Indiana Jones and the Secret to Adventure, by John Ostrander
Spoiler warning: Spoilers. Why did it have to be spoilers?! I hate spoilers. Hate ‘em! Unfortunately, I can’t talk about what I want to talk about regarding the latest Indiana Jones flick unless I spill some beams. So I’m warning you upfront. The spoilers won’t appear until after the break and I’ll give you a final warning before I go into them. If you want to just skip the column this week, I’ll understand… this week. Don’t make a habit of it. I know where I live.
Wait. That didn’t come off right.
Okay, I’ve gotten out the fedora and went off to see the new Indiana Jones flick, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. As much as I’m a Star Wars fan (and I’d better be – I’ve been writing Star Wars for about eight years now and you can see what I’m doing in Star Wars: Legacy and, yes, that’s a plug), I’m a bigger goon for Dr. Jones. Even before Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, I was a fan because George Lucas talked in interviews about how his new movie originated in his and Steven Spielberg’s love for the old Saturday Matinee Serials. I knew exactly what he was talking about. I loved ‘em, too. Still do.
Saturday Matinee Serials are also known as “chapter plays” and originally were shown in movie theaters on Saturdays as a way of getting the kids to come back, week after week. They would last 12 to 15 chapters and each one would end with a cliffhanger for the hero or heroine with no way out. Of course, when the next chapter appeared, they showed you the segment that they hadn’t previously shown you which allowed said hero/heroine to escape just in the nick of time. The serials date back from the dawn of cinema to the early 50s when they fell prey to the confangled new invention that was to blight/enrich all out lives, television.
And it was there that I discovered the Saturday Serial. The old serials were re-packaged for Saturday Morning TV kid’s fare and, like the old matinees, were part of a package. It was here that I discovered these often cheesy pleasures. I remember Tim Tyler’s Luck – a 1937 Universal jungle adventure adapted from the comic strip of the same name. The strip petered out only in 1996. I also remember Don Winslow of the navy, also based on a comic strip of the time. In fact, it’s amazing how many of the comic strips and books of the time were adapted into serials – Dick Tracy, Superman, Batman, the Shadow (yeah, he had a comics strip), Spy Smasher, and an excellent version of Captain Marvel, among others.
One of my favorites was The Masked Marvel, a 12 chapter serial and the third most expensive produced by Republic Pictures. When it came to serials, Republic is my favorite overall studio. The hero wore a business suit, a fedora hat (!), and a mask – a really cool face mask. In an inversion of the usual “masked villain” plot in the serials, where the viewer didn’t know the real identity of the villain until the last chapter, we didn’t know the real identity of The Masked Marvel until the last chapter. All that was known was hat he was one of a group of investigators – and the plot kept killing these guys off!
The serial had lots of well choreographed and inventive fight scenes and, when the Masked Marvel himself – in costume – was played by Tom Steele, a noted stunt man and stunt co-ordinator.
Supreme over all other serials, however, was Flash Gordon, especially the first of the three serials, created in 1936. This one came closest to approximating the feel of the original comic strip by Alex Raymond that had begun two years earlier. I love the wonky space ships, the strange creatures, and the hot babes. Oh, my pre-pubescent self definitely reacted to the hot babes as I’m sure the boys in the movie theaters had done a generation earlier. The only thing hotter than Jean Rogers as Dale Arden was Priscilla Lawson as Princess Aura. Priincess Aura was the villain’s daughter and a bad girl. We all know what that meant. Wink wink nudge nudge say no more oh baby!
The villain, of course, was Ming the Merciless, played by the immortal Charles Middleton. The. Perfect. Bad-guy. I loved just about everyone in the cast. Frank Shannon as the somewhat crazed Dr. Zarkov, who gets Flash and Dale into the whole mess to start. Jack “Tiny” Lipson as King Vultan, leader of the Hawkmen, and from whom DC would later rip-off Hawkman. Okay, Richard Alexander was a tad chubby as Prince Barin (that always confused me as a boy – was he a prince or a baron?) but, as Flash himself, you could not have done better than Buster Crabbe.
There would be two subsequent Flash Gordon serials and they were okay but the sexual tension was definitely tamped down after the first and so they lose a bit of sizzle. 1938’s Flash Gordon’s Trip to Marshas the Mud Men whose strange language, I think, came from running the soundtrack backwards. I was able to mimic that and gain some admiration from my school-mates; I can still do it, to the confusion of my friends who generally have no idea what the hell I’m doing.
There’s also a highly influential prop that would appear in a number of movie serials and one TV show. It was the flying rocket suit and helmet starting with King of the Rocket Men which appeared in 1949 – the year I was born! – and then in Rocket Men of the Moon – the first of the Commando Cody that would include Zombies of the Stratosphere in 1952. Even though he’s the same character, Commando Cody in the latter serial was called Larry Martin. A very young Leonard Nimoy was a minor alien bad guy in the serial. Judd Holdren played Larry Martin but then he’s Commando Cody for the TV series, Commando Cody: Sky Marshall of the Universe and he’s wearing a vaguely military outfit and a mask. And you thought DC continuity was tough! Wimp!
The “Rocketman” suit would inspire the late Dave Stevens to create the Rocketeer, one of the great characters out of the Eighties. It began as a back-up strip in Mike Grell’s creation,Starslayer. The next strip to start as a back-up in Starslayer was … GrimJack. Funny how that works, eh?
Stevens took the same basic design of the helmet for the Rocketman stories, added some art deco touches and a fin, which was really cool. He, like many of us, was influenced by the old serials as well. None more so than George Lucas. Star Warscertainly has the feel of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and more. The love for the old serials was even more apparent in Raiders of the Lost Arc, which introduced the redoubtable Indiana Jones to the world.
And such an introduction! The main character is introduced bit by bit – the shadow, the gun, the whip, the fedora, and finally the face. The traps in the tomb, getting the idol, getting out of the tomb alive, the giant freakin’ round boulder, losing the idol, getting away from the natives, escape by plane, “Snakes! I hate ‘em!” – how could they top that?
Old school cliffhanger fashion, that’s how. The tombs, the Staff of Ra, Marion Ravenswood, the uncovering of the Arc of the Covenant, the fight by the plane, the chase via horse, the battle on the truck, “I’m making this up as I go!” – right up to the end.
Bigger question – how do they top Raiders? Well – they didn’t. They never could. Raiders was new in ways that the others could never be new again. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom-Wah-Diddy-Dum-Diddy-Doom certainly didn’t do it.
Principle problem, at least for me – no Marion. Karen Allen made Marion a match for Indy. The first time we see them together in Raiders, she socks him in the jaw. These two have history. They also had chemistry and Kate Capshaw’s “Willie Scott” didn’t. Okay, technically the story is set a year beforeRaiders, making it a prequel instead of a sequel. It’s not what I wanted. I think I speak for a lot of fans here. I’m tired of prequels. Show me what happened next. Stories need to go forward.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade at the very least goes forward, taking place a few years afterRaiders. Still no Marion but at least we have Sean Connery as Indy’s father, Professor Henry Jones Sr. This is inspired casting. Who better to play Indiana Jones’s father than the one we most identify as James Bond? To Connery’s great credit, he makes Senior less of an adventurer and more cerebral, letting Indy take the majority of the action.
There’s some great action sets in the film in keeping with its serial roots but, for me, it’s the relationship between father and son that is more important. Maybe that just reflects my getting older but it gives the film heart the way that Marion and Indy gave it heart in the first movie.
Which brings us to the latest in the series, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Last warning! Spoilers ahead!
After eighteen years, we finally get another Indiana Jones film. To their credit, no one is pretending that time hasn’t passed. Indy has aged and looks it and feels it. Rather than a mystic artifact, this time it’s science fiction as we have a crystal alien skull and a temple in South America and… and… you know what? As been noted by someone far smarter than me, after a certain point, science and magic merge. Return the Crystal Skull, open the Ark – same difference. The bad guy/gal loses horribly. Some things man/woman were not meant to know yadda yadda yadda.
It’s not about the plot, boys and girls, any more than any of the serials were about the plot. The plot is there to hang things on – action sequences and, these days, character interaction.
We don’t have Sean Connery this time around; Connery retired and declined to come back out for this. That’s okay. John Hurt appears as a mentor to Indy, Professor “Ox” Oxley. Ray Winstone shows up as an old comrade, George “Mac” McHale. I have a fondness for Winstone going back to his days as Will Scarlett on the old Robin of Sherwood TV series out of the UK. Cate Blanchett shows up in a black wig as Natasha Fatale… excuse me… Irina Spanko. . .excuse me Irina Spalko, head of the squad of godless Communists who have replaced the Nazis as the bad guys. (The Nazis and Commmies are interchangeable as far as villains go in this series.)
What really makes the movie for me is that Marion is back. Karen Allen is back.
Serious for real last warning. Spoilers dead ahead.
Since we last saw her, she got married – to someone else because Indy broke it off before the wedding and disappeared. She has a son – Mutt Williams, played very nicely by Shia LaBeouf – but he’s Indy’s son and Indy never knew.
This is important. The movie acknowledges the deaths of the characters of Indiana’s friend, Dr. Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott, who really did die in 1992) and Indy’s father, Henry Jones Sr. Indy is feeling the pangs of mortality. He’s known the betrayal of friends. He’s very alone – a place that he’s made for himself.
And then Marion comes into his life again. They get on each other’s case, they argue, but there’s still that spark between them. He confesses there been a woman or two since her but they all had the same problem. “None of them were you,” he growls. And she beams at him.
I don’t care about the rest of the plot. I really don’t. This is the payoff that I‘ve been wanting since Raiders. Twenty seven years. And, yeah, I love the final scene as well.
Will they make another Indy film? Given last weekend’s box-office, I shouldn’t be surprised. If they don’t, however, I’m okay.
Finally, they have satisfied my jones for Indiana Jones.
Comics scribe John Ostrander is saving up for a bullwhip autographed by Harrison Ford. Or, at least, by Cate Blanchett. Maybe he’ll settle for June Foray.