Sunday, July 8, 2012

El Professore Movie Review: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes - The Unrated Director's Cut

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes - The Unrated Director's Cut

Director: J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Roddy McDowall, Don Murray, Hari Rhodes, Ricardo Montalban
* * * *
At last, my nearly two decade search for the darker and more violent version of my second favorite 'Apes' film (after the damn, dirty original) has ended thanks to one kind, anonymous soul who was able to convert his blu ray disc (the only way it was officially released, grrrrr!) onto a dvdr for my extreme viewing pleasure. The wait was worth it...

Full review after the jump.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was the fourth of the original five film series (and the inspiration for Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and takes place twenty years after the events in Escape... Ceasar (Roddy McDowall) the child of the slain chimps from the future (Cornelius and Zira), has been secretly hiding in a circus under the care of owner (and father figure) Armando (Ricardo Montalban). Armando fears for Ceasar's life as the search has been on for the talking chimp who has been prophecised to ultimately bring an end to the human race as we know it. Now an adult, Ceasar is taken into the city for the first time and discovers it to be a police state, little more than martial law. His kind being treated as slaves. Some years ago, a mysterious plague wiped out all dogs and cats. People took to keeping apes as replacement pets initially before eventually using them as slave labor. Armando is taken into custody and questioned by Governor Breck (Don Murray). Ceasar escapes and blends in with his fellow chimps so as not to be discovered. Ironically, Ceasar is sold to Breck who has no idea the chimp he's searching for is right under his nose. Meanwhile under harsh questioning and the threat of being injected with a truth serum, Armando throws himself out a window and to his death rather than divulge his knowledge of (and participation in hiding) the talking chimp. Hearing of the news of his beloved mentor's suicide, Ceasar (who's feelings toward humanity were tentative to begin with), loses all faith and plans a violent revolution with his fellow simians.

The Apes series had always been political allegories disguised as science fiction, yet despite the adult themes and inherent violence presented in the first three films in the series they were still regarded as family entertainment and thus recieved the 'G' rating (yes, even Beneath... with it's shootout/doomsday finale STILL somehow got the 'G' rating!). Conquest... however was a different animal. This one was disturbingly dark on a level the others weren't. The allegory here was about racial tensions with the apes standing in for blacks (it is no coincidence that this film did extremely strong business in highly urbanized areas where black audiences responded to the apes revolution with thunderous applause). For the blood soaked finale, the action is boldly patterned after the infamous 'Watts Riots' of 1965. So bloody were the final 30 minutes and so bleak was it's outcome (the victorious Ceasar delivering a chilling speech that essentially fulfills the prophecy) that the film likely would have recieved an 'R' rating which would have kept the younger crowd away. The test previews bore this out as horrified parents couldn't get their kids to the exits quickly enough. In a last minute move to salvage a 'PG' rating, much of the more intense violence and blood squibs were edited out and Roddy McDowall was called back in to soften Ceasar's final speech, thus offering a more hopeful outcome (which always seemed to be a bit of a copout, even before I found out about the re-editing). Even in this watered down version, it was still mighty potent and saw parents still understandably keeping their kids away.

Featuring terrific, economic direction from J. Lee Thompson (who directed the war classic, 'The Guns of Navarone' and the Film Noir fave, 'Cape Fear') who saturated the film with harsh black and red colorings (the red outfits worn by the gorillas and the black outfits donned by the decidedly gestapo-like military) and highlighted by a performance for the ages by McDowall (certaintly his best Apes perf and one of the greatest ever for a sci fi film), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes - The Unrated Director's Cut is a low budget masterpiece. Part Apes adventure and part 70s urban action fest (of the 'Dirty Harry' and 'Shaft' variety), it is a dystopian classic like no other. Essential viewing.

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