By Ryan Fleming
Four out of five; a series long in the production.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
2023 will see the release of a film sequel. Not an unsurprising development, since almost all major releases for most of the 21st Century have been sequels. Or prequels. Or remakes. Or reboots. Or seqoots. Or spin-offs. Or midquels. Or any number of ways Hollywood has connived to trade on past nostalgia to make up for a dearth of ideas. This one stands out for two reasons: first, that it is a straightforward sequel in a series whose last entrance was sixteen years ago in 2007. Secondly, that it is the fourth sequel to a film released forty-two years ago in 1981. In fact, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny represents the final fulfilment of the original agreement in 1979 for five Indiana Jones films. It is not the first time that a film in that series saw a protracted period of development, or even the second.
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas made a deal with Paramount Pictures for five films in their proposed series of adventures based around the pulp-inspired archaeologist. However, both Hollywood wunderkinds had only ever intended to make a trilogy of films. That trilogy was completed in 1989 with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a film that went through several versions itself between 1984 and 1989. Series star Harrison Ford was under the impression that Last Crusade was the final film, whereas Lucas, as screenwriter, has said that he was unable to think of a compelling plot device to drive the plot of any further sequels. Lucas instead moved on to produce the television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, because it was somehow easier to come up with around thirty compelling plot ideas for television than it was to come up with one for a film.
The notion of another film never completely evaporated. As per Lee Marrs, a writer on Dark Horse Comics line of Indiana Jones comics, at least one idea would have seen a fourth film focused on the younger version of Indiana Jones played by River Phoenix in the prologues to Last Crusade. Phoenix’s death in 1993 ended such consideration before it even reached the development stage.
River Phoenix, scheduled to be a younger version of Indiana Jones.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
It would be a prequel that would inspire development of a fourth Indiana Jones film. Harrison Ford made a cameo in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles; from 1950 he narrated his adventures 30 years prior in 1920 Chicago as a young man. The idea of his ophidiophobic archaeologist in the 1950s seemed to begin firing off ideas for Lucas. What he latched on to was putting their spin on 1950s sci-fi horror B-movies such as The Thing from Another World (1951), It Came from Outer Space (1953), and Them! (1954) with aliens as the plot device. Lucas felt that they could easily drop Jones into such a scenario to make it different from the 1930s Saturday matinée adventure serials that inspired the first three films. Both Ford and Spielberg resisted. The former flat out refused to appear in a Steven Spielberg film of that sort, no doubt remembering the director’s earlier efforts like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1988) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Ford had actually made a cameo in the latter which was cut from the film and the footage rarely released. On Spielberg’s part, he felt he had moved on as a director and would move into a producing role on any subsequent sequels.
Regardless, Lucas proceeded with development of the idea. The first draft was written by Jeb Stuart – screenwriter of Die Hard (1988) and The Fugitive (1993), not the Confederate cavalry general. This script featured a return of Jones’ father, played by Sean Connery in The Last Crusade. It also introduced the Soviets as the villains, after Stuart learned of Joseph Stalin’s interest in psychic warfare. Subsequent drafts were written by Jeffrey Boam, who had previously written Last Crusade. The most recent of these drafts was completed in 1996. Those familiar with the eventual fourth film in the series, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (2007), will note that at least two of that film’s plot aspects, the aliens and the Soviets, were already present more than ten years before the film was released. It was another film featuring aliens that put the fourth Indiana Jones film back into hibernation: Independence Day (1996). Before the year was out, Spielberg told Lucas outright that he would not make another alien invasion film. Seemingly conceding defeat, Lucas turned his attentions away from Indiana Jones and towards his other great creation: Star Wars. Perhaps he just really, really wanted to make a film with aliens?
No. The wrong Jeb Stuart. Stupid picture editor.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
George Lucas returned to the directing chair for the Star Wars prequels. They were his first directing effort, Star Wars or otherwise, since the original Star Wars (1977) itself. Steven Spielberg, in comparison, directed a total of seven films between the releases of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999). These included his back-to-back successes to 1993: Jurassic Park became the new highest grossing film of all time, surpassing the prior record held by E.T., and Schindler’s List received universal acclaim, including Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director for Spielberg. Interest in another Indiana Jones film was revived in 2000, when an American Film Institute tribute to Harrison Ford resulted in a reunion with Lucas, Spielberg, and series producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy. The quintet decided they wanted to enjoy working on an Indiana Jones film again. Lucas finally sold Spielberg on the inclusion of aliens by telling him they were “interdimensional” instead of “extraterrestrial”. No-one had made a film entitled I.D. the Interdimensional yet. M Night Shyamalan was originally hired to script the film, but dropped out due to the pressures of doing a sequel to a beloved film and the difficulty of getting Ford, Lucas, and Spielberg to concentrate on the production. That version of the film would have been shot in 2002.
2002 saw Frank Darabont hired to replace Shyamalan as screenwriter. The director of The Shawshank Redemption (1994) had written several episodes of Young Indiana Jones in the early 1990s. His version featured escaped Nazi war criminals as the villains and was titled Indiana Jones and the City of Gods. Later versions of the script changed the villains back to the Soviets, due to the 1950s Cold War setting and Spielberg refusing to satirise Nazis after directing Schindler’s List. Jeff Nathanson was brought on board in August 2004, turning in two drafts in 2005 under the title Indiana Jones and the Atomic Ants. David Koepp, who had previously scripted Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) for Spielberg, became the final scriptwriter for the film. His title of Indiana Jones and the Destroyer of Worlds was changed at the behent of Spielberg and Lucas to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. A conscious decision during the scripting phase was to maintain the tone of the earlier films, and not update it to align with modern films. This might have been appealing to Spielberg, who was coming off a string of several darker films such as War of the Worlds and Munich (both 2005).
Reception of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was mixed. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation called for it to be banned; other cinephiles were less incensed. Respected critics such as Robert Ebert and Leonard Malting awarded three-and-a-half stars out of four. The perception of the film was parodied in an episode of South Park where characters file a police report against Lucas and Spielberg. Lucas, for his part, was unsurprised by the reception, comparing it to the polarising response to his Star Wars prequels. The performances, set pieces, tone, and score by John Williams were usually praised, but the dialogue, story, plot, and special effects were all the subject of criticism. One particular moment, which saw Jones survive a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator, gave rise to the term “nuking the fridge” as the moment as which a film series crosses the line into the absurd, comparable to ‘jumping the shark’ used in television. Lucas and Spielberg each tried to take the blame for each other over that particular aspect. First Spielberg said it was all his idea, then Lucas said Spielberg was only protecting him, in oddly heart warming gestures of friendship.
Safety note: A fridge will not help you survive a nuclear explosion.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Though the response has become less outraged in the years since, there’s no denying that it was seen as a step down at the time, winning the Golden Raspberry Award in 2008 for Worst Prequel, Remake, Rip-off, or Sequel.
Would an earlier film have fared better?
To pick a moment where the fourth Indiana Jones film might have been made earlier, let us imagine that, for whatever reason, Independence Day is not released in 1996. Spielberg is less opposed to making an alien film, and Lucas does not turn his attentions away from Indiana Jones towards Star Wars. It should be noted that even when Lucas, Spielberg, Ford, Marshall, and Kennedy all desired to make another entry in the series that it was still seven years between them all being on board and the eventual release of the film. However, in 1996, the film had already been in development for three years. Perhaps if they can get a script that everyone approves without going through as many hands as they did in the 00s with Shyamalan, Darabont, and Nathanson before settling upon David Koepp’s. It is possible that Koepp still winds up writing the final draft, already having a working relationship with Spielberg from the Jurassic Park films. Similarly, Frank Darabont was developing a working relationship with Spielberg around this time, acting as a script doctor on Saving Private Ryan (1998) and later Minority Report (2002). With Koepp likely still preoccupied with The Lost World: Jurassic Park, responsibilities might fall to Darabont. His historical 2002 script Spielberg was said to love but Lucas disliked.
It is Darabont’s script that most informed much of what we got in Crystal Skull. How might a version turned in five years earlier have differed? The major difference is that Jones might still be portrayed as in his prime, as opposed to the portrayal in Crystal Skull being of an older character. The eighteen years that passed between Last Crusade and Crystal Skull were copied to the screen with the later taking place eighteen years after the former’s 1939 setting in 1957. If a fourth Indiana Jones film becomes Spielberg’s next project after The Lost World, then only eight years would have passed since Last Crusade. That would place the film in 1947. Coincidentally, this was the same year a weather balloon crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, an incident referenced in Crystal Skull. The plotlines of Jones reuniting with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) and meeting their son (Shia LaBeouf) might not appear in this version. There might still be returns from prior films: Sean Connery was retired by the time Crystal Skull went into production and refused an offer to cameo. Similarly, English actor and former professional wrestler Pat Roach had appeared in each film to have a fight with Jones but died in 2004 from throat cancer. Roach was still working up to 2003, so might return to be beaten by Jones once again.
How might this version be received compared to the one that came in 2007? The film industry of 2007 was a far different one from 1997. Crystal Skull intentionally struck a tone far lighter and aligned with most of the earlier films than what was the norm. Especially compared with much of Spielberg’s output since The Last Crusade. Spielberg would be coming off The Lost World: Jurassic Park instead of Munich, the fourth Indiana Jones film presumably replacing Amistad (1997). The overall tone of films might be closer to those of the earlier films, but Spielberg not coming off a string of darker efforts might not push it so far as the 2007 version of Crystal Skull. A prospective 1997 version may have struck a better balance. As to the film’s most ridiculed moment: that had its origins in Frank Darabont’s 2002 script. They might still nuke the fridge. The difference is that this is years before the Star Wars prequels had set the tone for fan outrage that still boils over to this day. In fact, the term “jumping the shark”, of which “nuking the fridge” is an adaptation, was only popularised from the earliest in 1997 when Jon Hein launched the website JumpTheShark.com.
An earlier version of the fourth Indiana Jones film would likely have been better received. A combination of the iron not having gone completely cold and tonally being more aligned with the prevailing tastes in film. Might it have led to a fifth film before even the 2007 historic release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Perhaps then we would not have the oddity of the 2007 film portraying Indiana Jones as now past his prime and old, then having to do the same thing in another film released in 2023. The most pressing question of a fourth Indiana Jones film released in the late 1990s does not even concern that series: where the attentions of George Lucas are focused on more Indiana Jones films, are the Star Wars prequels ever made?
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Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by Sealion Press, a collection of short stories set in an independent Scotland.