On June 30, 1972, 20th Century Fox released the fourth film in the original Planet of the Apes cycle, titled Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. It followed up the previous year’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the first of the Apes films to deliberately end with the promise of a sequel. In that film, two intelligent chimps from the future, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter), traveled back to our time only to be brutally slain by the U.S. government over fears that they would plant the seeds for the apes’ eventual domination of humankind. Their baby, however, secretly survived, hidden away by the circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) and already beginning to form words.
As Conquest of the Planet of the Apes opens, Armando and the child ape, now grown and named Caesar (played by McDowall), arrive at an unnamed North American city. The year is 1991 and the U.S. government has turned totalitarian. A virus from space has destroyed all the world’s cats and dogs, leading humans to turn toward apes as first pets and then slaves. When Caesar expresses outrage at the cruel treatment of an ape by police, he’s forced to flee and hide — since he was officially declared dead 20 years earlier and his very existence is a threat to humanity.
Caesar makes his way to the ape training facilities and assimilates himself there, eventually going up for auction — where he is sold to the city’s ape-hating governor Breck (Don Murray) and placed under the command of Breck’s assistant MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), who is sympathetic to the plight of the apes. But when Armando is killed while in the government’s custody, an enraged Caesar begins to plot a revolution — slowly but surely organizing his fellow apes for a violent uprising that will be the first step toward the downfall of the human race.
By the time that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was in production, Apes producer Arthur P. Jacobs and his studio partner Fox were in truly uncharted territory. Even though Planet of the Apes (1968) was a critical success and a box office smash, sequels at the time were considered quick, disposable vehicles to milk a few more bucks out of the audience. Instead, what Jacobs did — aided by the inspired efforts of screenwriter Paul Dehn — was create an ongoing sci-fi story and intricate future history over the course of his Apes movies, the likes of which had never been attempted before in the genre.
Jacobs, however, was still up against the studio mindset that sequels had to cost less, so by the time he made Conquest the budget for the film was a third of the price of the original Planet of the Apes. He had a meager $1.7 million to visualize the ape revolution that had been discussed in the previous films, economizing by using the brand new Century City high-rise complex in Los Angeles as the exterior of the city of the future — but also skimping on the makeup budget, resulting in some clearly fake-looking ape masks.
Dehn’s third screenplay for the series, following Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and Escape from the Planet of the Apes, was the most explicitly political of the series. The previous Apes films had commented obliquely on race and other social issues, but against the backdrop of ongoing racial tensions in America, Dehn crafted a story that drew directly upon the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles for the imagery of his ape revolution. His screenplay was also the most violent of the franchise, initially ending in a bleak standoff that found Caesar ordering the cold-blooded execution of the sadistic Governor Breck and forecasting the complete subjugation of the human race.
To direct, Jacobs hired J. Lee Thompson (Cape Fear, The Guns of Navarone), who had been approached for Planet of the Apes but had to turn it down due to a previous commitment. Thompson was skilled at handling both large-scale action and low budgets, making him uniquely suited to the twin challenges of Conquest. He embraced the themes of Dehn’s screenplay with relish, giving a documentary quality to the third act’s scenes of revolution that was both realistic and unnerving in its ferocity.
As with all the Apes sequels, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes works on a very simplistic and often slapdash logic, a flaw evident in many key scenes of the film (how does Caesar, for example, know to fake being electrocuted? How does female ape Lisa magically acquire the power of speech?).
At the same time, however, Dehn’s screenplay is bolstered in a huge way by McDowall’s performance, perhaps the finest of his four in the series. His makeup similar to but also different from the appliances he wore as Cornelius, the actor makes Caesar’s transformation from frightened youth to fiery revolutionary leader believable and powerful. His climactic speech, in which he prophesizes that humanity will ultimately turn on itself and allow the apes to ascend in its place, is one of Dehn’s best pieces of writing and a haunting high point for the franchise.
That ending, as first conceived, proved controversial. The pitch-black original climax did not play well with test audiences already disturbed by the movie’s intense violence (which Thompson also trimmed to avoid a series-first R rating). With no time left for reshoots, the use of existing takes and dubbed dialogue by McDowall created a more optimistic ending, in which Caesar halts the murder of Breck and decides that it’s time for the apes to lay down their arms and find a way to live in peace with their former captors. While the idea that Caesar takes his first step toward being a true leader and not just a vengeful warrior is a sound one, the re-edited scene is clumsily handled: the timbre of McDowall’s voice is noticeably different on the new lines, and the scene uses just close-ups of his eyes or wide shots of him from a distance so that we can’t see that his mouth is not actually saying the added dialogue.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is a powerful film in either version (the original is available on the Blu-ray edition alongside the theatrical cut) and, despite its shortcomings, remains a riveting and frequently chilling entry. In depicting the events that launch the eventual ascendancy of the apes, it also brings the clever circular structure of the entire series dramatically into focus. The series’ 2011 reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, is a loose remake of Conquest (albeit with many different plot elements) and it’s easy to see why: the ape uprising is narratively and emotionally a strong starting point from which to retell this still unique and even eccentric saga.