The Best Indiana Jones Movie That Was Never Made
The worst Indiana Jones sequel could have been the best one.
I don’t mean this in a vague woulda-shoulda-coulda sort of way. I mean that the worst Indiana Jones, 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, evolved (or maybe devolved) out of a vastly superior version of the same concept. This iteration of the fourth Indiana Jones — which features nearly all of Crystal Skull’s key characters and settings, along with an identical MacGuffin — was written a few years prior by an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter in close consultation with Steven Spielberg. But it was never produced.
It would have been titled Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods. It was written by Frank Darabont, the screenwriter and director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, and later the developer and executive producer of The Walking Dead TV series. In his early days in Hollywood, Darabont worked as a writer on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, the short-lived television series that revealed Indy’s childhood adventures encountering great figures of history.
When Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was made in 1989, the franchise’s key players — director Spielberg, producer/writer George Lucas, and star Harrison Ford — all assumed it would conclude the series. But within a few years, all three men were inundated with requests from fans to make another movie. Throughout the 1990s, when Lucas wasn’t work on Star Wars Special Editions or prequels, he tinkered with ideas for a fourth Indiana Jones, and he brought in various co-writers to develop the material with him.
Feeling they had exhausted the 1930s adventure serials milieu that had served as the basis for the original Indiana Jones concept — and recognizing that their leading man was getting older — Lucas felt a fourth movie needed to draw inspiration from a new source. So he relocated the series from the 1930s to the 1950s, and decided that just as the original Indy trilogy borrowed from Saturday matinee action pictures, this fourth Indiana Jones would steal from the pulp fiction of the 1950s: Namely paranoid sci-fi movies about atomic horror and alien menaces. Accordingly, while Lucas cycled through multiple co-writers on the project, he kept instructing them to return to the same batch of ideas: Indiana Jones battling Russians and encountering evidence of alien life amongst ancient civilizations.
Those instructions lead, in 1995, to Jeb Stuart’s Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men From Mars script, which featured some of the same elements that wound up in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — including Indy surviving a nuclear bomb test by hiding inside a lead-lined refrigerator — but was much more directly about Indy combating aliens and flying saucers. But then Independence Day opened in theaters, and stole the project’s thunder before it got off the ground. At Spielberg’s behest, Lucas tabled the project for a while.
Enter Darabont, who joined the movie in the early 2000s and, according to him, wound up spending an entire year of his life focused on crafting an Indiana Jones script while he “worked very closely with Steven Spielberg.”
“[I] applied all my passion and skill, and gave [Spielberg] a script that he loved,” Darabont later said.
To read this script, is to understand why. (You don’t have to be a crusading archaeologist to find it; just Google the title and it comes right up.) What is fascinating about Darabont’s Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods screenplay is not just how good it is — and it is great – but how much better it is than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (at least on paper) with an almost identical batch of story and thematic elements.
Here are some of the most interesting differences between the two...
The Greatest Indiana Jones Movie That Was Never Made
Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods is a great script. So why didn’t Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford make it?
According to Darabont, Spielberg wanted to. Years later, Darabont said Spielberg “was ready to shoot it ... it was going to be his next film. He told me it was the best script he'd read since Raiders of the Lost Ark. That's a quote, and I'll always treasure it.”
Lucas, however, had reservations. “George Lucas read it, didn't like it, and threw ice water on the whole thing,” Darabont recalled. “The project went down in flames. Steven and I looked like accident victims the day we got that call. I certainly don't blame Steven for it. He wasn't in a position to overrule George, and wouldn't have overruled him even if he could. He and George have been close friends for a long time, and they've had an agreement for years that no Indiana Jones film will ever get made unless they both completely agreed on the script. It was just such an awful surprise, after all my hopes and effort.”
Darabont also said that the failure of City of the Gods was “emotionally devastating” and called it a “main reason” he stopped doing work-for-hire writing gigs and began to focus entirely on projects he could control. So not only did we lose out on a potentially great Indiana Jones sequel, we also missed out on other scripts Darabont might have written afterwards. Instead they remain lost forever, like the Ark of the Covenant in an enormous Army warehouse filled with unmarked crates.