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Ape Management Part 4: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

I’m entering the home stretch of my journey back through the Planet of the Apes film, as I’ve just taken in the fourth installment: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes! Click here for my thoughts on Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and Escape From the Planet of the Apes.

After the silliness of Escape From the Planet of the Apes, this fourth Apes film shifts back into serious mode.  VERY serious.  Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is, I think, by far the most grim and down-beat of all five original Apes films.

Which is not to say it isn’t also chock full of silly and ridiculous things.  Like the incident, at the start of the film, which sets the whole movie’s events in motion.  Kindly Armando (Ricardo Montalban) has secretly been raising Milo (who has choosen the name Caesar), the child of Cornelius and Zira.  All is well.  That is, until Armando decides, for no reason that I can fathom, to take Caesar right into the middle of a large human city.  Here, we see that in the years since the last film, mankind has begun to domesticate and enslave apes, forcing them to serve a servants and menial laborers.  Caesar is, of course, horrified by what he sees.  He promptly stirs up trouble, and finds himself on the run while Armando is arrested.  But why oh why did Armando take him on his little tour of the big city filled with enslaved apes, in the first place???  It boggles my mind.

Anyways, after a lengthy opening sequence that shows us all the horrible things the humans are doing to the apes, we follow Caesar as he finds himself mistaken for an ordinary ape and treated just like all the others.  But Caesar quickly gains control of the situation, and begins fomenting a revolution of all the apes, urging them to rise up and overthrow their human masters.

The film ends with a lengthy, violent sequence as we witness the fateful night that Caesar leads the apes in their successful revolution.  It’s a pretty shocking climax to the film.  The movie doesn’t pull any punches in depicting both the vast number of apes who are killed by the fearful humans, as well as the way many humans are brutally murdered by the throngs of rampaging apes.  We’re a long way from the scenes of Apes going shopping and sipping grape-juice plus in Escape From the Planet of the Apes! All of these films have had tragic endings, but I think this ending is the most brutal one of the whole series.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is a pretty short film.  The narrative is simple — Caesar is captured, plots rebellion, and then leads the apes into a revolution.  The film is lean and mean, and I quite respect its economy of storytelling.  (Though I recognize that the lengthy series of scenes in “Ape Management” might disqualify this film from being able to be described as possessing an “economy of storytelling”…)  I also love how dark and grim the film is.  I respect the filmmakers from not shying away from the promise suggested by the previous movie, that these later sequels would complete the story by showing us just how the apes came to dominate man on the Planet of the Apes.

But while the film is unremittingly bleak, I always find it a hoot to watch!  As I wrote above, it’s still chock-full of all manner of silliness, whether that be the weird brain-sucking machine the goons threaten Armando with, the “Ape Management” t-shirts worn by the men assigned to train and domesticate the apes, the over-the-top villainy of Breck (what a great name for a bad-guy), Caesar’s trip to the breeding room, and so much more.  For all of those reasons, and so many more, I think Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is my favorite of the four sequels to the original Planet of the Apes.  It’s a surprisingly tough, brutal film wedged in the middle of this fairly silly film series, it’s a wonderful showcase for Roddy McDowell (who played Cornelius and who now plays Caesar), and I dig it mightily.

(I’m very curious to see how this summer’s new Apes film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes — which seems to be a re-make of this fourth Apes film — compares to the original.  We’ll know in just a few short weeks!)

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