You don’t hear many people talk about Romancing the Stone very much anymore, which feels surprising.
It was, after all, a powerful surprise hit in 1984 which launched the career of none other than director Robert Zemeckis who, just one year later, would go on and develop not just the signature film of the 80’s but one of the most iconic of the 20th century – Back to the Future. Nobody expected this romantic action adventure caper to work, least of all 20th Century Fox, the studio who made it, who, so convinced Zemeckis had delivered a dud, fired him from the Cocoon directing gig in anticipation. Nobody predicted it would romp home at the box office, cement Zemeckis as a major new talent following in the footsteps of his contemporaries Spielberg, Lucas etc… and establish Michael Douglas as a rugged action hero in Hollywood terms.
What’s strange is why the studio, and most people involved, believed this would be dead on arrival. What gave them that impression? It could be an endemic level of sexism given the fact Romancing the Stone is very much angled from the perspective of Kathleen Turner’s heroine, Joan Wilder. Did they believe such a female entry point into the film would alienate a core male audience? Bear in mind how Zemeckis’ film followed in the wake of the hugely successful Raiders of the Lost Ark, which in Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood helped re-cement the Golden Age of Hollywood idea of the couple with antagonistic, sparky repartee, only wrapped around an adventure movie style. The Empire Strikes Back, with Han Solo & Princess Leia’s biting barbs courtesy of Golden Age scribe Leigh Brackett, did the same thing.
The difference, perhaps, is that Spielberg and Lucas (by way of Irvin Kershner) approached their movies in this context from much more of a male perspective, certainly in terms of how the studio may have experienced these films during production and test screenings. Unlike Raiders with Indy or even Empire with Luke Skywalker, Romancing the Stone’s central protagonist is unquestionably Joan – it is her journey of fantasy wish fulfilment we follow across the picture, not that of Douglas’ Jack Colton, the Indy proxy of the story, who we don’t even meet until almost thirty minutes into Joan’s story. Douglas may have been a producer on the film but he’s not showy, despite having top billing – he’s aware this is Turner and Joan’s showcase.
One could point to the fact Romancing the Stone has a female writer, Diane Thomas. Sadly she never got to share in the film’s success, tragically being killed in a car crash six weeks before the movie opened (while she was working on Spielberg’s Always, which wouldn’t materialise until the end of the decade), but Thomas’ fun script makes the most of a highly feminine central conceit to wrap around the jungle adventure action sequences and hints of treasure hunting which lie in the plot. Joan, you see, is acting out her own romantic fantasy; a successful romantic writer, she nonetheless lacks the same pulse-racing romantic adventure in her life of the like she writes of (and cries over at the happy ending), and the film is all about life imitating art.
Hence why its best to take Romancing the Stone fairly lightly, as you sense its ultimately aware of its own internal satire. Thomas’ script is both tethered to the conventions of a paperback romance in Joan satisfying her fantasy urges and emerging from her own solitary, repressed chrysalis, while also playing up to the tropes people are aware of in these Mills & Boon-style stories; the chaste heroine who experiences a sexual awakening, the rugged, strong, capable hero, or in this case reluctant hero, Douglas playing off what Harrison Ford did with Indy’s own recalcitrance at Marion joining him on his adventure, and later John Carpenter would have Kurt Russell channel this in Big Trouble in Little China; even the villains Zack Norman & Danny DeVito are intentionally ugly and repulsive, in contrast to Douglas’ matinee idol handsomeness.
Everything about Romancing the Stone suggests its acutely aware of the tropes and stylistics Thomas’ script plays up to, even to the point of how silly the narrative indeed is – Joan having to travel into the wilds of Colombia to save her kidnapped sister from blackmailing treasure hunters, and soon finding herself powerfully out of her depth. What’s interesting, come the climax, is that Joan doesn’t need Colton to actively save her from Alfonso Arau’s vicious Colombian drug lord Juan, indeed the script makes a point of Colton making the choice to save Joan over going after the stone and ‘fortune & glory’, but she is empowered enough to deal with the threat herself. By the end, Joan doesn’t need the man, rather she wants the man, and he wants her.
Maybe this is what the studio with its closed-minded male executives were nervous about. Romancing the Stone, while on the face of it playing up to the stereotypes of the helpless woman needing rescuing by a paean to masculinity, in the end purposefully puts the agency in Joan’s hands. This equally could be, aside from the film simply being a jaunty adventure romp with spirited direction from Zemeckis and a jazzy score by Alan Silvestri, what drew punters into the cinema in their droves. Many would have expected a Raiders re-tread but instead came out with something not just more romantic, but more empowering.
Don’t get me wrong, Romancing the Stone is no searing example of feminist film theory, but it perhaps warrants re-examining in the context of how Zemeckis approaches male and female hero stereotypes. His film both confirms and subverts these expectations while always playing, first and foremost, as a light and even quite sexy romp; Douglas smoulders in a manner we hadn’t quite seen before and Turner blossoms across the picture from convincing, frumpy cat lady to an unchained, romantic heroine who both rescues her sister from aggressive, violent ugly men, and is happy to be then swept off her feet. She truly becomes one of her characters.
You still have to marvel how Robert Zemeckis went from this light piece of adventure fluff nobody thought would work to one of the most beautifully constructed and seminal pictures in movie history. There are trace elements of the director’s ticks in Romancing the Stone; his penchant for committed female leads who are looking for a male rescuer; an eye for classic cinematic moments, such as Colton sliding down the muddy Colombian ravine right into Turner’s open crotch; he even taps into the romantic Western genre we see briefly in one of Joan’s books at the beginning with Back to the Future Part III in a few years. Despite this, did we see Back to the Future coming? Did anybody?
Romancing the Stone was, of course, a hit, which spurred a sequel in 1985 called The Jewel of the Nile which essentially repeated the formula but with more confidence and surety, given the star power of Douglas and Turner who, combined with DeVito as a mouthy sidekick, would become one of the dominant cinematic pairings of the 1980’s when it came to romance and thrills. Though sequels have been proposed over the last three decades, one would hope the principals would leave well alone (given Turner is now unrecognisable and Douglas looks his age), partly to preserve their film as a delightful product of its time.
★ ★ ★ 1/2
DIRECTOR: Robert Zemeckis
WRITER: Diane Thomas
CAST: Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny DeVito
STUDIO/DISTRIBUTOR: 20th Century Fox