Saturday, March 15, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Evil Empire

On May 22, the fourth installment of the Indiana Jones movie franchise/industry, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” directed by Steven Spielberg, “opens wide” in about 4,000 theaters in the United States. Harrison Ford returns as maverick archeologist Henry (Indiana) Jones in a film likely to gain old Indy fans and newcomers who’d til now thought Indiana Jones was a second-string forward for the Pacers.

This fourth nod to the jungle movie serials of the 1930s would seem to be hamstrung by its own history. Rooted as it has been, in the years leading to World War II, the Indy saga could have been trapped in a nightmare limbo for its screenwriters: a movie without the designated villain of the Nazis. But with the choice of Russians as the bad guys, the “Crystal Skull” filmmakers have made use of history and, shudder, current events.

The latest story is set in 1957, and this time Dr. Jones confronts the Soviets in what Americans thought then was their march to world domination. They might have called it “Indy’s Last Stand.”

Consider: According to the Indiana Jones wiki, our favorite archeologist was born on July 1, 1899, in Princeton, N.J. The Indy template, “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark,” (set in 1936) was released in 1981. The last one to date, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” set in 1938, was released in 1989. That whole time, Indy was dispatching Nazis, Thuggees, assassins and various other evildoers in Europe, Asia and South America at a brisk clip.

But with so many years between the last Indiana Jones film and the new one coming in May — to say nothing of the time between the first Indy film and the one coming in May — sending him up against bad guys in the 1930’s or 1940’s wouldn’t work logistically.

The Vietnam War wouldn’t start cooking until the 1960’s, and any number of other baddies — from Noriega’s regime in Panama to the rise of Saddam Hussein to the Islamist terrorists we fear today — didn’t arrive on the scene until after that.

That leaves the Russians of 1957 as the only credible villains left for Indy to fight without doing it as a senior citizen.

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It would have been more of a problem for Spielberg and screenwriter George Lucas not many years ago, when the Soviet Union dissolved and the people of the Russian Republic were discovering the first heady whiff of capitalist freedom — not that long after President Reagan’s now-timeless depiction of the Soviet Union as “the evil empire.”

More recently, the more severe policies of Russian President (now prime minister) Vladimir Putin have made it easy to recast Russia as the Evil Empire Redux. By growing wages and playing to the nationalist desire for a strong leadership unafraid to stare down the West — and with the benefits of an unprecedented oil boom that’s given the economy new clout on the world stage — Putin has returned Russia to a global swagger and military power that remind many analysts and world leaders of the old Soviet Union.

In February 2007, Putin essentially read the riot act to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other Western officials, at a meeting in Munich. “Putin's ‘Munich speech’ drew instant comparisons to another diplomatic outburst: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's notorious shoe-thumping at the United Nations 50 years ago, during an angry outburst against Western imperialism,” NPR correspondent Gregory Feifer reported last year.

“The president has ended democratic reforms and reinstituted authoritarian rule, curtailed freedoms and returned parts of the economy to state control. And he has introduced an aggressive foreign policy that opposes Western countries on issues such as the war in Iraq and the expansion of NATO,” Feifer reported.

With other actions such as a crackdown on dissidents, and the government’s possible complicity in the deaths of some vocal critics of the Kremlin, it’s clear that, for movie purposes at least, Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” has made something of a comeback.


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Diehard fans are looking forward to the release of “Crystal Skull” with anticipation, but however well-received this film is, it’s almost certain to be the last in a series.

You can see it in the latest poster art. Harrison Ford looks tired; there’s not much of the spark of athletic defiance seen in poster art for the previous trio of films.

It’s understandable. At age 65, Ford is seven years older in real life than the character he portrays. We like Harrison Ford — hell, we like any A-list actor with the stones to insist on doing his own stunts after the age of 60. To his eternal credit, Ford did just that in the “Crystal Skull” installment of the Indiana Jones saga.

But still, 65 years old is 65 years old. You have to think that with a personal net worth in excess of $300 million, five of his best efforts in the National Film Registry, four grown children and his health and good looks intact, Harrison Ford may be ready to commit his most celebrated character to another enduring life-movie: Indiana Jones and the Perils of Retirement.
Image credits: Indiana Jones images © Paramount Pictures. Putin: Ricardo Stuckrt/Agencia Brasil, licensed under Creative Commons License Attribution 2.5 Brazil


  1. The Love Collective3/18/2008 3:04 PM

    Great post. Harrison Ford is so old he should have played one of the skulls. LOL

  2. LOL at your comment (almost five years after the fact!) Thanks for reading, and sorry it took so long to say that!


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