“We cannot be free until we have power! How else can we achieve it?”
– Caesar from Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes
With the new Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes film opening this weekend i’m not holding my hopes too highly that it will be as radical a piece of agit-pop as the original Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes which was a condensation of anti-imperialist sentiment. Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes is one of the most openly unapologetic politically revolutionary science fiction films ever made. The ramification of its themes about race, slavery, and revolution resonates from the African slave trade and the wholesale slaughter of indigenous peoples of the so-called “new world” to the ongoing anti-imperialist struggles being waged throughout the world.
The Planet Of The Apes was originally a novel written in 1963 by a French writer named Pierre Bouell. The novel was adapted into a film and released in 1968. It’s success lead to a series of sequels all of which contained some socio-political commentary but Conquest was the most openly radical of the series. In Conquest Of the Planet Of The Apes, apes are trained and treated as slaves by human beings. Caesar an “intelligent” ape who can speak to both humans and apes clandestinely trains the apes to fight and amass weapons and eventually leads an uprising against the humans. The casting of Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán as Caesar’s sympathetic owner doing his best to protect Caesar from the authorities who recognize the threat of a “talking ape” and the African American actor Hari Rhodes who saves Caesar after Caesar has been tortured and ordered to be killed is also significant in that they are both non-white people.
Released in 1972 the film is a great piece of agit-pop, a scathing social commentary reflecting the attitudes of the time period. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 gave rise to armed organizations defending the human rights of oppressed people in the US like the American Indian Movement, The Black Liberation Army as well as white solidarity groups like the Weather Underground. In a global context the film was a reflection of other organizations that were fighting fascism and imperialism overseas like the IRA in Ireland, the PLO in Palestine, the Angry Brigade in England, Red Army Faction in Germany and Los Macheteros in Puerto Rico. Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes condensed that sentiment into a mythology that spoke to the reality of the times. Consider the dialogue between Hari Rhodes as MacDonald and Caesar played by Roddy McDowall, when MacDonald is shocked to finds that Caesar can speak…
I never believed it… I thought you were a myth.
Well, I’m not. But I will tell you something that is…
The belief that human beings are kind.
No Caesar, there are some…
Oh a handful perhaps but not most of them.
They won’t learn to be kind until we force them to!
And we can’t do that until we are free!
How do you propose to gain this freedom?
By the only means left to us… revolution!
But it’s doomed to failure!
Perhaps… this time.
And the next…
But you’ll keep trying?
You, above everyone else should understand.
We cannot be free until we have power!
How else can we achieve it?
The whole crux of the film has been racing towards this dialogue. The whole story has been designed and built to make this point about revolution. Caesar’s reminder that MacDonald “above everyone else should understand” speaks volumes in a few short moments. The brevity of the scene gives it a weight without being heavy handed or preachy. Right after Caesar’s last lines are said the audience is divided into three groups. Those against the cause of the Apes, those who sympathize with their cause but not their method like MacDonald’s character and those who completely identify with Cesar and his cause of liberation. This division is not one that takes place during the film because everyone is on Caesar’s side while the film is rolling, this question of what side you are on comes after the credits have rolled and the evening news presents rock throwing Palestinians in Gaza.
The film could be looked at as some sort of time capsule artifact on revolutionary thought and struggle but it’s relevance unfortunately still rings true in places like Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria and Egypt and Jordan. Not to mention the ongoing the reunification of Ireland, the restoration of Hawaii as a nation, and the anti-imperialist struggle waged by Puerto Ricans for independence against US colonial rule.