J. Lee Thompson had wanted to be involved with Planet of the Apes since the original film, but scheduling conflicts had kept that from happening. For this, the fourth film in the series, he shot much of the film like a news broadcast, influenced by the many civil rights changes over the past few years.
Screenwriter Paul Dehn thought that this would be the last movie in the series and saw this as the closing of the circle that began with the first movie. For inspiration, he also went back to the original novel, where apes took over as pets.
After a 1983 pandemic that wiped out all dogs and cats, humanity has taken on apes as slave labor. In fact, if it feels like slavery, that’s kind of the intention of the film. By 1991, the world has almost become a police state, which was foretold in 1973 when Cornelius and Zira came back in time.
However, their son Milo — now Caesar and played by Roddy McDowall — has evaded capture by being raised by Armando (Ricardo Montalban, returning from the last film) as a horseback riding performer. Almost a father to the young ape, Armando warns Caesar not to be upset at what he’s sees and definitely not to speak. However, the young ape can’t contain his anger.
While his “father” goes to jail, Caesar is sold into slavery and bought by Governor Breck (Don Murray, Bus Stop), where he is put to work by the African-American chief aide MacDonald (Hari Rhodes, Detroit 9000), who is against the slavery of the apes.
Armando is interrogated by Inspector Kolp (Severn Darden, who would help form Second City and was also in Saturday the 14th and comes back for the next Apes film), whose machine The Authenticator can get out any truth. Rather than cause the death of his son, Armando leaps out a window to his death.
Caesar loses faith in humanity and begins to teach the apes how to fight. He’s even captured and nearly killed — MacDonald saves his life — before escaping and inciting his revolution. He sets fire to most of the city and his apes murder nearly every cop that tries to fight them. He marches into Breck’s command post, kills nearly everyone and marches the leader out to be killed.
MacDonald begs Caesar not to become as bad as humanity and asks hm to spare his former master. Caesar howls back: “Where there is fire, there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch, and conspire, and plot, and plan for the inevitable day of Man’s downfall. The day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind. The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble! When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland out of which I will lead my people from their captivity! And we shall build our own cities, in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you NOW!”
This is where the movie splits, depending on what version you watch.
In the theatrical version, as the apes raise their rifles to kill Breck, Caesar’s girlfriend Lisa becomes the first ape other than our hero to speak, yelling “No!” The apes lower their weapons as Caesar says, “But now… now we will put away our hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the night of the fires, and those who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God, and if it is Man’s destiny to be dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion, and understanding. So, cast out your vengeance. Tonight, we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!”
After a negatively recieved preview screening, the producers reworked the film, even though they did not have the budget to do so. After all, this film had the smallest budget of any of the Apes films.
Seriously, this was made on the cheap. The jumpsuits worn by the apes saved on the cost of fake fur and were leftover costumes from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Other props and sets came from The Time Tunnel, City Beneath the Sea and Land of the Giants. Finally, Breck’s throne at the ape auction came from Taylor’s spaceship in the original film.
After all, the Apes were keeping 20th Century Fox in business after flops like Cleopatra, Star! and Hello, Dolly! They kept doing so even with lower and lower budgets.
So how did they accomplish this new ending? Roddy McDowall looped in a new speech, which was done through editing tricks — notie that you only see Caesar’s eyes — and the guns are raised back up by playing the footage backward. The blu ray release of this has both endings. Obviously, I prefer the one where the humans get what they deserve.
This is the only film from the original Planet of the Apes series without a pre-title sequence. That’s because that scene — where a night patrol kills an ape and learns that his body showed signs of abuse — was too much for the MPAA. All of the other movies had been rated G, after all. So this scene — and several others that were quite bloody — were all axed.