With a new Planet of the Apes movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, out this weekend, it’s time to go back to the movie that inspired it: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth film in the Apes film series that was first released in 1972 and became a smash hit despite the fact that it had a darker tone and more violence than any of the Apes films at the time. Before the film was released its ending had to be changed significantly at the behest of test audiences and understandably nervous studio executives. The original ending saw the light of day when Conquest and the other films in the Apes series were released on Blu-Ray in 2008.
You can watch the original ending for Conquest of the Planet of the Apes below this article by clicking on the screen capture I’ve included at the bottom.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the latest installment in the Planet of the Apes film franchise that has been a vital part of American pop culture and cinema history for more than four decades, hits theaters today. It has been several years in the making and before the film began production last year there was little to no indication that the Apes series would ever again see the light of a movie theater screen, a sentiment shared by many and inspired by the lackluster 2001 “reimagining” of the original Apes film directed by Tim Burton. Despite being one of that year’s biggest hits, Burton’s Planet of the Apes was hampered by a shoddy script, some vital acting roles that had been severely miscast (Mark Wahlberg… hey, how’s your mother?), and a final scene that attempted to one-up the classic twist ending of the original only to fall flat on its face (odd given that it was taken almost verbatim from the 1963 Pierre Boulle novel La Planète des singes on which the original Planet of the Apes was based). To boot, the reimagining had to be rushed through production in order to make its July 2001 release date resulting in an assembly line product summer event flick that had none of the challenging ideas, thought-provoking social commentary, and pungent Swiftian satire that made the original such a timeless film classic.
For the latest Apes feature the filmmakers took more than a few cues from the storyline of Conquest, written by the late Paul Dehn (who also wrote two of the other Apes sequels and the story for the last, Battle for the Planet of the Apes), although this time the rebellious apes aren’t played by actors in elaborate make-up effects created by the great John Chambers. Instead, they’re performed by actors playing more realistic primate characters through the use of CGI and performance-capture technology. Plus, some elements from Conquest were radically changed for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but the basic storyline of an intelligent simian named Caesar leading his brethren in a revolution against their human oppressors remains.
In Conquest of the Planet of the Apes a virus has wiped out all of the dogs and cats on Earth, leading humanity to adopt apes as their new pets, and later their slaves. Caesar, as played by the late, great Roddy McDowall, is brought to a futuristic city by his kindly friend Armando (Ricardo Montalban, also no longer with us), but ends up trapped in the city after he inadvertently reveals his intelligence and ability to talk in public. Armando is interrogated by enforcers in the employ of the odious Governor Breck (Don Murray), but leaps out a window to his death rather than turn on his beloved friend Caesar. Having witnessed Armando’s death, Caesar completely loses his faith in the human race and decides to inspire his fellow apes to rise up against their human masters. He hides out among the other servants while teaching them how to communicate with each other and use weapons. Caesar also becomes enamored by female ape Lisa (played by Natalie Trundy, wife of series producer Arthur P. Jacobs). At the finale, Caesar and the apes begin an all-out attack on the humans and after a long and bloody battle, they triumph. Those humans who aren’t killed, including Breck, are rounded up and brought before Caesar, who delivers a chilling speech that in one fell swoop seems to seal humanity’s fate for good:
“Where there is fire, there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, 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! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you… now!”
Despite the pleas of MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), Breck’s assistant and the only other human in the film besides Armando who is sympathetic to the apes, to show compassion and mercy towards their oppressors, Caesar turns his back on sympathy and with a slight nod begins his march towards a future that will lead to Charlton Heston pounding his fists on a beach while looking up at the nuclear-scarred remains of the Statue of Liberty. It was a powerful ending in keeping with the downbeat finales of the previous films in the series, but with the addition of the hardest violence ever seen yet in the Apes, Conquest was looking to be the darkest entry in the series and the first to earn an R rating by the MPAA. Upon the completion of post-production, the film was screened for a test audience and the bleak tone and brutal violence was received harshly by a crowd who came expecting another ninety minutes of light-hearted and engrossing sci-fi adventure. The executives at 20th Century Fox thus dictated that Caesar’s ending speech be toned down so that humanity would stand a better chance. The budget didn’t allow for reshoots, so Roddy McDowall returned to record new dialogue and the scene itself was reedited utilizing alternate takes, reversed footage, and grainy close-up shots of the actor’s face.
The altered ending begins after Caesar has given the speech I quoted from above. When all hope for humanity seems lost, Lisa suddenly utters his first word: “No.” Caesar has a split-second change of heart and gives the follow-up speech:
“But now… now we will put away our hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the night of the fires, and those 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!”
There’s no further violence, the remaining humans have their lives spared, and the future starts to look a bit brighter. The End.
It was this ending that would lead to the events of the next sequel, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, although screenwriter Paul Dehn’s motivation for conceiving Conquest‘s original darker ending was to tie it in with the beginning of Planet of the Apes so that the series came full circle. He had been under the impression that Conquest would be the final Apes film, but when Conquest became another profitable hit for Fox yet additional sequel was ordered up. So it goes.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about the original ending to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes for perfectly logical reasons. The ending works beautifully for the film because it was the ending that had been built up to over the course of the story. Caesar had his own conflict of emotions when it came to the human race, but after Armando’s death there was no longer a gray area in his eyes. Revolution and a planet dominated by intelligent and malevolent simians were inevitable. That’s all well and good if you want to tie this sequel in with the film that spawned the franchise and bring the series to its natural conclusion, but if there were plans in place to make more Apes sequels after Conquest, the filmmakers should have sown the seeds for a different and more intriguing conclusion. The theatrical version ending offers a more optimistic future for apes and mankind alike; by showing humanity towards his oppressors in the end, Caesar learns the value of truly being human and in effect reboots the future. But that wasn’t the ending the makers of Conquest had in mind from the beginning, therefore it feels exactly like a tacked-on cheat. Maybe if director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone, Happy Birthday to Me) and writer Dehn had been able to conceive a few additional scenes that showed early on that Caesar was as capable of showing compassion for the humans as he was rage, then the revised ending would have fit better. As I said at the beginning of this paragraph: mixed feelings.
You can click on the screen capture below to watch the original ending and judge for yourself. I must warn you though, there are some disturbing shots of bloodied corpses that were naturally deleted from the theatrical cut of Conquest, along with other scenes of nasty violence to prevent the film from getting an R rating.