Looking Back At CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Matthew Kresal looks back at the original birth of the planet of the apes.
In 1968, Planet of the Apes landed in cinemas to box office success and critical acclaim. It also spawned, two years later, a franchise that turned out sequel films annually during the early part of the 1970s. One that moved from the far future to the then-present day, gradually telling the story of how the original film's "upside-down world," as described by Charlton Heston's Taylor, came to pass. Released fifty years today, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes presented humanity's fall at the hands of intelligent apes in a vivid and allegorical tale.

Set in the then-future 1991 and eighteen years after the events of the previous film Escape From the Planet of the Apes, the opening minutes of the film quickly bring viewers up to date. Following the title sequence of apes in colorful jumpsuits led out for training, Ricardo Montalban's Armando takes Roddy McDowall's chimpanzee Ceaser around a city. Following a plague from space that wiped out dogs and cats in 1983, apes became replacement pets. Soon enough, owing to their trainability, the pets have now become slaves inside a police state. The son of apes from the future and capable of speaking, Ceaser's response to the treatment of his fellow ape's sets in motion a chain of events as Armando is taken into custody, forcing him to enter Ape Management as one of the slaves serving Don Murray's Governor Brett, and bringing about humanity's prophesied downfall.

Watching Conquest five decades on, a number of things make it stand out among the four original Apes sequels. Perhaps the most obvious is its sense of scope, despite being the lowest budget of the sequels. Part of how Conquest managed this was from screenwriter Paul Dehn and director J. Lee Thompson responding to those budget limitations, focusing the narrative on a single city. Shooting in Century City gave Conquest a sense of scale far grander than its less than $2 million budget, with Thompson and cinematographer Bruce Surtees finding myriad ways of shooting it to create the illusion of an entire city. It's something that becomes particularly clear in the climactic ape revolt and helps the film overcome the fact that its costumes and hairstyles are inevitably closer to 1971 than 1991.

The script from Dehn, who had scripted the two earlier Apes sequels, not only serves as the film's framework but much of why Conquest is as powerful as it is. Science fiction has long had an allegorical streak to it as a genre, which the first Apes film four years previous had reveled thanks to a script by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson. Dehn brings that same edge to the Conquest script, using the treatment of the apes as slaves and the attitudes of their human masters in a manner that echoed the history of race relations in the United States. Intriguingly, the only two sympathetic human characters in the film, Montalban's Armando and Hari Rhodes's MacDonald, are played by non-white actors and are mocked for their views by those around them, particularly in the form of Murray's Governor Brett and Severn Darden's menacing secret policeman Kolp. Following Ceaser's journey from a privileged position with Armando into slavery and eventual leader of a revolution also presents a story of disenfranchisement and radicalization that, as Dehn noted in a 1972 interview collected in the 2001 book The Planet of the Apes Chronicles, drew parallels with the Black Power movement of the era and can be applied to movements since.

That edge becomes abundantly clear in the film's final act. From the scenes between Ceaser and MacDonald to the riot itself, the journey from slave to master becomes inevitable, a self-fulfilling prophesy as Brett's attempt to hold off an ape revolt causes Ceaser's loss of faith in humanity that drives him to radical action. Thompson's staging of the ape's revolt, a riot that stretches across the city, is a ferocious and visceral experience often shot with handheld cameras in a faux-documentary style modeled on footage of the race riots of the previous decade. So much so that, following test audience reactions and the threat of a rating that would rob it of a family audience, parts of it were trimmed down while the ending, with Ceaser giving a militant speech, was extended with a coda calling for mercy via clever editing and McDowell spending time in the dubbing booth. Even with the toning edits, Conquest's last act remains a powerful viewing experience and piece of filmmaking, particularly when set to Tom Scott's discordant jazz-inspired underscore.

Indeed, Conquest might be Roddy McDowell's finest hour in the franchise. Having played the chimpanzee Cornelius in two of the three previous films, McDowell received the chance to play his own son. It's a rare opportunity for an actor and something that McDowell clearly relished, playing Ceaser's journey from quiet innocent to revolutionary leader convincingly even behind some make-up artists John Chambers famous work. Often playing not with Dehn's dialogue but when a look of the eyes or a ticking of the face, McDowell projects a sense of intelligence and sympathy, something apparent in his scenes with Natalie Trundy as the chimp Lisa and Rhodes's MacDonald. The power of McDowell's performance is also on view in his encounters with Murray as Governor Brett as the riot reaches its climax as the human leader realizes what has befallen him.

While perceived wisdom is that the previous Apes film Escape was the best of the four original Apes sequels, there is a case to be for Conquest taking the top spot. From its sense of scale to an intelligent script and the performance of its lead, Conquest rises above its limited budget to tell a visceral tale of repression giving way to violence. It's a film that has lost none of its relevance and whose legacy includes inspiring elements of the ape revolt seen in the reboot film Rise of the Planet of the Apes, released in 2011. Fifty years on, Conquest remains an underrated entry in the franchise, begging for rediscovery as the original birth of the planet of the apes.

Matthew Kresal is a writer, critic, and podcaster with many and varying interests. His prose includes the non-fiction The Silver Archive: Dark Skies from Obverse Books, the Cold War alternate history spy thriller Our Man on the Hill, and the Sidewise Award winning short story Moonshot in Sea Lion Press' Alternate Australias anthology. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, or follow him on Twitter @KresalWritesHe was born, raised, and lives in North Alabama where he never developed a southern accent.

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