Friday 29 May 2015

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes

Ape N’ Stance

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes - 
Original Extended Cut
USA 1972
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
20TH Century Fox
Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Okay, there are some spoilers here so I can highlight the difference between the two cuts.

The relative box office success of the excellent Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (reviewed here) meant another sequel was required and so... here we are again. The fourth film in the series, Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes, has always been a bit of a brutal and dark film... even in it’s theatrical release print (the version I’ve known and loved all these years). I remember seeing it at the cinema as a kid (I was maybe 5... or 6 if I saw it on a re-release) and the scenes of Roddy McDowell’s main protagonist being tortured via an electric current through his brain stayed with me for a long time.

One of the reasons why I wanted one of the recent Blu Ray sets, and it’s included in the latest eight movie set too (which is the version I’m watching these from), is because the fourth disc also includes the extended, ‘almost original’ preview cut which was toned down and considerably changed to make it less darker by the time it went on general release. It’s more violent and, although most people will be rooting for the apes all the way through this one, it also shows them becoming as much monsters as the humans who have been victimising them all through the film. For this review, I watched the extended cut and then rewatched the ending of the theatrical release to remind myself of just how different it is.

There is, for the first time in the Planet Of The Apes movies, no pre-credits sequence on this one. We just go straight into a credits sequence which establishes straight away that the movie is set in our planet’s far future. That’s right, the caption comes up... North America 1991. So... the ‘far future’. A slightly moving, slightly askew camera records a compound where apes are being shepherded around by humans who are conditioning them, not with kindness, to do simple tasks. The apes are branded by their class in different coloured uniforms, green for chimpanzees and red for gorillas (although they look completely different anyway but, I guess, this simplifies things for both the society in the movie and the audience for the film).

When the credits are over we have Ricardo Montalban, once again, playing Armando from the previous movie and he’s brought the son of Cornelius and Zira with him, once called Milo but now named Caeser and assuming the identity of the ape he was switched for in Escape From The Planet Of The Apes, presumably. It’s been about 20 years since the last part of the story in terms of the character’s lives, and Caeser has grown up to look and act just like his dad. Yep, Roddy McDowell here plays his own son from the previous movie, something which very few actors have done... played one of their character’s offspring (I can think of only one other off the top of my head but I’m sure there must have been a few... just not very many). Armando and Caeser have come to the big city to advertise Armando’s circus but the two obviously really weren’t aware of just how bad man’s subjugation of the ape species is... although Armando at least had some small idea.

The back story to this phenomena, a world where apes are slaves to man and are doing all the menial tasks... and the cruelty to which they are put... is explained by Armando like this. Eight years prior to 1991, a virus was brought back by an astronaut in space (interesting idea and something we don’t actually see in these films) which killed off all the dogs and cats on the planet and people wanted to replace their pets (a plot point highlighted by a memorial to dogs and cats which Armando and Caeser are standing by). The apes became the new pets but once humans learned that you could train them to do much more, slavery set in and the status of apes in this society is quite astonishingly brutal and humiliating. Apes have been trained as slave labour to perform various functions like shining people’s shoes, window cleaning and, that old favourite which really makes no sense to my generation, white washing walls. Apes are treated in a derogatory manner, for example, when the waiter apes in restaurants are tipped for good service, not with currency but with raisins. It’s also a world which is ever scared of the threat that the apes will somehow dominate, after the shenanigans of the last film... so apes are not allowed to congregate in one place, even though they are not talking apes like Caeser.

When Caeser sees the inhumanity of man against ape, he inadvertently gets Armando in trouble with the authorities and the two have to split up while Armando gets held for interrogation. However, when Armando doesn’t come back, Caeser infiltrates the apes being shipped into the country to be slaves to humans... so he doesn’t get found out as the son of Cornelius and Zira.

And that’s how he ends up serving in the household of the film's primary human villain Breck, played by Don Murray, and his kind hearted, ape loving aide Mr. McDonald, played by Hari Rhodes. It’s very apparent, when we listen to Breck, that the upper echelons of this 'future' society are very worried that the son of Cornelius and Zira could somehow be alive and fulfil the timeline which makes apes the dominant species on the planet and eventually usher in the destruction of the Earth. Now that Armando is on their radar, they suspect the ape he was accompanied by, Caeser, may be the substituted offspring who is fated to bring mankind to its knees... and they’re certainly not wrong.

When Armando plunges to his death during an interrogation, Caeser loses the plot a little and starts off building a wordless revolutionary force with the various apes, who can understand his will and intent well enough without being able to speak. Once this underground ape army is set in motion, the battles and events to bring the downfall of the authorities will, in time, mark the end of mankind as the most intelligent species on the planet, just as we’ve already seen it did during the first two films in this series, Planet Of The Apes (reviewed here) and Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (reviewed here). A temporal paradox, of course, since without Taylor’s spaceship in the first film, Cornelius and Zira would never have been able to get back to the past and start us on this loop in the first place. Also... it kinda totally contradicts the story that Cornelius gave about the birth of the ape revolution in the last film but, hey ho, that’s okay... since it also contradicted the back story of the first film too. Don’t know why the writers didn’t do something about this but I guess you could always take the rather lame hypothesis that the last film set up an alternate timeline if you like. As a kind of cop out for the sloppy continuity.

It’s a brutal and violent film, especially in this extended cut, but it’s also quite funny and insightful in terms of the habits and reactions of people’s behaviour and what you might call, human nature... it’s got some quite biting satire in it which is something a lot of the best science fiction has in spades, of course. There’s a great throwaway line, for example, which both tells you the state of mankind’s technological progress over his environment and vices while, at the same time, saying everything about the nature of desire... when a woman is seen smoking, she refers to cigarettes thusly: “Funny. Now I know they won’t kill me, I don’t enjoy them.”

Ultimately the film is a joy to watch and Roddy McDowell, who was a somewhat major supporting player in the first film (his character relegated a little more when played by a different actor in the second one) and a joint co-star for the third movie, really shines in this as he pretty much has to carry the whole of the audience’s attention and empathy on his own shoulders... and he does so amazingly well. Not only that, most of the film he is pretending to be just another dumb ape so he doesn’t even have a lot of dialogue to use. Instead, he conveys all the hatred, wisdom and moments of humour (there are some in here, I promise) mostly by his facial expressions (already covered in buckets of make up and prosthetics but what he does with it is truly inspiring) and his body language. It’s a masterful and extremely overlooked piece of theatrical performance and it’s probably, because of the sheer amount of obstacles coupled with McDowell’s status as the main lead of the film (once Ricardo Montalban’s character has met his death), his best acting job in the entire series. It’s quite amazing to watch and often you’ll probably forget you are actually looking at a character who is supposed to be an ape... and I mean that in a good way.

Combined with this we have some really nice compositions in the film, with the director using things like legs and boots of the, presumably, deliberately “nazi-like” humans in the foreground, large on screen, to overshadow the things happening in the background and comment on the nature of man’s way of living his life in the future. So that satire isn’t just inherent in the script, Thompson does stuff to highlight things visually with framing too... which again, I think, is an overlooked element of these movies and this one in particular. The camera is rarely static for long and even some of the more still shots are imbued with a slight, almost imperceptible hand held shake to them... which really shouldn’t work as well as it does here but... it does.

We also have a really wonderful score by composer Tom Scott which is quite badly mistreated and chopped about or just rejected at various points in the film. Frankly, this is a great shame because, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the next best score to the legendary Jerry Goldsmith’s contributions to the series. Scotts music is brutally percussive and somewhat stark, fits right into the musical universe of the previous apes films and is, to my ears, a much more successful and appropriate response to the material and ideas behind it than Leonard Rosenman’s two scores. Why this composer’s score was mistreated and why he wasn’t retained for the next film really leaves me scratching my head and jumping up and down making “Ooh! Ooh!” noises. It’s great in the movie but, if you want to hear the full score as intended, Film Score Monthly put out a release of it back in 2001 on CD as a double header with Rosenman’s score for the next film in the series.

Interestingly, the climax to the movie uses some of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the original film tracked in at the end but, and I find this interesting because there seems to be no reason for it, it starts at different points depending on whether you are watching the theatrical cut or the extended edition.

So let’s talk about the extended edition just a little bit. Well, unfortunately, it’s still missing the original pre-credits sequence shown at early previews where some cops find a beaten and bloody ape, injured at the hands of its human masters and showing in a fairly graphic manner what the majority of the rest of the movie is trying to reenforce in the mind. There are still referrals to this incident left in the dialogue in the film as it stands now.... but it would have been nice to have the original pre-credits on it. Especially since this now means this is the first Apes movie not to have such a sequence.

The rest of the extra material in the extended version is mostly from the last third of the movie and it’s the full effects and brutality of the bloody violence where the apes go into battle against the humans that is more intense, with lots of blood squibs going off etc. The very ending is a lot different too. In the theatrical version, Breck and his people are about to be brutally clubbed to death by the apes. McDonald, who is off to one side, pleads for their lives and then Natalie Trundy, playing an ape for this movie, says “No”... the first normal ape who has learned to speak. Caeser shows compassion and lets them live. However, in this original version, Trundy has no speaking lines and all the humans, bar McDonald, are bashed to death by the apes. It’s an interesting ending because it shows the apes, who have been the underdogs all the way through, in order to capture the sympathy of the audience, showing themselves to be just as ruthless as their former captors and it’s an ending which leaves nobody left to root for... possibly why the decision was made to change the ending. Possibly.

Goldsmith’s replacement music, tracked in from the first film, is also a lot longer and begins a lot earlier in the extended cut than it does in the final release version. When you look back on the final release print with the hindsight of knowing that it’s been recut, it’s really easy to see the cellotape and spit job done to change the ending. Certain shots of the apes bringing down their clubs are reversed and recut later to look like they’re cheering Caeser, for example. Roddy McDowell has got a load of new lines and when he delivers them he is either in long shot where you can’t really tell what he is saying or, even worse, the footage has been reframed and cropped in extreme close up with his mouth off the bottom of the screen so you can’t see it... a bit strange until you know the reasons why.

However, even if you’re watching the original theatrical release version, which most people are familiar with, it’s still quite a gruelling but mostly entertaining watch and it’s a good piece of social commentary underneath a science fiction veneer, which is pretty much the most you can want for movies exploring a fantasy milieu, I reckon. Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes is my third favourite of the apes movies but, sad to say, I seem to remember the next one in the sequence being somewhat less interesting and quite a lot less watchable than any of the others... even the second one. I’ll see if I still feel that way in a week or so when I give Battle For The Planet Of The Apes a watch... and you can be sure I’ll report back here for a debriefing.

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