Four Fists up for the Old
Three fists up for the new
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). In this story, the talking apes from the past (Zira and Cornelius) have been killed (in Escape from the Planet of the Apes [@]) but not before they have a child - Caesar. He was hidden by a lover of apes Armando the latin circus promoter who raised him and evidently educated him quite well - you really couldn't make this stuff up but it was. Seeing "civilization" for the first time, Caesar sees that his brother and sister apes are nothing less than slaves - yes, slaves. He uses the S word. They moved from pets to slaves after all dogs and cats died - some bug brought from the past from Caesar's parents. Unable to keep his mouth shut at seeing one of his fellow apes beaten and abused Caesar speaks up only to have Armando step up and take the fall. Things don't go well for Armando. He gets tortured and inevitably commits suicide to escape future abuse and giving up Caesar. Meanwhile Caesar sneaks into captivity, only to end up the property of the worst anti-ape political leader - the Governor, and his pro-ape assistant - MacDonald. Oh, MacDonald is black and he was played by Hari Rhodes. I mention this for two reasons. One, Rhodes was an actor during a very difficult period in American history and he ended up creating a movie about an African American youth that went to perhaps the most prestigious prep school in America only to get accepted to Stanford University and killed robbing an undercover officer before going (the made for TV movie Murder Without Motive: The Edmund Perry Story), which captured an important segment in my life. Additionally, I mention Rhodes' ethnicity because it is constantly repeated throughout the film as he speaks up about the abuse of the apes and he speaks against the fear that the Governor seems to have of them and the myth of the talking ape. For example, upon preventing one ape from being abused by two white officers of the state, one officer looks at the other basically saying "who the hell is that". To this, the other one says, "that is MacDonald... the governor's man... doesn't it figure". Now, they don't call him an ape-lover but it is there - just beneath the surface.
This is actually the films strong suit - moreso than the prior three Planet of the Apes which allude to American racism and the African American struggle for freedom and equality.
At one point, when Caesar reveals himself to MacDonald who is trying to free him, he says "humans aren't kind (like you) and we will have to force them to be but we can't do that until we are free."
MacDonald: "How will you gain freedom?"
Caesar: "By the only means left to us - revolution."
MacDonald: "That is doomed to failure."
Caesar: "Maybe, but you cannot stop us from trying.... You among everyone else (yes, because he was black) must understand we cannot be free until we have power. How else can we achieve it?"
At another point, the race issue becomes even clearer when post-revolution and with a large number of human leaders with their heads in the chopping block so to speak (paraphrased):
MacDonald says "Caesar - this was not how it was supposed to be... violence prolongs hate, hate prolongs violence..... By what right are you spilling blood?"
Caesar: "By the slaves right to punish his persecutors!"
MacDonald: "I a descendant of slaves am asking you to show humanity"
Caesar: "There is no place for humans but to serve us on our own terms".... "but now we will put away our hatred... we who are not human can afford to be humane.... we will dominate you with compassion and understanding"
Set right toward the end of the Black power heyday, the language of revolution and self determination are clear. The references are apparent and made explicit. Now with the work of MacCarthur genius Jennifer Eberhardt arguing that African Americans have consistently been associated with apes, I have mixed emotions about the films use of association that rides at the back (and sometimes the front) of American minds but if the association is to be made, I would prefer it to be of the nobler variety: having a conversation about the rebellious response to slavery. Indeed, minus the costumes the conversation seems like something more out of Grotius, Hobbes or Locke than some Hollywood studio.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). This film is in many ways parallel to the 1972 version identified above. Caesar is born an orphan and raised by a nice white man (James Franco). Now, he is not in a circus like the earlier Caesar. Rather, he is stuck in some suburban home in San Francisco where he is also kept from the world. Invariably he is exposed to other apes after he has a little violent run in with a neighbor. After this event, he is taken to the zoo and essentially brutalized by the zookeeper as well as the other apes. This continues until he develops a plan - oh, like the other Caesar he talks and thinks. These skills are not derived from space and time travel however but rather it was passed down from his drugged up parent that was killed in a misunderstanding regarding protective parenting turned wilding in the office. Caesar escapes prison (I mean the zoo), goes to get the talking/thinking drug from Franco's office and while there, he frees the apes that are being horribly experimented on. They get free and then they escape to the Forest across the Bay bridge, which Caesar used to play in as a child.
Now, while decent theater, the differences in the story are huge. In the first, apes were slaves, conditioned and reprimanded everywhere and by almost every one. In the second, apes were neglected prisoners in the zoo and rats in the lab. Scenes in the first mirror those that you would see in any prison film: 1) the new guy gets abused by the local ruffian, 2) the prisoners are abused by the sadistic guard set loose by the slightly charming but essentially evil and cynical warden, 3) the prisoners lead a largely horrible life with bad food and no benefits - they are just passing time. Scenes in the second mirror those within any lab movie you see. There are lab coats, the geek that likes the subjects gets overruled, there is a constant escalation of meds (regardless of risks) and some bad stuff happens which results in lab rats dying.
Other differences exist as well. In this film, there is no black person and without this the film while trying to generalize the persecuted human experience to gain a broader audience, ends up losing some of the bite of the first film. Clearly the context within which a film is seen/read/understood matters a great deal. 1972 is not 2011. There is no current legitimate resistance movement in the us. There is little discussion of radical responses to unjust authority. The political has given way to the corporate as enemy. The aspirations are muted. In the first film, Caesar talks of ape supremacy and taking the planet one city at a time. In the second film, Caesar just wants to run across the bridge and hide. In the first film, Caesar spares human lives because as superior beings he feels that he can be the better human. In the second film, Caesar shows mercy because he has some fond family memories and acknowledges that there are some nice human beings. In the first film, we are shown a range of tactics: non-violent non-compliance with directives followed by terrorism and then outright rebellion. In the second film, we are shown rebellion.
When I compare Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), you will see how the general comparison continues.