Why 1 and 3 Beat 2 and 4
That’s all I’m saying.
If anyone wants my input on a movie before going into production, don’t be shy… just ask.
I mention this in relation to the latest installment of Indiana Jones. The dust has settled. The filmmakers are safely in profit — they have a hit! And Indy 4 is an entertainment to be proud of. But for screenwriters, looking at all four films in the Bullwhip Quartet, it’s also a primer in the difference between good and great.
I propose that the first and the third in the series are the best. What do 1 and 3 have that 2 and 4 have less of? Let’s take a quick look at Raiders of the Lost Ark (1) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (3):
1. Both have clearly stated themes and “stories,” not just set pieces. And that is key!
2. Both 1 and 3 hit the points of the BS2 like clockwork; they are structurally solid.
3. Both show how relationships change with the action, and are not just tacked onto the story, and…
4. Both have really bad bad guys (and though it’s hard to beat Nazis, there is a point to this!)
In short, these things trump any action or set piece and without these elements, story suffers.
Let me just use the word “flabbergasted.” I was flabbergasted when I revisited the first Indiana Jones, which I did in preparation to see this summer’s installment. And right there before the adventure begins, Harrison Ford turns to Denholm Elliot and says “I don’t believe in black magic or superstition.”
Well, guess what? That’s the theme of the movie. That is the “arc” of what happens to Indiana Jones in the course of his first adventure. He goes from a non-believer, a scientist, a guy with a lot of whipsnap smarts but no heart, and slowly piece by piece finds “faith.”
The ending in which he alone, like Ulysses tied to the mast to hear the Sirens, is witness to the divine intervention of the Ark of the Covenant is proof that he has changed. And yet all along the way his “helper” characters in the B Story have been trying to convince him. “Don’t you see, it’s a radio transmitter to talk to God,” says fellow archeologist Belloq midway through the adventure. But Indiana, at this point, is unfazed.
I was also delighted when I realized how precisely the first Indiana Jones hits the marks of the BS2. It had been a while since I saw it and the joy I felt in seeing its midpoint “false victory” surprised even me. When Indiana discovers the whereabouts of the Ark, only to find Karen Allen is alive, it’s the one-two punch of a classic midpoint. I’d forgot. “Sex at sixty!” I yelled when they kissed. That’s the oldtime screenwriter’s phrase for when the boy and girl kiss at the first hour. It’s the A and B story cross, followed quickly by one of the great reverses in movies when Indiana has to tie her back up again, or risk his real rescue effort.
But it’s all to the point of the “spine” of the story, the “greatest event that ever happened to Indiana Jones” — the story about how he started without faith and, over the course of a wild adventure, found it, by amending his past misdeeds, learning to love, and discovering a power greater than himself!
A movie that’s “about something” is also part of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the third installment co-starring Sean Connery. Here again, 3 has a story beneath the hijinks, that of a relationship between a father and son, and the son’s quest to make his dad proud. Amid all the chase scenes and derring-do and wonderful set pieces, that is how each bit “moves the story forward.”
Once again, Indy is learning faith here, too. And structually, it is also one of the great examples of what I call the “Five Point Finale” in Act Three when Indy has a choice: the prize of a great archeological treasure or saving his father’s life. It is one of the great “dig, deep down” moments that ranks right up there with “Use the force, Luke” to show what real faith is.
Finally, let’s talk Nazis. It’s not a coincidence that they are part of 1 and 3 and absent from 2 and 4. “Make the bad guy badder” is sure-fire screenplay physics that guarantees your hero will be a bigger, too. In 2, the evil is vague. In 4, it’s vague-er. And there is a blur even in the script that can’t quite decide if Communism is bad at all. What are the consequences of the Soviets getting 4’s treasure? Hard to judge.
Good as they are, 2 and 4 are missing these elements. Same great character, same great team running the show, same top flight A-list writers, and yet 1 and 3 are stories that are truly memorable. 2 and 4, less so.
So take note. Your script too must be “about something” and have meaning that touches us at a primal, and even spiritual level.
Do so, and your story will be memorable, too.
And if you want to ever talk, I’m here all week! I would have started by asking: “What exactly is Indiana Jones’ ‘problem’ at the beginning of 4?” How will this be “the greatest event that ever happened to the hero of this story?” If those questions are answered in any screenplay, I believe a more satisfying story results.