J. Lee Thompson, a highly distinguished gentleman born in London, was a stage actor for two years before he embarked on a career as playwright. One of his plays, Murder Without Crime, was a smash hit in London, and he also made it into his first picture, in 1952. He was a Royal Air Force Radio operator during World War II. His favorite film was Woman In A Dressing Gown, which he did in 1957, and it won four Berlin Film Festival awards and the 'Golden Globe' as best foreign English-language film. Also in 1957, his Ice Cold In Alex won the International Critics Award for Best Film and, the following year, his Tiger Bay (introducing Hayley Mills) won the same award. Also on his list of winnings was a 1952 British Academy Award for The Yellow Baloon as Best Picture, and the Cannes Film Festival screenplay award for Yield To The Night in 1956. Other major films include Flame Over India, the great action-adventure Guns Of Naverone, I Aim At The Stars, Cape Fear, Return From The Ashes, the supernatural chiller sleeper Eye Of The Devil, MacKenna's Gold, APJAC production The Chairman, and the fourth and fifth Apes pictures, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes.
In fact, Thompson's involvement with Planet of the Apes went back much further, having worked with producer Arthur P. Jacobs to bring the concept to the screen as early as 1963. At that time, Thompson was directing Jacobs' production debut What a Way to Go!. Together, they wrote a five-page summary to sell the Apes story to the studios, but in December 1963 20th Century Fox decided it was too expensive and Thompson withdrew. "Arthur Jacobs found the subject, and we were in partnership then. I was very interested in 'Planet of the Apes' by Pierre Boulle, and we decided to continue our partnership and do this picture. Well, it so happened that no studio wanted to do it. I moved on to other things, and Arthur courageously stuck to the subject. He had tremendous battles all the time, and eventually, many years later, it was made. Every credit goes to Arthur for staying with it, and I rue the day that I came out of it." He later repeated: "It was looking pretty grim at one time, so I very stupidly sold my share in the film back to Arthur." Thompson reportedly turned down an invitation to direct Beneath the Planet of the Apes because he disliked the script, but he never lost interest in the concept, and finally agreed to direct Conquest, which began filming in January 1972: "Arthur has always offered me the Apes films. Schedules clashed...until now. I feel a very lucky man to be able to do it, late in the day as it is."
Thompson spoke at some length about the concept and feel behind the making of Conquest: "Both the stylistic and thematic concept is that the film should give a feeling of a state that is under domination by a growing dictatorship. The people, the ordinary civilians, in the film are very colorless; the only colorful people in the film are the apes, who wear red, green, and yellow. None of the sets are over-colored. One is putting over a police state, where in truth, color falls from the lives of the people. But I must add this. One has to bear in mind very carefully the public you're making it for. It's no good making a tremendously stylistic picture. One mustn't try too hard to come away from the main objective of the film, which is entertainment. You may be stylistically pleasing the critics, but in the net run, what we’re trying to do here is to entertain the fans of the 'Planet of the Apes' pictures. So, I have to find a medium between keeping to a certain style, and yet giving the public what they expect from a 'Planet of the Apes' film." "The 'look' is one of austerity. In the camera, one builds the police into almost demigod-like figures, and the public as mere shadows. Their lives are ordered about by loud-speaker systems, who tell them to leave the streets at given moments. Demonstrations are allowed, but only for so many minutes. So, we are running, parallel with the story of the ape uprising, a story of police state dominance." "Color has been taken out of the film to a degree. We have not gone so far as to desaturate the color in the lab, but it is a possibility we have talked about. But we won't do that. We photograph it as it actually appears. The people do not wear colored clothes, no vivid colors. It is in that respect that we give it this rather cold, dehumanized look."
On directing a sequel to very successful films, Thompson said: "Obviously, every sequel is a tremendous challenge, because there's always the nerve-wracking possibility that the bubble of success might burst at any moment, and you will be the person handling the one sequel which is the unsuccessful one. But that's the fears of the director talking. I never give that a real thought when I'm on the set. All one has to do is make it to the best of one's ability, treating it as if it was a first film, on its own." Thompson returned for the fourth Apes picture, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, but producer Arthur P. Jacobs made it clear this movie would have a very different tone: "Right from the start Arthur said 'We're going to make a kid picture, and something that will appeal to families'. We had no real political implications, it was simply a kid's science fiction film."
- J. Lee Thompson article at Wikipedia
- J. Lee Thompson entry at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
- J. Lee Thompson obituary in 'Simian Scrolls #6' at Hunter's Planet of the Apes Archive
- 'Cinefantastique Planet of the Apes Issue' (1972)
- Planet of the Apes Revisited, by Edward Gross, Larry Landsman & Joe Russo - reprinted in 'Sci-Fi Universe' (July 1994)
- 'Night & Day' (2001)
- Planet of the Apes: 40 Year Evolution, by Lee Pfeiffer & Dave Worrall (June 2008)
- Behind the Planet of the Apes