Who Began the War for the Planet of the Apes?
“I did not start this war” (10:14), says Caesar, the leader of Ape Society, in his first line of dialogue in War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), which raises the question: “who did?” Though his next line implies his would-be usurper and former friend Koba is at fault, it’s also easy to lay the blame at the feet of the ruthless and despicable Colonel, who inadvertently kills Caesar’s wife and son despite Caesar’s compassion to captured enemies and attempts to foster peace. But then Caesar has an opportunity to exit the conflict, to lead the rest of his people to safety. Instead, he chooses to go to war, with the death of the Colonel as his ultimate goal.
PERPETUATING THE CYCLE
At one point during Caesar’s hunt for the Colonel, he insists on going ahead alone, leaving his companions behind. “They must pay,” he says of the humans, which spurs Maurice to point out “Now you sound like Koba” (58:55). If Koba is indeed the Ape who started the war, as Caesar believes, then his actions throughout WAR serve only to perpetuate the conflict in Koba’s name. Though Koba doesn’t make any literal appearances in WAR, he haunts Caesar, showing up in hallucinations. These visions suggest Caesar is aware of the road he’s on and fears what he may become. Though humans haven’t scarred Caesar physically, the way they did Koba, the damage they’ve done may run even deeper.
The Colonel recognizes this driving desire for revenge and uses it against a captured Caesar. The Colonel asks him, “What do you think my men would have done to your Apes if you had killed me? Or is killing me more important?” (1:25:14). If Caesar hadn’t been consumed by the need for revenge, maybe the Colonel wouldn’t have had another chance to escalate the violence done against Apes. While Caesar’s bloodlust is totally understandable given the circumstances, the actions he takes go against all the ideas upon which he built Ape Society.
HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
As Caesar suggests, you could trace the start of this conflict back to Koba, who attacked human survivors in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), although in fairness, those same humans may have struck first had Koba not. You could also go even further back, to Dodge Landon. If he hadn’t abused the Apes in the primate shelter in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Caesar may never have felt the need to retaliate and escape. But going down this rabbit hole just leads to someone else at fault, someone else to blame—behind every bad action is another precipitating it. Apes and humans alike could be pointed to as the catalyst for everything that happens, but looking back illuminates just how much back and forth there’s been. Both sides have acted as perpetrators of violence, in ways sometimes justified, sometimes unprovoked.
To complicate things even more, the lines dividing Apes and humans are blurrier than ever in WAR. Former followers of Koba have joined up with humans, who call them “Donkeys.” Caesar’s closest confidante, Maurice, adopts a human orphan who’s instrumental in helping the Apes escape. What becomes clear as the war goes on is that it doesn’t matter so much who started the war. In fact, there may be no definitive start to the war, no single person or Ape at fault. Instead, what’s important is that both sides have repeatedly contributed to the battle between them, and the only tangible result has been their progeny’s suffering.
ENDING THE WAR
There aren’t any true victors in the war—nature has the final say, and the remaining Apes manage to make it to their new home. In the midst of their escape, the orphaned human, who Maurice names Nova, asks if she’s an Ape (1:41:59) similarly to how Caesar asked of his adoptive father, “What is Caesar?” in Rise. The question of who started the war is no longer important, and what they are doesn’t matter anymore either. The question now is who will they, Ape and human together, become?