My favorite Planet of the Apes film has always been Conquest. It's one of the first science fiction movies, outside of Star Trek, I saw as a kid that really struck a cord with me in a deep and meaningful way. So, needless to say, when I first read on The Digital Bits that the Blu-Ray set of all five Apes films would contain the original cut of Conquest, I was ecstatic. I watched it the other night and was just blown away. It is THAT different.
For those of you not familiar with the movie, it tells the story of the ape revolution lead by Caesar. In the 1991 of the movie, North America is a fascist state in which humans use intelligent apes as slaves. They treat them brutally without an ounce of remorse. The only human who shows them any pity is a black man who, as a descendant of slaves, understand their plight. When Caesar, Earth's first talking ape, sees what is going on in the world he leads his fellow apes in an overthrow of the human government and system. It has always been a brutal film both emotionally and in terms of the violence is portrays. But if you thought the movie had a dark tone before, just wait until you see it as it was originally intended to be seen.
The differences don't start until the riots begin. What was a fairly bloodless affair in the PG version is now vastly different. We see apes getting shot and bleeding. We see humans getting shot and bleeding. We also get lingering shots of the bodies of dead apes that make Caesar's reactions that much more understandable. Granted, the blood is what I call "Dawn of the Dead 70's blood." It's not as realistic looking as that to which modern audiences have become accustomed. But, the blood and bodies add significantly to the heightened sense of anger that pervades the whole movie.
The biggest changes come at the very end. The first one is when Governor Breck sees a blowtorch cutting into the command center door. He knows that Ape Management is about to fall and orders the apes inside to be shot. In this version, before the police shoot the group of apes, Breck grabs a handgun and shoots a gorilla in the head at point blank range. In the scene, Breck points the gun directly at the camera, putting the viewer in the position of the gorilla. It then cuts to the face of the gorilla with a helpless look in his eyes. The camera doesn't cut away as we see his head burst with blood from the bullet. It really took me back. I literally said aloud, "holy shit."
Then comes the end and Caesar's speech. This version offers no peacemaking or reconciliation. Lisa does not say "no" before the gorillas try to kill Breck. Before he gives his speech we see the gorillas piling up the bodies of dead, bloody humans in front of where Caesar is now standing. I like what this adds to the movie and I also like it as foreshadowing the war-like nature of the gorillas in the future. It invokes a mirror image feeling of seeing the gorillas piling up human bodies after their hunt in the original film.
In this version, Caesar's speech ends with the phrase "and that day is upon you now!" After that, the gorillas raise their rifles and beat a defiant Governor Breck to death. We don't see the rifle buts impacting his body but the scene does go on for quite a while. It leaves no doubt as to what is happening. Breck is not spared and Caesar offers no pity for his human oppressors. The film then cuts to the long-shot of the apes in front of a burning sky-line. It fades to back and the credits roll. The only word I had after it ended was "damn."
The raw power and emotion of this version is jaw-dropping. I can only imagine what parents taking their kids to see this at test screenings must have thought. Every ape film before this had been rated G. This version would have clearly gotten an R. I can also certainly understand why the black culture of the time embraced this film so much. In this original form, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is one of the most savagely nihilistic science fiction films ever made. It has the emotional punch of the original Gojira. I never thought I could be a bigger fan of this movie than I already was, but it happened. If you know the old version like the back of your hand, you owe it to yourself to see this as J. Lee Thompson and Paul Dehn intended it. If you have never seen the movie, watch this version. You will not be disappointed.