Friday, 25 September 2009

Warped 1950s: Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

The forgotten blockbuster...

16 months have passed, and still no follow-up film from Steven Spielberg. Rumours surface, telling of a Lincoln biopic here, a Harvey remake there, an Old Boy remake, a Tintin adaptation... None of which are scheduled for release in 2009, or even 2010. Even if one (or more) of these projects reaches the light of day in 2011, we still have the longest gap in the director's entire career so far – 6 unexpectedly fallow years (2005-2011), with only one lonely film, in the dead centre of an artistic wilderness.

In taking the time to re-assess the value of this strange and already quite neglected film, a good start can be made with the narrative of the original trilogy. Although it might seem obvious, it’s worth putting the chronology all together:

1935 -
Temple of Doom - India (Sankara Stones)
1936 -
Raiders of the Lost Ark - Egypt (Ark of the Covenant)
1938 -
Last Crusade - Venice / Germany / Turkey (Holy Grail)

(1944 - George Lucas born)
(1946 - Steven Spielberg born)

1957 -
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - Nevada / Peru / Amazon (Crystal Skull)

The first thing that strikes us, looking at the dates, is that neither Steven Spielberg nor Geroge Lucas had been born by 1935-8, the period of the first 3 films. The imaginative world of the trilogy was modelled entirely on Republic and Universal ‘serial’ pictures (such as The Great Alaskan Mystery, featuring nazi spies and futuristic weapons). Two decades later, by 1957, Spielberg was 11, and Lucas 13. Inevitably, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull represents something slightly different.

The film not only takes place in an era that both filmmakers remember personally, but also (and crucially) one which boasts an entirely different array of films to draw on; instead of ‘serials’, we have the 50s melodrama and B-film – Spies, planes and nazis make way for aliens, saucers and Communists. Fear of the German war effort is traded for something more subterranean – propaganda, indoctrination, and mind-reading. (Stalin, of course, was genuinely interested in these techniques. Rather more troublingly, the release of the CIA "Family Jewels" to the National Security Archive, on June 26 2007 – just eight days after Spielberg began shooting the film – showed the extent to which Sidney Gottleib and MKULTRA had been operating such experiments within the USA.)

This is the morally ambiguous territory that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull inhabits. Trading away the pure cinematic fantasy of the 3 ‘Republic Serial’ pictures for a strange, hybrid 50s, Shia LaBeouf’s entrance (to take an early example) is snipped straight from The Wild One, 1953, a move as surreal and artificial as anything in Tarantino/Rodriguez’s Grindhouse:

In moments such as this, parody is blurred with serious comment, almost beyond recognition. The climax of the Nevada sequence, as Indiana Jones comes across a picket-fence town in the middle of the desert, with clotheslines fluttering, inhabited only by mannequins, blankly watching television, is a horror/comedy moment worthy of David Lynch. The faceless figures sitting in front of the TV, blind and inch-deep, awaiting the explosion of Oppenheimer’s weapon, are a savage allegory of the 1950s society in which the filmmakers came of age.

Remembering MKULTRA, the fact that this is an all-American bomb (‘I like Ike’), very nearly killing an archetypal American hero, adds to the blurred environment of the film. The clear-cut boundaries of WW2 have dissolved, and in the following scenes, Indiana Jones is needlessly persecuted by the FBI, losing his job, and (in a highly symbolic moment of comedy) he mistakes a pair of KGB agents for the FBI agents themselves. Instead of the defined atmosphere of the 30s ‘serial’, we have entered a world of total paranoia.

This ambiguity extends into the Peruvian sequences, with the absurd image of Marlon Brando (ie. ‘Mutt’) striding into a Catholic asylum, and being led to the tomb of a real-life conquistador, Francisco de Orellana, who disappeared in the Amazon in the 1550s. With this, we see the dark past of America (the conquistadors, a madness portrayed in Aguirre: der Zorn Gottes) linked with its cinematic self-representation (Brando). Cue the entry of the Crystal Skull itself – torn from the rotting shroud of Orellana, it presents us with a palimpsest combining the most mythical past, with a surreal 50s 'future' (or, from our perspective, a parallel past). This is not just the treasure of a Spanish conquistador. It has been found by The Wild One. It is a part of the 1950s, Area 51, and ancient alien travelers... Again, parody and seriousness blur.

With that, we set into the exploration of mind control, Stalin and (implicitly) MKULTRA. Irina Spalko insists that they will be able to ‘control us through dreams’ until we ‘become them’. As paranoid and feverish as the Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), we are offered a vision of a monstrous communist plot, deranged and Strangelovian. Dean Charles Stanforth – Jim Broadbent – has already made the point: Communists in our soup. But, of course, in this film (a film where a joke about 'not stepping into old-fashioned fridges' is extended to the surreal survival of an atom-bomb), the mind control is real. An old friend is already maddened by it. Like the plastic family sitting waiting for the bomb, it is funny and unnerving. No longer the Ark of the Covenant, or the Holy Grail – instead of the manipulation of religious material (the discarded opium of the masses), the film shows us the manipulation of minds... 'Propaganda, and the media'.

Ultimately, all these themes are plunged into the jungle. And, as ever, it is the towering Jungle of the Imagination, inhabited by giant ants (borrowed from Charlton Heston’s The Naked Jungle, 1954), triple waterfalls and quicksand. Monstrous tree-devouring un-eco trucks, bazookas and swordfights definitively lay to rest the pretensions of Pirates of the Caribbean, National Treasure or The Mummy. We arrive at the mossy temple, having climbed through a skull’s-eye waterfall, and with the ‘hatching’ of the guardians through the walls we re-enter (or so it seems) the world of the Republic serial, as first seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Our Milton-quoting heroes make it to the huge columns, and onto the gothic, receding spiral staircase. Here, underground, we at last see the Skull replaced. The power of the mind is unleashed, and the 50s parody emerges with a vengeance. If Grindhouse ends with a car-chase worthy of Vanishing Point (1971), Kingdom of the Crystal Skull signs off with a re-enactment of the C-57D landing on Altair IV, from Forbidden Planet (1956). And doesn’t the swirl of substance, combined with the retro philosophizing of John Hurt (“the space between spaces...”) momentarily evoke the hideous bulge of the atom bomb over Nevada with which we began?

From the moment the film begins, not with the familiar theme but with Elvis Presley’s 1956 B-side ‘Hound Dog’, it is clear that this work represents a departure from the 1930s territory of the original trilogy. But, for all its parodic oddness, it succeeds in using Spielberg/Lucas’s most enduring, archetypal American myth for a lasting examination of one of the darkest hours of America. The years in which they grew up.

C-57D landing on Altair IV’, from “Forbidden Planet” (1956)


  1. Like your piece on Avatar, this is a lucid, logical and thoroughly well written 'review' Rob.

  2. Thanks for both your comments, Stephen. And no - I haven't given up on the blog altogether... Day-to-day tasks have intervened since the Linkous obit in March. But I'll aim to post another full-length article soon.