Showing posts with label racism parallels. Show all posts
Showing posts with label racism parallels. Show all posts

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) 3 of 4

** this review (especially where noted) has spoilers on the original Planet of the Apes movie-cycle **

In the mid 1980s, I started taking notes on each film viewed.  I have no record of a review of this film, which means I just saw it for the first time in at least 30 years.  It's better than I thought. 

The Planet of the Apes franchise is of course science fiction, so it's all speculative.  Still, this film is clearly offered as a possible future: the characters even discuss whether they can prevent the apocalyptic timeline portrayed in the earlier films.  The story is also framed with a speech by "the Lawgiver" (John Huston), speaking some centuries in the future.  Since the film asserts the possibility of changing the timeline, this frame emphasizes that the characters have choices, that their choices will influence the future, even centuries down the line.   

Battle is the only Apes film in which apes and humans coexist in peace, although that peace doesn't last.  The apes are still led by Caesar (Roddy McDowell), who led the slave revolt in Conquest.  Caesar has created a utopian community of apes and humans, although the apes are dominant.  Although war has killed most of the Earth's population, the idyllic community is sheltered among rolling green hills evocative of Tolkien's Hobbiton, or the legendary Arcadia. 

The premise and setting are inspired, and the film has an eerie charge.  Battle is, I think, significantly better than Conquest, which is just a dutiful recounting of the inevitable ape takeover.  Like Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Conquest is an in-between sequel that never establishes it's own identity.  Also, Fox was uncomfortable with the disturbing ending to Conquest (inspired by the Watts riots); they demanded it be softened with Caesar's promise of mercy for the subjugated humans. 

Although the original ending has been restored on the DVD, we should remember that Battle is a sequel to the softened version of Conquest, thus it starts with an uneasy peace between apes and humans. 

Making a high-profile film series that allegorically addressed the racial tensions of the U.S. took its toll on the filmmakers.  Screenwriter Paul Dehn had to quit Battle for health reasons, and his story was altered.  For example, the new scripters excised Dehn's idea that the apes deliberately deprived humans of their ability to speak (thus the mute humans in Planet of the Apes).  Both Dehn and producer Arthur Jacobs, the prime mover behind the franchise, died within three years of Battle's release.   

Like Conquest, Battle was directed by J. Lee Thompson.  Thompson spent the 1960s making blockbusters: The Guns of Navarone, Taras Bulba.  In the early 1970s, he sobered up, and was looking for a meaningful challenge, and found it in the Apes franchise.  I suspect Thompson was deeply shaken by the shocked reaction to the violent end of Conquest, evidence his dazed quote  about the changed ending:  "It was a copout, but a copout I was fully in favor of." 

** severe spoilers ahead **

I believe this recent stress caused Battle's greatest flaw, action scenes that pull their punches.  The plot turns on the death of Caesar's son when a gorilla chops the branch the youth is standing on.  Unfortunately, the scene is ridiculous as filmed, as we're asked to believe that a young, healthy chimpanzee would die from a fall of about 15 feet.  It doesn't work at all.  Similar flaws plague the climactic battle.  This attack by a human clan on the ape village looks hokey, with a small number of human soldiers, and the continual re-use of the same exploding treehouse. 

Still, the film holds up well as an unsettling, alternate-reality variation on the Blaxploitation genre.  Although not the best of the series, it retains some potency at a point when most movie-series are scraping bottom.  Then and now, Battle for the Planet of the Apes confronts the viewer, because of course, we are the ones deciding possible futures.