As I continue working on A Respectable Criminal, and having recently watched (very disappointing) The Many Saints of Newark (2021), I’ve pondered the question of movie prequels and how they came to be.
The answer (after a non-exhaustive search online) is more complicated than I expected, and largely depends on how you define a prequel. Which means that they’ve either been around since the earliest days of cinema, or they’re a fairly new creation.
And for anyone who’s wondering (I found one Reddit commenter who did), George Lucas did not invent the prequel. But he did play a major role in their history.
In the broadest sense, a prequel is a film that takes place before the events depicted in the original. Even if it’s only a short time. Going by this definition, the earliest prequel (also part of one of the earliest trilogies) is Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World, 1920). This German silent film is a prequel to Der Golem (1915) and Der Golem und die Tänzerin (The Golem and the Dancing Girl, 1917). Writer/director Paul Wegener plays the Golem in all three films, which appear to be set closely together.
Next up, we jump several decades to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly(1966), a prequel to A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For A Few Dollars More(1965). The third entry of this famous Clint Eastwood-starring Spaghetti Western trilogy takes place before the other two and is basically an origin story.
Following on this same path is Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom (1984), which actually takes place one year earlier than Raiders of the Lost Ark(1981). If you didn’t note the dates shown at the beginning, you’d never notice this was the case.
The more narrow definition is a story that takes place many years prior to the original(s), which generally involves both younger versions of the characters from the original(s) and characters that have only been mentioned (e.g. Dickie Moltisanti). This typically requires a new cast of younger actors. Though sometimes, original cast members can do both via voice-over (Darth Vader), elaborate make-up (Palpatine), or elaborate costuming (C-3PO).
The first example I found is Another Part of the Forest (1948), a prequel to The Little Foxes (1941). Both of these films started as plays and take place twenty years apart. Ann Blyth (most famous for playing the evil Veda in Mildred Pierce, 1945) plays the role of Regina, portrayed by Bette Davis in the original. The most interesting bit of casting is Dan Duryea, who plays Oscar in the prequel, and Oscar’s son Leo in the original. Another actor plays the older Oscar. Best I can tell, however, these productions were made independently of one another. And both were performed on Broadway prior to being turned into films.
This brings us to one of my favorite movies from childhood, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971). Which, thanks to time travel, is both a sequel AND a prequel to Planet of the Apes (1968) and Beneath the Planet of the Apes(1970). It’s the best of both worlds, with both original cast members Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter, and seeing characters only mentioned previously (Dr. Hasslein).
That brings us to our next entry, which really set the stage for making prequels a thing. Like Escape from PotA, The Godfather, Part II (1974) is also both a sequel and a prequel to The Godfather (1972). As the story cuts back and forth between Michael and Young Vito, we finally get younger actors playing many of the original characters. We also get original actors playing slightly younger versions of themselves in a scene at the end, which takes place four years prior to the events of the first film. This was the first sequel to ever win Best Picture. It still boggles my mind that DeNiro wasn’t cast in Part I, but thank goodness he wasn’t! Otherwise, who else could have played young Don Corleone?
And for anyone waiting for a George Lucas connection, he actually worked on The Godfather as Coppola’s assistant. When Francis was struggling with a lack of coverage on the hospital sequence, Lucas dug out the all the unused camera setups and helped build the required tension in this superb sequence.
Less successful was the movie that followed, which could also be regarded as the first true prequel, as it’s credited with introducing the term into the mainstream. Things didn’t exactly go well (spoiler alert!) for the two protagonists in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (1969), which were famously played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford. So, it was decided that a prequel was the way to go, called Butch & Sundance: The Early Days(1979).
I haven’t seen this movie in decades, but I think it’s safe to say that it pales in comparison to the original. One would assume that the two poor souls who had the unfortunate opportunity to launch their careers being directly compared to Redford and Newman were quickly lost to the dustbin of cinematic history. But luckily for them, that was not the case. Tom Berenger (Butch) became a big star in the 1980s and even got an Oscar nomination for Platoon (1986). And William Katt (Sundance), had already done Carrie (1976), tested for Luke Skywalker, and went on to star in The Greatest American Hero (1981-86) and a handful of Perry Mason TV movies (Mom Barbara Hale was the original Della Street).
This finally brings us back to George Lucas again, but not the Star Wars prequels. Not yet. The opening scene of Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade (1989) features a young Indy (River Phoenix) tangling with treasure hunters in 1912 Utah. And shows how adult Indy got his famous hat. Plus his fear of snakes and the scar on his chin.
Lucas loved this sequence so much, he was inspired to create a Young Indy TV series called The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-96). It starred Sean Patrick Flannery and Corey Carrier and ran for two seasons, plus four made-for-TV movies.
I could go on and on about this show. And as a matter of fact, I think I will. Stay tuned and next month we’ll go into a brief history of The Greatest Show You’ve Probably Never Seen.
In the meantime, that finally brings us to the Star Wars prequels. Which some people love and some people hate. And some that only like the final entry, Revenge of the Sith (2005). I’ll admit that time has softened my opinion, and I’m definitely looking forward to the upcoming Kenobi (2022) series on Disney Plus. And the return of Hayden Christensen to the role of Anakin/Vader.