Thursday, October 21, 2010

Unsung Heroes: Tom Stoppard for Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade

Michael C. here from Serious Film for another episode of Unsung Heroes. This week why don't we hand out some credit for some "uncredited" writing.


All directors, no matter how great, have a few blind spots. Even someone as indisputably great as Alfred Hitchcock could become leaden and stilted when he attempted farce. Similarly, one would not be too far out on a limb if he or she accused Steven Spielberg of lacking a certain lightness of touch. Which is not to say that he could never find a laugh (Jaws is full of humor) but he's not exactly the first person that comes to mind when one thinks of perfectly pitched comedic banter.

But a funny thing happened halfway through his career. He released a flick called Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and suddenly he was hilarious. And not just Richard Dreyfuss-does-an-amusing-line-reading funny. We're talking the kind of funny where the audience wouldn't mind if Indy took a break from fighting Nazis so long as we could keep watching him bicker with his dad. Now how exactly did that happen?

Well, like anything in film, handing out credit is a complicated business, but the short answer is this: Tom Stoppard happened.

Stoppard, for anybody unfamiliar, is one of the most prominent playwrights of the last half-century, winner of four Tonys and an Oscar for co-writing Shakespeare in Love. He was hired to give Jeffrey Boam's script for Last Crusade an uncredited polish, because when you're Steven Spielberg and your action picture needs punching up, you call one of the world's leading writers. I suppose Pinter was busy.

According to an Empire interview with Spielberg, Stoppard ended up writing pretty much every line of dialogue in the movie. No minor contribution, considering that Last Crusade's enduring popularity is more for its comedy than for any other quality. For my money, the much less fondly regarded Temple of Doom has superior action. But where that film's attempts at comedy were often clunky and lame, Last Crusade rattles of classic line after classic line:
"I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers."
"No ticket."
"He chose poorly"
And even though the character of Indy's father was largely a plot device added for the sake of variety, thanks to Stoppard, Ford & Connery ended up as an enduring comedic duo. Connery's gobsmacked "Look what you did!" after Indy wastes some Nazis never fails to make me guffaw. Their dynamic rings so true that the story actually finds some pathos in their relationship, which is a whole lot more than one can say about Ford & La Beouf in Crystal Skull.

Tom Stoppard. His famous plays include The Real Thing, Arcadia
The Coast of Utopia
, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

It must have been wonderful for Connery to sign on for a mega-budget Hollywood behemoth only to find himself with the greatest comedic role of his career. Watching the film, the joy of his performance is obvious. This is pure speculation, but I get the feeling that Stoppard was having a blast too. Maybe not. Maybe grinding out punchlines for Indy and his estranged father was grueling, joyless work. But for the audience it certainly feels like the great man had the time of his life livening up the B-movie material with wit and style.
*
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

15 comments:

NATHANIEL R said...

I haven't seen this one in so long. But I do remember loving Connery in it.

Stoppard is a genius.I'd love to see a Revival of THE INVENTION OF LOVE.

Silencio said...

What a great post. I did not know this, and everyone should. Incidentally, I was making mental jokes at work today about naming different work games "Ka Li Ma".

Alison Flynn said...

Adding to the Stoppard love.

This was the weakest of the Indy trilogy (not counting #4 in this discussion) but his writing really did elevate it. The comic lines you've isolated and many more from the movie were gems.

Stoppard also revamped and vastly improved the script for Burton's Sleepy Hollow, though he was uncredited if I remember correctly.

Ryan said...

I'd agree "Crystal Skull" makes "Crusade" look like "Return of the King" but the real Indy magic can only be found in "Raiders" and "Temple of Doom" as far as I'm concerned. ;)

Michael C. said...

I'm always shocked how often I hear people refer to Crusade as their favorite Indy film. There's a lot of love out there for this movie. The IMDB 250 ranks it just outside the top 100. Temple of Doom doesn't rank. And I think that is 99% attributable to Connery and the wit of the dialogue.

I do prefer Crusade over Temple of Doom which I think is a pretty unpleasant film outside some inventive action, but there really isn't any debate to be had as to which one is best. Raiders is better than the other three put together.

Roark said...

Wow, what a delightful fun fact.

I'll be honest, Last Crusade is actually the first Indy movie I saw, and it remains far and away my favorite of the series. Had no idea Stoppard worked on the script. Considering that he's one of my all time favorite writers, it's all starting to make sense to me now...

chris na Taraja said...

Thanks for that. Totally didn't know, and it makes complete sense why that movie was so enjoyable.

I usually go for the original Lost Arc Movie, but there is something endearing about the Ford/Connery duo, and it's Stoppard.

Unfortunately they probably didn't get Tom to ghost write the Crystal Skull, or it would have been much better. That's the first film that i didn't like that Cate Blanchet was in too. oh my, it was awful, like a disney TV version of Indianna...eeeew.

Volvagia said...

Wait. He wrote ALL the dialogue and he's NOT CREDITED? That's the base unit of "you're a screenwriter." Visual and performance elements are the job of THE DIRECTOR. How something's lit, the speed of the camera movement, how the actor's deliver the lines. This is what a director does.

Roark said...

Volvagia--

Dialogue is probably the least determinative element in determining authorship, at least according to Writers Guild rules. If you're not the original author or co-author of the script you have to be able to demonstrate that you contributed 50% (i think that's the number) or more to the story and structure of the screenplay. tweaking dialogue - even all of it - doesn't get you jack credit wise (though it probably earned Stoppard a small fortune).

Volvagia said...

Those rules, then, are absolutely messed up.

Say I write a script. Stucture it perfectly. Have the whole event stream set up. Pretty good dialogue, even if it isn't awesome. Then the studio hires another writer who vastly improves the dialogue. The Writers Guild decides that I get sole credit. That's BS. Dialogue is the only thing a screenwriter has ever been noticed for. If that's not my dialogue I WOULD NOT WANT CREDIT FOR THE ENTIRE SCRIPT.

Roark said...

I agree, it's not entirely fair, though I think there's an argument to be made that, while dialogue is often the most noticed contribution of a writer, the structuring of a narrative is by far the more substantial contribution to a film's success of failure. Plus, in a round-a-bout way the rules are intended to protect writers. Let's say, for example that, as you say, you write a perfectly structured script, and then the director has the actors improvise completely new dialogue on the set - would the actors deserve screenwriting credit? The director? The rules are too strict, too rigid, and a lot of writers who deserved credit have been screwed out of it as a result, but the rule doesn't come from a *completely* (just mostly) nonsensical place.

Beth Anderson said...

I had no idea he wrote the script for this - love, love Tom Stoppard. I watched this movie again a few months ago, and while it wasn't as good as I remembered, every scene with Sean Connery is just fantastically fun. I also will always love the opening scene with River Phoenix.

NATHANIEL R said...

roark -- thanks for sharing that. I admit i'm not well versed on the topic of how the writers guild gives credit so this is stotally interseing.

i can't type today argh.

Henry said...

I do pop in The Last Crusade for some good laughs. And it's not just confined to Indy and his dad, though they do get the best exchanges. It's in the interactions between Elsa and Indy ("I don't like fast women...") or Father Jones and Marcus ("Genius of the restoration") or even Sallah and Indy ("I said no camels! That's five camels!")... Just a beautifully scripted comic film.

Joel Burman said...

Great post! I love Raiders and Crusade so much more than temple of doom.