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Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

In 1972, the year after the best Apes sequel ever, "Escape from the Planet of the Apes" the fourth entry CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES hit theaters.

Hampered by some questionable editing and a limited budget, it's one the darkest tales in the Apes legacy.

The only speaking simian on Earth, Cornelius and Zira's son Caesar is now twenty years old and still played by the great Roddy McDowell.

He's lived his life hiding his abilities as a quiet part of Armando's traveling circus. Armando (Ricardo Montalban) and Caesar arrive in a big city as the film opens and are shocked by the treatment of the apes, who have gone from pets to servants after a virus wiped out every cat and dog on the planet.

Before long. Caesar can't resist and shouts something at the Nazi-like enforcers keeping the apes in line. Oops, Armando is almost instantly in trouble.

The city depicted is fascinating, but just one of the troubling questions that loom unanswered over the story.

How did the USA go from the normality depicted in the previous film to the near complete police state depicted here as 1991? Even more troubling, how did all the apes in the world go from their caged state to more humanoid form in just one generation?

OK, lets just roll with it.

After Armando meets an untimely end, Caesar is left to fend for himself and tries to blend in with other arrivals to the ape training facility.

In about five minutes, the film jumps to him starting to silently instill a spirit of revolt in his fellow chimps, orangutans and gorillas. It's a jarring edit. It feels like twenty minutes of story were left on the editing room floor. We could attribute that to a couple things. At the time, 20th Century Fox was recovering from the departure of Daryl Zanuck and a string of massive financial failures, including "Tora, Tora, Tora" and "Hello Dolly". Budgets were cut so severely that the majority of this entry was filmed in the Century Plaza shops, newly opened on what used to be their backlot.

The ape makeup is excellent on the main actors but pretty cheap and bad on all the extras. Over-the-head-pull-on masks are a long way from the genius makeup of John Chambers for the original film.

I remember seeing this as a kid opening weekend with my Mom and we were both left pretty shocked by the amount of torture, violence and mayhem on screen. It earned its PG rating after its G rated predecessors.

An early test screening in Phoenix showed that the violence was too overwhelming and that Caesar's transformation from kind to vengeful painted him in the same light as the villainous Governor Brock (Dan Taylor, chewing the scenery like he's in a Shakespeare tragedy) and his Nazi like regime.

Rather than spend another dollar on the film, they just re-edited the final five minutes. The camera gets so close up on McDowell's face that you cant see his mouth. It's a good thing, since the dialogue is a 180 degree pivot. Caesar flips from a passionate, hate filled speech about taking their revenge on mankind, to a Gandhi like Ted talk about compassion for the humans.

It's clumsy and deflates what could have been a powerful conclusion.

Producers hired composer Tom Scott on the cheap and he manages to create an inventive, jazz inspired percussion score for the film. It's adequate until you hear a full orchestra drop in with Jerry Goldsmith's original theme in the final moments, immediately elevating everything around it.

McDowell is very good in a role he was thrilled to play. Often bound by the calm, good nature of his role as Cornelius in the previous films, he loved showing off his full range of emotions behind the mask this time out.

It's also good to see Natalie Trundy (Dr. Branton in the last installment and one of the radioactive mutants in "Beneath") back, and in ape makeup for the first time as Lisa.

CONQUEST is a major let down after the brilliance of ESCAPE the year before, but its screenplay roots are solid, with Paul Dehn (Goldfinger, Murder on the Orient Express) returning to weave in intelligent references to the civil rights movement of the late 60's.

I'll give it a C. It's brilliant compared to the next film, "Battle for the Planet of the Apes" that was released the following year. They should have left that one on the bottom of the monkey cage.

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