When it comes to blockbuster films featuring action hero protagonists, the collective consciousness seems to have adopted a “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude. James Bond is back this year, and more dramatic and full of pathos than ever. Bruce Willis’s John McClane is set to yippee ki yay for the millionth time, pulp novel character Jack Reacher is Cruising to the theatres this winter, and even Jack Ryan is getting rebooted as Chris Pine. This plethora of truly popular action heroes has Indiana Jones to thank. After he swung onto the scene in the 1980s, action hero movies certainly experienced a renaissance in legitimacy.
But what if Indy had never existed? What if Steven Spielberg had directed a James Bond film instead? In an alternate pop dimension, it almost happened....
According to a recent interview on Yahoo Movies, via The Daily Mail, Spielberg approached the James Bond producers in the 1970’s and specifically asked to direct a 007 film. He was politely shown the door.
“I never asked again,” Spielberg said, “Instead, I made the Indiana Jones series.” And while this might sound a little too tidy in terms of a cause-and-effect, it is fairly realistic insofar as the origin of Indiana Jones comes from Spielberg telling George Lucas he wanted to do a James Bond-style adventure (and Lucas claiming he had something even better). The casting of Sean Connery as Indy’s father in The Last Crusade was a direct result of Spielberg’s insistence that conceptually, James Bond was Indiana Jones’ father.
But what would have happened if Bond producer Cubby Broccoli had told Spielberg “yes”? For one thing, the likelihood of the Indiana Jones series existing at all becomes dubious. Say what you will about Spielberg: he’s done a variety of different projects, and by his own admission, had to be dragged kicking and screaming to direct the much-maligned Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The point is, he likes variety. If he had directed one or maybe two James Bond movies, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that he’d want to also do George Lucas’ “Indiana Smith” idea. Further, the 1970’s Bond films are the campiest era of the entire film franchise’s history. It doesn’t seem likely that Spielberg would be satisfied with the result. Nor would the financial success be anything close to Jaws or, in this speculative universe, the unmade Raiders of the Lost Ark. To put it another way: Spielberg + Harrison Ford = huge hit/game changer. Spielberg + Roger Moore = footnote in James Bond history.
As has been explained ad nauseum from both Lucas and Spielberg; the character of Indiana Jones was created as an homage to old-style action heroes, and movie serials from the two filmmakers’ youths. Today, this fact—however true it may be—means almost nothing to pop culture or the discussion of where film is going. What matters about Indiana Jones is not where it came from and why, but rather, the impact it had on the films that followed it. Sure, cheap knock-offs like Romancing the Stone were churned out, but the genuine, feel-good, action blockbuster was arguably jump-started by Raiders of the Lost Ark. While James Bond was drowning in piranha-infested pools filled with bad puns and unrealistic gadgets, Indiana Jones was shooting Nazis in the face and talking to God. And the rest of the culture followed right along.
However, there is another piece in the bizarro universe puzzle, one which creates a less-bleak alternate future, but still one lacking Indy. On the set of For Your Eyes Only, Pierce Brosnan met with Cubby Broccoli and discussed being James Bond post-Roger Moore. It didn’t end up happening for another decade, but what if Steven Spielberg had been directing For Your Eyes Only? Further, what if a Spielberg + Pierce Brosnan combination happened in the early 1980’s to create truly awesome James Bond movies? It’s hard for us to think of Brosnan as an awesome Bond in the light of the hard-edged Daniel Craig we love so much now, but in 1995, everyone LOVED GoldenEye. If Pierce Brosnan had starred in Spielberg-directed Bond movies over ten years before he took over the role in our universe, the 007 franchise could have turned out very, very differently. Harrison Ford may not have been as big of a star as he became, Sean Connery nostalgia might not have been as strong (owing to a lack of Last Crusade) and the world would have never got to hear that amazing John Williams Indy march.
In this alternate timeline, Bond movies might have been better, much earlier than they were in our world, but we wouldn’t have gotten Indiana Jones. In terms of trade-offs, I’ll personally take Indiana Jones, but it’s endlessly interesting to picture a Remington Steele-era Pierce Brosnan dodging explosions created by Steven Spielberg while millions of kids donned tuxedos for Halloween instead of a hat and whip.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.