What Unmade Indiana Jones Scripts Reveal about Dial of Destiny

Movies Features Steven Spielberg
What Unmade Indiana Jones Scripts Reveal about Dial of Destiny

The annoying thing about magic is that it’s hard to replicate. You’re likely to be thinking of this while watching Indiana Jones’ final adventure, Dial of Destiny, the first Indy movie made without Steven Spielberg and without any soul. Weirdly, its galaxy-brained third act swing feels exactly like something George Lucas (who has a story credit on every Spielberg Indy movie) would come up with, despite him being nowhere near this film’s production. Dial of Destiny feels like a film penned by four people (it was) and regardless of your take on the shark-jumping/fridge-nuking/time-hopping third act, there is something rewarding about a Disney blockbuster that doesn’t play it safe, even if it feels a lot like a 20-year-old script for a unproduced Indy sequel that’s sat in a producer’s drawer for decades. How do we know it feels like that? Because of all the 20-year-old scripts for unproduced Indy sequels that actually exist!

The difficulty with recapturing magic has never stopped George Lucas—the visionary storyteller responsible for hand-sculpting the personalities of the world’s most annoying people—from trying. Lucas helped originate a blockbuster hit that was another riff on the media he consumed as a child (George, please, if we could get a second idea from you), but The Last Crusade had scarcely been laid in its tomb before Lucas got the proverbial boulder rolling again with ideas for a fourth film.

Sequel pitches had already been floated during the original trilogy, with names such as Castle of Blood, The Lost World and The Monkey King. (One of these was set in a haunted house, one featured dinosaurs, and one was very racist. We’ll let you figure out which was which.) But all subsequent attempts to revive the franchise seem to center on a few things: It was set in the ‘50s, it was to ape atomic-age science-fiction, and there were to be aliens. For all those convinced the franchise lost its way in the final 15 minutes of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we were destined to end up here from the moment a sequel was discussed.

Multiple ‘90s screenwriters had a crack at the proto-Crystal Skull screenplay, including Die Hard author Jeb Stuart and Last Crusade writer Jeffrey Boam, but the furthest the project got was with Frank Darabont, Stephen King adaptor extraordinaire and the guy who got fired from The Walking Dead for trying to make the show good. After the backlash to Crystal Skull, somebody leaked Darabont’s latest draft (on Wikileaks?!) for what was then titled Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods, and it’s a pretty revealing blueprint for what would become Crystal Skull.

In City of the Gods, the Commies are hunting one of the Mayan’s crystal skulls, taking Indy from a ‘50s U.S. packed with federal agents to South America, where he’s reunited with Marion Ravenwood and an old colleague, Professor Oxley, who has been driven mad by the skull’s power. There they fight flesh-eating ants, fall down waterfalls, and discover an alien spacecraft in the climax. The opening sequence, with Indy on a Nevada military base, is nearly identical to what’s in the finished film—including a beat-for-beat replication of the nuclear detonation. That’s right, Darabont, writer-director of some of the best American films ever made, is likely responsible for nuking the fridge.

What’s different then? There’s no Mutt, no Cate Blanchett Russian baddie; instead, there’re about two dozen extra characters. Ray Winstone’s treacherous mercenary is replaced by a Russian defector who’s really a Soviet spy, but the Ruskies are only one contingent of the story’s antagonistic force. There’s Marion’s new husband, a Hungarian treasure-hunter who’s also a Soviet spy, and the President of Peru with his militia. There’s also a singular Nazi in there somewhere. It lacks the streamlined, consolidated villainy that the Soviets had in Crystal Skull; here, there are so many moments where characters turn their guns on each other that it starts becoming funny, leading to an overblown jungle chase that feels ripped straight from Wacky Races.

The consensus seems to be that City of the Gods is a better version of what we ended up getting with Crystal Skull. I remain unconvinced. On a structural level, there’s much less urgency than we get in Spielberg’s film. City of the Gods largely flits between “sequences from Crystal Skull with much lower stakes” and “really, really overextended action sequences that end up dull” (something Dial of Destiny seems to have doubled down on), including one set on a university clock tower and another staged between two crashing planes.

Those who prefer Darabont’s script are likely just happy Mutt isn’t in it, but it still packs all the ridiculousness of Crystal Skull with less of the earnest humor that Spielberg leaned into from Last Crusade onwards. Henry Sr. makes an appearance, now living with his son but even more of a curmudgeon, and there are different but equally pointed references to the original trilogy, including a re-do of the fertility idol swap from Raiders’ opening. But Darabont’s script still lacks the same thing as Dial of Destiny: Steven Spielberg.

The back half of Crystal Skull catches a lot of flak for being too, well, fake. Janusz Kamiński’s blown-out lighting combines with fuzzy effect work and overblown action to give everything a bouncy quality that detaches the audience. But there’s a clear distinction between Crystal Skull’s low points and those of Dial of Destiny. James Mangold’s film, with its muddy color palette and unfocused blocking, does not have the clean, direct, fist-pounding energy that Spielberg pulls off even when the action plotting doesn’t do him any favors. Spielberg was reportedly jazzed to direct Darabont’s script (Lucas had the final say), but both Crystal Skull and Dial of Destiny suffer from weak scripts, ones either polished or worsened by their direction. Spielberg didn’t mimic anyone when making Crystal Skull, he was just being himself; with City of the Gods, he would have similarly tried to evolve and expand what was possible in an Indy film, like he ended up doing with Crystal Skull. Maybe the action scenes that sucked on paper would’ve actually turned out well! On the other hand, Mangold had the unenviable task of mimicking Spielberg. Uninterested in pushing Indy’s boundaries, he instead stressed all the flaws inherent to the half-baked script. 

But it’s not like any of these screenplays have been flawless. In response to City of the Gods, Lucas “wanted more emphasis on the heightened sci-fi movie elements” and commissioned another draft from a different writer. Even this claim feels inauthentic: Crystal Skull shows aliens for a couple seconds, which seems positively restrained compared to the six page conversation our characters have with the interdimensional beings in City of the Gods. Those who prefer Darabont’s script to Crystal Skull fail to recognize their own bias: They are only accessing the screenplay after they’ve disliked the finished film, meaning any alternative they meet will always be judged more favorably. City of the Gods has only ever been judged in pop culture as something in opposition to Crystal Skull; its differences stand out clearer while the deeper structural improvements by Spielberg, writer David Koepp, and others go unpraised.

At a first glance, you think you could see the whole breadth of Spielberg’s career in the unproduced Indy sequels: Aliens, dinosaurs, haunted houses, Nazis, breakups and distant parents. But how can you see a director in a script they never directed? Dial of Destiny and City of the Gods sorely lack the Spielbergian magic that remains the keystone to Indiana Jones’ iconic status. These films-that-never-were remain unmade because Spielberg couldn’t muster interest and wanted nothing to do with them. It’s not elitist or reductive to say that you can’t really do Indy without Spielberg, meaning that City of the Gods and all the other drafts lost to time will go down in history as misguided attempts to reproduce his magic. Now that we’ve finally seen a magic-free Indy film, it’s clear all other efforts belong only in a museum.

Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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