Conquest of the Planet of the Apes asks its audience to swallow a number of premises, any one of which ought to make the most flexible mind choke. Even if you dismiss the fact that the film completely ignores the timeline established in the previous film, you still have to get past some real logical doozies.
First, you have to believe that if all dogs and cat were wiped out, the human race would turn to apes as replacements. I can hear all owners of birds, rabbits, hamsters and who knows what else rolling their collective eyes at that one. Then you have to accept the idea that the Great Apes we know today (chimps, orangutans and gorillas) have evolved to resemble John Chamber’s creations in less than 20 years. Of course, today we might reasonably postulate genetic engineering, but in 1972, screenwriter Paul Dehn didn’t have that option. Even if you can accept those two whoppers, then you have to believe that these apes could be trained to replace sanitation workers, domestic labor and waiters in fancy restaurants.
I know, I know, it’s supposed to be fantasy, but the logical mind can only accept so much fantasy before it snaps back and says, “Oh, come on now!”
Conquest takes place a little less than 20 years after Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Caesar (Roddy McDowall), the child of Cornelius and Zira, has been hiding among the circus run by Armando (Ricardo Montalban) since his parents were killed at the end of that movie. When Armando brings his circus to an unnamed city, Caesar sees how apes have been effectively turned into slave labor, beaten and shocked when they don’t obey their masters. When he can’t contain his outrage, this raises the suspicion of Governor Brent (Don Murray), who thinks that Caesar might be the offspring of the talking apes from the future.
When Armando is brought in for questioning, Caesar hides among apes recently captured and is auctioned off to the Governor. There he gets a first hand look at how apes are treated by men. After Armando is killed by the governor’s goons, Caesar begins organizing the other apes for a revolt.
The movie never really deals with exactly how Caesar pulls this off, probably because it’s another premise that makes no sense if you think about it too hard. Conquest doesn’t really hit its stride, if it has one, until the last third, when the apes start rampaging through the city. These scenes are dark, violent, frenetic and, I think, deliberately reminiscent of news footage of civil unrest from the sixties, such as the Watts Riots. Unfortunately, many shots of the apes overwhelming the riot police are about as credible and convincing as shots of Ewoks defeating stormtroopers. In other words, not at all.
As Caesar, Roddy McDowall does a good job of differentiating him from Cornelius, making him angrier and less empathetic than his father. His fiery closing speech is still one of most memorable moments of the entire film series, even if the rest of the film is not.
On the flip side, as Governor Brent, Don Murray chews up the scenery like a gas-powered wood chipper turned up to eleven. As his aide, McDonald, Hari Rhodes is more effective and sympathetic. Given the film’s overt allusions to early American slavery, it’s probably inevitable that the only good human after Armando would be a black man.
Apart from McDowall’s performance and a few striking images, Conquest ranks far beneath Escape among the Apes sequels. Only the lowly stature of the other two redeem it in any way.