Escape from the Planet of the Apes, I wrote, requires a "little effort" to buy its setup. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) requires a lot of effort. That's not to say it's a bad entry in the series. It fits quite well the franchise and offers a plethora of ideas to meditate on. By the end of the film, when ape leader Caesar (Roddy McDowell), the son of the future chimps Zira and Cornelius, delivers a fire-and-brimstone speech declaring the era of man finished and that apes will now rule, it's hard to not be swept up by the passion and excitement of the simian revolution.
Like other entries in the Planet of the Apes saga, Conquest boasts its own look and style. Instead of the epic sci-fi adventure of the original, the subterranean clash of societies and phantasmagoria in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and the contemporary comedy and conspiracy thriller of Escape, Conquest boasts a hi-tech, dystopian near-future (1991 to precise) in which the apes are the enslaved underclass while the human government has morphed into a totalitarian, fascist regime. Loud speakers herd the masses, police officers with batons and machine guns violently disperse protesting workers and crack the skulls of disobedient apes, and people who are arrested are subject to torture. The black irony of the original and the charming humor of Escape have been replaced by a cold, autocratic system.
This is a compelling change of scenery. Instead of deserts and underground tunnels, the movie gives us a glimpse at a sleek, urban future. The ape slaves all wear colored jumpsuits, and the human authorities, all dressed in black, resemble American Gestapo. Director J. Lee Thompson gives the film a rigid, confining feel: sharp angles, tall metal buildings, and an oppressive atmosphere. Rooms are sleek and sterile, and we frequently get confining images of the apes - between bars, within door frames, through the booted legs of officers, underneath stairwells, cowering below whips - that reinforce that they are the downtrodden species. And there are some amusing throwaway details, such as the striking human waiters who consider apes scabs and the customers who tip ape waiters with sugar cubes.
But Conquest falters heavily in the credibility department. I can buy that thousands of years in the future, apes have evolved to be the dominant species on the planet with the power of speech and size comparable to humans. The apes in Conquest, save for Caesar, are meant to be simians taken right from the jungle, straight out of the wild. I don't buy that when the apes are clearly actors in masks and makeup; that's not to say the makeup effects are bad, but they don't believably resemble real apes of the 20th century. The film also greatly overestimates just how teachable real apes are, showing them capable of comparatively complex tasks and learning.
The film also hammers home the humans-are-scumbags message very, very thick. It's almost as if the humans are trying to get the apes to revolt because of how bad they treat them; every action villain Governor Breck (Don Murray) takes seems designed to just point how evil he is. When he learns an escaping ape was caught and killed after it attacked its master, he is angered and shocked that a slave would dare harm its master. His aide MacDonald (Hari Rhodes) points out the ape had bruises all over its body, indicating its master beat it, and Breck replies it must have done something to deserve it. The idea that slaves would want to escape or retaliate is just baffling to Breck, and for a series that's done so well with villains, he just comes off as a mustache-twirling jerk, a bad guy we just want to see brought down because he's such a meanie.
Humans, he tells MacDonald, won't learn to be kind until "we force them to, and we can't do that unless we're free." At the end, when Caesar delivers his sermon declaring the end of man to his army of apes, a fire burns around him. It's intense, frightening, and awe-inspiring, and based on how we've seen man treat ape, it's almost impossible to not agree with him. The series has been decidedly anti-war in its previous three entries and illustrated the cyclical, self-destructive nature of violence, but Conquest is the first to argue that violence, in cases where freedom is denied, can be a solution. Revolution, Caesar explains, is the "only means left to us."
It all comes back to the theme of man being the engine of his own destruction. Instead of blowing himself up with nuclear weapons in a war driven by conquest and religious dogma, he is undone by his own inhumanity. Oppressing the apes is what drives them to stand up and resist, and in the process, humanity's dominance toppled. A society built on fear, greed, exploitation, and cruelty will crumble when the persecuted rise up, the movie argues.
The film has two endings. The theatrical version ends with Caesar staying his hand and allowing the fallen Breck to live. In the original, unrated ending, he goes through with the execution, and Breck is smashed by apes with rifles. The former, thematically, offers the idea of cooperation and coexistence, which is explored more in the next sequel, but it's shoddily done, McDowell's voice is awkwardly dubbed over the footage, and it just takes the viewer out of the moment. The latter is more logical and consistent with the theme of revolution; sorry mankind, you had your chance.