Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Learning from Stoppard
Mike Fitzgerald examines Tom Stoppard’s draft of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, to discover what it can teach us about screenwriting.
By Mike Fitzgerald.
Comparing two drafts of a script can be hugely instructive, revealing point-by-point how a writer went about improving the story. When I stumbled upon an earlier draft of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I discovered a dazzling, glittering trove of lessons as nourishing as eternal life itself. Well, nearly so.
Last Crusade was written by Jeffrey Boam, from a story by George Lucas and Menno Meyjes. So say the opening credits. Boam’s final draft, dated March 1, 1988 (ten weeks before production) differs drastically from the published script which reflects the released version of the film. Differences come as no shock, but with Last Crusade they aren’t just a few deleted scenes and some line changes. Whole sections of the Boam draft were reimagined, major set pieces were added, and the pacing and tone were markedly transformed. Whoever made these changes possessed a profound grasp of story craft.
So who was that? Spielberg himself made certain revisions, such as expanding the desert tank sequence from a few pages to over eleven – injecting some much-needed action into the story. Some scenes were filmed but omitted during the edit, like an extended chase through the Zeppelin in which Indy and Henry are pursued by a gestapo agent and a World War One flying ace.
And then there was the uncredited script polish by Barry Watson – you know, the Barry Watson? Never heard of him? Perhaps if we peek under his pseudonym… ah, yes: Sir Tom Stoppard, a four-time Tony winner who later bagged an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love. Since we can’t know whose pen revised which pages (although Spielberg did say that “Tom is pretty much responsible for every line of dialogue;” avclub.com), let’s just call it a collaboration of some titans of storytelling.
If you are interested in seeing in a full dissection of the revisions, you will find a link to my breakdown and both scripts at the end of this article. But before that, here are some general lessons that emerge from the comparison.
As a story progresses, stakes grow. Obstacles get harder. Time runs out. Last Crusade’s first act follows Indy searching for his father. Boam’s draft kicks this off with an early proof of danger: still in America, Indy and Brody find a murdered housekeeper in Henry’s backyard. They now know this is life-or-death.
Yet, once in Venice, they adopt a breezy mood and Indy flirts with Elsa. You’d think he’d mobilize the police to find his dad, but there he is, drinking wine and taking his time. Stoppard’s revised draft loses the corpse and delays Indy’s first encounter with danger until after he’s found the knight’s tomb. This bestows an escalation: at first it’s a mystery, then it’s a life-or-death struggle.
Escalation can also improve scenes and beats. In the castle, when the SS officer demands that Indy fork over the grail diary, Boam’s draft has Henry incredulously ask Indy if he brought it with him. In Stoppard’s version, Henry’s initial reaction is to laugh, before asking, “Do you think that my son would be that stupid?” His face then falls as he realizes the answer is yes. The beat thus gains a small arc, in which Henry’s mood escalates from sass to disbelief to fury.
Antagonism thrives by escalation. Our hatred for the villain should grow until we want to reach through the screen and throttle him ourselves. Stoppard enhances the arc between Indy and Donovan by lowering their tension in early scenes and raising it in later scenes.
When the men first meet and discuss the grail, Boam’s draft contains a healthy discord — Indy is rude, dismissive, and even walks out at one point. Tension is good, but in this case it distracts from the information being related. Depicting Indy instead as respectful and intrigued sets up the men as allies. This makes Donovan’s betrayal of Indy all the more impactful.
In the later scenes, Donovan is made more unsavory by offering the Sultan of Hatay a trunk of stolen Jewish gold (in Boam’s draft, there is no bribe), and finally by shooting Henry (in Boam’s draft, Elsa shoots him). Now we are all the more gratified by his impending demise. Speaking of which…
Typical story structure requires that the antagonists be killed off in ascending order of importance. This is satisfactory for the audience because the more senior a villain, the more his/her demise will resonate as a triumph for the hero. In Boam’s draft, Donovan dies in the tank, Vogel (the Nazi leader) is decapitated by the temple blades, and Elsa drinks from the false grail and thus withers.
Stoppard reshuffles this to entrench Donovan as the main villain. Donovan initiated the grail quest and masterminded the recruitment and betrayal of Indy. Killing him off too soon would deflate the suspense, because we’re waiting to witness his comeuppance. So now he survives into the third act and Vogel, the soldier, dies in a tank. Elsa is given a last-minute redemption by purposefully choosing the wrong chalice for Donovan. This is more fitting, as Donovan’s ignorance of history spells his doom and Elsa is later done in by greed.
The hero’s victory has to feel earned, and ideally the main obstacles should reflect the hero’s inner struggle. Let’s take act three. In Boam’s draft there is a single grail challenge, the decapitating blades. The solution spelled out in the diary is to dodge them by walking three paces forward. It’s a generic key and presents no test for Indy.
The revised script triples the obstacles and ties them into a major theme of the franchise: Indy’s faith. First his knowledge of religion is tested: “The penitent man will pass” means to kneel (duck) and “the word of God” is Jehovah (er, Iehovah). Both of these force Indy to decipher a riddle under pressure. Finally comes the leap of faith, the most intimate test. The three challenges also escalate the Indy-Henry arc: by relying on the diary clues, Indy is proving his faith in his father.
Ratcheting up the danger is an easy way to boost suspense. When Indy and Kazim are in a speed boat drifting closer to the deadly propeller of a freighter, the original draft has them come very close to the blades before Indy starts the boat and drives off. Narrow escape. Could it be narrower? You bet: the revised version takes them right to the brink of death, and the propeller actually starts shredding the boat, “the wind of the blades is on their necks,” before they jump to safety.
Earlier, as Indy and Elsa slog through the catacombs, there is no suspense in the Boam draft because there is no threat. A fireball comes out of nowhere and we can only infer later that Kazim had caused it. The revision adds the villain’s side of things: he knocks out Brody, enters the tunnel, and drops a match into the gas-covered water. This intercuts with Indy, building suspense into the treasure hunt.
Efficiency. Brevity. Can a half-page beat be condensed to a quarter-page? Can a ten-word line be trimmed to three words?
When Indy meets Donovan in New York, the scene’s first beat is a basic introduction. Boam’s version of this beat lasts 6/8 of a page; Stoppard’s lasts 3/8. The beat is utilitarian and as such should be pared to its tersest form.
Boam’s version contains two jokes, plus Donovan spends a line talking about his G-Men. The G-Men are irrelevant so that’s an easy cut. As for the jokes, sure, the audience welcomes a laugh, but we’re still in the first act and the main plot hasn’t even been introduced. The ride needs to get started. We know Indy is wry and can expect plenty of that later. 3/8 of a page may seem insignificant, but Stoppard chips away at many moments throughout the script – a few lines here, half a page there – and the result is a hugely streamlined experience that allows him to add higher-quality moments later on.
Sometimes the best move isn’t to streamline an element but to remove it altogether. Audience attention is a limited commodity. If we’re pelted with details that have no major importance, our attention drains without any payoff. Are there irrelevant beats or redundant characters that can be omitted or conflated?
Though Indy’s mom appears in Boam’s draft (in the prologue) she serves no vital purpose. Nor does a lustful college student named Hilary who waits in Indy’s office and spends 1.5 pages trying to seduce him. Nor do colleagues of Indy’s whom he passes in the hall, nor a gang of Fascists in Venice. Stoppard omits all of these, sticking to the essential plot points.
Boam’s draft spends about 16 pages in Venice hunting for the knight’s tomb. Stoppard cuts this in half, getting us to Henry sooner. Gone are a foot chase, copious dialogue, and a large Italian family with whom Indy and Elsa stay.
Yet simplification cuts both ways. We shouldn’t oversimplify elements that are important. Stoppard adds complexity when it benefits the story. Boam’s draft offers scant detail about what the knight’s tablet says, where the grail might be, or any lore about its provenance. Stoppard invents specifics, thereby elevating the tone of the quest by lending it an air of historical legitimacy.
Another example is Kazim. In the earlier draft he works for the Sultan of Hatay, who is also hunting for the grail. When the Sultan allies with the Nazis, Kazim basically becomes a Nazi grunt. The revised version thickens the plot by having Kazim instead serve the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword, a group avowed to protect the grail. This third party offers more surprises, such as when they open fire on the Nazis, and it opens a new thematic perspective: that archaeology can seem like desecration to those whose traditions are being excavated.
This franchise owes much its success not to derring-do stunts or operatic drama but to the sense of fun along the way — the humor. To be sure, some great gags are present in the Boam draft, but Stoppard majorly beefs this up. Recognizing that the prime humor lies in the father-son interaction, he chops 25 pages out of act one so that Henry enters the story on page 53, instead of page 76. After all, time spent with Connery’s accent is time well spent.
“Roadside” jokes that are narratively irrelevant are cut, and instead the banter between Indy and Henry is built out. Memorable gags are added, such as the librarian’s noisy book stamp, Henry checking his watch during the dogfight, the Sultan preferring the Rolls-Royce to golden treasure, and the Henry-Brody tank interchange. “Named after the dog” is shifted from the end of act two to the denouement — saving the best joke for last.
Building up expectation then smashing it to comic effect is a classic joke construction. Let’s take two examples Stoppard employs. First, a small gag. Indy and Henry climb from the Zeppelin into the bi-plane. In the Boam draft Henry asks with a terrified expression, “Can you pilot an airplane!?” and Indy replies, “Let’s find out together.”
Stoppard restructures this, having Henry remark with delight, “I didn’t know you could fly a plane,” to which Indy replies, “Fly… yes. Land… no.” If Henry starts out terrified, then Indy merely confirms those fears. But when Henry starts out delighted, Indy’s reply plows over Henry’s optimism and leaves him suddenly afraid. Change is the essence of comedy (and drama) and one may recall the old acting advice: If the script requires that you answer a phone and it’s good news, then start out the scene in a bad mood (or vice-versa)… the sudden emotional change will magnify the impact of the news.
A larger example is the scene of Brody being captured by Nazis. In Boam’s draft this occurs off-screen. Stoppard makes a scene out of it. Playing off Indy’s monologue to Donovan in which he talks up Brody’s game (“he knows a dozen languages… he’ll blend in, disappear”) we cut to Brody, lost and confused in Iskenderun, asking if anyone speaks English. Spielberg’s camera and Michael Kahn’s editing deftly execute this joke.
There are some zingers in Boam’s draft, but also some eye-rollers. Upon meeting Elsa, Indy describes her to Brody as “just the average intriguing, provocative, beguiling female that crosses your path only once in a lifetime.” Unnecessary, unearned, unbelievable lines like this litter the earlier draft. Stoppard left some great jokes intact but essentially scrapped all else and started fresh. The new dialogue is marked by wit, friction, and efficiency. Reading the drafts side-by-side is a master class in dialogue. Here’s just one example.
Henry tries burning through the ropes tied around him and Indy. He drops the lighter.
Are you okay?
Yeah. But I dropped the damn thing.
I ought to tell you something.
Don’t get sentimental now Dad — save it ’til we get out of here.
The floor’s on fire! See?!
And the chair.
Stoppard’s version, as can be seen, employs understatement, comic reversal and rhythm to great effect.
The franchise has a certain pulpy charm to it, but Boam’s draft is noticeably more cartoonish than Stoppard’s. For example, the earlier draft has a throwaway gag where Indy’s secretary hands him his mail, including a shrunken head. A joke like this pulls the tone closer to Temple of Doom than to Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Stoppard cuts this joke, part of his overall effort to push the tone into more refined, clever territory. Overt sexuality is replaced with oblique flirtation. Cliched insults are replaced with character-based barbs. Illogical motivations are rectified, and ribald humor is exchanged for quippy puns.
The earlier draft doesn’t take much advantage of Henry to learn more about Indiana Jones. We know they are distant and we learn Indy was named after the dog, but that’s about it. The background we get on Henry is that he’s generous to orphans and plays the mandolin. Stoppard scraps these last two facts and instead digs into the emotional history of these men, and how Henry’s parenting style created the Indy we know.
In the first two films, Indy is painted as an independent soul who doesn’t have an interest in real relationships. Here we get an explanation for his emotional status, and it’s refreshing to see him crave affection. Stoppard also sprinkles the words “dad” and “Junior” liberally onto the dialogue, which helps keep the father-son relationship constantly in the foreground. It makes the small moments more endearing, pulling us closer to the characters. The repetition of “Junior” also makes Henry’s final use of “Indiana” (to get Indy’s attention and save his life) much more impactful.
To read the two scripts, and for a full breakdown of the revisions, visit http://mffilm.wix.com/lastcrusade.