Tuesday 24 April 2018

Your Move, Darwin #5: Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

(Before I start, once more I owe a vote of thanks to Mark Talbot-Butler, who as before very generously furnished me with a copy of the extended version of today's film. It's much appreciated.)

Let's not pretend that people had stopped caring about the Planet of the Apes by this point. The toys were still being made, the comic books were selling just fine (and displaying a level of crazed invention all of their own, from the little I've seen) and people liked these films. They wanted more. We'd have a TV show, two in fact. But Hollywood worked differently back then: the idea that you might make a sequel bigger and more expensive, or commit to making about fifty-eleven superhero films in the sure knowledge that they're all going to be colossal critic-proof international hits, with a massive crossover at the head of it that isn't even the end of the line, no one in the industry forty-five years ago would have taken that seriously.

They stopped making Planet of the Apes films, as much as anything, because it was time to stop making them. It didn't set the box office on fire, but it wasn't a bomb. Sure, there were other reasons, of course there were, but there was the sense that as far as cinema was concerned, this was the end of the road.

And clearly every intention that informs Battle for the Planet of the Apes is for it to be a graceful finish, that you can look back and feel that the circle has been closed and the narrative is for all intents and purposes complete. It aims for a dramatically satisfying ending.

Does it supply a dramatically satisfying ending?

Ape shall never kill Abe. Words to live by.
If you're hoping for a cataclysmic final reckoning, a final jaw dropping narrative of the ape-pocalypse, you're out of luck. After three other sequels – the Demented One, the Brilliant and Clever One and the Deeply Problematic but Nonetheless Thought Provoking One – I suppose that it was inevitable that there would be a Slightly Disappointing One.

While once again J Lee Thompson is director, Battle for the Planet of the Apes doesn't have the visual inventiveness that Conquest did, and I suspect that's down to a different Director of Photography; it doesn't have the budget or scale to supply much of a battle either. There's never the sense that Ape City is really more than a village, or that the climactic attack of the mutants is more than a skirmish, and compare that to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, where a relatively small number of combatants in a relatively small area nonetheless has the illusion of a city-wide war featuring vast hordes of apes. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes always looks impressive, is composed flawlessly, always looks big. By comparison, nearly everything about Battle for the Planet of the Apes is small.

But is that even a problem? The Planet of the Apes films have been, up to now, mostly small. They've been intimate things, where the personal struggles of a few individuals have been microcosms of a wider story. These small stories become the world's story, and that's how fiction works generally, but it's never as obvious as it is here. There are things wrong with Battle for the Planet of the Apes, there are some weird decisions, and places where the budget is so thin it's transparent, but it's not a bad film. It's just not a great one.
John Huston. As an orangutan. Holy crap.
Even so, let's pause for a moment as this film starts and marvel, as John Huston, that John Huston, Maltese Falcon and Man Who Would Be King John Huston, delivers a prologue wearing full ape makeup. He's the Lawgiver, standing before us, we are told, in the year 2670. With his profound gravitas, simply by being here and being John Huston he frames what happens as mythical, as the stuff of legend. Ignoring the first two films, he recaps the central plot points of Escape and Conquest, which is interesting in its own right, because it reifies the way that Escape was a reboot of the series, the beginning of the second of the two main narratives I've been talking about here (and to summarise if you haven't been following, one is from the viewpoint of a human landing on the Planet of the Apes, the other from the viewpoint of apes in the process of making the Planet of the Apes come to being).

Each of the other sequels have taken as a starting points the final twist of the preceding film. Beneath starts with the finding of the Statue of Liberty, and the discovery that Taylor was always on earth. Escape begins with the Planet of the Apes blowing up. Conquest moves on a bit, but nothing in the setup – even poor, dead Rover – is new, and the existence of Caesar and the deaths of Cornelius and Zira are the fact on which it rests.

And this is pretty unusual for sequels and franchise movies, the way that the brutal twists that close the Planet of the Apes films become the starting point of the next chapter in a continuing narrative.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes is in a strange position here, for the simple reason that Conquest had two endings, the vicious, cathartic follow-through ending and the less committed version that made it into theatres, where Caesar relents at the height of the violence and says, hey OK we've just had a violent revolution but let's work together everyone, which no one leading a revolution has ever said.
It's General Aldo.
And obviously it's the second version that got screened in movie theatres, so it's that one that we're going with. In some ways, the original ending for Conquest, the no mercy follow through, is a harder film to make a sequel for; if that had been the ending that they'd gone for, you could argue that it would have made a perfectly reasonable end to the series.

For all that the softer ending of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is dramatically inferior and lacking the conviction of the original, it nonetheless permits a follow up. The way in which Caesar could go either way at the end makes for a more complex series of questions a narrative continuation needs to ask.

And it allows us to insert the other half of humanity's downfall. In the original film, the assumption we develop at the end is that the Planet of the Apes happened because the nuclear war happened, and also that the apes Got Smart and Took Over.

That's in fact two apocalypses. We might have gathered from Planet of the Apes (1968) and Beneath the Planet of the Apes that the nuclear war that destroyed functional human civilisation happened first, and that created the conditions, over time, for the Apes to Get Smart and Take Over (except for some mutants but damn, let's come back to that). But by Escape these two conditions have been separated. And in Conquest the spectre of nuclear war is altogether absent, meaning that the apes can overthrow civilisation at their leisure.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes begins, then, with our Improbably Distinguished Guest Ape recapping Escape and Conquest, and then adding, almost as an afterthought, a brief statement that functionally says, “oh yeah, and they also dropped the bomb since the last film happened, so human civilisation ended on schedule like it was supposed to.”

And then we cut to the gorilla General Aldo (Claude Akins) riding to Ape City, over lush green countryside which does not look remotely post-apocalyptic. In Ape City, humans and apes live together, if not in harmony, on relative peace. There's an altercation between Aldo and a human called Abe (Noah Keen) who's been teaching the apes to read. While Caesar’s young son Cornelius (Bobby Porter) is a star pupil, Aldo most certainly is not, and his contempt for literacy leads to Aldo and the other gorillas tearing up the school and trying to lynch Abe, for Abe has dared to say the word “No,” which we discover is forbidden for a human to say to an ape here.
Post ape-pocalyptic vistas.
Caesar (again, Roddy McDowall), who now leads the community and who, partnered with Lisa (once again, Natalie Trundy, in her final appearance), has become quite the statesape, steps in and defuses things, and stokes Aldo’s resentment in the process.

Meanwhile, Caesar wonders if he'll be a better leader if he knew about his parents. He's got a human assistant, who tells him that there's an archive in the nearby ruined city, with footage of Cornelius and Zira in it. This is, by the way, not the MacDonald from the last film, because Hari Rhodes didn't want to do it, so they cast Austin Stoker and changed the script a bit so he is now that guy's brother. I don't know why they needed to imply a connection here, and surely just having a completely different named character would have worked better. It's as if the fact of having black guys in prominent supporting roles in two consecutive films needed some justification, and I can't help thinking that if they'd been white guys they wouldn't have needed to make that connection, but there it is, that's 70s Hollywood for you.

So Cornelius and the younger MacDonald join with a smart, quirky and sweet-natured (or, for some viewers, annoying) orangutan called Virgil (Paul Williams) and venture into the city, and they find the footage from the hearing in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, but they also attract the notice of a militaristic group of mutant human survivors, led by Kolp (Severn Darden), the police chief who tortured Caesar in the last film. Although somewhat more scabby in the face than last time, Kolp is functionally the same bad guy, and Caesar’s party only just make it back and out of Kolp's clutches. But they're followed, and Kolp decides it's war, despite his lieutenant Mendez's (Paul Stevens) suggestion that this might not be a good idea.

Caesar’s reluctance to start a war attracts the ire of Aldo. Aldo plans a coup. Cornelius, climbing a tree, accidentally overhears this. Aldo catches him and saws through the branch, causing him to fall and injuring him badly (and eventually fatally).

The mutants attack. The apes, including Aldo, who fights bravely, drive them off; Kolp dies in the battle.
It's not that Hollywood thinks that black actors are interchangeable but...
Aldo has used the threat of the mutants as a reason to imprison Ape City’s humans He tries to seize power, but it comes out, thanks to MacDonald and Virgil, that Aldo is responsible for Cornelius’s death. Aldo has broken the first law: ape shall not kill ape.

Caesar and Aldo fight. Aldo dies. Ape has killed ape again. Caesar vows once again to live in peace with the humans.

We return to the Lawgiver, who, we discover, is teaching a mixed class of apes and humans. He says that things still aren't perfect, that they still need weapons. Who knows what the future will bring? Perhaps only the dead, he says. The final shot is a statue of Caesar. The statue, as we look on its face, begins to weep.

The Lawgiver is speaking in the 27th century. I think the suggestion is that we're going to wind up with the Planet of the Apes that we first met when Taylor landed. It's not going to work.

And that's honestly a bit weird. It's as if we came to the end of the film and Paul Dehn (again the screenwriter) thought, wait a minute, this is a Planet of the Apes movie, better end on a bum note. With Otto Hasslein’s talk of alternative timelines in Escape, we've got plenty of latitude to suggest that maybe things don't work out so horribly this time round, that maybe a timeline now exists where it's going to be all right.
Seriously, this guy. Again.
In the extended version (and again, thanks, Mark), the potential for a happy ending is doubled down on. In the extra scenes, we discover that the mutants have a nuclear bomb, and it's explicitly the same nuclear bomb in fact that these mutants’ descendents will wind up worshipping and singing batshit hymns to. Kolp says that if he doesn't come back, they have to nuke the apes, and of course he doesn't come back, but one of his assistants, Mendez says no, maybe they should just accept that they can be beautiful too as they are (in more or less those words), and that's there's a better way, and the implication is that maybe the mutants might turn out all right too.

Everything points to a better ending. A better future.

But then, that tear. The Lawgiver – and this is the ape to whom Doctor Zaius will attribute the words “Beware the Beast Man” 1300 years later – casts some small doubt on Caesar’s hopes, and reasonably, since it's been six hundred years and things aren't fixed, and so, as I said, when a kid asks, “Who knows?” he says, “Maybe the dead.” And then the statue cries. The dead know, and frankly the dead aren't holding up a lot of hope.
Not exactly a conquering army yknow.
For all the scientific absurdity of the Planet of the Apes franchise, it's still very much science fiction. Everything is explicable with sci-fi science. Uplifted apes, time warps, mutants, these aren't the results of any real science. They're not really possible. But we accept them as part of the trappings of sci-fi because we're told they're explicable within the bounds of a science, and even if that science doesn't exist itself, it doesn't matter, we tend to suspend disbelief in anything in a sci-fi movie because science fiction is about fictional science.

A statue crying like an ape statue of the Blessed Virgin, or Krșna, or Elvis, that's another thing. That's supernatural. That's spiritual.

And yeah, that's allegorical. And the whole Planet of the Apes series is an exercise in allegory, so much so that at times it's embraced a real danger of going right off the rails. But this is the first time, and the last, although that's by the by, that the Planet of the Apes series has embraced the explicitly supernatural. Here, suddenly, a spiritual force – the spirit of Caesar, looking forward from six hundred years ago with a premonition of a thousand or more years hence – undermines any hope the end of this iteration of the Planet of the Apes series might have.
Like the Virgin Mary. Or Elvis.
And of course, by portraying Caesar as what is a manifestation of the divine, transmitted through history, he has the mythic weight that the film always wanted to give him, but couldn't deliver on, because battles for the fate of the earth itself don't normally have one side riding to battle in a clapped out school bus. Don't get me wrong, the Mutant School Bus is one of my favourite things in the film, but it's not a thing that works with the resonance of Caesar as, well, Ape Jesus.

In the first version of the Planet of the Apes narrative, when you find the Statue of Liberty, you're done. You have nowhere else to go. In the second version, when Ape Jesus cries for the sad end of history, it's time to call it a day.

And of course it was. Except it wasn't.

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)
5. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)