Four of the top ten box office hits of 1984 opened in the winter or very early spring of that year. That should give you a pretty good idea of how the marketing and release of films has changed. Last year only one film in the top ten opened in March and it just made it in as the number ten film on the list. If you were interested, in 1984, there were good movies opening almost every week. “Romancing the Stone” represents one of those early in the year releases that managed to make an impression and it ran most of the way through the first half of summer.
A romantic adventure story with comic elements, it was a perfect blend for a four quadrant hit. It features an attractive lead couple, a spectacular setting (Mexico standing in for Columbia), and an adventure story based around the idea of a romance author, living out a real life adventure. It is the only picture ever produced of the work of Diane Thomas, a screenwriter who reportedly pitched her film to a customer while working as a waitress to make ends meet. That customer was producer and star Michael Douglas. After the film was a hit he bought her a Porche as a bonus gift. A few weeks later she was killed in a car accident when her boyfriend crashed the car she was riding in as a passenger. That’s very unfortunate for her family and loved one, bit it was also a loss for film fans as well. She had a great idea and created some terrific characters. It would have been nice to enjoy that creativity for several more films. We can be thankful though that we got this gem of a movie while she was with us.
The premise is actually pretty simple, which is what makes one of these romantic adventures work because they are not convoluted. “Joan Wilder” is a romance novelist, living vicariously through her fantasy heroine “Angelina”. The story starts as if it were a western, with an overwrought narration provided by the author. We can see immediately the sort of mild erotic fantasy this is going to be. The Western heroine is terrorized by an evil villain who attempts to sexually humiliate her only to have her show that she is tougher and more resourceful than her clingy wardrobe suggests. As she kills the bad guy she summarizes the story for us in a whirlwind:
“That was the end of Grogan… the man who killed my father, raped and murdered my sister, burned my ranch, shot my dog, and stole my Bible!”
Another quick plot development pops up to the soundtrack of “How the West Was Won.” So you know that the adventure will be broad and familiar and fun. Wilder’s handsome hero appears and saves the day for “Angelina”. His appearance on the crest of a hill foreshadows the latter arrival of the real life hero that Joan meets in her own adventure. When Michael Douglas’ character shows up more than twenty minutes into the film, he his silhouetted against the sky like the Western hero “Jesse”. The fact that he has a name that also starts with a “J”, Jack, is just underlining for anyone who was not paying attention earlier. We know what it is that Joan wants from her fantasy man, and while Jack may not meet all the qualifications, in a clutch he is just what the writer would have ordered up,
It turns out that Joan’s sister has been kidnapped in Columbia and the ransom is a map that her now dead husband had sent fortuitously back to Joan in NYC. So the sheltered writer must fly to a third world country, notorious for drug wars and revolution, in order to trade the map for her sister. Of course there are multiple parties seeking the map, and one group is almost comic relief and the other is the personification of South American junta brutality. I imagine that the airport in Cartegena is a little more sophisticated than the refugee from a movie nightmare shown here. After she is tricked on to the wrong bus by one of the bad guys, she is followed by the other group of bad guys who actually have her sister. The real story now kicks in and within a few minutes the chase is on as Joan escapes with a mercenary rescuer who resembles her fantasy man. They have to out run thuggish paramilitary patrols, negotiate through dense jungles, commiserate with drug smugglers and generally try to survive until they can reach their objective. This is where most of the fun in the movie takes place.
If any of you have read my other blog, you know that I am a sucker for swashbuckling type adventures. This movie was accused of being an Indiana Jones rip-off although it was originally optioned before that film came out. There are several sequences in the movie that emphasize the adventure aspect. For instance, Jack and Joan meet on a muddy hillside in the jungle on a road driven only by infrequent buses. The hillside gives way in the downpour they are caught in and a long slide into the valley ensues. When the movie was being promoted, that sequence was frequently shown to highlight the adventure but also the humorous tone of the movie. It ends with Jack’s face between the legs of his newly rescued damsel in distress. Suddenly the adventure is grimy, uncomfortable and not really sexy despite the position they find themselves in. From this exciting but completely unromantic throw together of the two characters, we get a nicely evolving romance story. Jack is a scoundrel but one that is not completely without sympathy. Joan is uptight but she wants love like anyone who reads her novels dreams about. In a scene set in a crashed smuggling plane, the two begin to bond as they are high on the marijuana they are burning for a fire. You can see the attraction blooming on the face of Joan in this scene. Kathleen Turner had become a hot item in movies with her dynamite film debut in “Body Heat”. As a femme fatale she exuded lust and sensuality. From a realistic point of view she was a nice looking woman but not knockout gorgeous like so many other actresses. Her beauty is all attitude and that’s one of the things that helps sell the story here. She is a little mousy at the start, grows into an attractive lead character, and is still believable as a mundane person thrust into a dramatic story. Even when she dolls up in a romantic interlude in a small Colombian town, she still seems like a normal woman and not a fashion model stuck on a bad shoot in the jungle. This film was the start of Douglas’s decade of romantic leading men. The sequel to this film, “The Jewel of the Nile” and “Fatal Attraction”, “Basic Instinct”, “Disclosure”, made him perfect for the parody reference in the Academy Awards sequence in the comedy “In-n-Out”. This is where his long line of slightly sleazy romantic leads began. The two of this actors together in this movie had real chemistry. They were in fact paired up two more times after this, in films that also featured third billed Danny DeVito.
The story turns into a treasure hunt complicated with the chase elements. The bad guys are always closing in but the two leads manage through brains and luck to stay one or two steps ahead. The paramilitary bad guys use a lot of artillery in trying to bring the couple to bay. At one point it turns out that Wilder’s fame as a romance writer saves the day when the drug smuggling cartel turns out to be a bunch of guys willing to listen to the writing of a lonely woman’s fantasy. It reminds us of the plot points earlier in the movie and connects Jack for the first time to the romantic role he is supposed to be playing. It gives Joan a chance to shine but it also leads to the one action beat that feels a little shoehorned into the picture. A car chase in the jungles feels a little over ripe but I have heard many people say that they like the sequence with the “Little Mule” and Mexican actor/director Alfonso Arau. Fans of eighties films will know that he starred in a “plethora” of movies, including the classic “The Wild Bunch”. So along with Zack Norman and Mr. DeVito, he brings some humor and lighter moments to the action.
This was also a breakout film for Robert Zemekis. His previous two features, while both being effective and charming, were financial disappointments. This is the film that allowed him to make “Back to the Future”, so if you are a fan of that franchise, you sort of owe it to Mr. Zemekis to catch up with this movie if you have never seen it before. The evolution of the romance writer into the action heroine is nicely developed here. The set design for Joan’s NY apartment and the covers of her books, establish her character effectively in the opening moments of the film. Turner’s character writes about the life she imagines for herself and that makes it easier for her to live that life when faced with a real danger. The fact that Micael Douglas shows up as a rough hewn version of her fantasy hero spreads a little frosting around for the audience. He may not be a prince but he is a good looking rake who is just what the author called for. The fact that there is gunplay, kidnapping, car chases, an exotic location and a treasure to boot makes it all the more appealing to film fans like me who loved those Errol Flynn adventures, and pirate movies from the fifties and Raiders of the lost Ark. There is an obligatory swing across a chasm that all real swashbucklers including the original Star Wars are required to have. So what if the poster has the two of them in tandem swinging when they actually do it sequentially in the movie, it’s the thought that counts. At the end of the film, the plucky heroine gathers her wits and trys to save her sister. She is not the reticent author or a bombshell damsel in distress, She has become a figure that anyone could admire and that audience’s looking for strong female leads had actually longed for. This may not be a feminist picture but it does put a woman front and center of the action. The character and the star are the real focus of the movie. While Michael Douglas was first billed and was a producer for the movie, Kathleen Turner is the reason the movie works and the reason you should see one of the great entertainment films from 1984. A fan of adventure movies would have a hard time matching up any other year with the output of these types of movies in this year. There are two great adventure movies that came out this weekend in 1984, this was only the first one I got to. The second is even better in my opinion, and that is saying something.