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kottke.org posts about biography

Tom Stoppard and the Last Crusade

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 21, 2020

Tom Stoppard - Young.jpg

Hermione Lee has written an authorized biography of playwright, screenwriter, translator, and man of letters Tom Stoppard, called Tom Stoppard: A Life. It was released in the United Kingdom on October 1st and should appear in the United States on February 23, 2021.

Here’s an excerpt from the core of Kate Kellaway’s glowing review in The Guardian:

“He put on Englishness like a coat,” Lee writes - and one imagines a particularly dashing coat because Stoppard compensated for his reserve by being an unretiring dresser (a recent photograph shows him, in his 80s, still modishly draped). But the English coat was possibly over-buttoned. Stoppard had an exile’s gratitude to England. He found his boarding school in 18th-century Okeover Hall “paradise”. Yet Lee qualifies the received idea - an oversimplified, dismissive slur - of Stoppard as unswervingly conservative. For a start, he is too entertaining to be stuffy…

His championing of political causes is shown to have stemmed more from empathy with individuals than from abstract ideals. His support for Belarus Free Theatre makes particularly fascinating reading, as does the account of his friendship with Václav Havel, Czech playwright and president. Havel is presented as the person Stoppard might have been had he not become an Englishman.

Lee’s studies of the plays are masterly - especially of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) and Arcadia (1993) - and her book will be a formidable resource for Stoppard enthusiasts. She makes a persuasive case for the importance of emotion, challenging - even in the early work - the old complaint that Stoppard is all head and no heart. Jumpers is “a sensational exercise in mental acrobatics” but also “a play of grief and love. It carries the sadness and the guilt of living in a malfunctioning marriage with a wife who is having a breakdown and it opened two days after his divorce.”

The British edition from Faber & Faber is 992 pages long and weighs 1.33 kilograms (about three pounds). It also retails for £30 in the UK, about 40 USD (used to be more, but the exchange rate has been low—point is, it’s an expensive book). Mercifully, Knopf’s US hardcover will be only 897 pages and cost $37.50, with weight unchanged.

It’s a big book by a biographer known for big books about major literary figures, sadly mostly dead. Stoppard is very much alive, and although quite private, agreed to sit for hours of interviews over a course of years. Lee was also able to interview Stoppard’s friends and colleagues, including actress Felicity Kendal (who starred in multiple Stoppard plays, including in roles written for her), director Trevor Nunn (in charge of three of Stoppard’s world premieres), and filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

This last might seem like an odd choice, but Spielberg and Stoppard have multiple points of contact. Stoppard wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, and served as an uncredited ghostwriter on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In fact, not only was Stoppard not credited, the lack of credit was actually given to a pseudonym, “Barry Watson.”

Everything suggests that Stoppard’s contributions to the film were substantial. In a brief oral history of The Last Crusade, now lost to linkrot but still preserved by the Wayback Machine, Spielberg says, “Tom is pretty much responsible for every line of dialogue.”

Last year, narrative analyst Mike Fitzgerald broke down in detail differences between a draft version of the screenplay by credited writer Jeffrey Boam and the published draft, including revisions by Spielberg and a heavy rewrite by Stoppard. (You can actually download both versions of the screenplay on Fitzgerald’s site.) Again, Stoppard contributed not just lines of dialogue, but new scenes, a new structure, and changes in characterization.

Vast enhancements were made to every element of the story - character, plot, pace, humor, action, tone, clarity, dialogue. The result is a markedly more coherent, charming, and enduring script that truly belongs in a museum. I suspect that, absent the final revisions, this film would have been regarded by audiences as inferior to its antecedent sequel THE TEMPLE OF DOOM in tone, wit, and entertainment value…

TIGHTENING: The revised draft is 15 pages shorter, though material was not arbitrarily removed just to cut pages. I found 19 instances of scenes or beats being cut, 6 superfluous characters removed, several jokes deleted, and dialogue often pared down. Each of these extractions had a clear purpose to it, whether streamlining the plot, quickening the pace, avoiding redundancies, or simply that the material in question was superfluous and distracting. Note that the revised draft has also ADDED a substantial amount of new scenes, beats, jokes, and dialogue, so in order to counterbalance the new material and cut 15 pages, an ample sum of script was removed…

DIALOGUE: One of Stoppard’s most obvious revisions is to vastly refine the dialogue, and only by reading both drafts side by side is it possible to study those differences. I would ballpark that 80% of the lines have been substantially changed.

HUMOR: This manifests largely in the dialogue, but also in sight gags, character actions, edit points, and streamlining moments to make the jokes land with more precision. The quality of humor is also refined, by removing coarse innuendo and making the jokes smarter and less predictable.

Stoppard was responsible for reshaping one of my favorite scenes in the film. At one point, Henry (Sean Connery’s character) was going to use Indy’s gun (down to just one bullet) to shoot at the seagulls, who would in turn fly into the engines of the plane pursuing them and make it crash. Stoppard had Henry chase them with his umbrella instead.

(The Charlemagne quote is totally made up. Unclear whether Henry Jones is supposed to believe that it’s real.)

Stoppard emphasized elements of faith and history in the story. For example, he rewrote the character of Kazim, changing him from a Nazi stooge to a protector of the grail, and invented the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword.

Stoppard also rewrote Henry’s dialogue during the cavern collapse to have him finally call his son by his chosen name, Indiana.

One last thing: if you watch The Last Crusade now, as opposed to thirty years ago, certain things stand out. They used a lot of projected backgrounds. Those don’t look great. More substantively, the Nazis, while generally faithful to their portrayal in Raiders of the Lost Ark, plus some updates, feel pretty… thin. They’re bad guys, evil and a little scary, but you’d be forgiven if you came away from the movie thinking the problem with the Nazis was that they liked to burn books and despoil antiquities, while good people love libraries and museums. That ain’t it.

Stoppard was born Tomás Straüssler, in 1937, in Zlín, Czechoslovakia. In 1939, his parents, nonpracticing Jews, fled the Nazi invasion to Singapore. His father was killed in 1942 when the Japanese Air Force bombed Singapore, and Stoppard has no memory of him; Tom, his mother Marta, and his brother succeeded in reaching India, where he lived until 1946. His new stepfather, Major Kenneth Stoppard, was an antisemite; his mother hid her and her children’s Jewishness to be accepted by him and his circle, now in England.

Three of Stoppard’s aunts, all four of his grandparents, and his great-grandmother all died in the Holocaust. And Stoppard did not know this about his extended family until 1993, four years after the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

It is tempting to ask, if Stoppard had been fully aware of and fully embraced his central European and Jewish roots, as he was when he wrote his new play Leopoldstadt, whether his approach to the Nazis, or the very Christian, very English themes of the Grail legend, or even the son striving to be reconciled to his father, might have been substantively different.

In many ways, the Grail legend was perfect for Stoppard: more English than the English, but still a little resistant, a little outside the nation’s own history. A crusade, a quest, a reclamation, a reconciliation.