The third Apes film, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), had chimpanzees Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), Zira (Kim Hunter) and Milo (Sal Mineo) arriving in the present from the future. At first they’re treated as celebrities, but ultimately seen as a threat to humanity’s future and are exterminated. Cornelius and Zira’s son, Caesar, survives thanks to the aid of circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban). In Conquest, Caesar (also played by McDowall) has grown up and ultimately leads enslaved apes in a rebellion against their human masters and setting the groundwork for the future we witnessed in the original Planet of the Apes (1968).
Serving as associate producer of Escape, Conquest and 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, was the late Frank Capra, Jr., and in this interview excerpt conducted for the book Planet of the Apes Revisited (which is currently being revised and vastly expanded), he provides some insight into the making of Conquest.
Each of the sequels to the original Planet of the Apes was made more less money than its predecessor, yet somehow, production wise, it seems that Conquest was able to accomplish more.
It’s what we were challenged to do. [producer] Arthur P. Jacobs wanted to go back to a kind of scale and scope we’d had. He didn’t want to try to recreate something along the lines of Escape; he wanted to go back to a more traditional POTA theme.
The film had a very strong look to it which belied its low budget.
We were very lucky. We got a very good cinematographer. I remember we were thinking about who was going to direct it. That was going to be an important piece of the business here. We needed a director who we thought could handle size and scope but do it cheaply, which doesn’t always run together. Of course Arthur had known J. Lee Thompson before, because he had done What a Way to Go. He was wonderful to work for even though a lot of the time he was confronted with situations that were difficult to do the picture on budget. Where were we going to get a city of the future? We looked around and we used Century City, which was just being built — some of the buildings weren’t even finished. It was adjacent to Fox and it worked out perfectly for us. With interesting lighting and using interesting camera angles, which Lee was very good at, we got a look that I thought was pretty spectacular. Here we had Century City right next to us. That was a very difficult picture to do for the money we had and we really had to work hard. That’s why I’m really pleased with Lee, because he did a great job with it.
J. Lee said that Roddy treated this material as though it were Shakespeare.
He did. Roddy is a serious actor. As he always said, you have to work twice as hard or three times as hard to make the performance work through the makeup. So everything has to be exaggerated. You’re thinking, “My God, I’m going way over the top, but by the time you look at, it it’s not.
You’ve got his reaction to the death of Armando, but in that ending speech in which he rallies the apes, he’s just fabulous.
It was a very dramatic role and it gave him the opportunity to rise as a leader. He certainly did treat it that way and J. Lee helped him. He had a real ability to work through that makeup and create real characters; you’ve got to hand it to Roddy. For so many movies to put that makeup on and take it off, he got so proficient with it that he would just rip it off. There were 5:30, 6:00 calls every day. Believe me there was a lot of effort in those pictures that’s not on the screen. Of course, the makeup is on the screen, but you don’t realize how long that took and how long a shooting day was. There were a lot of nights on that film and that was hard. We shot night after night after night. Physically that was a hard movie to make for the money, and yet I think it also was quite successful in terms of what it was trying to do.
So much has been read into it such as racial issues, revolution, and all this other stuff.
I don’t think anyone was conscious of it. Writer Paul Dehn may have been socially to the left, but that doesn’t mean he was trying to create some kind of allegory about social revolution. J. Lee was trying to. The imagery of the Watts Riots was played on television night after night after night. Television covered it enormously, day and night, so these images were just in everybody’s mind, especially in the L.A. area and probably most of the country. They were certainly in J. Lee’s mind. Here we were talking about some sort of uprising at night in the city, and he saw there was an immediate connection, so that even though he wasn’t saying, “These are black people rising against white people,” the imagery of the riot created in his mind the kind of look that we wanted to create in the riot scenes and did. One of the reasons they were successful is that people who went to see the movie were harkened back to those images from about a year before.