It’s human nature to overstay your welcome, especially when you’re having a good time. Apparently it’s simian nature too, as you’ll discover if you watch Battle For the Planet of the Apes (1973).
The final film in the original Apes series is not without merit, but it is without a point. It’s creatively unnecessary, and riddled with storytelling inconsistencies that threaten to undermine the narrative integrity of the series as a whole.
Of course, you could say the same about the latter chapters of every multi-installment work in film history, from the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies to the much-maligned Star Wars prequels. But what’s frustrating about Apes is, with a few different decisions, the five films could have fit together like a perfectly planned puzzle. That’s impressive, considering that the “saga” was made up as they went along (mostly by screenwriter Paul Dehn), with Pierre Boulle’s novel providing only a very loose basis for the first film.
If I was living in the sci-fi world of the Apes movies, I could commandeer a spaceship, travel back in time to 1972 and stop producer Arthur P. Jacobs from hiring soap opera scribes John and Joyce Corrington to write the denouement of his pentalogy. But I’m not, so I will have to accept the lovably imperfect beast that is Battle For the Planet of the Apes.
When last we saw our primate protagonist Caesar (Roddy McDowall), the orphaned child of “ape-o-nauts” Cornelius and Zira, he was inciting his fellows to rise up against their human masters, on an occasion that came to be known in ape history as the Night of the Fires.
”Tonight, we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!” Caesar proclaims at the conclusion of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), as the emancipated slaves cheer and the flames of freedom burn.
Battle begins, inexplicably, in the year 2670, nearly seven centuries later. The Lawgiver (legendary director John Huston, in orangutan makeup) wanders around a river as if he’s gotten lost on a camping trip. He reads from a parchment, reminding the audience what happened in the last two movies. This is accompanied by a lengthy flashback montage, like they used to do on hour-long specials of Family Ties.
Sadly, the Lawgiver makes no mention of how Jacobs re-cut the end of Conquest after a bad test screening in Phoenix, nor of how McDowall had to re-record his final speech so it was less militaristic and Black Power-y. You’d think an omniscient being like the Lawgiver would be aware of details like that, or would at least have a better research staff.
The Battle hasn’t even started, and we’ve already gotten two huge clues it will be lame. Heretofore in the series, the Lawgiver has been a mythic figure, a prophet spoken of in reverential tones, like Moses or Muhammad. Using him to narrate a clip montage feels low-rent, like Jesus coming back to earth to guest-host an episode of Dr. Phil.
Another important point: beware of sequels in which the ‘here’s what happened before” montage goes on too long. Any movie that starts with five minutes of another movie (or two others, in this case) has nothing important to say and is clearly looking to kill time.
The Lawgiver proceeds to tell us that nuclear war (though he doesn’t say “nuclear” — that would be too much of a downer) “split asunder the great cities of the world.” He adds that Caesar survived (natch) and decided to form a community where “ape and human could forever live in friendship.”
Come on. What kind of hippie bullshit is this? Ape and human aren’t supposed to live together in peace and harmony on some kind of interspecial version of Max Yasgur’s farm. They’re supposed to chase each other on horseback, lock each other in cages and give each other lobotomies. And they’re supposed to battle. That’s the title of the movie, after all.
Nobody knows this better than The Lawgiver. He’s the guy who warned the entire ape race about their biggest threat, in no uncertain terms:
”Beware the beast, man, for he is the Devil’s pawn,” he wrote in the Sacred Scrolls. “Shun him. Drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.”
But after Conquest was slapped with a PG rating by the MPAA, Jacobs apparently decided that Battle needed to be rated G, and thus softer in tone. I imagine that happened around the time he looked at the balance sheet and saw how much money he was making from coloring books. My Aunt Margaret bought me one in 1973, so I guess I’ll have to accept part of the blame for the dumbing down of the franchise. But good God, I loved that Planet of the Apes coloring book! I can still see it like it was yesterday.
Anyway. Back to our story.
In the thirty years since their emancipation, apes have not only achieved dominance over humans, they’ve also gained the ability to speak – thus compressing what originally had been two millennia of evolution into three decades. Now-fifty-year old Caesar presides over the “Ape City” (actually a collection of tree houses with lovely eat-in kitchens) along with his similarly-aged wife Lisa and their six-year-old son Cornelius.
To clarify: the Cornelius in Battle is the grandson of the Cornelius in the other films, even though he was born nearly 2,000 years before his grandfather. (Stay with me here.) To recap: the elder Cornelius begat Milo, named after Dr. Milo, who died in Escape because Sal Mineo didn’t like wearing ape make-up. Milo was renamed Caesar by evil Governor Breck in Conquest and mated with Lisa. Caesar and Lisa must have gotten hold of some birth control pills, because they didn’t reproduce for nearly a quarter of a century, but when they finally did, they named the baby Cornelius, after Caesar’s dad.
Making matters even more complicated, Roddy McDowall plays both Caesar/Milo AND the elder Cornelius, who appears in flashback in the prologue of Battle and on videotape that Caesar unearths when he and his human friend Mr. MacDonald (the brother of the African American character from Conquest, who is also called Mr. MacDonald) go to the Forbidden City Archives, where they encounter Governor Kolp (Severn Darden), who was Governor Breck’s sadistic security officer, living with a colony of funny-hat-wearing human survivors of the atomic bomb blast.
Got it? Good. Moving on.
Governor Kolp discovers that his former nemesis Caesar is still alive, and mounts an attack on the Ape City using a school bus, three motorcycles, and a jeep with a flamethrower. He and his soldiers wear nifty ski goggles, I assume because their eyes are sensitive from living underground. Or from the nuclear bomb blast. Or maybe Arthur P. Jacobs’ got some product placement money from a goggle manufacturer.
The titular battle in Battle is really more of a skirmish between a handful of mutants and about two-dozen apes. But would you pay to see a movie called Skirmish With a Few Guys Wearing Ski Goggles on the Planet of the Apes? Me neither.
Anyway, the mutants are defeated and slaughtered in retreat by the evil gorilla General Aldo in an act that clearly violates the Geneva Conventions, if they still are being enforced in a post-Apocalyptic, ape-controlled Earth. The few surviving mutants are driven back to their underground lair, where they will eventually become the bomb-worshipping cult that we meet in Beneath. (But now that history/future is changed, hopefully they won’t blow up the world.)
Back at Ape City, the good humans join together with Caesar, Lisa and the surviving apes to start a new, peaceful society where no human man will ever get drunk on a Friday night and hook up with a female ape. Because that would most definitely not be G-rated.
Director J. Lee Thompson (who also helmed Conquest) does his best with the Corringtons’ dopey script and the smallest budget of the series, but it’s the actors, as always, who make this movie memorable. By this point in the series, Roddy McDowall owns every frame of film he appears in, and Natalie Trundy (Mrs. Arthur P. Jacobs, by the way), though no Kim Hunter, is just fine as his wife Lisa.
As General Aldo, Claude Akins is a standout, continuing the fine tradition of ass-kicking gorillas begun by James “The Only Good Human is a Dead Human” Gregory in Beneath, and continued by Mark Lenard (Spock’s father from Star Trek) as General Urko in the short-lived 1974 Apes TV series. Veteran actor Lew Ayers is fun as the village elder Mandemus, even though there arguably shouldn’t be any “elders” in a culture that has only existed for 30 years.
But the most memorable and unique performance in Battle comes from diminutive singer/song-writer Paul Williams as Virgil, Caesar’s scientific advisor. Like Dr. Zaius in the first two films, Virgil is an intellectual orangutan. Unlike Zaius, he is open-minded, pragmatic and inclusive. This was the acting debut for Williams (who was better known for penning hits for the Carpenters, among others) and his line deliveries and characterization are thoroughly charming.
Bookending the opening, Battle ends in the future with the Lawgiver offering some fortune cookie wisdom to an assembly of bored children, both ape and human. The film concludes with a shot of a statue of Caesar crying, probably because he realizes he is now unemployed.
But if it were up to me, Battle For the Planet of the Apes would have ended with Paul Williams in full orangutan makeup leading a combination ape/human choir in a stirring rendition of one of his most enduring and inspirational songs:
”Sharing horizons that are new to us, watching the signs along the way. Talkin’ it over, just the two of us. Workin’ together day to day, together, together…”
Because after five films and thousands of years of forward and backward time travel, man and ape have truly “only just begun.”