Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is about a bunch of ape slaves overpowering their human masters. Any film with a thirty second recap of the previous sequel by Ricardo Montalban has to be at least amusing, but Conquest is actually better than amusing (until the actual revolt begins). Since the film didn’t have any real budget, it shot entirely (I think entirely) at Fox’s then-new Century City complex–because it looked future-like. The film opens with a great fifteen or twenty minute, almost real-time sequence of Ricardo Montalban walking around with Roddy McDowell’s talking ape. Bruce Surtees shot Conquest and it’s a beautiful looking film. Director J. Lee Thompson does well in the confines too, making Century City’s stark impersonality look interesting. Montalban owns those first twenty minutes and sets the film up better than it turns out.
The problem is the eventual slave revolt. The acting is excellent across the board–Hari Rhodes as the sympathetic black guy (since Conquest is from 1972, there’s a lot more racial honesty than I’ve seen in a film in years), Severn Darden as the bad guy, and Don Murray as the sort-of bad guy. Murray’s got a few mouthfuls of exposition to get out and, while he doesn’t get them out as well as Montalban, he still does an admirable job. Paul Dehn wrote Conquest (he also wrote the unspeakably awful Beneath and the superior Escape) and he does layer some complexities into the characters, Murray’s especially. Unfortunately, Dehn doesn’t give McDowell as the ape leader any complexity. Once the revolt starts, the film becomes visually dynamic–to a point–the scenes of the revolt are good, but the dramatic thrust of the film is gone. Since the ending is predetermined for a large part, there’s not much interesting going on.
McDowell’s the film’s second biggest problem. His character makes a huge transition in addition to going from being the protagonist to being the subject of Conquest and he doesn’t pull it off. That failing isn’t really McDowell’s, but the script’s. There’s only so much one could do with a film like Conquest–first, that predetermined outcome, second, the single talking ape (as opposed to… I don’t know, two. Two would have done it), and then the cast of human characters. Conquest doesn’t pull many punches about whose side it’s own either. There are a bunch of white guys in jack-boots and SS outfits giving black people shit and beating defenseless animals. There’s a visual metaphor, but it doesn’t go much further, which is kind of nice. Conquest needed to embrace what it had more, instead of working blindly toward its ending. Still, it’s a great looking film. Thompson’s use of the limited set, along with Surtees’s lighting, is beautiful.
Directed by J. Lee Thompson; screenplay by Paul Dehn; director of photography, Bruce Surtees; edited by Marjorie Fowler and Alan Jaggs; music by Tom Scott; produced by Arthur P. Jacobs; released by 20th Century-Fox.
Starring Roddy McDowall (Caesar), Don Murray (Breck), Natalie Trundy (Lisa), Hari Rhodes (MacDonald) and Ricardo Montalban (Armando).