Let no-one accuse Conquest of the Planet of the Apes of playing it safe to avoid any accusation of tastelessness: the 1973 film about apes overthrowing their human rules draws very explicitly from the rhetoric and imagery of the Black Power movement, as well as the protests against the Vietnam War. And this in service to a grotty little sci-fi action movie, the fourth in its franchise, at a time when both sci-fi and sequels more or less automatically connoted "disposable trash for children and other undiscriminating viewers".

In Conquest's defense, it's clearly not trying to advance the old racist chestnut that African-Americans are like gorillas. Rather, it's stating in a rather vicious and catch-all way that people are shitty and suck, people have always been shitty and always sucked, and will always be shitty and will always suck. When given the chance to exploit other beings, human or otherwise, for no reason but our own laziness and capriciousness, we will happily do so - in fact, we will go out of our way to exploit other beings, because that's just how shitty we are. This results in what's comfortably the bleakest and nastiest of the original five Planet of the Apes movies, and not until 2017's War for the Planet of the Apes did any film in the franchise match it (even though the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes is much closer to Conquest... in content, both of them circling around the idea that the way human beings treat non-human animals is pure, unbridled savagery). It's the only film in the original series that got hit with a PG rating, back when the MPAA's standards were unrecognisably different, and indeed, it's pretty shocking, even more than 40 years later, to encounter this amount of violence and the overall grimness and cruelty in what sure as hell looks like a corny, campy matinee film. The 2010s Planet of the Apes films at least have heaping piles of visual realism to help sell their ultra-serious tone, but Conquest... is still from the era when the series was dropping people into latex masks that, cool as they look and expressive as they are, bear only the most superficial resemblance to chimpanzees and gorillas (and less than a superficial resemblance to orangutans).

Taking place in 1991, 18 years after Escape from the Planet of the Apes (dialogue in the film calls it 20), Conquest... posits the realisation of the world described by the late Cornelius in that earlier picture: a strange plague killed off every last cat and dog on the face of the planet, and longing to still own pets, human beings en masse began adopting chimpanzees and other apes, favoring them for their capacity to be trained. All of this happened, apparently, eight years ago, and already the fabric of human society has entirely re-defined itself to languidly accept trained non-human apes as chattel slaves. If you can swallow that, you're set for the rest of the movie - and if you can't, I don't see that any fair-thinking person could blame you; the companion animal plague was a curiously weird notion when it was introduced in Escape..., but now that we're actually seeing it in action, it's decidedly asinine.

But anyway, if you can get through the details of the set-up, what remains is a potent, brutally bitter allegory for any society that thrives on the maltreatment of its most immiserated members (America what the film obviously cares about the most, but it's non-specific enough that it could be stretched farther), and a separate but related allegory about the casual arrogance that leads humans to assume that we obviously must be the species that matters the most, because we've built the most ludicrous high-tech toys. And much as George Lucas had the Viet Cong in mind eleven years later, when he set a species of forest-dwelling teddy bears against an all-powerful empire in Return of the Jedi, I have to imagine that screenwriter Paul Dehn, who had by this point become the main standard-bearer for the Planet of the Apes franchise, and was responsible for keeping its chronology on target, was deliberately concocting a story of low-tech "primitives" swamping over high-tech Americans as an echo of the ongoing unpleasantness in Indochina.

Be all that as it may, even stripped of social commentary, Conquest... is a hell of a good movie, probably the "best" of the four sequels, though my heart will always belong to Escape... It's the story of how Caesar (Roddy McDowall), the son of the hyper-intelligent future apes Cornelius and Zira, navigates his way through the dangers of 1991, when apes live in what amounts to a police state. His human surrogate father, Armando (Ricardo Montalban) has kept him safe these two decades, but a government agent named Kolp (Severn Darden) has long wondered if the official story about the space ape baby killed in 1973 is mistaken, and Caesar's sloppiness as his sense of social outrage grows has captured Kolp's attention. Worse yet, in order to remain hidden, Caesar ends up sold to the household of Governor Breck (Don Murray), where he finally has all of his sympathetic attachment to humanity ground out of him, with the only halfway kind person in Breck's office being MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), who is very definitely on purpose African-American, and the dialogue makes sure we notice it. Eventually, Caesar grows sufficiently enraged to start training the normal apes in combat - including the female chimpanzee Lisa (Natalie Trundy) who has caught his eye, in a subplot that the film would have maybe been well-advised to cut out - and start planning a revolution.

Conquest... is a damn good movie for something with such low ambitions and trashy, pulpy roots. This is of course the story of the whole Planet of the Apes franchise, but none of the '70s sequels have so few flaws as this, or arguably such impressive strengths. If I had to pick, I'd say there are four main areas where Conquest... particularly shines. One of these is a clean, streamlined screenplay that starts at high speed and drives towards the final scene with unswerving force, precisely the opposite of the ambling, aimless Escape... "It starts off rocky but ends really well" is a generally constant truism of this franchise, from Beneath the Planet of the Apes in 1970 all the way through to War for the Planet of the Apes, but Conquest... is the great exception to the rule; sure, the end is the best part, but nothing sags at any point. It changes from a moody presentation of a society and how it operates to a melodramatic action movie blowing that society apart, but it's always good at whatever it aims to do.

The second and third great strengths of the film are both about its unreasonably polished visuals. The Planet of the Apes movies were, by this point, B-pictures, but Conquest... looks great anyway, mostly because of a superb choice of free location. The film's exteriors were shot at Century City, the 1960s futurist office park built on the site of the former 20th Century backlot when that studio had to quickly raise some capital. This was neither the first movie shot there, nor the most famous (Die Hard's Nakatomi Plaza is played by Century City's Fox Plaza skyscraper), but I'm pretty comfortable in calling it the best: the inhuman humanity of the location is a perfect fit for a tale of a cruel, borderline fascist future, and its wide avenues between concrete towers is seemingly tailor-made for staging battle scenes that look to have more fighters than the extras budget could afford. And filming this location, and all the others besides, is Bruce Surtees, a cinematographer whose name doesn't crop up among the list of greats, necessarily, but he had a murderously good run as Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel's guy in the 1970s: The Beguiled, Play Misty for Me, and Dirty Harry all preceded this film, while High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and an Oscar nomination for Bob Fosse's Lenny all followed. The result is probably the best-looking of the first wave of Apes films, better yet than even the original Planet of the Apes, a movie that otherwise represents a fairly unbeatable level of quality in every respect. It is stark in its contrast between lights and darks, giving the cheap location and makeup enough shadowy texture to seem more plausible than in any other film in the series, and turning Century City into a gloomy future hell.

The fourth thing should be no surprise if we've been paying attention all series: McDowall is wonderful as Caesar. He's playing a completely different role than his previous Cornelius, still drawing upon simian behavior but for other reasons and to other ends than before: Caesar is more unfomfortably situated between human and chimpanzee, and where his father was confident and smug, Caesar is questioning, nervous, alert. The result is an wonderfully tensed-up protagonist, and if we needed any proof that Conquest... was no dippy kids' movie, the slow-burning wrath described by McDowall's eyes alone would do it.

Not that we need proof - the darkness, meanness, and violence on display throughout are pretty hard to ignore. The film came out in the period of director J. Lee Thompson's career when he was clearly headed in the direction of the shitty action films that he'd retire in on the 1980s, but the aftershocks of The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear were still reverberating. He was still an ace hand at constructing the escalating sense of danger and viciousness that largely define Cape Fear, and as Conquest... hurtles towards its finale, the sense of a bad situation bubbling over and out of control grows more and more palpable. And about that finale: in a bid to soften the film's nihilism, the ending few minutes were lopped off before its release, and only restored for its release on Blu-ray. For God's sake, let us never watch the original theatrical cut again; the original ending is the one that makes all the sense and pays off all the themes of the film, as we see revolutionary violence reaching its logical apogee, and we see the final descent of Caesar from confused child to battle-hardened radical, turned from a victim of unrelenting violence into a perpetrator. No film in the series, not even the one that blows up the planet in a nuclear explosion, has such a profoundly grim ending, nor one that so sternly looks at the modern world around it to decree, "this is where we're heading, and it's no more than we deserve". Sobering stuff for a movie about a talking chimpanzee, but then, they didn't like to make their movies happy in the early 1970s if they didn't absolutely have to.

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)