Can Indiana Jones teach kids about history?

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May 22 2008 11:49 AM

Smart as a Whip

Can Indiana Jones teach kids about history?

 The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones, Volume One - The Early Years

"Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library. Research. Reading," says professor Indiana Jones to a roomful of students in Last Crusade. But it's the other 30 percent—the boulder-fleeing, the snake-dodging—that makes for good cinema. Moviegoers lining up today for the professor's fourth outing probably aren't looking for what you'd describe as an intellectual experience. Who can claim to have learned anything from Raiders of the Lost Ark—beyond the fact that if you happen to be present at the opening of the Ark of the Covenant and prefer your face unmelted, you had better close your eyes?

Yet in the early '90s, George Lucas decided the Indy franchise had more to teach than just how to survive a run-in with an occult artifact. What began as a software project for his George Lucas Educational Foundation eventually grew into The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones, a TV series about Indy's coming of age in the first part of the 20th century. "This is not an action-adventure film," Lucas told the New York Times. "It deals with issues and ideas." Recently, when the show was released on DVD, Lucas expressed his hope that it might be a valuable component of "a modern high school history class."

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The sprawling series, which aired in weekly hourlong episodes on ABC, follows Indy on his adventures around the globe, first as a young child (Corey Carrier), then as a teenage soldier and spy during World War I (Sean Patrick Flanery), and later as a college student. Each episode sends Indy on a sort of extreme field trip, where he meets great figures and witnesses seismic events—like Zelig without the neurosis, or "Forrest Gump with a whip," as Lucas has put it. In his formative years, Indiana safaris with Teddy Roosevelt, excavates a mummy's tomb with Howard Carter, becomes pen pals with T.E. Lawrence ("Dear Ned …"), jams with Sidney Bechet, and punches Ernest Hemingway in the face.

He also beds half of the women in Europe and a fair number in the States as well. If you were a prominent woman between the years of 1916 and 1920, you probably slept with Indiana Jones. Dorothy Parker's line about the floozy who "speaks 18 languages and can't say no in any of them" could have equally applied to Indy—except he speaks 27. (He actually meets Parker in a late episode but in a rare act of forbearance does not attempt to have sex with her, since he is already dating three other women.) Even Edith Wharton, almost 40 years his senior, finds she can't keep her hands off a barely legal Indy.

Predictably, many of the show's history lessons are dubious. Young viewers who know nothing else about, say, Hemingway and Kafka will be left with dominant impressions that are either trivial or false: that the former was an accomplished cellist, that the latter once rode a file cabinet down a grand staircase. When the show does try to impart some serious history, the pendulum swings toward dull didacticism: When Indy meets Arnold Toynbee at Versailles after the war, the historian tritely admonishes that "those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it." Indy returns to his flat and pens the phrase in his notebook, followed by a large question mark. He then looks out the window at the night sky, deep in thought.

"Edutainment" is typically a zero-sum game between its educational and entertainment elements. Yet every once in a while, Young Indiana Jones manages to pull off both at once. Joining the Mexican revolution in 1916, Indy storms a hacienda with Pancho Villa and his band. In the hacienda's private movie theater, the revolutionaries screen American films while Indy translates. The first reel, a love story, moves the grizzled guerrillas to tears, but the jingoistic newsreel that follows forces Indy to fudge the translation to avoid causing a riot. Still, one piece of the newsreel—on developments in the war in Europe—stirs Indy, eventually driving him to enlist in the Belgian army (the only Allied force ramshackle enough not to check his age). The scene in the theater is elegantly economical: funny, tense, moving, character-developing. And it might even teach you a thing or two: about the state of World War I in 1916 and how Americans got their news about it.

Lucas had told his writers that they were making "Masterpiece Theater for the masses" and declared the show "much more like Howards End than Raiders of the Lost Ark." But his hope that viewers would come for Indy and stay for the edification proved naive. With 1989's Last Crusade a fond recent memory, audiences didn't care for this brainy young Indy, and after a few episodes deficient in whip-cracking, they began to tune out. "It didn't matter how many times I said it was a coming-of-age series about a young boy's exploration of history," he told the L.A. Times as the show was failing in 1993. "[P]eople still expected to see that rolling boulder."

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, as the show was originally titled, had some of the highest production values in television history; it was shot on location in dozens of countries; it boasted actors from Vanessa Redgrave to Max von Sydow, directors from Mike Newell to Nicolas Roeg, and writers from Frank Darabont to Carrie Fisher *. But it could still never quite shake a slightly ersatz quality: The award-winning music from Laurence Rosenthal was just not quite as stirring as John Williams'; Sean Patrick Flanery was just not quite as good-looking as River Phoenix. Steven Spielberg had nothing to do with the show, and Harrison Ford appeared only once, bookending a late episode as a ratings-boosting favor to Lucas.

ABC yanked the show after just six episodes, reviving it only after it won five Emmys. * The show died slowly and quietly, and even though Lucas had "deluged" 10,000 schools with study guides, according to his biographer John Baxter, it never had a life of its own in the classroom.

Unaccustomed to failure, Lucas now seems to hope that the advent of DVD, and the release of the latest cinematic installment in the Indy story, will finally allow him to complete his pedagogical mission. The new DVDs come in three volumes, totaling 31 discs, nearly one per episode. Why all the extra space? In addition to the Young Indiana episodes, the DVD sets feature 94 original half-hour companion documentaries. Some discs contain nothing but these documentaries, produced by Lucas and a team of documentarians he recruited. Among the luminaries to show up in the films are Henry Kissinger—in "Woodrow Wilson—American Idealist"—and Colin Powell—in "Hellfighters—Harlem's Heroes of World War One."

The idea is that teachers might show a Young Indiana episode in which Elizabeth Hurley plays the smitten daughter of a suffragette, after which students will be eager to sit through a documentary about Emmeline Pankhurst. And if they do, they will indeed learn something: The documentaries, whose only real tie to Young Indiana is the choice of subject matter, are well-made and much more scrupulous about accuracy than the series itself.

Is anyone taking the bait this time around? The History Channel was impressed enough (or eager enough to get a piece of the Indy marketing action) to agree to air them. And the Web turns up a few history teachers who are fans of the new releases. Thomas Riddle, a teacher in Greenville, S.C., has set up Indyintheclassroom.com. A lesson plan on the site comes complete with a chronology of WWI, a map of the Somme offensive, and viewing questions. ("Why is Indy sent to a maximum security POW camp?" "How do the Russians provide Indy and De Gaulle an opportunity to escape?")

Riddle, who has received help and encouragement from folks at Lucasfilm (some free early cuts of the DVDs, for one thing), recently organized an event in Greenville's science center called "Walking Through Time With Indiana Jones."* Admirable though Riddle's efforts may be, there is something unsettling about them too, epitomized in a line from the event's flyer: "We've decided to end our exhibition time frame in the '50s, since that is as far as Indy's adventures have been chronicled thus far." The social science teacher bent on using Indy to inspire the next generation of history jocks is confronted with a tricky epistemological problem: "If a war rages somewhere in the world, and Indiana Jones isn't there to fight in it, does it actually happen?"

Lucas' intentions may also be admirable, but in the end, Indiana Jones isn't any better at teaching history than Chewbacca, whose native language must be tonal, would be at teaching Chinese. Still, you could do worse than spend a few hours with Lucas' foray into television. "People aren't interested in ideas. It's personalities they get excited about," Lowell Thomas tells Indy in one episode. The show may not be so good at conveying ideas—don't expect to pop out the DVD and suddenly be able to rattle off Wilson's Fourteen Points. But the personality of Indiana Jones is enough to carry the show along, and the best of his adventures—his romp through Paris with Pablo Picasso, his stint as a stunt double in a John Ford Western—are, if nothing else, something to get excited about.

Correction, May 23, 2008: The article originally stated that Thomas Riddle had received DVDs from Lucasfilm so that he could get a head start on his site. In fact, the site was live before Riddle received the DVDs. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, May 27, 2008: The article originally misspelled Carrie Fisher's name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, June 3, 2008: The article originally stated that The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles eventually held a slot on Mondays after Monday Night Football, when most kids were asleep. While it was eventually moved from its Saturday night slot to Monday night, it aired after Monday Night Football only on the West Coast. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

David Zax is a writer living in Washington, D.C.