In 2019, Harrison Ford will once again don cinema’s most famous fedora for the fifth time. Yet if our latest Best Film Never Made had seen the light of day, it’s unlikely we would have seen another Indiana Jones movie past 1984. Why? In another life the third film in this franchise may not have been a charming escapade with Henry Joneses Snr and Jnr, defying Nazis and pursuing the Holy Grail. In this timeline it may have been Indiana Jones and the Garden of Life or, more probably, Indiana Jones and the Monkey King. Intriguing title, right? But if Kingdom of the Crystal Skull disappointed you, you’ve not seen anything yet.
We’re in the 1980s and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are kings of the Hollywood blockbuster. With Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, the pair have created a cinematic icon and a financial superstar. Raiders of the Lost Ark pocketed $384 million and was the number one film at the 1981 box office; 1984’s Temple of Doom has more recently returned a cool $333 million. With confidence in his step, George Lucas is gearing up to create entry number three in the franchise. Repeating the formula of combining mystical and supernatural elements of the plot with the down-to-earth Jones, Lucas feels he can effortlessly create further gold. In comes Chris Columbus, fresh from writing the triple successes of Gremlins, The Goonies, and Young Sherlock Holmes, to do the script. The quest for The Monkey King has begun.
The resultant script contains (in abundance) the melodrama and ballsy imagination of the other beloved incarnations which paid homage to the Saturday matinee adventure series of the ‘30s and ‘40s. It begins in Scotland, where Indy is on a fishing vacation in 1937, investigating a series of supernatural murders linked to a purportedly haunted mansion. Incredibly, the scene peaks with Indiana Jones battling a ghost. Those aliens in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull don’t look so bad now, right?
Back at Marshall University, Marcus Brody naturally suggests Indiana head to Mozambique to consult zoologist Dr. Clare Clarke (what wonderful alliteration), who has discovered a 200 year-old pygmy friend named ‘Tyki Tyki’, possessor of a scroll with directions to the lost city of the ‘Monkey King’, Sun Wu Kung. In the Monkey King’s orchard, there lies fruit that can grant any human eternal life with just one bite of its luscious flesh.
The chase is afoot to the lost city, as Indy, Dr. Clarke, a smitten teaching assistant called Betsy Tuffet and a superstitious ‘native’ named Scraggy Brier all attempt to get ahead of the Germans – the catch of course being that Lt. Werner Von Mephisto, a hulking cartoon of a Nazi, is also after this selection of magical peaches. As the team prepare for the expedition, Tyki is captured by Sgt. Helmut Gutterburg – an officer, working under Mephisto, who has a machine gun for an arm and escapes in his three-storey-tall tank. After a little scuffle, Tyki is saved by Indiana. We’re just 20 minutes in at this point, and it only gets stranger.
Back to the chase, and things are not looking too hot for Dr. Jones. Upon discovery of the gates to the lost city, a row of guardian gorillas halts the team. Only Tyki can stop the animals from ripping the professor limb from limb, and identifies himself as the future king of the city. The Nazis soon catch up and a battle ensues between fascists and locals. In this sensational duel, Indy gets chased by a rhinoceros, eventually riding said animal directly towards the Nazi super-tanks.
Meanwhile Clare and Betsy organise the gorillas – through moans and grunts – to attack the incoming Nazi tanks. As they rip off the hatches and overcome the officers, they take control of the tank and destroy an enemy vehicle with their first shot. Feel free to read that sentence again: gorillas hijack the Nazis’ three-storey tank and drive it into battle against them. Not the Indiana Jones you’re used to.
The terrified Germans run away and the gorillas and natives cheer the Nazis’ defeat. At the climax of the battle, however, Mephisto actually shoots and kills Indy. A surprising and impressive twist. Never fear though, the evil leader gets crushed by a rolling bell, knocking him into a pit of hungry tigers. Natch.
Following his death, the natives carry Indiana’s body to the Garden of Immortal Peaches. The half-man, half-monkey, all-skeletal Monkey King – Sun Wu Kung – revives Indy through the magical peaches. It’s important to point out that the peaches only work if you’re pure of heart. Obviously. At the film’s conclusion, Jones sails away with Dr. Clarke, with Betsy set to teach elsewhere. Yet now Dr. Jones owns a shape-shifting staff courtesy of the Monkey King, promising more untold adventures for his next outing…
We’ve only just scratched the surface with this summary, but it’s clear there’s something deeply amiss. Read the script for yourself here, and you’ll understand how wildly implausible and frustrating this whole project is. Outside of the ludicrous battles, and the insane supernatural elements, the greatest fault is that it feels so unlike an Indiana Jones film. While the tone of the script is quite true to the Saturday morning adventure spirit of the franchise, the characterisation of all the leads is comically bad. To start, Indiana Jones is a straight-up awful person. Whilst Ford could possibly have created something more human in his performance, the script presents our hero as a grouchy, sexist, moaning loser. When women fall at his feet, he brushes them aside as nothing more than one-night stands.
Worse still is Betsy Tuffet. She’s barely mentioned in the summary above but she is supposed to be one of the main leads. Betsy is pitched as a loose, ‘zany’, tough gal from Brooklyn there to provide the spiky sugar to Indy’s salt. However, Betsy is fundamentally annoying. She’s given little to develop herself outside of the remit of a superfluous scene filler. Her comedic ‘bits’ largely involve her trying to charm Indy through cringeworthy actions – kissing a dead fish when drunk, being straddled by Bonzo the chimpanzee – and suicide attempts. Oh yes, the suicide attempts are pitched for unquestionable laughs. At the beginning when Indy prepares to go on this expedition, Betsy grabs his whip and attempts to hang herself in his office, desperate for him to notice her. When he insists on leaving, she grabs a bottle of bourbon, pours it over herself and lights a match. It leaves a bitter taste on the tongue and it’s not too surprising to note that Betsy’s character was completely cut from future drafts.
On top of this, the stereotypical depictions of Tyki Tyki and the African natives don’t help. Oh, and there are actual pirates in this film as well. They don’t show up until two-thirds into the film, bear no consequence on the plot and are only there to prove that bad people eating magical peaches die horribly. The litany of empty scenes and characters would make even the most ardent fan’s eyes roll. Amazingly this film reached the point of location scouting but Lucas and Spielberg soon lost faith in the project. The accusations of racism from the Temple of Doom had hit them hard and the supernatural elements were considered too far-fetched and impractical. When Spielberg says a project makes him feel “too old to direct”, it should be taken off the table.
Yet all of the above makes this an utterly fascinating project. If Indiana Jones 5 doesn’t feature at least one three-storey tank or our hero riding a rhinoceros, we’ll be bitterly disappointed.