The idea of an airplane carried by an airship was taken from the U.S. Navy airships U.S.S. Akron and U.S.S. Macon. Each airship, slightly smaller than the Zeppelin shown in the movie, had a trapeze (also known as a "sky hook") under the belly of the airship and hangar space inside for up to four small planes. The planes were intended as scouts that used the airship as a flying aircraft carrier. The builders of the Hindenburg attempted, with help from the US Navy, to install a similar trapeze on the Hindenburg shortly before her disastrous last flight in 1937. The idea was for the small plane to act as a mail courier. However, the pilot was unable to "hook on" to the trapeze consistently, the experiment was abandoned, and the trapeze was removed from the Hindenburg before she departed for her final flight.
After having a great working relationship with Steven Spielberg on Gremlins (1984), Spielberg produced the next two movies Chris Columbus scripted, The Goonies (1985), based on an idea Spielberg had, and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), which was Columbus' idea, which, altogether, was two years working on three movies. Spielberg then wanted Columbus to script this movie, a big step for him as a writer. He accepted, and went to meet Spielberg and George Lucas, two men by whom he was very intimidated, even though he had worked with Spielberg three times, and they were two of his cinematic heroes. Columbus acted as Spielberg and Lucas' secretary on this movie for five days, taking down all of their ideas. Lucas dictated the screenplay to Columbus, making him fearful of changing any of it, and it went against what Columbus had learned at film school. To him, the script seemed lifeless, and without energy, and there was nothing of Columbus in it. Columbus assumed Spielberg hired him for that last reason, and when Columbus turned in the script, he was fired from the movie for all of the above flaws in the screenplay. It was a defining moment in Columbus' career, to never again ignore his base instincts on a movie, or to be intimidated by the people with whom he worked.
Chris Columbus wrote a couple of drafts. His first draft, dated May 3, 1985, was tentatively called "Indiana Jones and the Monkey King", and revolved around the Garden of Immortal Peaches as the main plot device. It begins in 1937, with Indiana on vacation in Scotland, where he battles the murderous ghost of Baron Seamus Seagrove III. Indiana then travels to Mozambique to aid Dr. Clare Clarke (a Katharine Hepburn-type, according to George Lucas), who has found a two hundred-year-old pygmy named Tyki Tyki. The pygmy possesses a scroll with directions to the lost city of the Monkey King, Sun Wu Kung. The Monkey King's orchard reportedly grows fruit that grants eternal life, so the Nazis, led by a hulking officer called Lieutenant Werner Von Mephisto, are also interested to find this city. On the way over by boat, the pygmy is kidnapped by the Nazis lead by Mephisto's subordinate, Sergeant Helmut Gutterburg, who has a machine gun for an arm and escapes in a three-story-tall tank. Indiana, Clare and Scraggy Brier (an old native friend of Indiana) travel up the Zambezi river and rescue him. When they arrive at the gates of the lost city, they find it defended by gorilla guardians, but Tyki is able to reason with them before they can harm anyone. When the Nazis arrive, a large battle ensues between them and the gorillas, in which the gorillas commandeer a tank and Indiana attacks while riding a large rhinoceros. Indiana is shot dead in the climactic battle by Mephisto, who gets knocked into a pit of tigers, and Indiana is saved by the Monkey King (a skeletal being, half man and half monkey) through a piece of fruit from his garden. Indiana finally leaves with Dr. Clarke and a shape-shifting staff he received from the Monkey King. Other characters include a cannibalistic African tribe; Betsy, a stowaway student who is suicidally in love with Indiana; and a band of pirates led by Kezure (described as a Toshirô Mifune-type), who dies eating a peach because he is not pure of heart. Columbus' second draft, dated August 6, 1985, removed Betsy and featured Dash, an expatriate bar owner for whom the Nazis work, and the Monkey King as villains. The Monkey King forces Indiana and Dash to play chess with real people, and disintegrates each person who is captured. Indiana subsequently battles the undead, destroys the Monkey King's rod, and marries Clare. Location scouting commenced in Africa, but Steven Spielberg and Lucas ultimately abandoned "Monkey King", because of its negative depiction of African natives, and because the script was too unrealistic. Spielberg acknowledged that it made him "feel very old, too old to direct it." However, the tank chase sequence in this movie was taken from one of his drafts, as well as the theme of an object that grants eternal life. Members of the Chicago-based podcast Alcohollywood began periodically releasing an early draft of the script as an episodic audio play at the beginning of 2017.
Due to their great working relationship on this film, Steven Spielberg almost re-teamed with Sean Connery for his second 1989 directed movie Always (1989) released seven months after this movie. Spielberg originally wanted Connery to play the role of Hap the angel, but Spielberg wanted the character to be reminiscent of his personal vision of a true angel and ultimately ended up casting Audrey Hepburn in the role of Hap instead. 2b1af7f3a8