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Ape Management Part 5: Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

We have made it, at last, to the fifth and final film in the original Planet of the Apes series!  (Click here for my review of Planet of the Apes, here for my review of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, here for my review of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and here for my review of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.)

Though released only a year after 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, this final installment is set ten years after the events of that film.  In the intervening years, two key events have transpired: Caesar (Roddy McDowell)’s revolution of the apes has succeeded, and much of the planet has been laid waste by nuclear war.  The mute apes we saw in Conquest have now all gained the ability to speak (though whether this is due to education by Caesar and friendly humans, or to mutation from the nuclear radiation, is never clarified).  In a fairly primitive, jungle village, we see apes and humans living together, though tensions between the two species continue to run high.  A gorilla general named Aldo opposes Caesar’s wish for peaceful co-habitation and plots to kill all of the humans and take control of the ape society.  Caesar, meanwhile, is distracted by a quest to learn about his parents (the deceased Cornelius and Zira) by traveling into the radioactive Forbidden Zone and accessing the video-tape archives stored there.  Will Caesar and his new society be undone by the violent gorillas, or by the mutated remnants of human society living in the Forbidden Zone?

After the society-shattering events of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Battle for the Planet of the Apes seems fairly small in scale.  This is the cheapest-looking of the five original Apes films.  I can imagine that, by this point, the law of diminishing returns had set in, and this film probably had a smaller budget than its predecessors.  Battle also tells, to me, a far less interesting story than did Conquest. Whereas Conquest of the Planet of the Apes still stands today as a pretty shocking, envelope-pushing film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes covers pretty familiar ground: tension between the different species of apes, danger from radioactive mutants, and a few peaceful apes and humans who just want to find a way to get along.

That’s not to say that Battle for the Planet of the Apes is entirely without merit.  The film still boasts an admirable willingness to address some interesting, thorny issues in the way that the very best science fiction does: by presenting real-world issues in a different setting, the better to make a point about those issues.  There’s a fascinating sequence early in the film in which a human teaching a group of apes to write gets angry at a belligerent ape student and says “No” to that ape.  The other apes react with horror, as that word has been forbidden for humans to say to apes (since, when the apes were slaves to the humans in film four, that was the word the human masters used to train and control the apes).  Both in 1973, when this film was made, and even today, the issue of what words some people are allowed by society to say while others are not, and the way that context can dramatically affect the acceptability of certain words or phrases, remain hot-button topics.  That all of the original Planet of the Apes films include social commentary of this sort is part, I think, of why these often-silly films have continued to endure.

Roddy McDowell turns in his final Apes performance, here, as Caesar.  Mr. McDowell is great at always, able to bring a surprising amount of humanity to his character, even through all of the hairy plastic make-up.  I do think, though, that the Caesar of Battle for the Planet of the Apes is the least-interesting of all of Mr. McDowell’s ape characters.  Cornelius had a sharp intelligence and wit that seems to be absent from Caesar, and the peace-loving Caesar in this film seems to me to be a far cry from the young, angry, revolutionary Caesar we saw in Conquest. This Caesar is actually a bit of a dope, mostly blind to all of the human-ape tension that is about to split his little forest-dwelling utopia wide open.  This is an issue of the script, not Mr. McDowell’s performance, but it is, I think, a key reason why I find Battle for the Planet of the Apes to be one of the least-interesting of the original Apes films.  When your lead character is a milquetoast bore, it’s hard for the audience to get involved in the story.

Each time I watch this film, I find myself much more interested in “the lawgiver,” the ape leader played by the great John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of Sierre Madre, the African Queen) in the prologue and epilogue that frame the film.  I’d like to know more about that character!  (I also wonder just how the heck the filmmakers got John Huston to appear, under ape make-up, in this film.  Did he lose a bet to someone?)

It’s also interesting to see the musician and actor Paul Williams (he wrote The Rainbow Connection!) in the role of the brilliant ape Virgil, though this character is one of the more perplexing aspects of the film.  How any ape was able to progress from a mute servant to a loquacious genius in ten years is beyond me.  I always thought the implication of the first film was that the apes were mutated by the radioactive war that decimated Earth, and that is what enabled them to gain increased intelligence and eventually become the dominant species on the planet.  Conquest of the Planet of the Apes seemed to imply something different: that it was Caesar’s presence (the child of intelligent apes from the future) that lead, eventually, to the apes gaining intelligence and overthrowing man.  Battle for the Planet of the Apes seems to want to have things both ways, allowing the audience to draw whatever conclusions we’d like.  Not answering this key question is bothersome to me, and I think the presence of a brilliant ape like Virgil undermines any reality the filmmakers were trying to bring to the story being told.  (Yes, I realize “reality” is a silly word to use when discussing a film about talking apes, but it was the very this-could-happen reality, in the age of nuclear weapons, that gave the original Planet of the Apes film its power.)

There are plenty other wonderfully silly aspects to Battle for the Planet of the Apes.  Are we not supposed to notice that the role of MacDonald has been re-cast?  (This African-American character was played by Hari Rhodes in Conquest, and by Austin Stoker here in Battle.)  There’s one throw-away line that says something about this MacDonald being the younger brother of the other MacDonald, but the role was clearly written to be the same character.

My very favorite aspect of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, though, the thing that makes me howl with glee every time I watch this film, is the audacious number of times the filmmakers used the same shot of a tree-house exploding during the film’s climactic battle.  Go on, count the number of times that shot is re-used, I dare you.  (I double-dare you to have a drink each time that shot appears, as my friends and I are wont to do.)  Remember what I said before about this film feeling like the cheapest of the Apes films?  Case closed.

But, as with all the Apes films, I find these weaknesses to be so endearing that they don’t really dilute my enjoyment.  Yes, I think Battle for the Planet of the Apes, along with Escape from the Planet of the Apes, are the two least-interesting films of the series.  But I still love these films to death, and there’s something geekily wonderful about the full-circle ending of this film.  The epilogue with the lawgiver is deliciously ambiguous.  Have these last three Apes films shown us how the world seen in the original Planet of the Apes came to be?  Or have the events of these last three films changed the future/history, and in the epilogue to Battle for the Planet of the Apes are we seeing a better world than that seen in the original film?  Is this now a society where humans and apes coexist in peace?  I love that the film’s ending leaves room for audiences to debate both possibilities.  (I also love the decidedly UN-ambigious, religiously-loaded final shot of the statue weeping.  It’s so on-the-nose that it always makes me laugh.)

The original Planet of the Apes is, without question, a good movie, and an important one.  I’m not sure the same can be said of any of the four original sequels, but I love them all the more despite (or maybe because) of that.  These four sequels are more pulpy, silly fun than the original, and they possess a cheesy joie de vivre even at their very darkest (the massacres at the end of Battle come to mind).  I’ve watched each of these films many times, and I am sure I will continue to revisit them many times more in the future.

I do have one more Apes film to write about.  For the first time since seeing it in theatres back in 2001, I recently watched Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes “reimagining.”  I’ll have my thoughts on that film next week and then, of course, my review of the latest Apes film: Rise of the Silver Surfer, no, sorry, I mean Rise of Cobra, no, wait, that’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Got it.  See you then!

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