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

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972, J Lee Thompson)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Where, when and what: Eighteen years have passed since Escape From the Planet of the Apes – ie, it’s now a 1970s vision of what 1991 might be like – but we’re still in the United States. The action mostly takes place in an unidentified city with Brutalist architecture and big blue skies. It seems to be a police state, with Tannoy announcements about potential crimes and fascist cops prowling the concrete city centre. Its military control rooms, meanwhile, look like the Death Star from Star Wars. We’re told that, in 1983, a disease killed off all the world’s cats and dogs. Because humanity couldn’t cope without domestic pets, apes were kept instead. However, people then started giving them chores to perform…

Humans: Armando the circus owner (Ricardo Montalbán) is back from the previous film and is still secretly looking after Caesar, the child of intelligent apes from the future. After being intimidated and tortured by the suspicious authorities, Armando is killed while trying to flee… Meanwhile, the city is being run by the cruel and arrogant Governor Breck (Don Murray), who desperately wants to prevent any ape uprising. His advisor MacDonald (Hari Rhodes) is a kinder, more levelheaded man. Tasked with finding Caeser, he actually helps the ape escape, then counsels peace once a revolution begins.

Apes: Milo, the ape born at the end of the previous movie, is now 18 years old – and has been renamed Caesar. (He’s played by Roddy McDowall, who of course played the character’s father in earlier films.) When he and Armando arrive in the nameless city, Caesar is told the backstory about the cats and dogs: it seems the news of the devastating worldwide epidemic didn’t reach the circus. However, seeing an ape being mistreated by the police, Caesar can’t resist shouting out in protest and revealing that he can talk. With the cops now looking for him, he hides in a cage with other apes but ends up a facility where the authorities carry out bizarre tortures and experiments on primates. Caesar is then auctioned off like a slave – Breck, who suspects Caesar is the ape they’re all looking for, bids $1,500 and wins. Caesar soon begins a rebellion by inciting the other apes to disobey their masters and generally cause chaos. Eventually, the rebels square off against the military – both are armed and there’s a battle. Caesar’s side is victorious and he gives a rousing speech about the apes’ liberated future. (Then, in further dialogue added during post-production, concedes that not all humans are evil so maybe we should all just try to get along, okay?) They only other ape character of note is Lisa, who catches Caesar’s eye then is later the first ape other than Caesar to speak. She shouts, “No!” during the rebellion. Lisa is played by Natalie Trundy, who was married to the producer and played other roles in this series.

Review: This film builds its world better than it tells a story. The opening sequences, for example, have some great visual moments and little vignettes to explain the society of 1991. But things soon get quite boring. It doesn’t help that lead character Caesar has to pretend to be mute for so long – and then mostly hangs out with non-speaking apes. The actual moment where he begins his rabble-rousing is actually skipped over, presumably because it would be an odd thing to dramatise. (How does he convey his revolutionary ideas to apes who don’t understand English?) The last half hour is then action-heavy and has little to do with character or storytelling. Also, the film is generally more heavy-handed than the earlier entries in the series. The obvious analogy with slavery, for example, is made explicit a couple of times: we’re told that black character MacDonald “above all others” should understand that the apes are being mistreated. Not awful but not great.

Five lousy human bastards out of 10