Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Life and Times of Indiana Jones (aka Henry Walton Jones, Jr.)

I have just completed something of a cinematic pilgrimage. It's summer, and I haven't had much time to go to the movies. Instead, in the middle of traveling and working and all the other stuff I do, I've been watching a series on my iPad that defies any particular medium. Part television show, part film franchise, I have watched the entire cinematic life of Indiana Jones in about 8 weeks.

For those of you think this means I've take an extremely long time to watch four films, let me clarify this for you.

In 1992, George Lucas began producing a TV show that defied all TV show conventions of its day, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Filmed in hundreds of locations around the world, it chronicled the early life of the Harrison Ford character from the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. Including those films, there exists about 42 hours of live action Indiana Jones stories available. In order to release this series on VHS in the 90's (before TV DVD box sets existed), Lucas re-edited his 42 minute episodes into 90 minute "features." Several, usually when built from pre-existing 2-part stories, make this transition seamlessly. Others not so much. Also, since the series was filmed out of chronological order over about 6 years, but is now presented chronologically, the apparent age of the character fluctuates throughout, sometimes within the same 90-minute film. However, since the series should be taken as rather tongue-in-cheek anyway, this is not so much of an issue (the films, with Temple of Doom being produced second but occurring first, suffers from the same issue, ironically).

When watched as individual 90-minute films, some of these work better than others. When watched as a 33 hour whole, as I have recently done, the effect is marvelous, as the fluctuations in tone, subject matter, and cinematic influence make for a very diverse cinematic experience and a fun ride.

We are introduced to young Indiana virtually at birth in a comedic prologue to the first film, aptly titled, My First Adventure. Indy (Correy Carrier) quickly sets off to Egypt with his father, Henry (Lloyd Owen) and mother, Anna (Ruth de Sosa), and surrogate mother, his tutor, Miss Seymour (Margaret Tyzack). There he learns the importance of learning languages and is set on the path of becoming a talented linguist. The series spends five "films" on his early childhood and sets the stage for his rocky relationship with his father and his mommy-issues. Though his mother passes away between the jump from 10 year old Indy to 16 year old Indy, we can suspect that Indy's fixation on romance, which will be explored at length, may have something to do with the absence of maternal love (or really, any love) in his teenaged life. Spring Break Adventure, the sixth film, shows Young Indy (Sean Patrick Flanery, Boondock Saints) kidnapped by Mexican revolutionaries, only to decide to take up with their cause, and then only to decide that their cause is an empty, violent one, but perhaps there is another, more noble struggle across the atlantic in the form of the first World War.

His hopes for a noble struggle are thwarted as he discovers the political mire that is the Great War. He enlists in the Belgian army under an alias, "Henri Defense," and eventually rises to the rank of captain thanks to his wits and typical good luck. He is joined by a friend, Remy Baudouin (Ronny Coutteure), a Belgian, and the first of Indy's many foreign and rotund friends. Together the men fight their way through the trenches of Europe, to the African plains, and finally join the French Secret Service, where they are forced to part ways until the end of the war.

Indy and Vicky in a Zeppelin Attack.
The film also spends some time on the aforementioned love interests. Indy's first true love is a British suffragette named Vicki, played by a young Elizabeth Hurley. She refuses his proposal of marriage on the eve of his military deployment because she believes that a woman, in her time, cannot have both a marriage and a career, and that war changes people, and by the end they might be too different to still love one another. Its a sober statement, but one the series mostly bears out, as war is, after all, hell. Sometime later, Indy has his first passionate encounter with a French dancer by the name of Mata Hari (Domiziana Giordano).
Daniel Craig's Captain Schiller.

After Africa, where Indy meets humanitarian missionary Albert Schweitzer (Friedrich von Thun), Indy dedicates himself to viewing the war as a humanitarian tragedy and seeking a way to end it. He goes on many spy missions, including the taking of Beersheba (where he defeats a German captain played by Daniel Craig and romances Catherine Zeta-Jones) in the middle east and aiding the French Foreign Legion in Morocco. He also has his first real encounter with the supernatural in the form of the legendary Vlad the Impaler (Bob Peck).

On the hunt for the diamond.
At the close of the war, Indy reunites with Remy, and while pursuing a German spy, they acquire an ancient map claiming to lead to the Eye of the Peacock diamond, supposedly given to Alexander the Great, and which will re-appear later in the opening act of Temple of Doom. They fail to find the diamond, but while Indy decides to return to America, attempt a reconciliation with his father, and attend college to study archeology, Remy determines to keep on the hunt for the diamond, and they part ways for good.

Indy and his father.
All of these adventures were, in the words of Indy's friend T.E. Lawrence, enough to fill a "lifetime." But they serve as just the introductory chapter. On returning back to America, Indy has one final blowout with his father where all issues are laid on the table. Ultimately, it is his decision to study at the University of Chicago, rather than his father's own Princeton University. Indy walks out the door, and we never know when they spoke next.

As a sort of epilogue and meta-commentary on the art forms that gave birth to the series itself, the final three films focus on music, plays, and movies, respectively, while building an interesting narrative of Indy's college years on their own. Of the three, I heartily recommend The Scandal of 1920, a musical comedy which won an Emmy for its recreation of George Gershwin's music, and quite an entertaining film. Finally, and admittedly, anti-climactically, the young Indy adventures end with Hollywood Follies, where Indy, fired from his New York Broadway job, and in need of money for school, goes out to work in the movie business, where he ends up performing the famous John Ford stunt of the cowboy pulling himself along under the wagon which would go on to inspire the truck stunt from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Indiana Jones (1935)
From here, the story jumps to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Though there were other, planned but un-produced young Indy stories set to feature Belloq, Abner Ravenwood, crystal skulls, and a misadventure in Honduras (referenced obliquely in Doom and Crystal Skull), this jump works rather well. Immediately we see that Indiana Jones is now a suave, educated linguist, grown up, a "famous" archeologist, and on the trail of the peacock diamond. Though not the greatest of the films, its a fun adventure that really does seem to be occurring to the same character I just spent 33 hours with. The first line spoken by Indy is in Mandarin, and the response is, "you didn't tell me you spoke my language, Dr. Jones," which is perfectly in line with the teenager who learned the language of every country he's ever visited (we even see him visit the great wall of China as a boy).

Indy and Marion.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is largely considered (and probably is) the best of the Indiana Jones films. Marion Ravenwood, the films female protagonist, is still probably one of the greatest female characters in an action movie. Inexplicably, they are no longer together by the start of Last Crusade. While overall, the series' view of the supernatural is at best muddled, those elements work the best here, probably because the lost Ark of the Covenant is one of the best defined and most known supernatural artifacts in human history. Of all the artifacts in these films, this one is probably the only one that still truly fascinates.

Henry Jones, Sr. and Jr.
But the emotional heart of this entire series is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where we both flashback to Indy's youth (and discover the origin of the infamous hat) and see his reconciliation with this father (Sean Connery). Alison Doody, the actress who plays Dr. Elsa Schneider, famously said that "Sean had my part," in regards to the role typically played by the love interest in the film. By the end of the adventure, Indy finally has a dad. Which only leaves his mommy issues, which brings us to the (for now) final film.

Still kicking in 1957.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an unpopular film, but when watched, as I just did, in the context of this entire body of work, it serves as a very good addition to the story, and frankly presents a very exciting view of Indiana Jones' later years. We learn he was as active in the second World War as he was in the first, having attained the rank of colonel, and having returned to being a spy, this time for the Americans. He made another rotund friend named Mac (his third, if you count Remy, then Sallah [John Rhys-Davies] in Raiders and Last Crusade), but in all that time, he never found someone to marry. We learn that his father and his mentor Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) have both passed away, and ultimately, he has very little left in the world to hold on to. This is, perhaps, a silent critique on the American individualist ideal so well represented in the character of Indiana Jones. He's brought back into the action when a young man brings foreboding news of his old friend, fellow University of Chicago student Harold Oxley (John Hurt). Together, pursued by Russian agents, they attempt to rescue Indy's friend and recover this mythical crystal skull. Indy discovers his new young friend's mother is none other than Marian Ravenwood, and we learn some of the reasons for the collapse of their relationship. Interestingly, Indy would have attempted to contact Marion shortly after his discovery of the Holy Grail, which perhaps had given him some new insight on life, but sadly, she had already married another, and given birth to Indy's child, though for social reasons he was known as the child of her new husband.

Whatever your issues with the film, it gives our intrepid archeology more or less a happy ending. In spite of his insane, womanizing ways, he ends up with a family of his own, and the promise of an even brighter life in his twilight years. Although, one might still be able to hope that we haven't seen the last of Dr. Indiana Jones...

The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones can be streamed on Netflix, with the exception of Mystery of the Blues, which features bookends by Harrison Ford (set in 1951). The Complete Indiana Jones (films) can be purchased on iTunes or on Blu-Ray disc.
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