Although he started acting in the 1960s, Michael Douglas was first and foremost a producer. He decided against casting himself in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, considering himself too old, and put Jack Nicholson into his Oscar-winning role. Romancing the Stone was Michael’s breakthrough role as a leading man – a film he also produced – and cast alongside himself his roommate Danny DeVito and Body Heat star Kathleen Turner. This was the film that launched Robert Zemeckis as a director, although the studio was so sure it would flop that he was fired from Cocoon before this unexpected hit was released.
Romancing the Stone was written by Malibu waitress Diane Thomas, who died shortly after the film’s release. It’s an entirely feminine fantasy, with the emphasis firmly on the romance of the story. Joan Wilder is the archetypal lovelorn New Yorker who lives alone with her cat while she waits for Mr Right. She’s a writer of the bodice-ripper persuasion, determined to meet and marry the selfless heroic type she describes in her novels. One mysterious package from a murdered Colombian; one treasure map, and one frantic phone call later, she’s in the jungles of South America, swinging across ravines on vines and falling over waterfalls – all without breaking bones, of course.
Enter stage right our romantic hero, Jack Colton. He’s handsome but not too handsome; tough but not too rough. He’s only interested in the money … but we can tell he’s in love. He’s every Mills & Boon swashbuckling “I’ll save you!” rogueish charmer. Han Solo in a white puffy shirt, who’s a crack shot with a rifle. About five minutes later, Joan’s uptight up-do has tumbled down revealing silky blonde tresses; her skirt has slashed at the most flattering angle, and she’s magically transformed from plain and useless to a rosy-cheeked and capable heroine. I don’t need to tell you how it ends.
Jewel of the Nile, released a year later, benefits from much improved pacing and a revised focus on the action and comedy. It’s a straight formula played out to perfection, although some of the stereotypes will be jarring to modern audiences. It didn’t fare as well either critically or commercially as its predecessor, though I consider it to be the superior film.
This time, Joan and Jack have drifted apart after six months sailing around the world, and she takes up the offer to write the biography of an Arab ruler. She finds herself imprisoned in a palace (told you it was a girl’s fantasy!), while Jack comes to rescue her – motivated in no small part by the promise of the titular gemstone. She rescues herself quite ably, of course, but is cornered right on cue to allow Jack to be selfless and dashing. Danny DeVito returns again as the hapless swindler, and it’s all the sort of thing that we’d describe as a “rollercoaster romp”: it’s definitely a theme park sort of film.
It’s a shame films like this are so rare these days. The last Indiana Jones film was an abomination, and though passable, the Mummy franchise doesn’t quite hit the note. These films aren’t quite lost treasures, but they’re dusty gems that polish up surprisingly well, considering.