In 1981, a new kind of hero graced the Silver Screen.
Well, not exactly a new kind of hero. But the kind of hero we hadn’t seen in quite some time.
When Raiders Of The Lost Ark was released, audiences were thrilled by the antics of this hero, Indiana Jones, whose life was one perilous adventure after another, each of which he met with a cocky grin, a smart-alecky one-liner and an exciting crack of the whip.
Of course, Indiana Jones seemed fresh and new at the time because we had been so used to seeing counterculture and counter-counterculture antiheroes throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The truth is, however, that we haven’t seen a hero like Indiana Jones since Indiana Jones. The success of the Indiana Jones trilogy could not be met by a glut of imitators. Even the best of them--Romancing The Stone--paled in comparison.
The combination of story by George Lucas, Willard Huyck, Lawrence Kasdan and Philip Kaufman, direction by Steven Spielberg and performance by Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones was perfect. They nailed the elements of what-makes-a-great-adventure-film to make The Great Adventure Film.
They knew their influences. Naturally, the films of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, pirate flicks, swashbuckling costume adventures. More specifically, however, they were drawn to the childhood delights of pulp novels, comic books and old-time pre-feature action reels.
The heroes, allies, damsels-in-distress, villains, tricksters and other sundry characters from the Indiana Jones trilogy are direct descendants of the prominent figures of dime store paperbacks. The literati of this two-fisted brand of stories were H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Johnston McCulley.
Sir H. Rider Haggard
Haggard’s tales of the manly men on the Dark Continent and manlier women in fantasy worlds have thrilled young readers for over a hundred years. His many novels have been adapted into many movies from 1908’s She to 1987’s Allan Quartermain and The Lost City of Gold.
Shwashbuckling Quartermain is Indiana Jones. As a matter of fact, the late ‘80s Quartermain movies starring Richard Chamberlain were a blatant attempt to cash in on the Indiana Jones success. They should be avoided at all costs, unless you want to see a pre-celebrity Sharon Stone with big hair.
Instead, you should watch the 1950 version of King Solomon’s Mines starring Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger, the 1935 version of She (or the 1965 version, if you’re a big fan of Ursula Andress) and 1968’s The Vengeance of She.
Edgar Rice Burroughs
Edgar Rice Burroughs didn’t just write fantastic tales, he lived a fantastic life. He was a cowboy, a gold miner and a railroad cop, among other things. Known primarily for his Tarzan books, Burroughs also wrote the adventure novel The Lad and The Lion and the sci-fi stories The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot, and At The Earth’s Core.
His Tarzan stories were immediately successful upon their publication in All-Story Magazine in 1912. Within a few years, a novel was published and, in 1918, the first Tarzan movie, Tarzan of the Apes, opened on Broadway.
Since then, Tarzan has been serialized and re-ran numerous times, from the Elmo Lincoln and Frank Merrill Silent Era characterizations to the pretentious skinflick, Tarzan, the Ape Man starring Miles O’Keefe and Bo Derek and the even more pretentious skinflick, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.
The best of the Tarzan films starred the musclebound Johnny Weissmuller, the ravishing Maureen O’Sullivan and the chimpanzee Cheetah. The best of these were Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and his Mate (1934).
A screenwriter in addition to a novelist, Johnston McCulley wrote Westerns, pirate stories and tales of outlaw vigilantes. The most famous of these books was The Curse Of Capistrano, which became the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks classic The Mark Of Zorro. Tyrone Power would don mask, cape, wide-brimmed hat and saber in the incredible 1940 adaptation, directed by Rouben Mamoulian. The role would again be resurrected by both Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas in the action-packed The Mask of Zorro in 1998.
Between 1920 and present, the Zorro mythology has been serialized in the Thirties and Forties, televised in the Fifties, and homosexualized in the ‘80s (Zorro, The Gay Blade). Republic Pictures produced the best of these, including Zorro Rides Again (1937), Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939), Zorro's Black Whip (1944).
Indiana Jones’ use of the whip as both a weapon and a frequent lifesaver is lifted directly from these adventures. In addition to his signature saber, Zorro was an adept with his black whip. Republic lifted this element themselves for their other whip-cracking reels like Man With The Steel Whip (1954).
Comic Book Heroes
Donning masks and cape like Zorro, with an emphasis on fighting crime rather than modern-day Robin Hood heroics, comic book heroes were lifted from the pages of the funny papers and imprinted on celluloid in serials like Republic’s The Adventures Of Captain Marvel (1941) and Columbia’s The Batman (1943). (In the comic book, The Mask Of Zorro figures prominently in Bruce Wayne’s decision to battle injustice.)
The character with the most direct lineage to Indiana Jones is The Phantom (Columbia, 1943). This caped crusader was also on a quest for a lost archeological site, the lost jungle city of Zoloz, and had to battle Nazis racing to find the seven ivory keys that would reveal Zoloz’s location. (Do not overlook 1996 version starring Billy Zane!)
Adventure Reels and Action Serials
The great era of serials ended when television became a predominate fixture in American homes. From the earliest days of the cinema, filmgoers flocked to the theaters to pick up where we last left our heroes and heroines dangling in the last installment’s thrilling cliffhanger. Lucas and Spielberg were definitely influenced by the spirit of these exciting episodics.
The best-known of the early serials was The Perils of Pauline (1914), starring Pearl White as the title character, an heiress whose every move is met by pitfalls and, of course, peril. Her descendents included Republic’s Masked Marvel and Spy Smasher, Universal’s Tailspin Tommy, United’s Dick Tracy, The Lone Ranger, Lash LaRue and a legion of other two-fisted good guys.
During the Forties, the villains were typically from Axis countries, specifically Nazis, and, if not blatantly stated as such, the metaphors of their fascistic leanings were thinly-veiled. Indiana Jones’ fiercest enemies, of course, were Nazis.
Every action scene Spielberg has ever directed can be found in this 1939 classic by John Ford.