Saturday 17 March 2018

Your Move, Darwin #4: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

It’s really nice to know that people read and appreciate your writing. So, for example, Mark Talbot-Butler, who is admin at The Official Planet of the Apes Universe group on Facebook, very kindly sent me the Director’s Cut of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes this week, on the grounds that if I was going to write about this particular Planet of the Apes movie, I needed to see the Director’s Cut, and while I’ll go into why later on, the takeaway is that Mark was absolutely right, and his generosity has made this is a better essay, and the film has risen in my estimation.

So. Thanks, Mark.

We’re now moving into the Planet of the Apes films that I have only seen as an adult, and apart from a brief, partial return to my childhood with the TV series, this will be the way of things now, the examination of things that do not for me have that blur of nostalgia around them that those first three movies have. And the first time I saw Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, in about 2010, I wasn’t very impressed. And I think my main issue was the ending; it didn’t ring true. Anyway, I was wrong. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is is an excellent film. It is entirely as exciting and disturbing and bonkers as any of the three previous films, and perhaps this time also a bit problematic.
Fascist dystopias are always better with jackboots.
Once more, Paul “Goldfinger” Dehn wrote the script, and directorial duties are filled by J. Lee Thompson, who gave us Ice Cold in Alex and The Guns of Navarone, and who, more relevantly for me, was the last man standing in the production of Eye of the Devil. The direction is phenomenal here, but given how much better the look of Conquest for the Planet of the Apes is compared to Battle for the Planet of the Apes, also directed by Thompson, I’m inclined to give some of that credit to director of photography Bruce Surtees, who worked on Dirty Harry and Sudden Impact, which, strange as it might seem, share some visual common ground with Conquest.

The early scenes, where we navigate an ape-staffed fascist dystopia, a very 1970s version of 1991 with loudspeakers and jackbooted fascists and uniformed ape slaves, have a shaky, jagged conviction to them, a grittiness, as weird as that sounds. The film never quite lets you laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation, and the end of the film takes a small location, a modest cast and a truncated budget and still manages to look like a wild pitched battle between armies of black-clad fascist cops and hordes of rioting apes. The camerawork throughout the film is extraordinary, and every shot, every cut, works; musical cues are kept to a minimum – many pivotal scenes have no extradiegetic soundtrack at all. The film still has a whimsy to it, but this is the grimmest of the original Planet of the Apes films, the darkest. At any point throughout the film, the whole setup could easily descend into farce, but Conquest of the Planet of the Apes takes its premise with such complete seriousness that the viewer does too, and while there are occasions where the apes are comical, at no point is the treatment they receive presented as anything other than appalling.

In Planet of the Apes, the original film, humans were used in the place of animals, and the animal rights theme in that film comes across through the mistreatment of these people. Here, it’s direct cruelty to animals, and more than that, animals who are in the process of becoming people (as opposed to people who have regressed to the state of animal). And the scenes of the apes being electrocuted, brutalised, tortured and violated in other, less obviously physical ways are as queasy as they should be; when the tables turn, they turn with the logic of revolution.
Brutalised, tortured, violated.
It is sort of obvious to suggest that you could sum up a straightforward take on Conquest of the Planet of the Apes with the phrase “Ape Lives Matter”, so obvious that it nearly obscures how unbelievably crass that line is. Yeah, OK, there are people who have the right to make that joke, and I'm really not one of them.

Still, even making that point demonstrates, I think, why, out of the Planet of the Apes films, this is the one that is the most politically charged (and let's face it, that's no mean feat). After all, this is the one that works the hardest to draw parallels with issues of racial inequality, and with slavery. And racism has been a theme of the Planet of the Apes films right from the beginning, but what Conquest of the Planet of the Apes does is explicitly align the apes’ struggle with the real life civil rights struggle of Black Americans. And that's deeply uncomfortable.

And it's clear right from the very beginning. In the opening scenes we see Armando (Ricardo Montalban, once more), leading Caesar, the son of Cornelius and Zira (and bearing enough of a resemblance to his dad that he can be played by Roddy McDowall) through this new world. Caesar has been sheltered from the horrors of the wider world, in the circus, and this gives Armando the job of explaining to Caesar what happened: the plague on dogs and cats that Cornelius mentioned in Escape from the Planet of the Apes has happened now, and they're all dead. People started using monkeys as pets, and then they started training up chimps and gorillas, and the occasional orangutan, and then people got weird about this and started treating the apes really badly, like they're slaves.

Caesar understands; and then changes the game in the same way that Zira did, and Taylor did before her, by speaking at a time and place where speech is unexpected. 
Caesar: Lousy human bastards!
The act of speaking out of turn, of someone who should not speak making utterance, is a recurring theme in the Planet of the Apes series, and it’s the moments when this happens that the entire status quo of the world upends. Everything from this point tends towards chaos.

Caesar, seeing an ape brutalised, cries out. Armando tries to cover for Caesar; Caesar makes a run for it; they’re separated. Armando gets arrested and Caesar, playing dumb, winds up in the system, about to be trained and sold, and along the way, Caesar keeps meeting and develops a relationship with a chimp called Lisa, which is where we meet Natalie Trundy once more, who is always worth a mention.
Natalie Trundy doesn't get enough respect. Have I mentioned that?
If the first act of the film is uncomfortable, harrowing, the second act is even more distressing. We see the way the apes are trained to obey, brutally, and while there’s some comedy here, it’s bleak, cynical, and it never breaks the sense that something is wrong. We also get an inkling here of the fate of humanity, since the processes they’re put through – which includes a sort of neural “conditioning “ – makes the apes smarter. Caesar is an inheritor of the process of Darwinian acceleration that these apes are undergoing. In making them better slaves, the human race is turning the apes into people, and it has perhaps subconsciously dawned upon the human race that this is dangerous, and what you get is a society that has raised the apes to the status of second-class citizens, but which is at the same time obsessed with keeping them there to such an extent that they become the focus of that society.

And obviously what we’re talking about is the USA, a country that fought a civil war entirely because a sector of the nation wanted to maintain a model of society that looked very, very like that.
Yes, it actually says, IN MEMORIAM: ROVER. Seriously, the balls of this film.
And again, this is why I’m here, writing about the Planet of the Apes movies, because while cinematic history is full of films and film series that make less and less sense the more you think about them, the best entries of the Planet of the Apes series have consistently pulled hard in the opposite direction. What looks like a daft premise, albeit one presented with monomaniacal conviction, winds up making perfect sense because it’s happened before; it works not so much because of the science fictional rationale, but because of the shape of the society that this science fiction premise has taken.

Really good science fiction presents us with the shape of things. It presents worlds that might appear topsy-turvy but which are in fact imbued with truth. And Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, like Planet of the Apes and Escape from the Planet of the Apes (and OK, yeah, Beneath the Planet of the Apes too), says things that are true.

But the true things that this film presents are where we start to get into troubling places.

Armando falls foul of Governor Breck (Don Murray) and corrupt police chief Kolp (Severn Darden), ultimately fatally. He ends up committing suicide rather than betray Caesar. Meanwhile, Caesar, hiding in the system, ends up bought for work in the same Governor’s office.

Caesar’s purchaser, acting on Breck’s behalf, is the governor’s assistant MacDonald (Hari Rhodes). And MacDonald is pitched from his very first appearance as someone who is appalled by the cruelty.
Cop 1: Who the hell’s that?
Cop 2: Take it easy. That’s MacDonald. The Governor’s number one assistant.
Cop 1: What’s the matter with him, he love apes or something?
Cop 2: Don’t it figure?
That is, what they're referencing is that he’s Black, the script is saying, and that’s reason enough, and even if apes are the slaves now, the cops are still racist.

It’s MacDonald to whom Caesar reveals himself, and MacDonald who protects Caesar from Breck and Kolp, saves Caesar’s life and makes it possible for Caesar to escape. And here’s the thing, without an Armando to teach Caesar right and wrong adequately enough for him to be disappointed and outraged at the shape of society, without a MacDonald to show solidarity to the apes rather than the (white) humans Caesar would not start the revolution.

And Caesar does, he organises the apes almost as soon as he has the chance, initially inciting the apes he meets to small acts of rebellion, and then quickly to the stockpiling of arms. So even though he’s caught and exposed, when MacDonald not just refuses to stop him but offers solidarity and support, it’s curtains for the human race.

MacDonald’s solidarity – and it’s explicit that as a self-proclaimed “descendant of slaves” he’s on the apes’ side – is the bit where the metaphor threatens to drag the film off the rails.

Because we’re equating Black people and apes.

And the big confrontation at the end is deliberately reminiscent of the race riots of the 1960s. And again, we’re equating Black people with apes.

And the apes are called out as people, and slaves, and we’re equating Black people with apes, and they’re still apes.

OK, listen. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is a thing of its time, and it is a great movie. It is tremendous. It is well made, well scripted and well acted. It creates a world with consistent rules that it sticks to. And this is a movie that is trying the absolute hardest it possibly can to be the exact opposite of racist. It is a movie that is about racism, and about the evil of it, and the consequences thereof.

The message of this film is that if you have a slave owning society, revolution isn’t just inevitable, it’s the just consequence. The only sympathetic humans in the film – both non-white men – are on the side of the apes, and the film is on the side of the apes, too. There isn’t any question of that. Caesar is the hero of this film, and an ape of that name will be the undeniable hero of four more movies. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes really, really wants to be a powerful and disturbing metaphor for the struggle of Black Americans against the yoke of slavery, and is on their side.
Ape riot.
And in telling this story, and not making the metaphor in any way covert, it… equates Black people with apes. And it wants the apes to win. It wants to say, Ape Lives Matter, and Ape Power Now, and because it is very much a thing of its time, it misses that a real Black person might not find those slogans flattering, and wouldn’t want to be equated to an ape, even a smart, humane and sympathetic one. This film is not hiding that it comes from a mindset that believes that the downtrodden and the enslaved deserve to take revenge on their former taskmasters. Except the downtrodden mass who represent the real underdog… are apes.

And let’s talk a bit about that revenge, because that’s relevant to this line of discussion.

The first time I saw Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, I was unimpressed, and the ending of the film was a large part of that. What happens is that the apes win, and Governor Breck is dragged out in front of a mob of angry gorillas, their rifle butts readied to strike.

And then MacDonald, who’s been spared, calls him out and says, the humans are better armed, and they’ll slaughter you, and this isn’t the way. And MacDonald begs him not to do it this way. And Caesar replies:
Caesar: Where there is fire, there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch and conspire and plot and plan for the inevitable day of Man's downfall - the day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind. The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble! When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland out of which I will lead my people from their captivity! And we will build our own cities in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you... now!
And there’s a silence, and there’s just the sound of the flames, and Breck looks up from the ground, and he looks like he knows he’s done for, and Lisa looks away in despair, and all the gorillas stare at Breck and raise their rifle butts. MacDonald looks, tight-lipped, at Caesar. And then Lisa turns to Caesar, and utters a word that might be, “No.”

And then, Caesar changes his tune.
Caesar: But now... now we will put away out hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the Night of the Fires. And who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God. And, if it is man's destiny to be dominated, it is God's will that he be dominated with compassion and understanding. So, cast out your vengeance. Tonight, we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!
Pictured: Breck looking like he's done for.
And then the gorillas lower their rifle butts, and we see MacDonald looking doubtful, and Caesar triumphant, and the apes cheer, and the film ends.

And I suppose the bit about the will of God makes sense in the context of Armando’s veneration of St. Francis, and I like that Lisa says “No,” because anything that gives Natalie Trundy more importance is fine by me, but for all that it seems a really weird turnaround, an out of character moment, and back when I saw this nearly a decade ago, I didn’t wholly buy it. It seemed tacked on.

And in fact, it was. It was the result of studio interference. Lisa’s “No,” and that final, more upbeat speech were overdubbed after the fact, and those last few minutes (expertly) re-edited to change the ending. And if you watch closely, you can see how Caesar’s final speech doesn’t quite synch correctly.

And now (thanks to Mark’s invaluable generosity) I’ve seen the original version with the original ending that the studio bottled on, and it’s obvious. Because in the ending as originally written, Caesar’s final utterance ends with that cry of “Now!”

Lisa doesn’t say “No.”

And then the gorillas stare at Breck, and then Breck looks like he knows he’s done for, and MacDonald looks, tight-lipped, at Caesar, and Caesar gives the nod, and then the gorillas go wild and beat Breck to death, and howl and shriek against the backdrop of the burning city. The end.
Caesar! Caesar! This was not how it was to be!
And that’s a better ending. It’s a more militant ending, honestly, but it's in keeping with the tone of the film up to this point. Armando dies because there’s no place for his sort of kindness in the world that the human race has made. The way of the divine, of St. Francis, is done. Caesar even says they'll have their own religions, so why would he start talking about God? Every dramatic movement of the plot is towards the inauguration of the Planet of the Apes as we have already seen it, and that edited speech removes the danger of Caesar. It supplies hope that things might not be so bad, but it also requires us not to have paid attention the brutality that fills up the rest of the film.

It’s not quite a betrayal of the rest of the story, but it is very nearly one. Also, it unintentionally makes the whole Black people/apes juxtaposition worse, since it robs the revolution of its catharsis, makes it bloodless and liberal, and that’s not how revolutions work. If Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is to rescue itself from The Most Unfortunate Metaphorical Juxtaposition Ever, it has to follow through.

The endings of Planet of the Apes movies always make things difficult, and more than once now the Planet of the Apes franchise has had the real chance of going a bit off the tracks. If Battle for the Planet of the Apes had turned out to be true to that original, follow-through ending rather than the one in the adulterated, less troubling version, then maybe the series could pull another great film out of the bag.

Let's see how that went.

Ape Rankings
1. Planet of the Apes (1968)
2. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
3. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
4. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)