Commandos Clash With Damn Dirty Apes
'War for the Planet of the Apes' is a meditation on American darkness
This article contains spoilers for War for the Planet of the Apes.
The plot of War for the Planet of the Apes centers around a commando raid gone wrong. At the end of preceding Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar rids his tribe of its radical elements and strikes a blow against a nearby human settlement. The apes just want to live in peace in the forest, but the humans can’t let them be. Malcolm — Dawn’s human protagonist — warns Caesar that the military will be coming.
War opens with that military force moving through the woods looking for Caesar, or “King Kong” as the soldiers call him. Slogans such as “Monkey Killer” adorn their helmets. They find the home of the apes but the soldiers are just a small expeditionary force and Caesar’s troops easily turn them back. Caesar even shows the men mercy and sets the survivors loose with the entreaty to leave his tribe alone.
That night, a Special Operations Force descends on Caesar’s home. Its leader is The Colonel — a mad and mysterious American operator with funny ideas about the future of humanity — played by Woody Harrelson. The Colonel and his crew move to where Caesar sleeps, kill their target and high-tail it to the exfil.
One problem. Caesar was wandering the forest looking for the soldiers when they crashed into his room and fired upon the bodies sleeping there. The Colonel and his commandos killed Caesar’s family, not Caesar, which sends the hero on a foolhardy quest for revenge against the humans who wronged him.
So, War for the Planet of the Apes kicks off with a Special Operations Forces team conducting a night raid against a high-value target. They screw up that raid, kill the target’s family and radicalize the survivors. It’s a story we’ve heard before.
Night raids are a staple of U.S. Special Operations tactics in Afghanistan. The template is frighteningly similar to the The Colonel’s raid from War for the Planet of the Apes. Commandos enter a village compound, typically a Pashtun town, in the middle of the night to either kill or kidnap a high-value target. They kill anyone who gets in the way.
The most famous of these raids happened in November 2009, when U.S. Special Operations Forces attacked a compound in Ghazni City just after three in the morning. The soldiers were there for a computer programmer with suspected Taliban ties and in the process of capturing him, killed two of his cousins.
Afghan central government officials, including former Pres. Hamid Karzai and current Pres. Ashraf Ghani, decry night-time raids. Karzai banned the practice only to see Ghani lift it in 2014, but critics claimed the ban had no practical effect on U.S. forces. The argument against the raids is that it radicalizes the survivors. Few things are as terrifying as bearded, tattooed hard-asses in full kit bursting into your home in the middle of the night to drag away a member of your family into the dark. It’s enough to turn regional partners against the U.S. war effort, and critics of the raids claim that’s exactly what it does.
War for the Planet of the Apes paints the same picture. After the attack, Caesar sends his tribe searching for a new homeland and gathers a small posse of his trusted lieutenants to get revenge on The Colonel. It doesn’t go well, and before long, the humans round up Caesar and his entire tribe and imprison them in a concentration camp.
You read that right. The surviving human military straight-up puts the apes in a forced labor camp. They’d kill them all on sight, but the soldiers need the free labor force to build a wall to serve as a bulwark against a rival human military faction. It seems The Colonel is running a cult of personality and the rest of the military doesn’t want him in charge anymore.
Harrelson’s portrayal of The Colonel is excellent but, despite his protests, he’s obviously channeling Marlon Brando’s from Apocalypse Now. Hell, Woody’s Colonel never has a name beyond his rank. He’s just The Colonel. At least Brando’s Colonel had the dignity of the surname Kurtz. Both characters are bald, and both use brutal methods and the force of their personalities to maintain control of their fiefdoms.
The set even lampshades the connection — graffiti in an underground tunnel reads “Ape-pocalypse now.”
Harrelson’s mad Colonel brings in another American war into the mix — Vietnam. Watching War for the Planet of the Apes is like watching the Vietnam War or the Afghan War from the perspective of America’s enemies. Vietnam was a lost cause then, Afghanistan is a lost cause now, and the human race’s dominance of the planet is a lost cause in the film.
It’s weird flick to watch, but compelling, well executed and — I think — the best of the trilogy. It’s rare that a series of films ends as well as this one does, and it’s unheard of for the third film in a trilogy to be the best, but that appears to be the case with War for the Planet of the Apes.
When the credits roll, audiences who’ve been here since the first movie will have watched the complete journey of a character. It has been a fantastic ride, has made some money but hasn’t gotten a lot of press — the stealthiest of summer blockbusters.
The films are also a complete story which weaves threads of environmentalism, conservation, the Holocaust, Vietnam, Afghanistan and the Bible without any of it seeming overwrought or out of place. That’s a minor miracle and I think Harrelson is a big part of that.
The antagonists of the previous movies are forgettable, but The Colonel manages to embody the worst humanity has to offer while punctuating the series. Here is a man who embodies the spirit of America’s failed wars. With his vaguely religious rhetoric, love of his soldiers and willingness to sacrifice his own children to an imagined greater good, he’s a particularly American monster.
Humans have always been the villains of this set of Apes films, and The Colonel reflects what we Americans might become should we ever face extinction. He decries emotions while making emotional decisions. He kills women and children in the middle of the night, and makes fresh enemies out of imagined threats. He’s the worst of us, and he’ll be the one audiences remember long after the movie is over.