All good things must come to an end, and unfortunately for the Planet of the Apes franchise, that happened sometime in between 1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes. I wouldn't say that Battle... is "all" bad, nor even predominately bad, not necessarily. But it's easily the weak link in the five-part series. And where's the sin in that? Four strong sequels would be a lot to ask of any concept, and a concept as inherently goofy as the talking apes who took over the world and turned it into an allegory for the social upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s turning out as many good films as it did is nothing shy of a miracle.

But anyway, we're past the miracle phase, and onto the "okay, well, you tried" phase. It is definitely possible to see what Battle for the Planet of the Apes was aiming for: to advance the story of the simian revolt to the point that the apes had the upper hand over the humans, who had so recently decimated themselves (and, presumably, fucked up the Statue of Liberty) in a nuclear war. And in so doing, stitch things up to the point that we can more or less guess how the next several hundred years will get us to the point that humans are little more than bipedal cattle and the apes have lost all memory of the time that they weren't the dominant species on the face of the planet. But also giving us the glimmer that this might not be the same timeline as before, and that in fact the actions we saw in this very same movie might be the necessary change that redirects things towards a happier conclusion, one that doesn't involve such hostility between the species and the destruction of Earth in a nuclear fire.

Which is all find and good, and kudos to series overseer Paul Dehn for his ambition (he came up with the concept, but health reasons meant that the screenplay proper was written by John William Corrington & Joyce H. Corrington, who obviously got the job for their work on The Omega Man; Dehn substantially re-wrote it, to their dismay, but he received only a "story by" credit). But ambition isn't everything, and Battle... is where the dwindling budgets of the film in this series finally manage to score a fatal hit. Let us set aside as a poetic frippery that the titular "battle" is a mere skirmish; we might as well carp that there are nothing but low-scale scuffles in War for the Planet of Apes, one of the two films that broadly re-works this material (the other is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). It's still the case that budgetary constraints can be felt in pretty much every corner of the film.

It's just too small. Three-quarters of the film take place in what feels like a tiny village set built on a public picnic grounds during the off-season, and this is meant to stand in for the great clash of civilisations that leads to the first film. It simply can't do it - not after the well-fudged ape army storming the concrete channels of Century City in Conquest... And it's not just that the production values are feeble, either. There's a littleness of spirit here, a boring complacency that concludes that a reduced budget means that it's fine to have huge chunks of the film take place in the form of people talking about the film's thematic message at each other.

It did not all have to be thus. The opening act and a little bit thereafter of Battle... is actually slightly great, taking us 12 years past the end of Conquest... to see Caesar (Roddy McDowall, still refusing to phone it in, even when stuck inside a stiffer, more rubbery mask than ever) and the community of intelligent, speaking apes he has trained, living uncertainly in the woods with a population of humans who remain healthy and whole, under Caesar's rather firm rules for appropriate behavior (the most insidious of which is the well-intentioned but dark "no human shall say the word 'no' to any ape" law). Regardless of how much it feels like a step down from the scope at the climax of the last film, there's something relaxing and appealing in watching how this world establishes itself, letting us figure out by watching behavior how this state of equilibrium has formed in the last dozen years and why. And that feeling continues apace as we see the seeds of the conflict - Caesar is opposed by the warmongering gorilla general Aldo (Claude Akins), who wants to take control of the apes and go to war with the remaining pockets of humanity (Aldo, we learned in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, was the original liberator of the apes, which is perhaps why they were so much crueler in Planet of the Apes than they seem now. Then again, this very movie actively attempts to pretend like that bit of backstory was never written) - and as we leave the ape village for the Forbidden City, the radioactive ruins of, presumably, New York, where the last film's ape-hating Kolp (Severn Darden) reigns as the king of the nuclear mutants. And it is more or less with the reveal that Kolp is still around that Battle... starts to lose me, though not because it's a shitty bit of screenwriting. Which it is most assuredly is.

No, it's because Kolp and his command team, watching Caesar, orangutan scientist Virgil (Paul Williams), and human Bruce MacDonald (Austin Stoker), brother of Caesar's only human ally from last time, are our introduction to the dominant mode of the last hour of Battle of the Planet of the Apes: people having tedious conversations about strategy. It's a pity. The Forbidden City is a nifty post-apocalyptic landscape on a budget that effectively looks ahead to the earlier films' settings, and it feels like there could have been a substantially more exciting film to take place there, with substantially more dynamic stakes.

Instead, Battle... pretty much jams on the breaks, and does a whole lot of telling rather than showing, till at long last Caesar and Aldo have their inevitable one-on-one face off. Which is a rock-solid bit of fight choreography mixed with unusual camera angles by director J. Lee Thompson (returning from the last movie) and cinematographer Richard H. Kline, and a good rousing climax, but it's too little too late; the film isn't even able to generate much interest from injecting a weeping subplot of family drama, there's little hope that an above-par fight scene is going to save it.

Anyway, the thing is purely mechanical, looking to do very little else than connect the dots between the original movies and the prequels, not always in sensible ways (just 12 years after they became sapient, I can sort of understand the species-based caste system of chimpanzee intellectuals, gorilla warriors, and orangutan politicians having set down its roots, but they've already picked out the outfits they'll still be wearing in 2000 years?), and presenting a far less interesting or thorny ethical dilemma and social message than the last film. It's fine, in a boring, functionally mediocre way; when it rises to genuinely great, it's almost always because either McDowall or Williams did some wonderful little thing to let us know that Caesar and Virgil, at least, have some richer emotional lives than the script indicates.

I'll admit that the film substantially improves upon my memories of it, in no small part because until now, I'd never gotten around to watching the extended cut that was, for years, the exclusive provenance of a Japanese LaserDisc, but has since worked its way into the rest of the world's home video releases. It's a substantial ten minutes added on to the the theatrical cut that makes the battle feel more like a battle, and not a scrape, that lays the foundation for Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and generally gives things a bit more texture and richness. It's not the saving grace of the movie, but it distinctly gives it a bit more heft that it badly needed.

Still, this is largely trivial, a self-conscious attempt to return to the family-friendly territory of, say, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (where a baby chimpanzee is shot in cold blood and one of the two leads commits suicide by pitching herself and the dead baby off of a boat) after the savagery of Conquest... It achieves that, I guess, but at no benefit to its story. And the subsequent aura of "fuck it, it's a kids' film" taints much of the film: its parsimonious array of sets, its embarrassingly bad ape makeup (John Huston, as the teacher and philosopher ape called the Lawgiver, seen in the terrible intro and the moving and surprisingly ambiguous epilogue, looks particularly godawful), and its dumbed-down script. Worse science-fiction films than this are made every year; worse science-fiction films than this were practically all they made in the first half of the 1970s. But it's still a disappointingly flaccid conclusion to what would otherwise be a shockingly excellent genre film franchise for something that came out before the franchise-mad 1980s. Ah well, four out of five ain't bad.

Reviews in this series
Planet of the Apes (Schaffner, 1968)
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (Post, 1970)
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (Taylor, 1971)
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (Thompson, 1972)
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (Thompson, 1973)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Wyatt, 2011)
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Reeves, 2014)
War for the Planet of the Apes (Reeves, 2017)