Even though the movie ended with two beloved characters and a baby chimpanzee being brutally murdered, parents still brought their children to see ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, so 20th Century Fox called up producer Arthur P. Jacobs and gave the go-ahead for a fourth film. Jacobs quickly contacted the man who had become the world weaver of the apes, writer Paul Dehn, and told him to get to work. Dehn, whether he intended to or not, started a new format for the series, turning the focus to the fall of man and the rise of the apes. Dehn chose to focus this fourth installment on the baby chimp Milo, now in his twenties and living with Armando the circus owner. The story would be an allegory of the African American experience. Milo would be pulled from his safe home, have his name taken from him, and be beaten into submission before becoming a servant to a wealthy man.
With the script ready, Jacobs reached out to J. Lee Thompson, director of the original CAPE FEAR to see if he would take on the movie. Thompson, who had been offered the first PLANET OF THE APES but was forced to turn it down due to a scheduling issue, had been following the series closely and jumped at the chance to put his mark on it. Taking Dehn’s wonderful and brutal script, Thompson added in a level of attention to detail that the APES movies had been missing. He dressed the humans in black or dull colors while the apes wore bright reds and greens. He chose the newly built Century City, who’s ultra-modern style captured what Thompson felt was the perfect look for the bleak future he envisioned, as the backdrop for the film. Thompson even filmed the final battle in a dirty, news footage style, going so far as to recreate exact shots from the Watts riots.
Roddy McDowall, who had played Cornelius in PLANET OF THE APES and ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES came back, now playing his character’s grown up son. The role would become McDowall’s legacy. Ricardo Montalban also returned, building out his character from ESCAPE. Natalie Trundy, who had played a mutant in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES and animal psychologist Dr. Stephanie Branton in ESCAPE, took on the role of Lisa, the love interest of Caesar. Trundy is tied with McDowall for most appearances in the APES movies, though McDowall wins for the franchise overall, but more on that in a later chapter.
With everything in place, and on a shocking tiny budget, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES went into production. The results were something no one at Fox expected.
CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was a brutal movie. Where the previous three films weren’t afraid to get grim, none of them pushed the violence or imagery as far as Thompson did. The film shows apes, who are now used as servants by mankind after a virus killed every cat and dog in the world (don’t ask how the two connect because I have no idea) being tortured in a variety of horrible ways. From fire hoses to electrocution, the apes are beaten over and over again. We follow Milo, the very much alive child of Zira and Cornelius, as he endures the pain of the other apes after he is taken from Armando. Milo, forced to take a new name from a book, chooses Caesar.
Through this breakdown of the history of the franchise, I’ve purposely kept from focusing on any one moment, but to do that now would be a grave error. Roddy McDowall, covered in layers of makeup, brings so much pain, so much anger, through the prosthetics that it is honestly insane that he wasn’t given every acting award out there. When Milo is forced to choose a new name, when his finger lands on Caesar, the intensity in McDowall’s eyes as he stares down his new owner is terrifying.
Fitting that level of intensity is the action that Thompson filmed. The movie, when first brought before the ratings board, was unable to get the PG Fox wanted. The censors felt, and were very much correct, that CONQUEST was not suitable for the family audiences that the APES films had been for previously. Yes, there was action and blood in the previous movies, but in CONQUEST, which ends with a ten minute battle in the streets as the apes revolt and kill every human they see, the level of intensity was so strong that test audiences ran out of the theater – well, white test audiences. According to J. Lee Thompson in BEHIND THE PLANET OF THE APES, when they tested the movie in Englewood, the African American audience ate it up. Here, before their eyes, was a studio made movie that called out for a revolution against the government for the things that had been done to them.
There was no way that movie would be allowed to reach theaters in 1972. The original ending, where Caesar calls for revolution and the apes kill every human, was edited to end the film with Caesar calling for man and ape to work together.
Thompson was forced to cut down on the violence and change the ending in order to get the PG rating Fox demanded. Still, even with these edits, CONQUEST is the most brutal of the APES movies as well as the most character driven, and while critics were hard on the film, audiences ate it up.
While it is doubtful that anyone who worked on CONQUEST realized that they were creating what would become one of the most iconic characters in sci-fi, Caesar, thanks to the work of Roddy McDowall and now Andy Serkis has become exactly that. Watching CONQUEST, it is easy to see why. The journey of Caesar from scared child to revolutionary leader brings about the first truly fleshed out ape character in the films – while we loved Zira and Cornelius, our love for them comes not from a sense of connecting with them, but from seeing them as good. With Caesar, we witness the hardships of his life in an almost biopic fashion. We feel his pain. We feel his anger. We feel his loss. We understand his need for vengeance. And with the fifth and final film in the original series, we would come to understand the weight on Caesar’s shoulders.