Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973, J Lee Thompson)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Where, when and what: The film starts in ‘North America, 2670 AD’. It’s an ape-run future, even though we’re still 1,300 years before the setting of the first movie in this series. A wise leader called Lawgiver (John Huston, gamely agreeing to wear an orangutan mask) is telling a story. As he talks, we see clips from Escape From… and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes; we’re also told that after those events there was the vilest war in human history. We then cut to a flashback, which takes up most of the movie. It’s set in the early 21st century. The DVD box set’s packaging claims it’s 2001 but a human character refers to ‘12 years of peace’ since the war that began in 1991, which would put this film at no earlier than 2003.

Humans: Living in the ape community of the noughties is MacDonald (Austin Stoker), whose brother was in the previous film, and Abe (Noah Keen), who’s teaching young apes about language and ethics. However, Abe causes tension when he says “No!” to a student: that’s a forbidden word because of its association with the apes’ slavery past. Later in the story we meet the human survivors of the war, who now live under the ruined remains of a major city and are riddled with ennui. Governor Kolp (Severn Darden) is angered when an ape scout party breaks into his domain so vows to wage war. We also learn that the governor we saw in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes has been killed.

Apes: Rather oddly, in the decade or so since rebelling against mankind, apes have developed speech, human-level intelligence and an entire culture. Darwin didn’t see that coming! Caesar is back from the previous film, again played by Roddy McDowall. (This was McDowall’s final Apes movie. He’s been terrific, playing two characters and conveying so much through his eyes, posture and voice.) Caesar leads a mission into the radioactive city of the humans to find film footage of his long-dead parents. Caesar’s wife Lisa (Natalie Trundy) and son Cornelius (Bobby Porter) get a subplot. The shit-stirrer of the group is the militaristic, pigheaded and easily riled General Aldo (Claude Atkins), who wants to take over as leader. Meanwhile, Virgil (Paul Williams) is the community’s wise old man – he spouts elaborate metaphors when trying to explain time paradoxes.

Review: While not being anything spectacular, this film nevertheless has a few things to commend it. It’s nicely structured, with a story that builds effectively and various plot strands that are weaved together nicely. Also, the two competing groups are interesting. The apes like to think they’re idealistic and liberal, but it’s an uneasy alliance with the humans who live among them and tension is never far from the surface – it’s far from an equal society. Meanwhile, over in the post-apocalyptic ruins, the listless humans are even more interesting. Sadly we don’t spend much time with them, but the writing, acting and production design are working well to sell a community well past the edge of coping. (Also, when they later drive across the desert to attack the apes, their convey is a fun precursor of Mad Max.) But the movie fails on a number of levels, not least the hackneyed dialogue. And while the battle itself is well staged – extras running everywhere! Explosions! – the director can’t disguise the fact the human force is about three people and a bus. It’s also unfortunate that two characters are clearly replacements: the story would pack more punch if the Governor and MacDonald were the same men as their equivalents in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

Six negative imperatives out of 10

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