“‘Who am I?’ This is a courageous question.”John Patrick Shanley, playwright and filmmaker
For a certain class of individual, there exists an interchangeable, though equally courageous question: “What do I like?”
For this individual, the answer to the second question naturally, inevitably, answers the first one as well.
Growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, one had to make choices, and many of my friends were Top Gun guys. This made a degree of sense. It was the Cold War and Top Gun was a red, white, and blue adrenaline blast, even if some of its unintentional comedy (hello, volleyball scene!) was lost on us kids. It was sleek and fast, full of F-14s and MiGs, motorcycles and aircraft carriers. However, even a child’s mind could perceive the over-compensatory nature of these colossal vroom-vrooms. And speaking of over-compensation, it dripped from every pore of Tom Cruise’s small, yet divinely proportioned body. No, this angsty try-hard offered no aspirational energy to an already-anxious, overly-sensitive kid. Some people were Top Gun guys, but I was an Indiana Jones guy.
Where Top Gun was sky and steel, Indy was jungle and dirt. It was deserts, mountains, underground lairs and treasure maps. But more to the point, it was Harrison Ford.
While many a late Cold War-era American boy may have dreamt of being “Maverick” Mitchell or seen themselves in a wimp-turned-badass like Daniel LaRusso, Ford’s persona was something older and saltier, cut from a cloth closer to that of Gary Cooper or Paul Newman. I didn’t wish to be him; I wished for him to be my uncle or my cool teacher, instead.
Famously a carpenter before hitting as a movie star, he gave off grown ass man vibes. He seemed capable of imparting grown-man knowledge, like how to fix a drain or hit a curveball. Ryan Gosling? Great actor, never thrown a ball in his life. In a pre-Crossfit world, Ford seemed old-school strong, like a guy who might have played football once, except we know he didn’t because his actor superpower is this: he looks like a team player, but really he’s a rogue.
His greatest roles–Indy, Star Wars, Witness, The Fugitive–are all characters who operate outside the system. He is an everyman but also a contrarian and a rapscallion. He doesn’t suffer fools and he doesn’t trust the institutions of power, and this is where he stood alone among the leading men of his era. Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs was a wildcard, but he was still a cop. He was not one of us. Not with this mullet:
Indy, by contrast, lived in both the cerebral and the visceral planes. An archaeology professor by day, adventurer by night, he was the larger than life avatar of every thinky kid with something to prove. The ability to convey this quality made Ford the perfect creative partner to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (after all, what are most directors if not thinky kids with something to prove?). Ford and Lucas first linked up on Star Wars, but it was the addition of Spielberg that completed the alchemy that would create Ford’s greatest character (Han Solo fans will disagree with me; so be it, Jedi).
Spielberg’s work is famously informed by the alienation of being a child of divorce. In the character of Indiana Jones, he and Ford redeem and remake the outsider as a heroic smart-ass propelled by adventure lust and aesthetic concern (“It belongs in a museum!”) in equal measure.
Temple of Doom was, and still is, my favorite of the trilogy. Before you say anything, I know. I know. I know. I can’t help it. I just love it. Yes, there are numerous elements that are a bit, um, problematic, in 2020. In fact, they were problematic even in the early 80’s–the Indian government found the script so offensive that they wouldn’t allow the movie to be shot in India (production moved to Sri Lanka). I know all the other issues people have with it–Willie Scott, Short Round, child slaves, bugs, heart removal, etc.–but I love it nonetheless. I love it for the simple fact that it begins with a musical number. I love every stupid minute of it. My fourth grade classroom had a lending library and one of the books you could take home was a “making of” about Temple of Doom. I borrowed it and never returned it.
Temple of Doom became the first movie I had secret knowledge of. I knew that when the Sankara Stones burned through Indy’s bag in the final fight on the cliffside, the effect was achieved by cutting out a section of the bag, replacing it with flammable paper painted the color of the bag, and then triggering a remote device that would ignite the paper. I knew that when the elephant threw Willie into a puddle, they had to use imported water to avoid parasites. I knew that the mouth of the cave leading into the secret Thugee temple was actually a painting, designed by the scenic artist to resemble a giant, fanged mouth. I still see it when I watch the movie today.
Raiders is a masterpiece and Last Crusade is pretty close to one, in my book (Tom Stoppard is said to have done massive rewrites on Last Crusade. Keep this in mind the next time you watch it and you will notice how very good the dialogue is. It is gem after verbal gem: “You left just when you were starting to get interesting,” “I was the next man!”, “I remembered my Charlemagne,” “Illumination,” and on and on), but Temple of Doom was the first movie I felt I had a personal relationship with.
As for Harrison Ford, I think his last great performance was in The Fugitive, 25 years ago. What happened? Maybe a middle aged man’s cocky outsider is an older man’s crotchety curmudgeon. Maybe there are no more unexplored corners of the earth, no more secret treasures and hidden fortresses. Childhood’s imaginative wonderland is adulthood’s deadlines, bills and bosses.
“Fools. Bureaucratic fools,” we say, cocking our hats and strolling out into the night.