On June 15, 1973, the fifth and final entry in the original Apes saga was released to the theaters. Gone was the fanfare of the original. Gone was the star power of a Charlton Heston. Gone was the powerful soundtrack musings of Jerry Goldsmith. And gone was the big Hollywood budget, going from $5.8 million to $1.7 million in a little over five years. What we were left with a movie struggling to end the series on a high note with a climactic battle than barely rises above B movie fare. And so goes the Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973).
Arthur P. Jacobs returns as producer for what would ultimately be his next-to-last project prior to his death in June 1973, less than two weeks after this film’s release. The film is a direct sequel to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), being set a little more than a decade later following a nuclear war. The opening of the film is set in North America 2670 A.D. and we witness the Lawgiver (veteran actor and director John Huston, The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Visitor, to name a few) introducing us to the continuing tale of revolutionary Caesar (played once again by Roddy McDowell). He is now a leader of a small group of apes and humans, attempting to co-exist. Caesar has settled down with a wife, Lisa (Natalie Trundy) and son Cornelius (Bobby Porter). However, the gorilla leader, General Aldo (veteran character actor Claude Atkins, The Twilight Zone and The Night Stalker) would rather rule with an iron fist. Caesar wants to learn of the future and is told by his human assistant MacDonald (Austin Stoker, playing the brother of the MacDonald character seen in Conquest) that the old records should still exist in the Forbidden City. Caesar, MacDonald and Virgil (singer Paul Williams, Phantom of the Paradise) travel to the city and Caesar sees footage of his mother Zira being interrogated by Dr. Hasslein (archival footage of Kim Hunter and Eric Braeden). They also find the city inhabited by mutants and being led by new Governor Kolp (again played by Severn Darden). Caesar, Virgil and MacDonald barely escape the city with their lives.
However, now that the mutants know they exist, they desire a war to end the apes once and for all. Meanwhile, General Aldo is planning a takeover which is made easy once Caesar is devastated by his son’s mysterious injury. He has no idea that Aldo tried to kill Cornelius after the young ape discovered Aldo’s takeover plan. As Aldo begins to lock up the humans, the mutants are on their war. Caesar returns just in time to rally the apes and release the humans to lead them in a final battle. And once the dust settles, the real final confrontation between Caesar and Aldo happens as Caesar now knows it was Aldo who killed his son.
Sadly, this final chapter was doomed from the first day of pre-production. Despite having Roddy McDowell back in the lead role, the movie suffered from a poor script and an incredibly low budget. The idea that a nuclear war would devastate society but leave a nice green valley within the time span of a decade or so is a stretch, even when watching a film about talking apes. The fact that all of the apes are wearing costumes that just happen to resemble those from the first three films really shows how low the budget was. I also wondered how the apes could have evolved so quickly to the point where they are all on the same level as Caesar now. And the final “battle” comes across looking like nothing more a weekend of larpers who just happened to acquire some explosives. Several scenes appear to be reused time and again, obviously to cover up how little of a battle it really was. As much as I love the original series, this final film makes me sad to see how quickly the series had fallen.
Paul Dehn is given story credit here while John and Joyce Covington are credited for the screenplay. As the Hollywood story goes, Paul wrote a story treatment but was unavailable for the rewrite. The Covington’s came in and wrote the script before Paul returned for some rewrites and tried to get a shared credit. In the end, he was only given credit for the story. However, one key difference remains that must go to Paul. The Covington’s had wanted to end with a futuristic school ground battle between a human and an ape, showing that the conflict between the races will go on. What we ended up seeing was a final scene where the Lawgiver is talking to a mix of humans and apes and a final shot of a statue of Caesar with a tear in its’ eye. Its’ message is ambiguous, implying joy that the races now live side-by-side or that the apocalyptic future is unavoidable. In either case, this was a horribly cheesing end to a series that had maintained the level of enjoyment for the first four films, despite an ever-shrinking budget.
Despite my overall displeasure with Battle for the Planet of the Apes, I still recommend it if for no other reason than to enjoy Roddy McDowell in a role he was born to play. Make sure you go in with low expectations and watch the extended cut as it contains some extra footage. In one sequence, we see the new Governor of the Forbidden City decide not to launch an atomic bomb, which is later revealed to be the Alpha-Omega bomb. He is referred to as Governor Mendez (Paul Stevens), a clear nod to the Mendez leader seen in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, indicating that history may indeed be repeating itself.
Check out the trailer and watch the movie to judge for yourself. It’s definitely worth a Saturday afternoon matinee viewing. Next time, we take a look at next chapter of the Apes saga as our simian friends invade the wonderful world of television.