Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, is Indy's fourth
and opened May 22nd, 2008.
Roots of Indiana Jones
Indiana Jones was spawned in the mind of George
Lucas as a way of bringing the short serial movies he'd watched
as a child back to life. What were these cliffhangers and why
were they so inspiring?
(5/08) I'm a huge Indiana Jones fan, so this month
is a pretty big deal for me. The road to the fourth film, Indiana
Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, has been a long
one. The previous film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,
came out in 1989 and at the time it seemed like it would be the
last film in the series. As Lucas explained in an interview in
Vanity Fair, he and collaborator Steven Spielberg didn't
want to make a film without a first-class script, and it was years
before they had one they could agree upon. Just in time, too,
as protagonist Harrison Ford was turning 66, a dangerous age for
doing your own stunts.
The movie opens on May 22nd, but like many rabid
Indy fans, I've been anticipating the premiere since the filming
wrapped last summer. To fill in the gap I've screened all the
former films again and even went on an eBay hunt to find old VHS
episodes of Lucas's 90's TV show The Adventures of Young Indiana
Jones. (A young peoples' program which told about Indy's life
in his early years. The show, which serves up some nice semi-educational
historical fiction, was nominated for several Emmys and won two.)
Having gone through most of my Indiana Jones material, and still
a month short of the opening, however, I began to spend my time
pondering about where the Indy series came from in the first place.
As any Indy fan can tell you, the idea for the movies
was first brought to life on a beach in Hawaii in 1977. Lucas,
nervous about the premiere of his latest effort, Star Wars,
took a vacation and invited close friend and fellow filmmaker
Steven Spielberg to join him. After the news that Star Wars
was a success, the pair turned to the discussion of future projects.
Spielberg had longed to direct a James Bond flick, but had been
turned down. He was thinking of approaching Bond producer Cubby
Broccoli a second time, but Lucas told him, "I've got something
better than that. It's called Raiders of the Lost Ark."
Spielberg loved the idea, and with him directing and Lucas producing,
the adventure was born.
Lucas had come up with the idea several years before
as a distraction from working on his film American Graffiti.
The concept came from the Saturday matinee serial shorts made
by Republic Studios that Lucas had watched as a kid. Being slightly
younger than the filmmaker, I was unfamiliar with this type of
movie. By the time I was a kid, Saturday morning cartoon shows
had replaced the matinee. So I decided to see what I could find
out about these old serials. How much of them actually made it
into Indiana Jones?
Kingdom is one of the Republic Serials available on
My venture into this was to use the internet to
look up "Republic Serials." Republic Entertainment,
Inc. was founded in 1935 when six smaller studios were put
together. One of the things Republic specialized in was "B" movies.
Usually these films were produced on a shoestring budget with
low production values, shorter running time (typically 70 or 80
minutes) and unknown actors. During the 40's and 50's, movie theaters
would use the "B's" as the first show on a "double feature" billing.
During this period, Republic also produced serials
or as they were sometimes called "chapter plays." Typically these
consisted of a long, action-packed story, cut into individual
episodes. Each week a new episode would reach the theater, encouraging
movie goers to return. To make the need to return even more compelling,
the serial producers would end each episode with a "cliffhanger."
The hero, or heroine, was placed in mortal danger by the bad guy
with the resolution not coming till the episode the following
week. Sometimes the cliffhanger was literally that: The hero hanging
by his finger tips over a fatal drop while his arch-enemy looks
on. Other forms of peril might include being tied to a railroad
track before an oncoming train, strapped down to a log going through
a buzz saw, trapped on a sinking ice floe in Arctic waters, etc.
While Republic filmed their famous serials from
the mid-30's through the mid-50's, the art form actually goes
back even further. In 1912, Edison's production company - yes
- Thomas Edison, the guy we usually associate with the light bulb,
he used to be a filmmaker too - released What Happened to Mary?
This 12-part production wasn't just one of the first movie serials,
it also established the "damsel in distress" sub-genre of having
a villain put a pretty young woman into danger, only to have her
be rescued by the hero at the last minute. Though this sounds
like the perfect cliffhanger, these early serials placed this
action in the middle of the episode, not at the end.
Two years later one of the most famous silent films
of all time, The Perils of Pauline, came out following
the same "damsel in distress" formula. This type of plot was so
popular that filmmakers were soon straining to find titles like
The Hazards of Helen, where they could rhyme the heroines
name with some word meaning danger. Interestingly enough, while
some feminists accused this formula of being a thinly-veiled male
erotic fantasy, these early efforts were actually heavily marketed
Perils of Pauline was one of the earliest of silent
These silent films were the first heyday of serials
with a few of them having as many as 119 episodes. They were cheap
to produce and drew audiences back week after week. This ended
though with the advent of talking motion pictures. The need to
add sound greatly increased the cost of production in the middle
of the Great Depression when money was scarce. Many of the early,
smaller studios went out of business. One of the few that survived
was Mascot, which became one of the six studios folded
What followed was a new era of serials - some call
it the "Golden Era" - where the films were slightly
more sophisticated, though still cheap productions by feature
standards. They now had sound and musical tracks. Each serial
started with a thirty-minute episode which established the premise,
followed by 20-minute chapters filled with action and mystery,
ending with the cliffhanger. There were usually a dozen episodes,
though some had as few as ten and others as many as eighteen.
One of the measures used to keep the costs of the serials down
was to reuse as much previously shot footage as possible. Republic
owned a Packard limo and a Ford wagon that were used in film after
film so that they could match new footage up with chase scenes
shot previously. Often these vehicles were shown following the
same van which was actually the studio sound truck. Expensive
special effects were reused whenever possible: A car bursting
in flames as it went over a cliff or a miniature of a train exploding
were worked into scripts again and again because the footage was
available for free. Ronald Davidson was one of Republic's most
successful writers/producers because he had been around a long
time and knew where all the old footage was located. Serials released
in the 50's often had footage that had actually been shot in the
Gordon was probably the most famous serial from the "golden
While Republic was the king of serials, both
Universal and Columbia also invested in them. Just
as today, the studios found comics a great source of characters
and stories. Republic licensed Dick Tracy, Captain America,
and Captain Marvel . Columbia got Batman, Superman,
and the Phantom. Universal bought the rights to Buck
Rodgers, the Green Hornet and, arguablly the most popular
character in a movie series of all time, Flash Gordon.
The Flash Gordon series was such a hit that it was booked
into many of the classier movie theaters that hadn't before dealt
I wanted to know where I could take a look at some
of these historical masterpieces myself. A DVD copy of Flash Gordon
(The original serial and two sequels) goes for about $12 bucks
on Amazon and Columbia's The Batman from 1943 in DVD format
will set you back $20. Being a cheapskate I looked for another
way to take a peek at these at a minimum price. My best solution
Archive.org is a non-profit organization dedicated
to "building a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural
artifacts." The archive has a special section dealing with moving
images which contains a lot of public domain material. The videos
are mostly uploaded by volunteers who take the time to put the
material in several different sizes and formats. If you are in
a hurry, you can usually download a small screen version so you
can get a quick look at the movie. If you don't mind the wait,
often there are versions available which can give you resolutions
equivalent to your typical standard definition TV screen. Of course
with so many people uploading there are occasional problems with
a particular version not working or something being uploaded that
doesn't belong there (there was a nice copy of Plan 9 from
Outer Space till they realized it was still in copyright and
had to be removed). All in all though, the volunteers do a pretty
good job of finding and putting up old motion pictures.
There is an extensive collection of serials which
never had their copyrights renewed. These include Flash Gordon
Conquers the Universe, Undersea Kingdom (starring a
character called "Crash" Corrigan), The Great Alaskan
Mystery, Radar Men from the Moon, along with a host of others.
While this still represents a fraction of the number of serials
made during the golden age of serials, it is enough to give movie
buffs a good idea of what the format was all about and what Lucas
and Spielberg were seeing as kids.
In The Great Alaskan Mystery Nazi Agents work to
steal and secret weapon.
Now I'm not saying that by modern standards these
things are masterpeices of entertainment. The scripts are simple
and formulistic (after all, there has to be a cliffhanger every
20 to 30 minutes or so). The sets cheap and the props unrealistic,
especially to modern eyes. Plus, they are long (typically five
hours or more of film time which is hard to take in one sitting
- which, of course, was not the original idea). However, if you
are a movie buff or an Indy fan, you might want to spend a few
minutes and download a half dozen episodes. I would recommend
The Great Alaskan Mystery. Its storyline - Nazi spies after
a secret weapon being tested in the Alaskan wilderness - reminded
me a lot of the Indy plots.
Monsters and Radar Men
Lucas and Spielberg aren't the only filmmakers that
have drawn inspiration from pictures of the 30's and 40's. I'm
a huge fan of the highly underrated 2004 film Sky Captain and
the World of Tomorrow. This tale, written and directed by
Kerry Conran, and realized mostly through computer graphics, takes
place in an alternate universe of the 1930's that includes giant
flying robots and mad scientists trying to end the world. Wandering
about archive.org I came across an old Superman cartoon that clearly
had inspired Conran's vision of his own picture (check out Superman:
The Mechanical Monsters from 1941).
For another example, compare the 1952 serial Radar
Men from the Moon with Disney's 1991 film The Rocketeer.
True, the Disney flick comes from the 1982 comic book by Dan Stevens.
Stevens, however, was inspired to create his character after seeing
Radar Men and several other related serials.
It is unfortunate that some of the people who might
enjoy finding these old films on archive.org - senior citizens
- will have the most difficulty navigating the site. My guess
is that if you have a father or grandfather who grew up in that
era and you have the talent to transfer some of archived material
to a DVD, it would make a nice present for father's day. It would
be a chance for that person to relive those youthful hours in
the local cinema cheering the good guy and booing the villain.
Cody, using his rocket pack, takes to the air in Radar
Men from the Moon in a scene very similar to shot from
the Disney movie The Rocketeer.
We have to thank at least two of those kids, Lucas
and Spielberg, who managed to carry the serials into the next
generation through the Indiana Jones films. They gave them better
production values, but at the heart they are the same action-packed
cinema we see in the old serials.
So is Kingdom of the Crystal Skull the end
of the Indy films? The last in the series inspired by the serials?
Jim Windolf, who wrote the article for Vanity Fair doesn't
think so. In a follow-up story on the Vanity Fair, website,
he theorizes that the young actor Shia LaBeouf, who may (or may
not, we won't know till the new film is out) be Indy's son, may
star in a continuation of the films. If so, well I suspect I'll
be there in the theater, cheering the hero and booing the villain.