If you ask Fox, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes aren’t remakes. They’re reboots, partially thanks to Tim Burton’s dull, muddled 2001 version. But if you’ve seen all the Apes movies, you know better, and you know just how weird the franchise can get.
Specifically, they draw a lot from Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes, a movie that’s a contender for the strangest science fiction movie out of a Hollywood studio. Simultaneously progressive and racist, laughably blunt and deeply disturbing, ridiculously over-the-top and all-too-convincing, it’s one of the strangest movies you’ll ever see.
The basic plot will sound familiar: Caesar, a sentient ape, is hiding in a circus after his time-traveling parents are killed in the course of Escape From The Planet of The Apes. By the way, if you’ve ever wondered what a movie about abortion and government intrusion into privacy with strong and agonizingly misplaced undertones of racial tension would be like if people in ape masks starred in it, check out Escape From The Planet Of The Apes.
Anyway, it’s set in 1991. A virus killed all the cats and dogs, so apes become pets, and then servants, and by the time Caesar gets out in the world, they’re straight up slaves, with all the 12 Years A Slave-esque cruelty a buck-fifty and the morals of the ’70s would allow. They pick up our crap and take as much of said crap as we can dish out, including torture because America is a police state run by thinly disguised Nazis.
As you might have guessed, this movie has all the subtlety of a groin kick. The trailer really sums things up quite well:
This really becomes a problem with the cast, which includes Ricardo Montalban and Roddy McDowall, two men for whom there is no top, and because every scene lays it on thick that the apes are supposed to be a stand-in for the oppressed peoples of the world. It’s probably the most wince-inducing case of well-meaning racism in Hollywood history.
That said, though, the movie has some pretty gut-wrenching moments, especially the final act where the apes start kicking some ass. There are goofy moments, but they’re matched by, for example, the apes lighting one of their captors on fire. By the end of the movie, they’ve basically killed the entire police force of a major city.
It’s helped considerably by J. Lee Thompson filming the action sequences like they’re news reports, and by McDowall, who takes the script’s speeches and recites them like he’s playing in Richard III. By the end of the movie, it’s pretty clear Caesar isn’t just going to free the apes, he’s going to burn human society to the ground. And it’s a little hard to disagree with him, to boot.
This is only amplified by the director’s cut, which stayed in studio vaults for decades. In the original release, Caesar calms down just enough to not kill the Hitler stand-in he and his highly trained cadre of ape soldiers drag out onto the lawn. In the original cut, Hitler of The Apes gets beaten to death as Caesar swears he won’t rest until it’s the humans that are subjugated.
It’s not really a good movie; it’s overacted, it’s cheesy, it’s painfully cheap, and the racism, while accidental, really undercuts it. But it’s the kind of cheap, sweaty, weird movie that you almost never see any more, an attempt to take a goofy concept and play it off seriously that almost works. Curious? You can find it streaming on Amazon Prime.