(WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW)
Released in 1972, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was the fourth film in the original Planet of the Apes saga. Taking place two decades after the end of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest details how Caesar, the son of Cornelius and Zira, eventually rallies his fellow apes to overthrow humanity. Caesar, in this film, is played by Roddy McDowall and Conquest features what is probably his best performance of the series.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is definitely the most radical film of the series and it’s probably one of the most radical films of the 1970s. Once you peel away the sci-fi/fantasy wrapping, you’re left with one of the few “mainstream” studio films to ever promote the idea of overthrowing society with a violent revolution. Even when viewed today, it’s odd to consider that this violent and rather dark film was actually given the same G rating that was otherwise exclusively given to children’s films. Obviously, the poor critical reputation of the Planet of the Apes series kept the Hollywood censors from really paying attention to what they were watching.
Director J. Lee Thompson goes for a far different direction from the previous more television-orientated directors involved with the series. Thompson emphasizes that savage, totalitarian aspect of future human civilization. This is a film in which the most sympathetic human character (the circus owner played by Ricardo Montalban) is graphically tortured and murdered within the first few minutes of the film. This is followed by Caesar being given electro-shocked treatment by the cheerful torturer Kolp (Severn Darden, who is a chilling villain) and finally, Caesar and his fellow apes violently overthrowing society while the futuristic city burns in the background.
Director Thompson reportedly based the ape uprising on contemporary news reports about the Black Panthers and it brings a real sense of urgency to the film. What sets this film apart is that director Thompson is clearly on the side of the Apes and by the end of the film, so is the audience. McDowall’s passionate performance is neatly contrasted with an equally impassioned performance from Don Murray (who plays Breck, the racist leader of the humans) and the audience is firmly on McDowall’s side by the end of the film, cheering as their own civilization is destroyed.
Originally, Thompson wanted to end the film with McDowall giving a fiery speech announcing that the time of man was finished. However, this finally proved to be too much for the film’s producers and, at the last minute, the scene was clumsily redubbed to allow Caesar to suddenly — out of nowhere — have a change of heart and call for a peaceful co-existence. This revised ending — though it did leave things open for yet another sequel — is an undeniable weakness. It just doesn’t feel right.
With that in mind, here’s Thompson’s original, unseen ending, in which Caesar watches as his apes followers murder Don Murray. It gives you a feeling of the type of film that Thompson was going for: