Summer School: 'Battle for the Planet of the Apes' (1973)
Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.
The fifth and final movie in the original Planet of the Apes series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes sends the franchise out on kind of a bum note, especially following the visceral and exciting Conquest. Once again, the severe budget limitations cripple the filmmakers' ability to tell a grand sci-fi story, and the titular battle is less for an entire planet than for a grove with a few treehouses in it. An introduction by the fabled lawgiver (played, somewhat shamefully, by John Huston) glosses over an apparent nuclear apocalypse that took place following the events of the last movie, while offering a sort of "previously on Planet of the Apes" recap that reuses five minutes of footage from previous installments.
That leads us to some indeterminate amount of time following the events of Conquest, as apes have become the dominant species on Earth (or at least in this one meadow), setting up a rudimentary version of the city they would eventually inhabit in the far future. Caesar (Roddy McDowall) is the ape leader, and he's now married to Lisa (Natalie Trundy), the female ape he bonded with in Conquest, with a son named Cornelius (Bobby Porter). The apes have developed a remarkable range of abilities, including full speech, writing and reading, horseback riding, tool-making and structure-building, all in a short period of time. They're living in relative harmony with some humans who survived the wars, led by MacDonald (Austin Stoker), brother of the sympathetic human MacDonald from Conquest (who was set to return until actor Hari Rhodes declined).
For some reason, Caesar has waited years to wonder about his dead parents, and when MacDonald tells him about the recordings from their interrogations, Caesar decides to enter the ruins of the unnamed city from Conquest and find those tapes. That leads to a confrontation with irradiated humans who are clearly (more clearly in the movie's extended cut) meant to be the precursors of the telepathic mutants in Beneath. It's a pretty flimsy pretext to bring the apes and humans in conflict, but screenwriters John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington (working from a credited story by longtime writer Paul Dehn, who also did extensive uncredited rewrites on the screenplay) and returning director J. Lee Thompson manage to include some of the series' trademark social commentary, in the clash between the peaceful, diplomatic Caesar and the warmongering gorilla general Aldo (Claude Akins).
But after the timeliness of Conquest, the political content here feels pretty weak, and Aldo is a one-dimensional bully who pushes defenseless young Cornelius out of a tree to his death. The humans, with their Mad Max-style vehicles and outfits, are too cartoonish to pose a real threat, and only the occasional debates between Caesar and MacDonald have any real substance to them. Battle is more action-oriented than any of the previous Apes movies, and the climactic battle scenes are decent given the low budget, with plenty of explosions and shootouts. Still, the ape makeup is shoddy (especially on Akins as Aldo) and the sets are minimal and flimsy, giving the movie a rushed, haphazard feel. After four straight movies of mostly downbeat endings, Battle closes the series on an optimistic note implying that good intentions can change the future, and while it's a nice way to leave things, it's a bit underwhelming compared to the uncompromising bleakness of the rest of the series.