The Lives of the Caesars (Part One)
Hello again, and welcome to another edition of the long-running series of puns (occasionally with attached film reviews) which is currently living in anticipation of a gift made out of tin. Alas, the demands of real life have caught up with me in earnest, preventing me from writing about or even seeing Super 8 or Arrietty, two movies I had been rather looking forward to. However, looking on the bright side, this return to the golden oldie slot allows me to continue our recent semi-regular browse through the original Planet of the Apes franchise.
Constant readers may recall the fulsome praise I recently lavished upon the 1971 instalment Escape from the Planet of the Apes, but unfortunately I cannot be so generous about J Lee Thompson's follow up from the very next year, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. However, it is a film not without numerous points of interest: permit me to explain.
In defiance of ever-dwindling budgets, this film finds the ongoing story jumping forward to the ominously near-future year of 1991, and an America transformed. Viral plague in the year 1983 has wiped out most household pets and the monkeys originally used as substitutes have in turn been replaced by full-sized apes – chimps, gorillas and orang-utans. The apes occupy the lowest position in a society basically dependent on slave labour to function. The slave apes are horribly mistreated and kept in line by brutal police in jackboots – hell, the police are basically wearing Gestapo uniforms. Whatever virtues this film has, subtlety is not amongst them.
Arriving in a grey and impersonal Los Angeles are circus owner Armando and his ape ward Caesar, played by Ricardo Montalban and Roddy McDowell respectively. They have a dreadful secret, which they nevertheless share with the audience with unseemly haste and via some painfully obvious expository dialogue – alone amongst apes, Caesar has the power of speech, the result of his parents being time-travellers from the ape-dominated 40th century. This faculty would lead to his death were the authorities to learn of it, but just so he understands how awful everything has become Armando has decided to show him a city for the first time. Good plan, Armando. That's what I'd do. Yeah.
Caesar inevitably loses his cool after being confronted by endless scenes of his brethren being exploited and abused, and draws the attention of the police. Armando surrenders to the cops to cover for Caesar, who infiltrates a shipment of apes arriving for slave conditioning and finds himself the property of the tyrannical governor Breck (Don Murray). Although some of the other humans are sympathetic to the plight of the apes, most notably Breck's aide MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), the news of Armando's death in police custody causes Caesar to vow a terrible revenge against the human civilisation, and he sets about fomenting revolution amongst the apes...
Well, where does one start with this movie? In many ways this is a turning point for the whole franchise, most obviously in that the three previous movies were all genuinely good and possibly even great, while this movie and (to date) everything that's followed it have all been to some degree disappointing. But it's also the case that this film is the first to be based solely around writer Paul Dehn's own characters and ideas rather than those of Pierre Boulle or Rod Serling. Given that Dehn also wrote the previous two movies, you wouldn't really expect this to be a problem, but where they were interesting because of their scripts, this one is somehow interesting in spite of it.
Possibly it was just Dehn's misfortune to be writing this, arguably the key movie in the sequence, at a time when the budget cuts were really starting to bite – down to less than $2 million, only a third of that of the original movie. The film has to introduce and sell to the audience a radically-transformed version of American society, a new set of characters, the politicisation of the protagonist, and then an apocalyptic rebellion with epic scenes of violent struggle – and do it all very cheaply and within an 88 minute running time.
As a result the film does seem very rushed and struggles to make all of its ideas really convincing. All the structures of control and slavery we see in this movie have supposedly evolved within only eight years? Hmm. Caesar also only spends about five minutes setting up his revolt (which involves such terrifying acts of sedition as spreading shoe polish on unsuspecting people's socks) before the secret police track him down (rather easily). Most seriously of all, this is a corny and melodramatic film where nearly every character in the film is a cipher, with but a single trait which they endlessly exhibit, and their behaviour is dictated by the demands of the plot rather than their personalities. The main villain here, Breck, is a cartoon, with nothing like the depth or borderline-sympathy of Hasslein in the previous film. To be fair, Roddy McDowell does his very best with a part that requires him to be mute for large sections of the film, and Caesar's personal journey is not entirely unconvincing. Hari Rhodes, as the sympathetic human, has to project 'decency' a lot and actually does it rather well.
That said, if we're going to talk about Rhodes' character, then we have to talk about the politics of this film, which takes us into some odd and slightly uneasy territory. At this point when talking about Conquest I usually mention the South Africa episode of The Goodies. You what? I hear you ask. Well, in South Africa three well-meaning and intelligent guys set out to express their abhorrence of racial prejudice and apartheid, which is fair enough, but do so by putting on blackface make-up and affecting 'yassuh boss' accents, which to a modern viewer surely seems incredibly racist in its own right.
In the same way, it's very clear that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is in some way trying to say things about America's own history and the Civil Rights movement. It's surely not a coincidence that Caesar's only human ally at the end of the film is black – at one point another character suggests it's only to be expected that MacDonald be sympathetic to the apes – and parallels are made more than once between the ape struggle for freedom and that of African Americans in the past.
So the film is pro-civil rights, which is great, but at the same time it's making an allegory in which the role of black Americans is played by apes. Something about that just makes me extremely uncomfortable – although this may just be my own liberal oversensitiveness, as this film was apparently a huge hit with coloured audiences, many of whom apparently saw it as a fictionalised retelling of some of the race riots which plagued America in the late 1960s.
By the end, of course, one is in the uniquely science-fictional position of rooting for a protagonist whose goal is to bring about the end of civilisation, more-or-less as we know it. The climax sees Caesar addressing MacDonald in the heart of a burning city, with Breck in shackles and at the mercy of a mob of club-wielding apes. Caesar, in the grip of a strangely triumphant rage, prophesies the day when the dominion of man will end and the apes will dominate the Earth, concluding '...and that day is upon you now!' The apes set about beating Breck to death, the film cuts back to a striking wideshot of apes silhouetted in the fires of rebellion, Jerry Goldsmith's original score crashes in, and one is left in no doubt as to how this will all end: in the twisted world Charlton Heston will crashland in in the original movie.
However – and this may be the single most glaring problem with this movie – this probably isn't the climax you'll have seen. It tested very negatively with the young audience who were the main fans of the franchise at this point and so a horribly obvious and mealy-mouthed alternative was contrived, where Breck is spared and Roddy McDowell provides a new dialogue-track (dubbed over the original closeup, reframed to exclude his mouth) where he declares the apes will be humane and compassionate towards the humans they are violently overthrowing. Er, what? At which point we're back to the wide-shot of the burning city and Goldsmith's music, which both now seem rather incongruous. While this version does conclude with the killer line 'Tonight we have seen the birth of the planet of the apes!' on the whole I really prefer the uncompromising, unreleased ending.
(I suppose I could also grumble about the way the film fudges the issue of what ultimately causes the collapse of the human civilisation – is it an ape uprising, as the previous film and most of this one has led us to believe? Or is it a nuclear war, as the first two films and some dialogue in the climax here strongly implies? Does the former cause the latter? As I say, it's a fudge, but then the continuity between these films is almost always ropey.)
It was all downhill from here, anyway, with Paul Dehn's ideas for the fifth and final movie judged too dark and uncompromising and the assignment being given to other writers. Hamstrung by budgetary and narrative concerns it may be, but Conquest of the Planet of the Apes still has got just enough going on to make it interesting to watch – it's much more obviously an example of unfulfilled potential than any of the other films in the series. In fact, if I were going to remake a Planet of the Apes film with a blockbuster budget and modern special effects, then... oh, hang on...