Indiana Jones and the Accidental Trailblazer
It’s no surprise that half of the fun of this type of high adventure movie is watching the characters discovering lost civilizations and ancient cities. In world that’s essentially been mapped (save for the Oceans. And Thule) it’s a romantic idea to imagine that there still are mystical peaks and valleys that haven’t yet been seen by modern humanity. It's kind of hard to believe these conceits in modern-age fiction, our world of satellite topography and long-range helicopters has long since killed any notion that there could be a Shangri-la hiding in a mountain range somewhere, even something as basic as Man-Who-Would-Be-Kingistan has been debunked as pure fantasy.
This is why we love adventure films sent in the recent past. The technology and culture is familiar enough that we can easily imagine ourselves there, but the characters’ overall knowledge of the world is less depressingly complete than our own, so their willingness to chase the fantastic can seem admirable, rather than naïvely quixotic. It’s not like this is a recent trend in fiction, either. Even Alan Quatermain was adventuring half a century before his stories were penned.
One of the key elements that make this ‘lost civilization’ storyline so compelling is the way it sidesteps our own history. Always worried about plausibility, the storyteller has to go to extreme lengths to offer an explanation for how these people have gone undiscovered by humanity and untouched by progress. There’s a certain curiosity that the horizon generates in the human mind. Who’s to say what’s just over that next ridge, deeper into the woods, or just behind that mountain range? Why couldn’t it be an ancient city built entirely out of gold?
Intellectually we know that there aren’t any mysteries left, and that, within out own experiences, we’ll never uncover something ancient and mysterious. That’s why it’s so vitally important that this discovery, when presented in adventure fiction, come at some price. If the struggle that the characters must go through in order to find the underground empire isn’t extreme, then where’s the satisfaction in the discovery?
Consider the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indy has to go to Nepal to track down the key to its discovery, then carefully sneak right under the Nazis’ noses in order to confirm its location. Or the final resting place of the Grail in Last Crusade – it’s established that Sean Connery spent his entire adult life looking for information about its location, and then Indy has to struggle through a setpiece in the Venice sewers to obtain the final clue.
Compare that to Indy and company’s journey to the Valley of the Plastic Prop in this film. First off, just to reiterate, he’s not discovering anything lost to history. John Hurt already did that, but he’s not a whole lot of help just now, what with him being crazy and all. So what does Indy have to do to retrace John Hurt’s steps? Does he have to decode bizarre things the man says? Not really. Find a key to decoding a map that John Hurt makes? Nope.
All he accomplishes is getting kidnapped by the Russians who place him in a convoy, which quickly turns into a chase sequence, as Indy and company find themselves racing through a suspiciously paved jungle. During this chase sequence no one is consulting any maps, or paying any particular attention to the direction they're headed in. One group wants to escape with the skull, and the other wants to stop them. Yet somehow this chase sequence terminates with the characters all arriving at a river approximately five hundred yards from the mysterious city lost to the mists of time.
How did it stay an undiscovered legend for so long? Apparently no one had bothered to walk in a straight line through the jungle before. Fancy that.