Ape Shall Never Kill Ape: Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
Battle for the Planet of the Apes was hailed as the final chapter in the Apes saga. Released in 1973, the dramatic voiceover introduction announces that this is the story of Caesar. That may sound familiar, as Battle for the Planet of the Apes was clearly an influential force behind the more recent trilogy of films, with a few notable changes. We are given Caesar’s origin story, in which he inherits his ability to speak from his parents, who also had the gift of speech.
A quick montage at the beginning shows an ape slave camp, where apes are being taught to serve man. Caesar organizes his fellow apes and breaks free from human control. The film then cuts to years later, where Caesar is the leader of a healthy but small compound in the forest of apes and the occasional human slave. We’re introduced to a gorilla, General Aldo, who hates learning and loves horses. We are also introduced to an apeified Paul Williams as Virgil, the insufferably affluent orangutan and MacDonald, Caesar’s personal human, played by Austin Stoker.
An altercation with the human school teacher, and Caesar’s refusal to punish said teacher (a favorite of his son, Cornelius), prompts General Aldo to take his mounted gorilla troops and leave Caesar’s colony. Directly after, MacDonald tells Caesar about tapes made of his parents that survived the atomic wreckage of the city they once lived in. Caesar has no memory of his parents (who were gunned down by humans for being able to speak) and asks MacDonald and Virgil to accompany him to the irradiated wreckage of the old city to find the tapes. The tapes turn out to be more-or-less a heavy handed narrative tool to get Caesar to encounter a group of mutated humans, and as they are never mentioned again, they provide him with no real knowledge or answers. There is a strange aside here about time travel, which got me excited that perhaps time travel would be a part of the film. It would not.
In the bowels of the old, irradiated city, we are introduced to the mutants: humans who, inexplicably, continue to live and work beneath the city wreckage (another not-so-clever narrative plot device, why are they still there working?), their skin mottling and melting from the high levels of radiation. Sheltered from the rest of the world, these underground people seem to be completely ignorant of the apes’ acquisition of speech. The mutant captain carries unjustified prejudice against the apes, and when Caesar, Virgil, and MacDonald are discovered in his city, he tries to kill them. “They’re just animals,” he explains to one mutant who stands up to the captain’s blind hatred, arguing that their ability to speak makes them intelligent. When a mutant scouting team follows Caesar, Virgil, and MacDonald back to the ape colony, their discovery that the apes have orchards and fields of food only spurs the captain’s thirst for ape murder.
While the human mutants are planning an attack on the ape settlement, General Aldo is planning to kill Caesar and take control of the apes to wage war with the humans. During Aldo’s clandestine meeting with his gorilla troops, Caesar’s young son Cornelius stumbles upon them, and Aldo him. And thus, Caesar’s first commandment is broken, “Ape shall not kill ape,” and the stage is set for a complete and utter breakdown of order and reason.
What ensues is a terrific battle scene where the humans advance in jeeps, old cars and, inexplicably, a dusty old school bus. The school bus turns out to be a terrible idea, as the gorillas demonstrate that a bus full of fleeing humans is easily converted into a murder box. Meanwhile, the human’s cannons and guns make easy work of the network of tree houses that make up the ape city. Fans of practical effects will enjoy the nearly 10 minutes of explosions and the real-time destruction of meticulously crafted sets, the colored smoke, and the spectacularly silly scenes of cars driving through produce carts.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes is something of a misleading title, because the movie’s main conceit is not the epic battle between humans and apes for dominance, but the question of punishment of one’s own people. At the beginning of the film, Caesar bemoans not having a clear answer as to whether it is right to kill someone evil to prevent them from doing evil, but laughs it off, saying “Apes don’t kill apes.” MacDonald offers to regale him with stories of similar conundrums from human history, but Caesar declines. At the end of the film, Caesar must, prompted by Virgil, admit that the nature of humans, which he sees and evil and violent, is no different than the nature of apes in lieu of Aldo’s crimes.
The movie’s most dramatic and important scene comes after the battle, when it is revealed to the entirety of the apes that Aldo has murdered Cornelius, and thus broken the most sacred law. Caesar is overcome with anger and grief, and the two of them face-off in the branches of a tree. Aldo attempts to stab Caesar, but Caesar overpowers him, throwing Aldo to his death. Not only does Aldo, the power-hungry general break the first law of apes, but Caesar does as well. MacDonald observes, as the confrontation is happening, “I think they’ve just joined the human race.” In a powerful statement after the confrontation has concluded, MacDonald also demands equality.
The film ends on a very positive note, 600 years after the battle, apes and humans live together as equals and no war has torn them asunder. Fans of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will see many elements in those two films that were pulled directly from Battle, but those newer films take a distinctly more fatalistic tone. To me, the more recent films polarize the apes and humans far more than their historic predecessors did. Unlike war films of the ‘70s, that were colored by the counter-culture movement, our cultural distance from World War I and II and Vietnam gives our war films a more militaristic tone. We tend to glamorize it, we tend to err on the side of combat, rather than on the side of peaceful coexistence. For this reason, perhaps, I found myself quite fond of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, and wondering if War for the Planet of the Apes will embrace its message of coexistence, or erase it altogether.
Ultimately, all the Apes films are the story of human nature. In the hands of different filmmakers, they have different things to say about it, but most of them conclude that it’s doesn’t matter if it’s ape or human. Intelligent beings all suffer the same moral dilemmas and need the same infrastructures to survive. In light of that truth, we should all learn to live with one another, rather than be at war.