Conquest of the Planet of the Apes


“Tonight, we have seen the birth of the planet of the apes!”

Main Cast: Roddy McDowall, Ricardo Montalban

Director: J. Lee Thompson

In 1991, eight years after the death of every cat and dog on the planet, mankind has found a new pet: apes. But these pets are even better than Rover or Fluffy, because they can learn to carry out various tasks humanity doesn’t care anymore to do for itself, like run errands, clean up after itself, or carry its own shopping bags. In the space of those eight years since the cats and dogs were killed, apes have gone from replacement pets to slave labor.

And this doesn’t sit well with Caesar.

Caesar, played brilliantly by Roddy McDowall, is the 20-year-old offspring of Cornelius and Zira, the apes who arrived on Earth from the future two decades earlier, and who were shot to death, along with their baby–or so it was assumed.

In reality, to keep their baby safe, the pair swapped it with a real baby chimpanzee from a circus owned by Armando (Ricardo Montalban, Fantasy Island), a friend of Dr. Dixon’s in ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES. Armando, a very staunch supporter of animal rights, raised Caesar as an equal, but also warns him that for his safety he must blend in with the rest of the ape population. If the authorities knew who Caesar was, he would be executed for fear he would help to create a more evolved ape population.

One day they spot a group of police beating an ape and Caesar, without thinking, shouts out, calling them names. Other than Cornelius and Zira, apes can’t talk yet, so Armando takes the blame and is arrested. Caesar escapes, but is caught again and sold at auction to Governor Breck (Don Murray, The Stepford Children), who suspects not only that this might be Armando’s missing ape, but also that Caesar may be the child of Zira and Cornelius.

Before Breck can act on his supposition, however, Caesar has already formed an underground army of apes, ready to turn the tide on their human oppressors.

The plot of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES follows the backstory laid out in ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES by Cornelius, only in that version it was an ape named Aldo who first said “No” to his human masters, not Caesar. Then again, Cornelius was from 2000 years in the future, so it’s easy to suppose the actual details got blurred along the way.

So far, I think this one just might be my favorite movie of the series. And once again, that rests entirely on Mcdowall’s shoulders. What he did for Cornelius in two previous movies, he’s done once again for Cornelius’s son. Only instead of quiet and introspective, curious and cautious, he’s given Caesar an entirely different personality. I can believe in the movie’s opening that Caesar really is a 20-year-old “man”, angry at the world he sees around him, desperate to effect change, and willful enough to do so at any cost. McDowall’s talents carry so far beyond the make-up it’s incredible.

The themes CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES deals with are strong and well-presented without bashing the viewer over the head. Even the fact that MacDonald (Hari Rhodes, Coma), the government agent to whom Caesar finally reveals himself, is Black doesn’t come across as heavy handed as I’d expected. It obviously is not lost on the viewer that Caesar is talking to a Black man about oppression and setting his people free, and for a moment I cringed at how obvious and ill-conceived it was going to be played. But the way it was handled by both the actors and the script, it just added another layer to an already complex character in Caesar–and in MacDonald.

For such a simple story, the scale of this movie is very grand, especially the climactic ape revolt.

The make-up wasn’t quite as detailed or careful as in the earlier installments. Cornelius and Zira had ape feet in ESCAPE, but all the apes have regular human-looking feet this time out. Plus in almost every close-up scene, the Muppet mouths were very, very obvious.

I enjoyed seeing how well this one tied into the previous movie, even though it was 20 years later.

I was very pleased to see Armando’s character hadn’t changed and that he was in essence a good person who had spent all those years taking such good care of Cornelius and Zira’s baby. That, coupled with MacDonald’s character, works to balance out how detestable most of the other human characters were, and brings a sense of hope to the whole thing.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, considering it’s the fourth in a series it doesn’t seem to be losing steam at all. In fact, the overall APES story just gets more and more interesting as the movies go, and CONQUEST is, so far, the best of the lot–okay the second best; PLANET OF THE APES will always be the best. But CONQUEST is trailing really close behind.

The Evolution of a Franchise

Planet of the Apes

Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Escape from the Planet of the Apes

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