Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972 USA)

conquest2No, this is not an Isis recruitment video although it looks like one with the brightly coloured boiler suits on display. In 1961, writer Rod Sterling was asked “what he’d most like to write about next?” He responded: “I’d like to do a definitive study of segregation, from the Negro’s point of view.” Several years later Sterling would write the screenplay for “Planet of the Apes”, soon turned into a 1968 groundbreaking movie. A “what if the shoe were on the other foot?” parable, the film finds a chauvinistic American astronaut stranded on a planet ruled by apes. Here he’s forced to experience racial discrimination of a type once reserved for blacks.

Much of “Planet of the Apes” consisted of a hierarchical society of monkeys, apes and gorillas enslaving and persecuting white humans, actions which they justify along bio-genetic lines. Ironically, though it was intended to show support for African Americans, “Planet” came under attack from activists and black leaders. The film, some argued, re-inscribed racial conflict as species conflict (black/monkey vs white/human), and hinged on physical difference as the point of struggle. The film also played into issues of skin-colour hierarchy, making lighter apes more intelligent than their darker, more uncivilized counterparts.

Others would argue that the film endorsed various racist “interpretations” of biological evolution; the belief that Africans are “closer to animal than man”, and that primates occupy the border zones between mythic poles. In this view, apes and Africans are liminal creatures, simultaneously like and unlike human beings, located between nature and civilization, origin and destination. These contradictions have led to the film being labelled either well-meaning or reactionary, pandering to white fears of black uprisings and loss of racial dominance.

This, after all, was a period of time in which some believed that black liberation struggles would threaten the security of white racial hegemony. Indeed, during the 1960s Charlton Heston seemed to be perpetually fighting to defend an outpost on the margins of Western civilization from barbaric onslaughts ( El Cid, 55 Days at Peking, Khartoum etc). “Planet of the Apes” was brilliantly directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, who treats us to some wonderful widescreen photography, not to mention the unforgettable score by Jerry Goldsmith.

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Its sequel was “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”(1970): filled with apocalyptic imagery (lots of radiation, nuclear war, disease) portraying its society of apes, the winners in a war between monkey and man, as having become as supremacist, racist, warmongering and destructive as white humans. Plus the ending couldn’t be more of a downer! Rod Sterling’s metaphors are henceforth complicated; both the white man and ape at different points of the franchise’s time-line represent both white hegemony and persecuted blacks. Apes, we then learn, were once slaves to humans, just as humans are now slaves to apes. The first two films in the franchise also hinge on a big secret: the ape society is covering up the fact that human civilization existed before ape civilizations and that apes are “descended” from humans.

The implication, depending how literally you regard the film’s dubious ape/minority metaphors and reversals, is that whites shamefully regard themselves as having “evolved” from blacks. The next film in the franchise, “Escape from the Planet of the Apes”(1971) sees a group of intellectual apes travelling back in time. They arrive on Earth, where they are abused by a paranoid military industrial complex which kills them all, except for one ape child, Caesar. Then J. Lee Thompson’s “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” followed. The best sequel in the franchise – a now adult Caesar leads a revolution (based on the 1965 Watts race riots) against a humanity which is attempting to turn apes into slaves.

Significantly, Caesar’s army of apes learns to talk. Their first word is “no”, a command which refers to the apes’ abhorrence of weapons and violence. So each ape film is built around the conflict between a racially dominant oppressive group and a racially subordinate oppressed group seeking survival, harmony or reversal of domination. Each film also presents mediating figures – typically marginalized and at odds with the oppressing group – who intervene in the conflict and act as advocates of harmony. The advocates of peace rarely prevail and hostility always results in apocalyptic violence. What was unique about the original Apes franchise was that each sequel had a smaller budget than its predecessor, and this sometimes limits the action. But what each film had was a sobriety that modern movies could take a leaf from.

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Comments

  1. Excellent review! I love “Conquest” – it’s my fave, second only to the original first film. I’d love to hear your take on the recent “reboot” of the series one day, I hear these remade films are full of CG and loud jump-scares. 😥

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you! With low expectations I remember being surprised at how good this one was… Its hard to keep up with all the remakes but I’ll give one of those a look soon. 🙂

    Like

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