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Match Cuts: “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes”

Match Cuts: "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" (photo)

Which version of "Conquest" should you watch before the "Apes" rise? We'll tell you.

In Match Cuts, we examine every available version of a film, and decide once and for all which is the one, definitive cut worth watching. This week, in honor of the new “Planet of the Apes” movie “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” we’re looking at fourth film in the original series, J. Lee Thompson’s “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.”

EDITIONS:
-Theatrical Cut (1972): 86 minutes
-Unrated Cut (2008): 87 minutes

THE STORY (SPOILERS AHEAD):
At the end of the second “Apes,” “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” the Earth of the far future is destroyed. In the third film, “Escape From the the Planet of the Such and Such,” two surviving talking chimps and their baby are thrown back in time to the 1970s. At first, they’re hailed as celebrities, but later they’re considered portends of a future where man is enslaved by beast. Humanity hunts and kills the chimps, but their baby is saved by a kindly circus man with a death wish named Armando (Ricardo Montalban).

Ten years later, every dog and cat on Earth is wiped out by a virus. Lonely, stupid humans replace them with apes, then make the apes slaves when they turn out to be highly intelligent and easily trainable. Eight years after that — holy lord, the premise of this movie is complicated — Armando and the grown baby chimp Caesar (Roddy McDowell) take their travelling circus to the capital city of the totalitarian military state of the future. Caesar is horrified to discover that his ape brethren are treated like slaves, and after he lets fly some angry words (“Lousy human bastards!”), Armando is arrested. Hiding out amongst the ordinary gorillas and chimps at “Ape Management” where slaves are trained (i.e. tortured and conditioned), he forments plans to strike back the cruel men who took his adopted father away from him.

REASON FOR MULTIPLE VERSIONS (MORE SPOILERS AHEAD):
All of the “Planet of the Apes” films are major bummers but “Conquest” is bleak even by the downbeat standards of the rest of the series. The entire conflict between man and ape works as a thinly veiled metaphor for the racial strife of the late 1960s, as the predominantly white skinned forces of the government repress and mistreat a class of slaves. Loaded imagery abounds: boats from Africa, slave auctions, police in riot gear, and so on. All of this was still a fairly touchy subject back in 1972, as was the content of its original ending, in which the apes strike back at their human oppressors in violent and bloody fashion. Test audiences reacted to the horrifying finale with — what else? — horror, but out of fear that their film was too bleak and too bloody to be commercial, 20th Century Fox recut “Conquest” to secure a PG rating and improve its chances at the box office. A few years ago, when “Conquest” was released on Blu-ray as part of a “Planet of the Apes” box set, the original “Unrated Cut” of the film was included as a bonus feature.

KEY DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MULTIPLE VERSIONS (EVEN MORE SPOILERS AHEAD):
To get that all-important PG rating, the studio removed just about any shot that featured splattering blood from the nearly 30-minute long ape uprising that concludes “Conquest.” That includes one memorable and disturbing moment, available in the Unrated Cut, in which Governor Breck (Don Murray), the evil, turtleneck-wearing overlord of this dystopian future, makes a vain attempt to prove his superiority over the rebelling apes by grabbing one of his command center’s gorilla servants and shooting him in the face.

Both versions of “Conquest” conclude with the apes successfully overrunning Ape Management, and grabbing Breck and his goons. Caesar stands before the defeated humans and his assembled ape troops and delivers an impassioned speech about his plan for the future. “From this day forward,” he yells, “my people will crouch and conspire and plot and plan for the inevitable day of Man’s downfall — the day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind! The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble! When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland out of which I will lead my people from their captivity! And we will build our own cities in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends!” Meanwhile, the lone voice of reason from humankind, Breck’s African-American assistant MacDonald (Hari Rhodes) pleads with Caesar for mercy as “a descendant of slaves.”

In 1972, audiences next watched Caesar make a stunning about face: seconds after giddily describing a future in which humanity is enslaved to apes, he decides to listen to MacDonald. He gives a second speech, reversing most of what he’d just said. “Now we will put away out hatred,” he says. “Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the Night of the Fires. And who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God. And, if it is man’s destiny to be dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion and understanding. So, cast out your vengeance. Tonight, we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!”

Good to know Caesar knows the title of the film. This ending was, frankly, a cop out designed to placate audiences who were unprepared for a movie that championed humanity’s downfall. The original ending on the Unrated Cut is significantly less hopeful and significantly less confused:

One other small but important difference between the two cuts: Caesar is swayed from his bloodlust by MacDonald and an ape slave named Lisa (Natalie Trundy). In the Theatrical Cut, Lisa pleads “No” at the decisive moment, making her the first normal ape to speak on the Planet of the Apes. In the Original Cut, Lisa looks on sadly but doesn’t vocally object as Caesar orders Breck to his death. So the Theatrical Cut shows that the apes are osmotically learning language from Caesar, while the Original Cut leaves the question of how the apes pick up speech for future films.

Lastly, “Conquest”‘s alternate versions IMDb page is incorrect: the Unrated Cut on Blu-ray (at least the Unrated Cut on the Blu-ray I have) does not begin with a pre-credits sequence in which an escaped ape slave is hunted and killed by police. Both versions begin identically: with the credits over apes learning menial tasks like shining shoes and pouring drinks. Not sure where the info on IMDb comes from — “Conquest”‘s Wikipedia page verifies that the alternate intro was in the script, but never made it into the finished film.

IF YOU ONLY WATCH ONE VERSION OF “CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES,” WATCH:
The Unrated Cut. The Theatrical Cut has a certain lunatic charm, though, since trying to fashion an upbeat ending out of full-on racial warfare is a fool’s errand. A plausible non-violent finale might have been possible, but it would have required massive reshoots that the film could not afford. Instead they just had McDowell redub his lines and inserted them over extreme close-ups or wide shots so audiences couldn’t tell that Caesar’s lips didn’t match his words. But while Caesar is ordering his soldiers to treat the humans humanely, he’s standing, sweaty and manic, in front of his broiling inferno. That’s an appropriate backdrop for the crazy brutal ending, but not for the last minute mercy ending.

There isn’t that much different about the two versions. One runs 86 minutes with less blood and more thematic backpedalling; the other runs 87 minutes with ape headshots, bloody human carcasses, and an antihero who finishes what he starts. Still, the Unrated Cut is preferable. Conquest should not be cheerful. If you have a movie about apes kicking the shit out of humankind, you might as well go all the way with it. The full scope of the violence and the uncensored hatred of Caesar’s message really brings home the darkness of this story and the “Planet of the Apes” franchise as a whole. There’s nothing happy about these movies. They work best when the studio keeps their stinking paws off the editor.

Both versions of “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” are available on a single-disc Blu-ray. Which version of “Conquest” is your favorite? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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