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don murraydon murray roddy mcdowallroddy mcdowall century citycentury city lala conquest of the plant of the apesconquest of the plant of the apes planet of the apesplanet of the apes racerace futurefuture 19831983

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes


‘…even for a dystopian fantasy, Conquest of the Planets of the Apes is bleak, uncompromising stuff…’

The first of the Planet of the Apes films that I saw on STV as a Saturday night movie in 1981, J Lee Thompson’s film for 20th Century Fox was part of a wild run of franchise pics on a man vs monkey theme. While the first POTA was a good take on a novel by Pierre Boulle (Bridge on the River Kwai) with historical allusions about the dark potential in man and animal nature, the subsequent films are all very different. The second is awful, the third is ingenious, the fourth leans into the political and the fifth is something of a reheated dinner. But leaning into the political was a dangerous game in the mid-70’s, particularly in hindsight, and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes has some genuine virtues.

I’ve enjoyed visiting places first seen in the movies; the setting here is the far future of 1983, and producers decided to use Century City, a brutalist space-age mall partly built on the old 20th Century Fox lot in mid-town LA. I lived in and mooched around there in several different apartments while writing, grabbing Subway sandwiches on rainy days or driving to the nearby Ralph’s for sustinance and wheatgrass juice, and its every bit the kind of inhospitable, lunar landscape that it appears to be here. Sparsely populated and towered over by faceless sky-scrapers, it’s an ideal backdrop for a solid slice of dystopian/paranoid fantasy; after a virus kills off all of our cats and dogs, apes become man’s pets, or rather slaves. Ape-about-town Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) tries to avoid becoming a political figure, but can’t resist getting involved, leading a rebellion against their human oppressors.

Oddly, the first film in the modern trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, covers roughly the same story, although without the time-travel elements that are amped down here. But there’s something primal about seeing the apes rejecting their menial tasks like shoe-shining and immediately start to attack the riot police which reflects 70’s preoccupations with race in a disturbing way. With McDowall behind a mask and hangover character circus–owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) quickly dispensed with, the central figure here is Don Murray as the Governor who sees his city on fire at the ‘birth of the planet of the apes’, and his gift for using torture and brutality to suppress dissent means he pretty much deserves what’s coming to him.

Even for a dystopian/paranoid fantasy, Conquest of the Planets of the Apes is bleak, uncompromising stuff; the ending was re-shot to offer some scant comfort, but there’s little doubt here that society is doomed, conflict is inevitable, and there’s no way for anyone in this film to accommodate their enemies. Lee Thompson does better with the action that the characters, but students of how cinema reflects the past when it predicts the future should take a look at the grim past-future imagined here.


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  1. Sseen them all, old and new. The earlier ones managed to make political points without being too long-winded or obvious about it. I was always intrigued by how the retreads tried to cover new ground each time rather than simply like the Seven movies covering the same old ground. Can never top the ending of the first, though.

  2. Despite the (Oscar-winning) ape makeup, the whole original run of these movies remains pretty good viewing. They had some good storylines. Sort of like Star Trek in the golden age. The reboot trilogy was just crap, in comparison.

    • I liked the reboot trilogy, but it doesn’t have the variety of the first five. Three is probably the best one, very odd, Outer Limits story, tv stuff but on the big screen.

  3. Saw the original with Heston and saw the reboot with Wahlberg. Never had any interest to try any of the others, new or old. I’ll leave it to Fraggle to soldier on while I sit here in comfort on my couch.

  4. I never realized this was the basic plot outline of the CPOTA. I haven’t seen any of them, and thought they were just kind of silly monkey movies. Reading this and seeing they’re deeper makes me want to check them out….

    • A barometer of contemporary American political thought! I can clear my schedule to lecture on this at your local library! Boulle had obvious concentration camp scores to setle with Kwai, but POTA is very much sci-fi that relates specifically to historical events, and the idea that society is doomed via entropy; hence the iconic images of Lady Liberty buried in the sand. The second film adds nothing but blows up the planet, but films three and four are really worth a look. There’s an ambigious treatment of racial issues that comes and goes, but is very reflective of the time; it’s old school Fox studio viewpoint mixed with 70’s counterculture. The modern trilogy takes a much firmer, more cohesive and more epic throughline, but each of these films has some insight to offer, accidental or otherwise.

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