Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
“They won’t learn to be kind until we force them to. We can’t do that until we are free… by the only means left to us. Revolution.” – Caesar
I had been doing a retrospective of the classic Planet of the Apes series on my home projector system as a nice way to introduce them to my pre-teen daughter, happily moving along with an Apes entry every week or so, when we reached a little past the halfway point of watching this, the fourth of the five entries, when things took a decided turn for the darker. While I was certainly intrigued, even a tolerant Papa like me had to admit it was perhaps a tad intense for the kiddo. In the years past, I had always seen Conquest on television and, while I knew it was cut somewhat for television, I didn’t know that what I was seeing was also a substantially more mainstream, studio-enforced version of the film. And what I was seeing now was an original unedited cut I didn’t even know existed. As the story goes, the studio previewed this unedited cut for a family audience hoping for a G rating and how they possibly thought they had a chance at this has got to one of the most unaccountably wrong-headed studio moves ever, as they ended up staring in horror at the slew of post-screening freaked-out children and unsettled parents, traumatized by the images of the brutalized and enslaved apes righteously revolting and slaughtering their human captors and realizing they were WAY off base in their perception of how the film would be greeted by an unsuspecting audience.
Along with being by far the darkest and toughest of the series, it’s also the best (and that’s saying something as the three preceding entries – Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Escape From the Planet of the Apes – even in their varied quality, have lots to offer, each in their own way) with perhaps its most admirable (and definitely its most daring) aspect being how easily the film’s underlying thematic underpinnings can be seen as championing, in no uncertain terms, the rising violence of the at-the-time current civil rights rebellions (though some film scholars seem to find a kind of anti-violent message in the ending scenes in this unedited cut, but I don’t see that at all… except perhaps in how the new Ape leader Caesar, having risen in blood and violence from the ranks of human-led slavery, does appear somewhat drunk with power as he orders those final violent actions — yet if that will ultimately manifest in anything destructive once the chaos has settled is unknown – in fact, if we go by the fifth weakest film of the series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, a fairly evolved peace has manifested from the violent uprising with a now benevolent Caesar as its ruler).
There are lots of recognizable character actor faces sprinkled about doing effective work and, of course, for anyone familiar with the original franchise, there aren’t enough props to dish out to master genre thespian Roddy McDowell as Caesar, the son of Cornelius (who McDowell already had played memorably in the first and third entries). With that final speech, McDowell’s theatrical background shines and he owns those brutal words, with Caesar calling for no quarter as he stands over the apes’ helpless human conquest. I had only previously seen that final speech having been recut to include words of compassion and forgiveness for their overthrown human captors… but seeing this original unedited cut that now concludes with the brutal beating to death of the governor… whoa. Just compare this with the recent series reboot, which starts with a loose Conquest remake Rise of the Planet of the Apes to see not only how neutered this new take is, but how explicitly and unequivocally it thematically sides with the preservation of the dominant status quo ideology (even as it shamelessly tries to present itself – through the ads and title — as some kind of ballsy revolutionary film). Nah. I call bullshit. Rise is powder-puff Pablum designed to comfort the status quo oppressors into seeing themselves as do-gooders. Conquest, on the other hand (well, more the unedited version, with that dark and scathing final speech), is the real deal; a powerfully political film disguised as harmless sci-fi/fantasy, openly calling for revolution by the oppressed.
It’s also interesting to note how cleverly the time travel conceits play out over the first four films, considering they were pretty much made as one-offs with little consideration of any successive film (though I guess it’s possible, with the concept of going back in time set up in the third one, a smart cookie studio exec or writer might have had eyes already on how to continue the saga if there would be a part four and set up proper time milestones). However it was done, this fourth film manages to bring around the (time) loop of the first film in a very satisfying way.