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The Television Career of Young Indiana Jones

on Mon, 05/12/2008 - 00:00

America has had a fascination with Indiana Jones for decades. The original adventure, Raiders of the Lost Ark, earned $209 million in 1981, and the subsequent prequel (Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom) and sequels (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) likewise ruled the domestic box office, respectively scoring $179, $197 and $317 million each. Conceived by Star Wars guru George Lucas and born from his love of 1940s serials, the movie franchise features Steven Spielberg as director and stars Harrison Ford in the title role of Indiana Jones, the fictitious archaeologist who continuously finds himself in pursuit of lost relics and ancient treasures.

Old time movies, however, are just one of George Lucas’ many passions, and in the early 1990s he created The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, a television drama that ran on ABC for two seasons, to satisfy yet another—his love of history. “I have an educational foundation working with interactive projects, and I got this idea to get kids involved in history through the Young Indiana Jones character,” quotes Lucas as saying at the time. “The turn of the century is my favorite part of history because it has so much to do with the emergence of the modern age we live in today. It seemed like such a great idea and such an interesting adventure that I just got lured into it by the creative potential.”

Although critically acclaimed, the series experienced low ratings despite the popularity of the titular character. Each episode followed an adventure of young Indiana Jones, either at age eight (played by Corey Carrier) or in his late teens (Sean Patrick Flanery), and involved him interacting with actual historical figures. The problem, however, was that George Lucas did not use a chronological order for the episodes and each week viewers were left to wonder which Indiana Jones would be the central character, as well as where the story fit in with the overarching timeline. Each installment was also “bookended” by a 93-year-old Jones (George Hall) reminiscing about his life, a creative device that was not always well received. Lastly, fans expecting a Raiders of the Lost Ark adrenaline rush were disappointed to find The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles more cerebral than adventurous.

“If this wasn’t called Indiana Jones, it wouldn’t have been made,” Lucas commented to the New York Times in 1992. “I told the network this is not going to be like the movies, that this is not an action-adventure film, but a coming-of-age film. It deals with issues and ideas. It’s not a high-tech adventure thing.” A three-volume DVD set released in 2007 gives better understanding to the vision that George Lucas imagined—the episodes now follow their proper chronological order, allowing the development of Indiana Jones as an individual to become clearer in the minds of viewers.

In the episode “Phantom Train of Doom,” for instance, young Indy—who enlisted in the Belgian army in order to fight in the First World War—is separated from his unit in Africa and ends up accompanying a rag-tag group of older combatants instead. He questions their lack of planning for the mission, and the commanding officer remarks that while there is nothing wrong with having a plan, in the end “he who survives is he who thinks on his feet.” Indiana simply replies, “Oh, make it up as you go. Oh boy, that’s great advice.” But as the episodes progress, Jones begins to embrace the concept of spontaneity, leading to the point in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Harrison Ford himself recites the classic line, “I’m making it up as we go along.”

“The show explores how Indiana Jones got to be the way he is,” again quotes George Lucas as saying. “How, like in the features, did he learn to speak so many languages? Where did he pick that up? How did he decide to become an archaeologist? There are so many fascinating things about the character that you can’t deal with in the features because they move along so fast on an action level. I thought it would be interesting to understand how that happened and to build up, mainly for the teenage audience, a character who likes to learn. He’s not a nerd, he’s not a jerk, but he loves learning and what the result of that learning gets him in the end. It doesn’t make him rich or famous, but it definitely puts him in good stead in terms of his walking through life.”

That “good stead” includes meeting such influential figures as T.E. Lawrence (whom Indiana befriends at an early age), Charles de Gaulle (the two attempt to escape a German POW camp together), Albert Schweitzer (he nurses Indy back to health in Africa), Theodore Roosevelt (on safari) and Eliot Ness (Jones’ roommate at the University of Chicago). Although the majority of these encounters are brief, they accomplish more than simply placing Indiana’s adventures in an historical context as the young Jones is exposed to a variety of concepts and cultures that help shape the man that he eventually becomes. George Lucas’ objective is thus both subtle and admirable, as the knowledge Indiana Jones gains through the course of the television series is the type of well-rounded education that any learning institution would envy. It was not Lucas’ intention to be a teacher, however, but simply an instigator for further learning.

“I’m not telling you the story of Teddy Roosevelt in 15 minutes,” Lucas told the New York Times. “All I’m doing is introducing him to you. All I’m saying is that this man is Teddy Roosevelt. The idea is obviously interactive. The idea is for the viewer to say, ‘I’m interested in that character. I want to read more about him.’ The show is designed to spark the imagination and curiosity of students and just acquaint them, on the barest level, with these figures.”

For the DVDs, Lucasfilm produced a series of companion documentaries about the major historical figures and events that are portrayed in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. In addition to now following the proper chronological timeline, the episodes have also been “double-upped” to form a series of hour-and-a-half long films. The elderly Jones bookends have likewise been eliminated, with one notable exception—Harrison Ford handled those duties in “The Mystery of the Blues,” and that cameo remains intact. The end result is a better structure for the interactive educational experience that George Lucas originally envisioned, an historical insight into both the character and the times of Indiana Jones.

From films to television and then back to film, Indiana Jones has indeed led an adventurous life, as well as an intellectual journey anyone can both learn from and enjoy.

Anthony Letizia

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