Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes - Preview Cut

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth film in the series, is set in a paved-over future in which domestic pets have been completely wiped out by a viral pandemic that has drifted to Earth from space. The one American city we see in the film is a strict police state, constantly patrolled and stringently regimented by brusque, brutal looking, policemen. Bronze statues have been erected in this anonymous concrete expanse to honour the lost cats and dogs - attracting a certain amount of solemn contemplation from visiting outsiders. This absence seems to have had a profound effect on mankind. Everybody, regardless of rank or disposition, is dressed in nothing but black. The future's cowed citizens are a funeral procession, shuffling around their drab, grey, environment in a state of constant mourning. 

In an attempt to fill this companionship void, mankind has worked to domesticate apes. Not through kindness you understand, rather through selective breeding and industrial scale beatings. Since we see real chimpanzees alongside the usual squat, made-up actors, there's an insinuation that the eugenics programme we briefly glimpse during a processing sequence has already put in years of work, directly responsible for the more human looking ape dimensions we're used to seeing in the series - the larger chimps and the smaller, less musclebound gorillas. This is evolution as a direct result of marketplace demand. The children of mankind's closest relatives have been bred to an unnatural order, exaggerating outlier characteristics until they are the norm. The crass, wheezing, commercialisation visited on the Pug dog has therefore migrated to the hominid family. 

Visiting one of these depressed concrete cities is Ricardo Montalban's circus owner Armando - last seen harbouring the time-travelling apes that visited Earth in Escape from the Planet of the Apes - and his prize attraction, a horse-riding chimp. Played by Roddy McDowall, this Caesar is a completely different proposition to his departed parents, Kim Hunter's Dr Zira and McDowall's previous turn as Dr Cornelius. Caesar's relationship with humans is tainted from the off by the knowledge that we killed his parents then tried very hard to kill him. Separated from the nurturing influence of Armando, Caesar quickly becomes a militant presence in the city. He directs his withering glare at his fellow apes, shaming this servant class into minor but consistent acts of public disobedience. When this insubordination bubbles over into outright insurrection, Director J Lee Thompson and Cinematographer Bruce Surtees shoot the action as a series of night-time reports - hand-held glances of massing muscle and weaponry; man and ape slowly making their way through the city, towards each other.  

This Preview Cut, screened to a select audience a couple of weeks before the film's 1972 theatrical release then promptly shelved until a Blu-Ray re-release in late 2008, is only lightly embellished in terms of pure runtime, but the additional seconds really count. The snipped moments are inserts and answers, threaded through the climatic riot, that heighten an already pretty vivid sense of violent, revolutionary, transgression. Flamethrowers are turned on trigger-happy jailors; latex ape masks explode with soupy viscera. Human bodies become shrapnel or ballast, piled high by the rampaging apes to provide cover from any attempt to dislodge their holdings. The biggest difference between the two versions of the film though is a deletion, one that previously tempered the doomsday prophet ravings of a victorious Caesar. As officially released, McDowall's brilliant chimp stayed his hand, sparing Don Murray's blood-thirsty Governor, before portraying himself and his army (through looped dialogue) as a force willing to be humane when dealing with their former slave masters. Thompson's alternative cut makes no such promises. Governor Breck and his inner circle are simply clubbed to death instead. 

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