Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"The name's Jones, Indiana Jones."

The following post is my contribution to the Indiana Jones blog-a-thon over at Cerebrial Mastication. Some of the ideas I posit here were originated in a conversation I was engaged in over at Piper's Lazy Eye Theatre in a post entitled What Say You: Old Heroes.

It is no secret to anyone that Indiana Jones owes a great deal to James Bond.

Outside of the fact that both characters are prime examples of the archetypal male hero (they are both strong, capable and brave individuals who wage war against malevolent forces for the sake of the greater good) it has become a rather well-known footnote in film history that Steven Spielberg's desire to direct a Bond picture (or some form of globe-trotting adventure with a larger-than-life character at the center) helped bring into existence the imaginings of fellow filmmaker George Lucas. Thus, Indiana Jones was more or less "born" via a handshake between the two friends on a beach in Hawaii in 1980 and over the course of the next 30 years the two of them would be responsible for four Indy movies--the most recent of which opens this week--filled with even more associations to Bond. These include, among others, the character's collection of female companions, Harrison Ford's introduction wearing a tuxedo in Temple of Doom and the presence of former Bond girl Allison Doody in Last Crusade. Probably the most blatant homage to the world's most famous secret agent would be the choice to cast the first "official" 007, Sean Connery, to play Indy's father (thus acknowledging Indy as Bond's true "heir").

However, a closer inspection of both characters and their respective franchises reveals that while there are certainly a number of undeniable similarities, there are also many significant differences between them (and not just on the surface). It is those differences which are of particular interest to me right now; the qualities that make Indy and Bond appealing in their own unique ways. Indiana Jones and James Bond may be "cut from the same cloth," but they're not the same article of clothing (just as a Ford Model T and an Aston Martin DB5 may both be cars--with wheels, seats, an engine, etc--but they are certainly not the same car).

One of the things that can help illuminate their individual "identities" is an examination of the genesis of each.

Conceived during the Cold War by author Ian Fleming (who would be 100 years old this month) and captured in a writing style reminiscent of noir, James Bond was first and foremost a literary creation. In a time when people read more than they do today, Bond's introduction to the world came through the medium of the written word. Granted, Bond's main cultural effect--Bond-"mania" if you will--didn't reach its peak until producers Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman (with the help of the aforementioned Sean Connery) made Bond a "movie star," but to this very day Bond's big-screen adventures are supremely indebted to the printed page. Indeed, Bond's most recent excursion (Casino Royale) is directly based on the first Ian Fleming novel and the current producers (Cubby Broccoli's daughter Barbara and son-in-law Michael G. Wilson) along with actor Daniel Craig, are attempting to bring the character back to his literary roots.

Indiana Jones, on the other hand, might have been inspired by literature (especially the pulp kind) but was never directly adapted from it. In truth, Indy's heritage is almost purely cinematic in nature. A mere cursory look at the admitted sources of inspiration for Indy's first big screen adventure confirm this. Lucas has expressed that his intent was to create a thrilling experience akin to the Saturday matinee serials of the 30's and 40's (where frequent Indy opponent the Nazis were often the villians), Raiders screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan modeled his interpretation of the character after Humphrey Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre and even the affection for James Bond that Spielberg has expressed is directed quite noticably at the films and not the original books. There is simply no getting around the fact that Indiana Jones was specifically created to be a movie hero by men raised on the language of the moving image.

This leads to another major difference between the two characters. Since James Bond's existence pre-dates his big-screen debut, the character is consequently bigger than any one actor. Most folks tend to agree that Sean Connery was, is and always will be the best Bond, but since other actors have portrayed the dashing superspy after him (with varying degress of success) it is not inconceivable for audiences to see someone other than Connery uttering that immortal line: "The name's Bond, James Bond." Like Sherlock Holmes, Zorro, Superman and other heroes with literary origins, there is no one "definitive" James Bond.

With Indiana Jones, though, there were no preconceptions concerning the character prior to the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981. Nobody had even heard of Indiana Jones before his emergence from the shadows in the film's opening scene. Thus, the connection between the character and the actor who brought him to life (Harrison Ford) is inseperable. Harrison Ford is not just the temporary "vessel" of Indiana Jones. He IS Indiana Jones. Period. Nobody else can play that part.*

Because of the character's identification with a particular actor, Indiana Jones can do something else that James Bond can't do: he can age. In the latest Indiana Jones adventure, there are apparently numerous lines of dialogue referencing the fact that Indiana Jones is much older (not to mention how many reviews mention that Ford himself is much older). This allows the filmmakers to explore the themes of the passage of time and how it can make on feel "out of place" in the world. In fact, two other recent entries in ongoing movie franchises to have successfully dealt with this subject (Rocky Balboa and Live Free or Die Hard) also happened to feature heroes who have been indelibly linked with the actor playing them. Just as Harrison Ford IS Indiana Jones, Sylvester Stallone IS Rocky and Bruce Willis IS John McClane. In some ways, Indy may have more in common with these characters than with Bond (although not in the area of popularity or cultural import naturally).

While Indiana Jones grows older, James Bond has remained more or less the same age (late 30's to late 50's) for more than 40 years. Because it's been established that audiences can accept a different face as Bond, the filmmakers are able to re-cast a younger actor in the role every decade or so. Bond's perpetual youth (his "immortality" if you will) almost makes him more of a symbol than a character. The fact that Bond's adventures always exist in the present lends credence to this. A passing reference to Bond as a "relic of the cold war" in Goldeneye is probably the only indication made in the entire series of his antiquity. Bond continues to stay relevant because the purposeness of his existence is not restricted to the Cold War. It might have given birth to him, but it by no means defines him. Bond's adventures continue to be successful and resonate with audiences long after the fall of the Iron Curtain (with him tackling a very contemporary and very real threat in more recent films: namely, terrorism). There has, of course, been one attempt to depict an older Bond on screen (in the "unofficial" Never Say Never Again) with the one actor who could possibly be most identified with Bond (if there were to be one), Sean Connery, but again the success was minimal compared to other Bonds.

There are many other differences between Bond and Indy that I could mention, and I'm sure I'll find even more after seeing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (a film I've been looking forward to for quite some time). In fact, I already know of one major difference based on a spoiler that I unfortunately stumbled across on the internet (don't worry, I won't reveal it here) concerning the film's ending. Furthermore, the new Bond film Quantum of Solace comes out later this year and will no doubt provide even more fodder for discussion on the similarities/differences between these two iconic heroes. For right now, however, I am content to leave it at these few brief remarks about aspects of each character.

So, I will conclude this piece with a bit of a personal statement: in addition to becoming important characters in the modern cultural concsciousness, both Indiana Jones and James Bond are very important to me. I grew up watching these movies (Spielberg and Lucas, in particular, were essentially the filmmakers of my generation; they helped me fall in love with movies in the first place) and they were seminal in my development not only as a cinephile but as a human being. These two characters happened to be among my all-time favorite fictional heroes (some others being Superman, Batman, Spider-man, the Lone Ranger, Zorro, Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes). In fact, they still are. As I have gotten older and tried to leave "childish" ways behind, I find that their significance in my life has actually increased rather than decreased. Their strength, intelligence and tenacity are still qualities that I admire and try to emulate, but it is their flaws that resonate with me more than ever. Their weaknesses reflecting their humanness, giving them depth and making them all the more compelling. We need heroes. We've needed them for thousands of years to help inspire us to do good, to try hard, to fight the good fight (even though we can sometimes fail in that endeavor). James Bond and Indiana Jones are just two of the latest creations to embody an idea that goes back as far as Odysseus, Hercules and others.

We need heroes... or at the very least, I need them.

*Incidentally, I do realize that Indiana Jones has also been played by such actors as River Phoenix, Sean Patrick Flannery, George Hall and Corey carrier, but that doesn't affect my point that Harrison Ford is the standard by which any interpretation of the character is measured. It is striking, I think, that none of these other actors play Indiana Jones at the same age that Ford plays him. They're either extremely young or extremely old. It demonstrates, I believe, that the filmmakers realize audiences wouldn't accept another actor as Indy if Ford were able to do it. Also, none of these other actors were widely embraced as "real" incarnations of Indiana Jones. Phoenix would be the only possible exception and he is, significantly, the most like Ford of all of them.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


"I love you, honey."

"I know you think you do, Mother."