Ricardo Montalban), so that he grew to adulthood in safe obscurityindeed, into the spitting image of his father (naturally, he's played by Roddy McDowall)and still possessed of his Pan sapiens parents' intellect and speech.  To be honest, I've never understood how this was an eminent threat: let's say Milo does breed (or can breed, or even would want to breed); his genes are going to be swamped by regular old dumb-as-a-sack-of-hammers chimpanzee DNA.  This is, to be fair, very clearly not how this works in the Planet of the Apes universe, but Conquest is still going to make you ask how the gorillas and the orangutans ever acquired speech, and I'm not to the dumb part yet.

Eighteen years after the events of Escape1991we catch up with Milo, now called Caesar (I had to double-check to be sure about this, but I find it modestly aggravating, because Caesar gets a whole swell scene in the middle of this movie, where he secretly gets to pick this new nomme de guerre for himself, under the guise of an infantilizing ritual with a Bible he's opened "randomly").  Armando, anyway, has for very opaque reasons decided this day to bring Caesar out on a daytrip to what I assume is the west side of Los Angeles, where the new society is taking shape.  Welcome to the future, where chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans have been enslaved by humans and used to staff an outdoor shopping mall.

This is getting close to the dumb part, but I'm happy enough to call this some right proper weirdness as befits this exquisitely-weird science fiction series.  Dehn isn't even inventing this: ape slavery was already one of Boulle's ideas that got elided in favor of Serling's preferred atomic twist.  Rather then, Dehn is only inventing some of it: it is, after all, Dehn's personal gloss on the concept that the mass adoption of other great apes into human civilization was not, at first, marked by human cruelty, but prompted by a great plague that killed all the dogs and cats, requiring humans to begin adopting chimps, gorillas (!), and orangutans to love and fawn over instead.  (I feel strongly that pigs, rabbits, possums, and literally all birds would grab a toehold quicker than "gorilla."  It's also unlikely Dehn even bothered wondering how many non-human apes actually existed on Earthabout two millionnor guessing how many fewer there would be.)

In Boulle's version of this, intended more as satire than allegory, the twist was that the humanoids of his alien world enslaved their apes for some unarticulated reason, but as the apes increasingly became the only creatures who actually did anything, humans became so dumb (it's a "Blobs!" sort of thing) that, eventually, the new ape hierarchy practically solidified on its own.  Such a dry gag isn't very useful for a movie, so in Dehn's version, humans gradually realized that because their new "pets" were smart (yeah... but are they?), they could also do work; and because humans are scum, soon enough, work was all the apes did.  And it's all slightly hard to take seriouslyI've not been good at resisting my urge to make this a list of literalist asshole objections, though of course the big ones are that "I think you've missed the point of slaves" and "if gorillas could be enslaved, don't you think we'd have done it thousands of years ago?"but I still like the idea, which is, you know, metaphorical.

The dumb part, then, is actually back there at the beginning: "1991."  There is absolutely no reason for Conquest to open in 1991, nor for Caesar to be Zira and Cornelius's son, rather than a distant descendant, and numerous reasons for this to be in 2_91 instead, and not just the reasons related to a so-much-as-faintly-plausible cooking time for Zira and Cornelius's future chimp genes: there's also the matter of what the hell happened to human society.  Conquest's unnamed municipality is more like a Nazi moon colony than any coherent picture of an America only barely removed from its audience.  That moon colony is more explicitly National Socialist than you'd expect, too: I do appreciate the forcefulness of the costume design's color stylethe vibrantly-hued ape slave jumpsuits contrast rather terrifically with the black-clad human elites, while even the run-of-the-mill folks tend towards colorless clothingbut the actual contours of some of these costumes can sometimes feel like off-the-rack movie SS uniforms only with the insignia picked off, and they threaten to push Conquest into actual kitsch even more than the "ape slaves" concept does.  Honestly, the costumes outright underline the movie's wobbly world-building: in all respects this would land better if it actually did feel more like contemporary America, with an overclass largely oblivious to its own structural horrors; and yet Dehn has, mysteriously, decided that he's going to spend his entire movie doing a balancing act between a ridiculous near-future society where ape slavery is obviously a bold new top-down experiment (nearly the film's sole joke is that a bunch of recently laid-off human waiters are picketing Ape Mall) that, simultaneously, still has to act in every respect like it's a distant-future society, where the institution of ape slavery, however peculiar, is simply The Way It's Always Been.  There's a "governor" in this movie.  Governor of what?  He lives in a Macy's.

And then Armando drags Caesar, a chimpanzee whose very existence is anathema to these people, to Ape Mall, apparently for the purpose of putting up fliers for his fucking circus.  I've seen this twice, and both times I readied myself for the revelation that Armando's plan was to deliberately infiltrate Caesar into the slave population.  That's where we ultimately wind up, but this happens by accident, when Caesar cries out, verbally, at the abuse a fellow ape is suffering, and while Armando tries to cover for him, the paranoid fear that Baby Milo was still out there has never vanished.  Hence, when Armando sends Caesar fleeing into the shadowy hidey-holes of Ape Mall, Governor Breck (Don Murray) makes it a point to interrogate Armando thoroughly, eventually leading to Armando committing suicide rather than give up Caesar, though the suicide is pretty compelling evidence that the talking chimp actually must be here.  And so he is: Caesar mixes himself in with a shipment of orangutans from Borneo (it takes them the entire movie to question this, which is decent satire of the banal laziness of a slave state itself), and gets himself purchased by Breck's right-hand man, MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), on behalf of Breck's administration.  Caesar's remarkable intelligenceand his apparent docilityrapidly ingratiates him to his new masters, so much so that they're even eager to breed this new ape with chimp female Lisa (Natalie Trundy, who'd played one of the vets in Escape, and was Mrs. Arthur Jacobs, until her husband's passing).

But once he learns of Armando's death, Caesar understands the only remaining point in continuing his charade is to destroy this system from within.  Belatedly, Breck begins to suspect that the unsually-intelligent chimp that just arrived and the super-intelligent chimp he's looking for might be the same chimp, and MacDonald is a step ahead already, but more sympathetic to Caesar's struggle for reasons you could probably guess but will definitely be explicitly stated several times.  It's not even too late for Ape Mall, but with MacDonald's help, Caesar cheats death, and what Breck didn't know is that Caesar has spent these weeks or months laying all the groundwork for the slave revolt that swallows them all, and gives birth to, as Breck coins it, a planet of the apes.

I pretty much don't even need to say anything besides "this movie came out in 1972" for any "analysis" of what Conquest is trying to say, and that's not a bad thing, as we'll see  But it does have some bad manifestations: for one thing, nobody told Dehn we already know it's 1972, so he belabors the racial metaphor more than is wholesome, with MacDonald being an Essentialized Black Man in some rather concerning ways, to the extent that it deprives MacDonald of any arc and obviates much need for Rhodes to give any performance, and at bottom it's just deeply unclear how MacDonald even got his job, since he already starts the movie off being ideologically (in Conquest's view, genetically) opposed to everything it stands for.  (It leads to downright frustrating exchanges where he'll say things along the lines of, "maybe Armando just fell out that window," in his transparent attempts to undercut Breck.)  There's eventually a nice exchange in the climax whereupon MacDonald, now hoping to moderate Caesar as he failed to moderate Breck, unthinkingly implores the new king of the apes to "show humanity!" that probably ought to have been the final line of dialogue in the film (even if I also think McDowall's quasi-soliloquy afterward is enjoyably-written and well-performed, and it contains my single favorite piece of spoken communication in his performance, bar none, that sneer-roared "SLIGHTLY").

But to the non-trivial extent that Conquest finds greatness, it's because it is so thoroughly a creature of 1972.  It's irrepressibly and honestly angry in a way precisely of 1972, in ways that are still surprising for a studio film in 1972, and that anger, alloyed with not a little fear, is effectively the animating force of every element of its construction.  Dehn's screenplay, in a complete reversal of Escape's initial shagginess, is an utterly straight line towards an apocalyptic conclusion, urgently making its singular point and barely leaving a singular tonal register on its way therewhich is both weakness and strength, because even PotA had bleak humor, and Beneath and Escape had access to real comedy, while Conquest is as broodingly humorless as matinee sci-fi gets (Conquest's only other joke besides resentful waiters involves Caesar requisitioning the master's tools from some pretty dumbassed masters)and it really only pauses to impressionistically treat upon revolutionary procedure, never bothering to wonder whether its revolution is justified, and barely bothering to wonder if it matters whether its revolution succeeds.  McDowall follows suit, abandoning the effete, self-satisfied smugness of his Cornelius for what might be the finest turn in the actor's career, a remarkably-dialogue-light performance (certainly the most animalistic ape performance in this part of the franchise, but paradoxically the most human in its live-wire intelligence), relying almost exclusively on a twitching, almost glowing gaze that sees and records every human sin, and a carriage that constantly looks like he's on the verge of explosion, except for when he's silently communicating to his brethren in a manner that borders on telepathy, but truly bears the charge of messianic charisma.  (He's helped by Murray, who puts on an able "defiant true believer" performance of his own; the production anecdote here is that Murray, a fluent German speaker, claims to have translated his entire part into that language while memorizing the script, then translated the words back into English during his reads while always maintaining the German cadences and gestures.  Sounds silly, but he's good.)

Finally, we have director J. Lee Thompson, who'd been approached for the first PotA and had apparently been waiting patiently in the wings, and who carries this sensation of seething fury through.  Thompson was the first major director since Franklin Schaffner to work on an Apes film, and while I wouldn't say it is therefore necessarily the best-directed since PotA, it benefits from having extremely clear designs on the material.  Even the humorlessness has undeniable intention: the brusque prologue isn't "funny" the way it could be when we attend to, e.g., gorillas learning to shine shoes, because of how aggressively Thompson shoves it into our faces, aware of its absurdity and charging it with a woozy gravity instead, reinforced by composer Tom Woods's score, all doomy, mean-spirited jazz festooned with synthetic jungle howls.  Likewise, it expects you to decode these arcane images yourself, for instance the gorillas being trained to pour drinks amidst disorienting disco lights.  Effectively the whole movie, but especially the exterior sequences, are built out of a deceptively-artless "direct" docudrama style that makes this the most uniquely gritty of the Apes films, with editing rhythms that merge semi-junky handheld footage with downright severe geometrical compositions, afforded a great deal of overlap in Marjorie Fowler and Alan Jaggs's editing that adds to that aforementioned impressionist feel.  It speeds through the material like a bullet, like the whole movie is a montage on the subject of the deserved downfall of man.  (It may be as much Thompson as Dehn that the movie's as violent as it is, and not just violent-feeling, with a finale dependent on gallons of stage blood sloshing around.)

The photography is undoubtedly the best since PotA, Bruce Surtees supplying that early 70s gritit may or may not matter that Conquest was the only Apes shot in Todd-AO 35, rather than Panavision; there is, anyway, a sullen haze to itas well as managing to get a certain alienation, especially in the moody night sequences, out of the shooting location at Century City, recently Fox's backlot and, owing to their general financial collapse, sold to developers and now an efficient, faceless highrise office complex, but apparently still available to the studio for such anti-advertisements for it as this.  I'm not entirely sold on Century City's fitness to purpose: it does give it a nominally-unpleasant, monumentally-artificial complexion, but it's a futurism that I doubt even seemed that futuristic by 1972, and it makes this world seem all the smaller, even if its wide pedestrian boulevards are good for staging street battles that have been patterned more on confrontations between hippies and cops than any kind of actual urban combat.  Nonetheless, the architecture, the direction, the camerwork, the color reproduction of flames at night, especially McDowall's performance: they all come together for those last set of close-ups, the truly indelible sight of Caesar lit by hellish reds and contemplating all he has wrought, the unsteadiness of McDowall's eyes cutting productively against the grain of the story for one of the all-timer ambivalent endings, every word of his dialogue devoted to his triumph, while his eyesonly perhapscomprehending moral terror at what might come tomorrow of what was necessary tonight.

Score: 8/10


  1. I've known about the original ending since forever, but I've somehow missed that there was an entire uncut version of this movie. Interesting!

    I really, really like the idea of Lisa the chimp saying "No!" at the end, and I wish they could've properly refilmed the scene (or, more ideally, just came up with it in the first place) so everyone could calibrate their performances accordingly (she should be crying out "NO," for one, not just muttering it; everyone should also be visibly shocked by her ourburst) as well as give Caesar less obviously bullshit "um actually nevermind" 180-degree turnaround dialogue.

    1. I'm pretty sure the difference is pretty minimal as far as time goes, not like the not-as-pivotal-but-much-more-extensive cuts to Battle; besides the warp to the final seconds, I think it's just some of the sloppy blood. There's a crude but effective "gunshot to the face" close-up of one of the gorillas (I think), that's just tossing liquid at the mask, but I believe would've been a big offender on the "this is gonna get an R" thing.

      I don't mind the idea of Lisa quailing before the violence. Even though Breck tried to kill her (and succeeded gunning down several of her comrades) in his last free moments.

      I didn't mention it, but Breck ain't never heard of "hostages"?

  2. Man, Roddy McDowall AND Andy Serkis - Caesar really seems to be blessed from on high when it comes to Casting Calls.

    1. It does seem to bring out some career-defining performances, for whatever reason.