Indiana Jones is back

Paul Vallely on Harrison Fordís return to the silver screen after 18 years

In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Harrison Ford will be back in the hat as the born-again archaeologist action hero
In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Harrison Ford will be back in the hat as the born-again archaeologist action hero

THE jokes have been wearily predictable. The news that Harrison Ford is to return to the silver screen as Indiana Jones, some 18 years after what was billed as his Last Crusade, has prompted a deluge of dodgy ageist puns. The 66-year-old star is ironically rebranded as Indefatigable Jones, and the film, variously, as Raiders of the Lost Memories, The Saviour of a Lost Art, and The Temple of Zimmer. Then there are all the inevitable gags about whips being swapped for hips, as in replacement.

The marketing men are taking a rather different line on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which is a star attraction at the Cannes film festival and which opens in the UK later this month. They are talking about something "fresh but familiar", which is what fans will be hoping for from the old team of storymaker George Lucas, director Steven Spielberg and star Harrison Ford back in the hat as the born-again archaeologist action hero. The money men are predicting it the blockbuster of the summer.

Harrison Ford has form on that. The previous Indiana films have been one of the biggest box-office successes in the history of the movies. They won Ford the No 1 slot in Empire magazineís Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time list and took his gross worldwide earnings to almost $6bn, making him one of the most financially successful actors of his generation. Who cares that his long career has featured only one Oscar nomination when he has appeared in five of the top 10 highest-grossing movies ever.

Still, Indiana 4 has been a long time coming. Spielberg and co have been on the lookout for a good enough script for more than 15 years, rejecting three so-so ones in the process.

His big break, playing Han Solo in the first Star Wars film, came while he was a carpenter standing in to read for an absent actor. Indianaís leather coat (very odd wear for a hot-climate archaeologist) was originally intended for another actor, Tom Selleck, who at the last minute couldnít get out of his contract for the TV show Magnum PI.

He was the first student broadcaster on his high schoolís new radio station. Four years after graduating, in 1960, he set out for Los Angeles with the dream of becoming a voice-over man. In the decade that followed he won minor roles in various TV series with the odd-movie bit part, where he had to be credited as "Harrison J Ford" to avoid confusion with a silent film actor of the same name. The J was entirely invented and stood for nothing.

But he could not earn enough to make a living. So he taught himself carpentry and found a variety of jobs, including one as a stagehand for that eraís seminal rock band, The Doors, and another making some cabinets in the home of one George Lucas.

In the best traditions of the Hollywood dream, the producer offered his carpenter a part in his 1973 film American Graffiti. Later, as Lucas became more successful ó and needed a bigger office ó he hired Ford to work on the extension. One day, he asked him to stand in to read the lines for some absent actors on a new film, Star Wars. The director, Steven Spielberg, decided that the backroom woodworker could become an on-screen wonderworker. The role of the tough wisecracking space pilot, Han Solo, in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, projected Harrison Ford, who was voted the "Sexiest Man Alive" a decade ago, to mega-stardom.

A rag-bag of other films ó some good, some bad ó followed, including a role in Ridley Scottís sci-fi classic Blade Runner (1982) and a part the same year in Spielbergís ET (though his scenes as the young heroís school principal were deleted from the final cut of the film).

But it set him up for the role of Indiana Jones ó the academic archaeologist and expert on the occult who repeatedly found himself running foul of Nazis, creepy human-sacrifice cults and other embodiments of evil which required him to swap his archaeologistís brush for a virtuoso bullwhip as he zoomed around the globe in search of ancient mystical relics. The Lucas/Spielberg trilogy, originally conceived as a low-budget homage to the cliff-hanger childrenís cinema serials, ran from 1981 to 1989 and turned Ford into a blockbuster box-office draw.

His track record since that golden era has been mixed. Most of his movies have been lambasted by the critics and were disappointing commercially. In 2004, he turned down the part which won George Clooney an Oscar in the thriller Syriana.

But now it is back to the swashbuckling business of archaeology. Ford has once again carried out most of his own stunts. The film is resolutely old-fashioned in its action. "We didnít shoot it like a Matrix style, where if you hit somebody, they end up in this big space and you didnít feel the hurt and you donít feel the fear. I feel you very quickly lose emotional connection with the character if itís like that. We are more old school," he has said. "Thereís not a lot of computer-generated imagery; itís mostly done with real physicality, real sets." And Spielberg has shot "the way Chaplin or Keaton would, everything happening before the eyes of the audience, without a cut", he said, because "every time the camera changes dynamic angles, you feel thereís something wrong, that thereís some cheating going on". The approach was designed to mimic the feel of the original serials to which the films pay tribute.

One of the stars of the last film is absent. Sean Connery, who played Indianaís father, refused to film, announcing that he is retired. Will Harrison Ford go the same way? A fifth instalment of Indiana Jones is a distinct possibility, he says. He just hopes it wonít take 20 years to pull together.

ó By arrangement with The Independent