Why ‘The Last Crusade” was almost “The Monkey King”

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One of my favorite comic books growing up was called “What If?” The stories were weird little one-offs about alternate, super-hero realities.

They asked questions like, “What if Captain America Became President?” or “What if Wolverine Had Killed the Hulk?” While reading about the origins of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” I discovered an earlier script that made for an intriguing “What if?” The name of the film that never was:

“Indiana Jones and the Monkey King.”

Seriously.

On Wednesday, Consolidated Theatres is celebrating the second birthday of the Hana Hou Picture Show with “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” the third film in the adventures of Indiana Jones. Director Steven Spielberg said:

I’m making the third movie to apologize for the second. It was too horrific.

An admission like that from one of the greatest directors of our generation reveals a truth most casual moviegoers don’t really think about: making a good sequel isn’t easy.

And it’s even tougher when you have to top two of the biggest action films ever. In 1984, Chris Columbus, who wrote the 80’s classics “Gremlins” and “The Goonies,” (and went on to direct the first two “Harry Potter” films) wrote the first draft of Indy 3. As the book “The Complete Making of Indiana Jones” describes, this and subsequent “Monkey King” drafts included a haunted house, a talking spider monkey, a Nazi with a mechanical gun arm, a three-story tank and characters like Werner Von Mephisto and Greta Von Grimm. Legendary screenwriter William Goldman once said, “Give the audience what they want, just not how they expect it.” Safe to say, no one expected a talking monkey.

But early drafts of screenplays are far from finished films and the “what ifs” of the “Monkey King” revealed the things that did work. A speedboat chase. A tank fight. The quest for the Holy Grail. And the story’s spine: Spielberg deepened the Jones character by making the quest for the Grail dovetail with a reconciliation with Indy’s estranged father. Plus he had this inspired suggestion:

I said to George (Lucas), there’s only one person who can play Indy’s father and that’s James Bond.

Side-note: Speaking of “what-ifs,” every time I watch this film I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if River Phoenix didn’t die at age 23. What if Phoenix were alive to play Jack Dawson in “Ttitanic”? Or Captain Jack Sparrow? Or starred in any film by Wes Anderson, David O. Russell, Martin Scorsese, Cameron Crowe or the Coen Brothers? Phoenix’s premature death is one of the great cinematic “What ifs.”

With “The Last Crusade,” Spielberg has nothing to apologize for. While some say “The Temple of Doom” suffered from heartlessness (literally), Spielberg and Lucas went on to create a father and son story with heart. The “what ifs” became what is: not only a good sequel, but arguably one of the greatest three-quels ever. I mean how can you top Han Solo and 007 riding off into the sunset together? As “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” showed, you really can’t.

Then again…

What if there was an Indiana Jones 5?

“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” screens on Wednesday, May 15, at 7 and 10 p.m., at Ward Consolidated Theatres as part of the 2nd anniversary of the Hana Hou Picture Show.

“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” nerd trivia:

• Steven Spielberg dropped out of directing “Rain Man” to make “The Last Crusade.”

• Sean Connery was only 12 years older than Harrison Ford at the time of filming.

• The outside of the grail temple was filmed at the ‘Lost City” of Petra in Jordan, one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.

• Tom Stoppard, an acclaimed playwright (“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”) and screenwriter (“Shakespeare in Love”), did un-credited dialogue writing on the film.

• George Lucas had an Alaskan malamute dog named Indiana.

• At the end of the film (spoiler alert) Sean Connery’s character is shot with a Walther PPK, James Bond’s signature gun.

Movie posters courtesy of MVNP

“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” original trailer

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