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

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