Written by Musgo Del Jefe
It's hard to know how to classify the latest release in the Indiana Jones universe. The Adventures Of Young Indiana Jones, Volume Two - The War Years is a mouthful to say and even harder to label. When you've got 12 hours of "adventures" and over 13 hours of historical documentaries, which one is the "mother" and which one the "son"?
The Adventures Of Young Indiana Jones series has taken a long, interesting road to DVD. The 1989 film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade featured River Phoenix as a 12-year-old Indiana Jones in 1912 as part of the back-story. The possibility of telling these earlier stories of Indiana Jones led George Lucas to outline the treatments for roughly 70 episodes of a show that would take place between 1905 and the start of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. As conceptualized, the series was practical and adaptable. The series would not tell its stories in chronological order. Instead, the stories would primarily take place with Sean Patrick Flanery as Indiana Jones between ages 16 and 20 and with Corey Carrier as Indy between the ages of 8 and 10. Each episode would be book-ended with narration by a 93-year-old Indy played by George Hall. Every two episodes would be filmed in such a way that they could be aired as two one-hour episodes or as one two-hour TV-movie. This allowed for multiple directors to be filming episodes at the same time and for multiple episodes to be completed in just over the time to complete one. The series was shot in stages between 1991 and 1994, with footage shot in 1996 to seamlessly edit the episodes all into feature-film length. In all, roughly 30 of the 70 episodes were filmed.
This latest release, The War Years, includes Chapters 8 through 15 on the series. The remaining episodes will probably be released to coincide with the release of the latest Indiana Jones movie this spring - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. There are eight discs in the set that contain one of the films and at least three documentaries that relate to the subject of the episode. With anywhere from 90-120 minutes of special features for each movie, we start to get to the heart of the series. Each film strives to serve as a mini-history lesson. Young Indiana Jones either encounters famous historical figures or is involved in famous historical events in each episode. The special features on each disc expand upon the history behind the fictional story. So, do the "adventures" become education or entertainment? A quick look at two episodes may give better insight.
"Trenches Of Hell" takes place in September of 1916. The episode was meant to have a lead-in episode where we see Indy and his Belgian troops fighting in Flanders. That unfilmed episode leaves the viewer feeling like you've been dropped into the middle episode of a mini-series. There are references to previous battles and questions about how the Company's officer came to be killed in battle. The first half of this movie plays out like an alternate version of All Quiet On The Western Front. To save money, the series was filmed in 16mm instead of 35mm. The dullness of the colors doesn't work so well in smaller settings later in the series, but here it fits the mood of the battle for The Somme.
Although there is no blood or flying body parts, the horror of war is brilliantly illustrated. The futility of Indy's company taking the same trench two or three times over the course of a few days is exasperating. The scenes are set up well, with the goal (a house on the hill) always seeming close and yet never really attainable as we move from trench to trench. The illustration of the gassing by the Germans and their appearance, like fire-breathing monsters, through the clouds with flamethrowers is terrifying.
The second half of the episode becomes The Great Escape. Indy ends up in two different prisoner-of-war camps. The first half of the movie feels more like an exposition on the horrors of war and Indy plays merely a supporting role. This half is more of the Indiana Jones that we've come to know in the Indy mythology. His pride and sarcasm in the face of danger are present. Indy eventually teams up with historical figure, Charles de Gaulle. Their escape is fun but not on par with any feature film type of budget. It's nicely constructed but the 16mm film here betrays the beauty of the German countryside. We leave Indy at the end of the episode as a free man but deep in the heart of Germany.
The disc has four features. There's a documentary "The Somme - Storm Of Steel" that puts the battle we just saw into perspective and illuminates an important part of WWI. There are two features on poets that Indy met while on leave - "Siegfried Sassoon - A War Poet's Journey" and "Robert Graves and the White Goddess." Lastly, there's an informative piece called "I Am France - The Myth of Charles de Gaulle." The level of detail of these documentaries is so precise that I feel they would've been best watched before the main feature. Knowing more details of the characters and setting would've informed what was going on much more. That's the core problem here. In an effort to meld together historical events and characters with the adventures of our non-historical character, Indiana Jones, the writers have a dilemma of how much back-story to include.
The next film, "Demons Of Deception" starts in Verdun. There is a missing episode that was never filmed that bridges the gap between Indy's escape and appearance with the army in Verdun. Once again, it feels like I've missed a night of the mini-series and that I'm playing catch up the first half hour of the show.
The episode looks better than "Trenches of Hell," but that could be because Nicolas Roeg directed the second half of the episode that was written by Carrie Fisher. The first half again addresses the horrors of trench warfare. This time instead of the horror of the new warfare (gas, flame throwers, etc), we see it from the futility of the officers who are willing to sacrifice their troops when little is to be gained.
The second half takes place back in Paris. Here we get some good clues into the future Indy through his heated love affair with the famous Mata Hari. Our young hero finds that love is another form of warfare without civilized rules. Having his heart broken opens his eyes as much as the war and it's an interesting juxtaposition to the first half of the episode. Loss of innocence is a wonderful theme for the small screen; it doesn't have to take place on the same grand scale as a WWI battle to make its impact.
This disc also has four features including "Into The Furnace - The Battle Of Verdun," "Marshal Petain's Fall From Grace," "Flirting With Danger - The Fantasy of Mata Hari," and "Reading The Enemy's Mind- Espionage in World War I." Once again, these documentaries add a level of depth to the stories that can't be conveyed in just 90 minutes.
So, what's the verdict when the Special Features and the actual Features are so closely intertwined? The series does not hold up well as presented alone. The narration, the book-ending, of the original series is gone and that's what gave the viewer their moral compass. The older Indy had a reason to tell each story; there was a lesson we knew we were to take from each story. Without that voice, we only have the story to lead us. Often we are dropped in the middle of a story and leave before it feels finished (like in "Trenches From Hell").
That's where the special features make the difference. They are all well done and informative. The in-depth knowledge of the historical importance of the settings and the rich backgrounds and futures of the characters that Indy interacts with make for better stories. Knowing that the Germans envisioned the Battle Of Verdun as a battle of attrition, a battle to create deaths, not to gain any strategic ground, is an important turning point in the history of warfare and it informs the futility that Indy feels in the episode.
So, this vision of Lucas' of edu-tainment has come to fruition. One needs to be more informed to enjoy his entertainment and while enjoying his entertainment you can't help but become more educated. It's not for everyone. You have to want to make the effort to learn in order to enjoy. Watch the documentaries first (I know, it feels like eating dessert first to me too) and you'll find the episodes much richer for your effort.