Planet of the Apes: Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

There are few sequels more unlikely than Escape from the Planet of the ApesConquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the final three films from the original Planet of the Apes series. After literally blowing the earth to smithereens in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox had to introduce a convoluted time travel plotline to extend the series. Strangely, the gamble to prolong the series was mostly a success.

Two of the three Apes sequels are fascinating relics of their time, more interested in social commentary than spectacle. They do what science fiction is so good at: they indirectly shine a light on the peculiarities of our own time by exploring a world fantastically unlike ours. It is only the final film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, that never delivers, promising the titular battle between apes and humans but being denied its necessary scale by a miserly budget and half-baked script. But two good sequels isn’t bad, especially after the franchise’s continuity was essentially obliterated.

We are peaceful creatures. We are happy to be here. May we be unchained?

— Zira (Kim Hunter)

At the beginning of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, chimpanzee protagonists, Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) travel through time and arrive on Earth in 1973, just over a year after astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) left on his interstellar voyage (seen in the first film). They initially hide their intelligence and their ability to speak. The humans confine them at the Los Angeles Zoo before holding a Presidential Commission on the apestronauts. At the Commission they discover the apes’ intelligence and knowledge of the future. News of Zira and Cornelius’s miraculous intelligence spreads throughout the media and the two apes soon become celebrities. But once Zira gets pregnant, and particulars of the future ape-dominated Earth become known to the humans, Zira and Cornelius become fugitives.

Most of Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a fish-out-of-water narrative. Similar to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Escape from the Planet of the Apes transfers the apes into the present day and has them bumble about, baffled at the then-modern Western world. There are various humourous moments throughout where Cornelius and Zira experience everyday human things for the first time. In one moment Cornelius gets a human suit and exits the store to show off for Zira’s admiration. She smiles at him and he smiles at her, and the scene cuts to Zira exiting the same store in a new dress and Cornelius looking on lustily at his pretty ape wife. In another scene Zira drinks champagne for the first time, which one of the humans coyly describes as “grape juice plus,” and promptly gets drunk.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a success on these elements alone. It’s remarkably fleet-of-foot in the way it embraces the ludicrousness of talking monkeys traveling from the future into the present day and enjoying the luxuries of human existence. Not many adventure franchises are able to make a detour into comedy this successfully.

But then Zira gets pregnant with a child and Escape from the Planet of the Apes suddenly becomes serious. The government fears the child will instigate the downfall of the human race and Zira and Cornelius become fugitives. They flee human hospitality with the help of two human allies and take refuge in an abandoned oil tanker. There are parallels to Herod’s hunt for the Christ child in the humans’ hunt for the ape baby. Their child is a potential saviour, just like Christ, and the film comments on humanity’s propensity to kill potential saviours once they become a threat. In one scene, the American president even compares their hunt for the child to the Slaughter of the Innocents in the opening chapters of Matthew.

As the quote above suggests, Zira and Cornelius are peaceful creatures. Escape from the Planet of the Apes focuses on humanity’s inability to allow such peaceful creatures to exist. The film argues that humans are paranoid by nature, that we distrust and fear peaceful motivations and believe they will lead to our destruction. Zira and Cornelius are the comic relief in the franchise, but humanity cannot suffer such kindheartedness and does away with the threat they perceive the apes represent.

In the end, the humans find and kill Zira, Cornelius, and what they think is their child. However, it’s revealed in the final moments of the film that Zira and Cornelius had swapped their child  with a baby ape from a carnival run by a friendly circus master, Armando (Ricardo Montalban). The humans think they’ve killed the child, but the baby lives on, setting in motion the events of the sequel, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. While the sequel lacks any of the humour that distinguishes Escape from the Planet of the Apes, it develops the social commentary into allegorical levels.

By what right are you spilling blood? — MacDonald (Hari Rhodes)

By the slave’s right to punish his persecutor. — Caesar (Roddy McDowall)

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is one of the most politically conscious science fiction films ever made. In many ways, its almost allegorical in how the apes represent human slaves and their enslavement resembles the racial injustices upon which much of human civilization is built.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes takes place 20 years after the death of Zira and Cornelius. Their child lives with Armando in a future America where apes constitute a slave population. A plague had killed off all dogs and cats, and humans decided to replace their beloved pets with apes, which were immune to the plague just like humans. Soon enough humanity discovered apes’ capacity to perform tasks and started using them as domestic slaves. Apes got smarter and humanity exploited that intelligence by enslaving it.

Suffice to say, Zira and Cornelius’s child, who christens himself Caesar and is played by Roddy McDowall, bristles at the injustices he witnesses in Los Angeles when Armando brings him to the city. After the government arrests Armando on suspicion of his harbouring Zira and Cornelius’s child and Armando dies in a failed escape, Caesar revotes. He organizes the apes into a militia and eventually overthrows the humans. The chilling original ending of the film sees Caesar standing over a group of gorillas beating Governor Breck (Don Murray) to death with their rifles. Caesar’s glee at the defeat of Governor Breck combined with the bloodlust in his eyes makes for a potent ending. This ending suggested that Caesar’s rampage would only lead to more bloodshed in the future, but the studio forced the filmmakers to soften the ending by having Caesar's mate interrupt the killing and Caesar promise to work towards peace with humans in the future. Luckily, the new Blu-ray editions of the Planet of the Apes series restores the original ending, leaving McDowall’s performance intact.

Just as Charlton Heston raged at the sight of dumb humans being used as cattle in the original Planet of the Apes, Roddy McDowall channels a similar outrage at the sight of ape slaves in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. McDowall’s ability to channel his righteous anger in ample prosthetics is no easy feat. Throughout the series the costume designers wisely allowed the eyes of the actors to be seen beneath the ape makeup. Since the majority of emotion comes from a person’s eyes, none of the emotions of the actors playing the apes were muted. By watching McDowall’s eyes, we share his zeal and outrage. People love to praise Andy Serkis’s strong performance in the new Apes films, but they often forget McDowall’s integral, elaborately-costumed performances throughout the original series.

Besides McDowall’s fierce performance, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes also boasts fascinating commentary on humanity’s history of systemic slavery. What the film says is blunt commentary, but all allegories are blunt. In the film, the humans’ treatment of apes reminds the viewer of America’s treatment of African slaves. It demonstrates how slavery encourages the seeds of its own destruction and destroys the humanity of the slaveholders. The only aspect of the film that dulls this racial commentary is the catalyst for Caesar’s rebellion. However angered Caesar is at the sight of ape slaves being mistreated, it is the death of his human master that drives him to rebellion. This would be akin to a slave revolt being fueled by the death of a beloved plantation owner. Still, this is a minor misstep in the film’s bluntly effective racial commentary.

Director J. Lee Thompson opted to film the ape rebellion scenes at the end of the film similar to riot footage from news broadcasts: all wide angles and impersonal perspectives. This decision makes the ape rebellion look like the race riots of the late 1960s that would have been easily recognizable to the film’s original viewers. This approach reminds the viewer of the film’s social agenda, even if there is little subtlety in the film’s commentary. The film’s slave parallels are scattershot; it alludes equally to both American slavery and to Spartacus-like revolts. But for a film about intelligent apes overthrowing humanity, its commitment to displaying humanity’s propensity for barbarity, and how that barbarity could fuel humanity’s destruction, is admirable. The Apes series has always been interested in social commentary, but none of its entries is as overtly and provocatively socio-political as Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

Ape shall never kill ape.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, the only film in the original series that fails to deliver on the potential of its title is Battle for the Planet of the Apes. After three sequels and diminishing box office returns, 20th Century Fox drastically lowered the budget for this final installment in the Apes series. The script was rushed into production. The actors looked tired. The ape makeup was noticeably inferior. This impressive series, one of the best of the 70s, went out with a whimper.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes takes place 20 or so years after Caesar’s revolt at the end of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Ape revolts across the planet instigated humans to use nuclear bombs to suppress them, causing an all-out nuclear war that decimated the planet. The few apes and humans that are left live together in small communities. Caesar’s community lives near the ruins of Los Angeles, careful to stay away from its radioactive ruins. Eventually Caesar grows curious about his father and mother and ventures into the ruins to find footage of their speech before the Presidential Commission from Escape from the Planet of the Apes. There he comes into contact with mutated humans who, newly reminded of the apes’ existence, vow to destroy the ape community. Back in the ape community, Caesar also finds himself in conflict with General Aldo (Claude Akins), an overzealous gorilla who wants to kill all the humans in the community and gain control.

The best moments of the film are small, isolated components that are divorced from the narrative whole. The film is notable as Paul Williams first starring role, in which he plays the orangutan Virgil. The sight of Williams in an orange ape mask, struggling to project his distinctly high-pitched voice through the prosthetic lips, is worth the watch alone. The ever-dependable McDowall still delivers an interesting performance as the now-ruling Caesar who has to balance his desire for peace between humans and apes with his inherent distrust of humanity.

There’s an early scene where a human teacher uses the word “No” to General Aldo, which is strictly forbidden for a human to say in ape society. Aldo promptly demolishes the teacher’s school and Caesar has to weigh the options of how to deal with the human transgression and ape response. However, it’s only in moments like this that the film’s interest in the coexistence of humans and apes really congeals. Most of the racial and political interest of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is absent.

And once the film gets down to its titular battle, it’s a profound disappointment. Stripped of any meaningful budget (the original Planet of the Apes cost almost six million dollars, while Battle for the Planet of the Apes cost less than two million), the filmmakers were unable to give any sense of scale to the proceedings. Instead of being the climactic battle that would determine the fate of the planet, the battle here seems nothing more than an outtake from a Mad Max film, where a tank and a converted school bus drive into a village and blow up a few huts. The Apes films never succeeded on pure spectacle alone. Even the final rebellion in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is cleverly shot to disguise the limited resources and extras. So to finally resort to pure spectacle for the series’s climactic battle, in the entry with the lowest budget and the fewest resources on hand, was folly.

There are worse films in the Planet of the Apes franchise than Battle for the Planet of the Apes (Tim Burton’s 2001 remake comes to mind), but none are as inessential.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971, USA)

Directed by Don Taylor; written by Paul Dehn; starring Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Bradford Dillman, Natalie Trundy, Eric Braeden, Sal Mineo, and Ricardo Montalban.

7 out of 10

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972, USA)

Directed by J. Lee Thompson; written by Paul Dehn; starring Roddy McDowall, Don Murray, Ricardo Montalban, and Natalie Trundy.

7 out of 10

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973, USA)

Directed by J. Lee Thompson; written by John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington; starring Roddy McDowall, Claude Akins, Natalie Trundy, Severn Darden, Lew Ayres, Paul Williams, and John Huston.

5 out of 10