How Battle for the Planet of the Apes Ended a Franchise

The final film in the original series left the Apes saga with a disappointing ending…or was it a new beginning?

During filming of 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, it was already known that there would be a fifth film in the series — and that Number Five would be the closing chapter. Producer Arthur P. Jacobs wanted the last movie to be more family-friendly than the decidedly dark and violent Conquest, which had narrowly escaped earning the franchise its first “R” rating. Meanwhile, returning screenwriter Paul Dehn — tasked with penning his fourth Apes tale — saw an opportunity to bring the story full circle and introduce elements that would plant the seeds of both the ape and human civilizations of the far future as chronicled in Planet of the Apes (1968) and Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970).

While both men sort of got their wishes, it’s likely that the resulting film didn’t turn out to be the grand finale they might have hoped for. Battle for the Planet of the Apes is almost universally regarded as the worst of the original five Apes films, a tired, perfunctory affair that wants badly to tie the entire series together but can only fleetingly do so thanks to an unfocused (if still intelligent) script and a budget so low that it made even the relatively inexpensive Conquest look like an epic. It does benefit from a good cast led once again by the reliable Roddy McDowall, but you can tell from watching the production (reported to have cost as little as $1.2 million) that the franchise was running on fumes.

Dehn’s initial treatment (called The Battle for the Planet of the Apes), completed before illness prevented him from writing the screenplay, was wildly ambitious and, in typical Dehn fashion, nearly as dark and cynical in tenor as his previous outings. It begins 13 years after the events of Conquest, with Caesar and the apes (who can now all speak) living in the futuristic city of the previous film. Apes control most of the world that they know of, with pockets of human resistance scattered up north. The humans that live now under Caesar’s people are little more than slaves.

Although Caesar is absolute ruler, he is advised by a council led by pacifist chimp Pan, wise orangutan Zeno, and war-like gorilla Aldo. The latter wants all the remaining humans killed, while Pan advocates equality for all. The only human allowed in their meetings, MacDonald — the same man who rescued Caesar in Conquest — doesn’t get to voice his opinion. All these deliberations, however, are rendered moot when they receive a message from a human leader from the north named Nimrod: free all the humans or a plane will drop a nuclear bomb on the city and eradicate the apes.

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The rest of Dehn’s treatment is summarized as a rollercoaster of violence, betrayal and warfare that includes the apes evacuating the city and the actual dropping of the bomb. The former leads to the construction of what will eventually become the Ape City seen in the earlier films while the latter creates the beginnings of the human mutant society seen in Beneath. Nimrod turns out to be a man named Mendez — the first in the mutant dynasty — while Zeno ends up becoming the fabled Lawgiver revered by the apes of the future. And oh yes, Caesar’s wife Lisa is poisoned after giving birth to their son, while MacDonald and Caesar himself are shot dead by a vengeful Aldo.

All this carnage, along with the onscreen death of the beloved Caesar character, threw both Jacobs and 20th Century Fox for a loop, so with Dehn sidelined by his malady, the husband and wife team of John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington (The Omega Man) were hired to take over the screenplay (although Dehn did return to take a pass at the Corringtons’ script as well). Their mandate was to lighten the tone and streamline the story, since Dehn’s concept was clearly too large to be produced for the kind of money that 20th Century Fox was willing to spend.

Throwing out a lot of what Dehn had conceived, the Corringtons came up with a story that took place 12 years after Conquest. Human civilization has largely destroyed itself in a nuclear war, although whether that war was precipitated by the ape revolution is never made clear. Caesar rules over an early treehouse-heavy version of Ape City, mainly agricultural, where apes and human live more or less in peace — although humans are clearly second-class citizens. A faction of gorilla soldiers led by General Aldo is also conspiring to overthrow Caesar.

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When MacDonald hints at recordings of Caesar’s parents, Cornelius and Zira, buried in the nearby ruins of the city that was the setting of Conquest, Caesar decides to visit the seemingly dead metropolis and glean what he can about the future from the tapes. He, MacDonald and trusted orangutan adviser Virgil discover that the city is populated by mutated human survivors led by Kolp, a one-time assistant to the late Governor Breck. A vengeance-seeking Kolp assembles a ragtag army to find and destroy Ape City, which comes under attack just as Caesar grieves over the death of his son, killed by Aldo after overhearing the plot to murder his father.

The story ends with Aldo dead at Caesar’s hands, the mutant army defeated, and Caesar agreeing that humans and apes will now begin to live together in equality and harmony. Although he hopes that his actions will prevent the eventual destruction of Earth as seen in Beneath, a final shot of ape and human children listening to the Lawgiver together reveals them sitting beneath a statue of Caesar, now 600 years dead, as a single, ambiguous tear falls down his cheek. (Scenes cut from the original film and restored for its DVD and Blu-ray editions include the appearance of the Alpha-Omega bomb and the first member of the mutant Mendez dynasty, confirming that the human remnants shown in Battle are the ancestors of the telepathic, skinless mutants of Beneath.)

Filming began in January 1973 and lasted for 43 days under the direction of J. Lee Thompson, returning after his work on Conquest and — until Matt Reeves — the only director to helm two Apes movies. Thompson knew he was facing serious challenges with the budget he had: for example, forced to use only a few dozen extras on each side to represent the ape society and the mutant army, he utilized a lot of close-ups to hide the meager number of actors. Locations were kept mainly to the Fox ranch and a water treatment plant that doubled as the ruined city.

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At least he had a solid cast to work with. Joining series standard-bearer McDowall in his second go-round as Caesar was notable character actors Claude Akins as Aldo and Lew Ayres as Mandemus, keeper of the ape armory. Natalie Trundy returned as Lisa, Caesar’s wife, tying McDowall for the most appearances (four) in the franchise. Although the original script included Governor Breck and the MacDonald character from Conquest, neither Don Murray nor Hari Rhodes were available. Breck’s role was rewritten for Kolp (Severn Darden) while Austin Stoker stepped in as the original MacDonald’s brother. The two most interesting casting choices were pop songwriter/singer Paul Williams (Phantom of the Paradise) as Virgil and legendary director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) as the Lawgiver.

Battle was released on June 15, 1973 with a running time of 92 minutes. To promote the release of the film — which was being touted as the final Apes adventure — Fox staged a series of “Go Ape!” marathons in cities across the country where fans could watch all five entries culminating in a first viewing of Battle. While critics were not kind to the movie (Roger Ebert called it “the last gasp of a dying series”), it did well enough at the box office for Jacobs to briefly consider a sixth film before dropping the idea. (Jacobs, who wanted to produce other films besides Planet of the Apes movies, died from a heart attack at age 51 just three weeks after Battle opened.)

20th Century Fox went on to produce a short-lived Planet of the Apes TV series in 1974 for CBS, which lasted just 14 episodes. After that the series went dormant (with the exception of video games and comics) until 2001’s ill-fated remake directed by Tim Burton. Another decade of silence ensued, until the franchise was rebooted in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (directed by Rupert Wyatt), followed by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014 and now War for the Planet of the Apes in 2017, both directed by Matt Reeves.

None of the new Apes films are remakes in the strictest sense, but they do borrow elements and loose narrative frameworks from the older pictures. While Rise was a cousin of Conquest, both Dawn and War share aspects of Battle in their premises and conflicts. So even though Battle for the Planet of the Apes remains the weakest of the original five films, there were still enough interesting ideas in its basic story — and the same kind of moral and sociopolitical issues raised — to spark the imaginations of the filmmakers who brought the franchise back to such acclaim these past few years. Battle for the Planet of the Apes may have been the end, but in a way, it was also the beginning.