The Lost Scripts, Part III: Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods
While it’s not unusual for a film to have unused screenplays hiding in a filing cabinet somewhere, the lost scripts of Indiana Jones are a fascinating look at what might have been for everyone’s favorite whip-wielding, fedora-wearing archaeologist. We've discussed Indiana Jones and the Monkey King and Indiana Jones and the Saucermen from Mars. Our final lost Indy script involves The City of the Gods.
The Story Behind the Story
In February 2000, the American Film Institute held a ceremony honoring the life and work of Harrison Ford. His old Indiana Jones friends, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, were on hand to speak at the event, marking the first time they'd all been in the same room together in many years. During the night, the idea was floated that they should do another Indiana Jones movie. Swept up in the moment, everyone said yes. Now they just had to come up with a script.
As Lucas and Spielberg started working on ideas for another movie, Lucas refused to budge from an idea he had five years before – a 1950s sci-fi B-movie tribute involving aliens and flying saucers. Spielberg also refused to budge on not liking that idea. But the two worked out a compromise - there could be aliens, but there couldn't be flying saucers. That was enough for Lucas to dig out his old story notes, outlines, and screenplays, including one for a never-filmed episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles that dealt with the real-life mystery of strange, Peruvian skulls carved out of crystal.
Once he had an outline ready to go, Lucas hired director/screenwriter Frank Darabont, still fresh off his Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Green Mile. Darabont turned in three versions of his screenplay, culminating in 2003's Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods.
It's been 20 years since Indiana Jones was in his prime. Now, in the 1950s, his research expeditions are solitary affairs in the Nevada desert, searching for small fragments of ancient Native American pottery; a far cry from the jungles and adventures of his youth. At his latest dig, a Russian friend and colleague, Yuri Makovsky, has been visiting him for a few weeks. However, on the last night of his stay, Yuri breaks into a secret U.S. military base, where two American traitors give him a canister of plutonium and an ordinary-looking bowling ball bag.
Indy gets his hands on the bag and finds it contains one of the 13 legendary crystal skulls. With the skull in his possession, Indy winds up in Peru where he learns that his old flame, Marion Ravenwood, is the one that hired Yuri to get the skull for her. She's leading an expedition into the jungle with her husband, famed archaeologist Baron Peter Belasko, to find the lost City of the Gods, and needs the skull to unlock the city's secrets.
Although he no longer has the skull, Yuri doesn’t give up. He convinces the President of Peru, Presidente Escalante, to go after the skull with the promise that the lost city will give Escalante anything his heart desires.
After many entanglements, the expeditions arrive at the City of the Gods and enter the giant pyramid at the center. Inside they discover a circular room filled with 13 golden thrones, each occupied by a headless, crystal skeleton. When the skull is attached to the correct skeleton, an alien presence welcomes “the five chosen ones” who will help rejuvenate the mummified remains of the beings buried inside the pyramid. In exchange, the alien will grant them one wish.
The Chosen Ones – Indy, Yuri, Belasko, Escalante, and a German researcher named Von Grauen – are lifted by a swirling alien vapor that hypnotizes them. Belasko, Escalante, and Von Grauen have their wishes granted first, but in a Faustian twist, they are immediately killed; their “life forces” assimilated into the alien mummies. When Indy is asked what he wants, Marion is able to shake him out of his trance, and that's when he realizes all he wants is her. The alien releases him and moves on to Yuri. But before Yuri's wish is granted, Indy shoots the crystal skull and it explodes into tiny shards.
The pyramid begins to shake and crumble apart. As Indy is leaving the room, he looks back and sees the alien mummy, rejuvenated by the deaths of the men, rising from its sarcophagus. He shouts, “Hey! Welcome to Earth!” before firing the rest of his rifle rounds into the thing’s body.
The survivors escape just in time to see the land swell and then break away. A flying saucer erupts from the ground, lifting the ruins into the air, but soon the machine sputters and falls back into its ancient grave. The nuclear explosion that follows wipes the City of the Gods off the map for good.
Safely back in the United States, Indy and Marion tie the knot with all of their old friends in attendance.
As you'd expect from any Indiana Jones script, action sequences are abundant and relentless in City of the Gods. The moment Indy gets out of one jam, something goes wrong, and he's in another life-or-death situation. It's quite a thrill ride that barely gives the audience a moment to breathe.
Many of the set pieces were dictated by Lucas and can be found in other Indy IV scripts, including some that made it into the final film, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. For example, Indy gets into a fight on a rocket sled, Indy survives a nuclear blast inside a lead-lined refrigerator, the expedition is attacked by huge, red army ants, and a truck Indy’s riding in goes over a series of waterfalls. However, Darabont got to design his own action sequences too, and they're just as exciting.
One of the best Darabont action scenes shows Indy and Marion flying to meet up with Belasko, when they’re attacked by Yuri in another plane. Yuri's co-pilot uses a machine gun to take out one of the support struts on Indy's biplane, which means Indy has to walk out on the wing and lash it back together with his whip. Meanwhile, Yuri comes up fast and uses his propeller like a buzzsaw, chopping up the tail on Indy's plane. To stop Yuri, Indy lets go of his plane's wing and is whisked back to Yuri's plane, barely grabbing that wing's support strut. He then swings around and decks Yuri, forcing the plane to swerve and dive. Indy climbs into the gunner's seat and Yuri flips the plane upside down, hoping to make Indy fall out. Instead, the gunner falls out and Indy uses the co-pilot controls to flip the plane upside down again, causing Yuri to fall out.
With Marion in an unstable plane, Indy tells her to wing walk over to his plane. But then Yuri appears, floating down on a parachute, armed with a machine gun. He fires at Indy, taking out the plane’s engine, so now Indy's in worse shape than Marion. She flies over the top of Indy’s plane, he grabs the bar that spans between the landing gear, and then lets the plane he’s piloting fall out beneath him. But little do they realize there's a jungle plateau ahead and Marion can't get the plane pulled up in time. Indy is dragged through the canopy, hitting treetops and scaring monkeys, until the plateau ends and he is finally able to drag himself into the cockpit.
“I'll take it from here”, he says. The engine dies the moment he puts his hand on the stick. The plane comes in hard and fast, its wings sheared off by jungle foliage and it belly flops on the ground. Indy gives Marion a cocky smile, and she points to the flames that have just erupted from the engine. They grab the skull and make it out just before the plane explodes. Thankfully, he is able to recover his whip that is still wrapped around the wing struts. And of course, his hat is still on his head.
City of the Gods is a very “tight” screenplay, meaning every scene has a clear objective, and either relays information that is useful later on, or is an event that leads directly into the next scene. In addition, the script is filled with interesting Indy-esque characters, such as a henchman known as The Thin Man, who dresses in black and has a scar running down his face through a milky-white eye.
The script is often very clever. For example, the Belasko Expedition uses drawings of the Nazca Lines - gigantic, ancient figures that have been etched into the Nazca Desert – and lays them over the top of a map so that the figures match to geographic features. In this way, the Lines actually point them to the City of the Gods like enormous road signs.
So why didn't the script get the green light? In a reversal of the situation surrounding the 1995 script, Indiana Jones and the Saucermen from Mars, Spielberg and Ford loved Darabont's final script, but Lucas felt it needed more work.
Over the next few years, Lucas continued to develop the story, even retitling it Indiana Jones and the Phantom City of the Gods (no joke!). He also brought in a new writer, Jeff Nathanson, who authored Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal. Nathanson's script was called Indiana Jones and the Atomic Ants, but that script wasn't quite up to snuff, either. Finally, David Koepp — screenwriter for Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, and Spider-Man — was hired. Koepp turned in a screenplay titled Indiana Jones and the Destroyer of Worlds, borrowing from a famous quote by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atomic bomb. This script was tweaked and became Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
The City of the Gods script was leaked to the internet shortly after Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was released in the summer of 2008. It was widely reported beforehand that Darabont had written a rejected Indiana Jones screenplay. So when many fans were unhappy with the final film, some believe Darabont secretly made his script available as a way of saying “Don’t blame me!”
Whether it would have actually made a better movie than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is impossible to know. But either way, Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods is an interesting look at what might have been for Indy’s latest silver screen adventure.