Indiana Jones got his start in the unlikeliest of places — on a beach in Hawaii, where George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were making a sand castle. That’s when the Hollywood heavyweights first mused about the fedora-wearing, bullwhip-wielding movie hero.
Star Wars had just been released, and after nearly two years of battling with studio executives and special-effects crews, as well as hearing doubts and derision from some of his filmmaking friends, an exhausted Lucas wanted to get away from the business of box-office reports and anxious studio execs. So he and his then-wife, Marcia, headed to Hawaii, where they were joined by close friends, including Spielberg.
According to Dale Pollock’s Lucas biography Skywalking and Jim Smith’s extended filmography George Lucas, Spielberg found Lucas on the beach one morning, building a sandcastle, and Spielberg began to help (despite wanting to avoid hearing about box office, Lucas was getting daily reports that his movie was a smash). Spielberg told Lucas he wanted to direct a James Bond movie, but Lucas said he had a better idea: a movie about a playboy archaeologist/adventurer, whose exploits would recall the movie serials of the ’30s and ’40s.
Lucas suggested that he and Spielberg work on it together. It took a few years to get off the ground, but eventually Spielberg hired a young screenwriter named Lawrence Kasdan, who also met with Lucas’ approval. (In fact, Lucas offered Kasdan the opportunity to write the screenplay to the Star Wars sequel before he had read Kasdan’s Raiders screenplay.)
The result was 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, written by Kasdan, directed by Spielberg, co-produced by Lucas (who shares a story credit with another young filmmaker, Philip Kaufman) and starring Harrison Ford because Spielberg and Lucas’ first choice, an unknown named Tom Selleck, had just signed on to do a TV show called Magnum P.I. and wasn’t available.
Raiders was a hit, and it spawned three sequels — Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, as well as a TV series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles — and a fourth is reportedly in the works. It also inspired numerous video games, action figures, comics, a popular theme park ride and, yes, even a museum exhibit.
“Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology,” which arrives Saturday at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, is a fascinating mix of movie props and genuine archaeological artifacts (on loan from the Penn Museum). The exhibit debuted at the Montreal Science Center in 2011 — 30 years after Raiders’ release, and three years after the not-so-well-received Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (which was released 19 years after The Last Crusade).
With a target audience that includes children and their parents who grew up with Indy, the exhibit taps into the hero’s multigenerational appeal.
“With Indiana Jones and Raiders and all the movies, there’s just something about the way they captured that sense of wonder a lot of people look for,” says Brent Erwin, co-owner of DFW’s Collected: Your Pop Culture Headquarters comics/gifts/games stores, who first saw Raiders when he was 14 and has seen all the sequels. “The discovery and the adventure kind of taps into that core interest with the feel of the old Republic serials. [And] it’s in pop culture, and it’s something that moms and dads are going to recognize, and they’re hopefully going to turn their kids on to.”
Indiana Jones has also found his way into geek culture. The Big Bang Theory, the sitcom that (for better or worse) gets a lot of its laughs from its characters’ nerdism, has used Raiders as a plot point or punchline several times.
“The first time that someone hears the music from the movie, everybody gets it and everybody knows,” Erwin says. “They know the relics and the quotes from the movies. It may not rank as high as Star Wars or Star Trek or something like that, but it’s definitely got its place in the upper echelon.”
The exhibit, presented by the National Geographic Society and developed by Montreal-based X3 Productions, aims to stir up the sense of discovery and adventure that Erwin talks about — and it has the “relics” from the movies, as well as storyboards, costumes, props and behind-the-scenes stories. Each movie has its own section, with a corresponding “pyramid” featuring real-life artifacts related to that movie’s story.
“Quest for Treasure” features objects such as the Ark of the Covenant prop from Raiders , as well as stories about real-life archaeological quests; “Dig Into the Past” ( Temple of Doom) is about placing artifacts in their proper context; “Investigate” (Last Crusade) is about what clues archaeologists look for and how they analyze newly found artifacts; and “Solve the Mystery” (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) is about how archaeologists explain mysterious phenomena and interpret their findings.
Hard-core Indiana Jones fans may have a tough time tearing themselves away from the movie memorabilia and into the “pyramids,” which are in adjacent but enclosed galleries, but it’s worth the effort to get a look at the real artifacts and the stories behind them. It’s also worth it to pick up one of the tablet-like video guides, which go into deeper detail about items in the exhibit and also include an interactive game that involves solving puzzles throughout the exhibit (although it’s aimed at children, we found it pretty challenging).
Philip Gonzalez, the museum’s director of marketing and public relations, says that a couple of visitors have pointed out that the “Indiana Jones” movies aren’t real archaeology — but the point of the exhibit is to draw fans into the parts of the exhibit that are. Karl Petruso, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Arlington who gave one of the museum’s “PUBlic Knowledge” talks in conjunction with the exhibit, says that Indiana Jones and other archaeological fiction often crosses the line — which is OK as long as viewers and readers are aware that the line is being crossed.
“For instance, in the first Indiana Jones movie, there is a site called Tanis, a late-antiquities site where they go and he goes into the center of that building with all the snakes,” says Petruso, who is also dean of the Honors College at UTA. “There is a site called Tanis, which has been excavated, but it certainly didn’t play the role that it did in the movie. … A lot of liberties were taken for the purpose of entertainment, and that’s fine, as long as people have some level of perspective on what is fictional and what is not.”
Petruso, who says that he enjoyed all four “Indiana Jones” movies, said he believes they may have inspired some modern archaeologists’ career choices (Petruso’s own interest was stirred by reading a book on archaeology when he was 9).
Although he has never had to outrun a gigantic boulder or watch a cult leader pull a man’s heart out of his chest, he does think more people are finding archaeology absorbing — although he warns that there’s a lot more drudgery involved than Indiana Jones ever had to deal with.
“In Syria, I fell in with some East German spies,” says Petruso. “That’s probably the most anxiety-inducing thing that I’ve ever done. As I tell my students, field archaeology ain’t digging up King Tut’s tomb. It’s very tedious. It’s very plodding, and the times when one discovers something really spectacular [are] pretty rare.
“But it’s the quest for knowledge,” he continues. “It’s the quest for seeing things that haven’t been seen in centuries or millennia. And there is something intrinsically romantic about that. And I think any archaeologist who will tell you otherwise — ‘No, I’m into this because I’m a scientist’ — ain’t telling the whole truth. There is something romantic about it.”
10 things we dug about the exhibit
The Ark of the Covenant
This is the gleaming prop from Raiders of the Lost Ark; legend has it that whoever possesses it will never lose a battle, which is one of the reasons Indy was trying to keep it out of the hands of the Nazis. Even before the exhibit has opened, the prop has inspired several jokes about face-melting, a la the climax of Raiders. But don’t worry — that only happens if you’re looking at the Ark when it’s opened.
Crystal skeleton from ‘The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’
The weakest “Indiana Jones” movie leads to some of the coolest stuff in the exhibit, such as this 9-foot-tall entity, which is sitting on an elaborate golden throne. The crystal skulls themselves are pretty stunning, too.
Henry Jones’ diary
In The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones’ father (Sean Connery) kept a journal with notes about the Holy Grail. It’s in the exhibit, complete with the scrawled handwriting, newspaper clippings and illustrations suited to a longtime obsession.
Indy’s hat and whip
Museum visitors using the video guides will hear a short greeting from Harrison Ford, who invites you to grab your hat and your whip and begin the tour. But the hat and the whip will greet you long before that. They’re on display in a case in the museum’s lobby, visible well before you get to the exhibit on the second floor. (The hat’s a pretty big deal — there’s even a hat decal on one of the men’s room mirrors, placed at a height where it reflects perfectly on an average 10-year-old’s head.)
Mutt Williams’ Harley
Before Shia LaBeouf went into career-meltdown mode, he appeared in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as the long-lost son of Indy and Marion Ravenswood (Karen Allen). Mutt spends a lot of time on his custom-made Harley, including in a fairly unbelievable chase scene where he and Indy use it to evade bad guys.
Chacapoyan fertility idol from Raiders: This is the idol that Indy is after in the opening scene, as he and companion Sapito (Alfred Molina) dodge booby-traps in a vast cave to retrieve the idol, and then have to get away from even more chaos after they succeed. (Spoiler alert: Only one of them escapes, and he has to outrun a gigantic boulder to survive.)
Model from the ‘Temple of Doom’ runaway mine-car scene
A pre-CGI-era miniature, this model features fairly convincing (for their size) replicas of Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw (as singer Willie Scott) and Jonathan Ke Quan (Short Round), all in character. Willie in particular looks terrified, but then she did whine a lot.
One of the most eye-catching real-life artifacts is a stone slab inscribed with strange markings that don’t exactly resemble modern writing or hieroglyphics. The language on the stone, which is dated from 100 B.C. to A.D. 300 in Egypt, is Meroitic, a language that has never been completely translated, although the inscription on the stone has been deciphered to indicate that the stone marked a location where the living could leave offerings to keep the memory of the deceased alive.
Lintel 16 from Yaxchilan, Mexico
This limestone carving on loan from the British Museum in London depicts a Temple of Doom-style scene: A Mayan ruler, in warrior headdress and holding a spear, dominates the carving as a neighboring governor taken captive sits submissively at his feet. The carving, found above a doorway of a ceremonial building in Yaxchilan, dates from the eighth century.
The interactive guide
Even if you’re the type who likes to read the cards at exhibits, this guide is a must — it features clips from the movies, with details about such things as how the giant boulder from Raiders was made and why Kingdom’s crystal skeletons look the way they do. Beyond the movies, it also features short videos about archaeological digs at such sites as Sitio Conte, Panama, and Angkor Wat, Cambodia, providing further context for the real-life artifacts. The guide is included in the price of admission.