The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: Trenches of Hell

Superman has his Fortress of Solitude; I have the TV Tomb of Mystery. Speak, friend, and enter. You are not imagining this. Today's excursion:

As featured on Young Indy, Vol. 2 "The War Years" aka
Fantastic hair.

It's difficult to give the episode/ season info like I usually do. Technically we're looking at episodes two and three from Young Indy's second season. But also technically, we're not, at least not anymore. Here's an abridged version of events:

1992 to 1993: The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles premieres to much confusion from the Indy faithful. Twenty-eight one-hour episodes were produced for ABC, with four never airing. Given its enormous budget and its failure to ignite a passionate fan-base, it was cancelled.

1994 to 1996: Four made-for-television movies were produced. (Mainly because George Lucas has deep pockets.)

1999: Additional scenes were shot, and all of the above was re-edited and re-assembled into twenty-two installments of the renamed The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones. For these re-edits, the framing device of the original episodes  (i.e. "Old Indy") was excised completely.

Sorry, George Hall.
The Old Indy parts weren't particularly missed. I can see the appeal of the original idea, but - and this is going from memory, as I haven't seen them in over twenty years - they got very repetitive. (Here's how my memory replays it: Someone cuts in front of Indy in line at McDonalds. "Say, young fella, nuts to you! That reminds me of the time I mixed it up with Thomas Edison..." dissolve...) Sean Patrick Flanery's intro to the pilot episode ("Travels With Father") was also removed; the Harrison Ford bookend, however, from "Mystery of The Blues" was not.

Nice try, George Hall.

2002: Paramount releases three volumes of DVDs (The Early Years, The War Years, The Years of Change) featuring these latter-90s edits, as well as over one hundred hours of documentaries and special features.

For our purposes today, we need only concern itself with "Trenches of Hell," which first saw life as the episodes "Somme, Early-August 1916" and "Germany, Mid-August 1916." The date was changed to 1917 for the 1999 edit. That amuses me; does Lucas's affection for digitally altering the past extend even to the historical record? Un-anchoring the story from the Battle of the Somme gives Indy more room to maneuver in the episodes surrounding it, of course, and why futz around when you've got Lucasfilm money? I can respect this.

The wiki goes some way to explaining why the show failed to satisfy Indy fans at the time:

"The series was designed as an educational program for children and teenagers, spotlighting historical figures and important events, using the concept of a prequel to the films as a draw."

See, no one told us that. I was as big an Indiana Jones fan as they came back then. But I only lasted four or five episodes with Young Indy, primarily because it felt like educational programming for children and adolescents masquerading as Indy adventures. A real bait-and-switch to my seventeen year-old self.

Nowadays? I actually kind of love it. The music is a fantastic variation on the John Williams theme, the production value is outstanding, and there's a lot more fun to it all than I remember. (I only watched it properly over the last couple of years.)

That's not to say there aren't obstacles: 1) Everyone Indy meets seem to adopt him as his best friend or her paramour; that gets a little old. 2) Youngest Indy is a little annoying. 3) the amount of historical personages with whom he interacted (not to mention historical events he personally witnessed) was just silly. I guess if it's an educational program for young adults, then sure. But dramawise, it's beyond the pale. And 4) Any one or two of these younger adventures might make fun backstory for the Indy of the films, but the cumulative effect makes a complete mess of Indy as a character. (To see what I mean, try and read his backstory start-to-finish at the Indy wiki.)

At least one reviewer at Ain't It Cool News found the River Phoenix portion of The Last Crusade to be the true beginning of the character's ret-conning and invalidation. It's an interesting perspective and worth a read/ ponderin'.

River Phoenix was approached to reprise Young Adult Indy, but he saw television as a career misstep. Maybe it would have been, but a much worse misstep was unfortunately headed Mr. Phoenix's way.

There's plenty to enjoy, though, in spite of the above. Let's use "Trenches of Hell" as an example.

The Plot: At this point in the series, Indy has volunteered for the Belgian Army under the name Henri Defense. (Pronounced à la française.) After every officer in his unit is killed, he finds himself in temporary command. (Naturally.) His endures artillery barrages, nerve gas attacks and goes over the top more than once. Also, he makes an enemy in the unit - a guy with a scar who keeps threatening to hill him. Luckily, after a ferocious engagement, he is captured by the Germans and is eventually sent to a maximum security prison on the Danube. Fellow prisoner Charles de Gaulle takes him under his wing, and they plot their escape.

Let's break that down. I'm a big fan of World War One stuff so straight off, I tip my cap to  the attention to detail throughout this episode and the foreboding atmosphere created.

The French uniforms in particular really stand out.
Young Indy - like TNG before it - served as a proving ground for cutting edge CGI.
We take this stuff for granted now, as is only natural, but this seamless digital augmentation of location shooting was really pioneering. (Again, not that I was particularly appreciative of it at the time, but in retrospect.)

The trench warfare and No Man's Land sequences are harrowing. It stays within the boundaries of family-friendly entertainment, but there are some striking images and well-coordinated set pieces.

It's easy to see how the budget for each episode regularly exceeded $1.5 million.
Even with CGI lending a big hand, the wardrobe budget for this episode alone must have been equal to other show's bottom lines for an entire season.

But I'd say the most striking feature of "Trenches of Hell" is the gas attack.

Again, huge kudos to the costumes department. Stock footage is mixed in, but it's well-integrated, and the recreations are very eerie.
These two shots aren't from the episode, just for visual reference.
My other attempts to screencap this scene were unsuccessful in conveying the flamethrower advance. It's definitely worth watching in full, though.

As always, if there's an historical contemporary within 100 kilometers of Young Indy's position, they gravitate towards him and become his devoted friend. Naturally, then, with Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon at the Battle of the Somme, Indy strikes up a friendship with them.

Just as naturally, Charles de Gaulle instantly adopts Indy as his co-conspirator upon his imprisonment at Dunsterstadt Castle.
Played by Hervé Pauchon.
He also meets a character named Emile played by underrated British actor Jason Flemyng

Indy is accompanied for most of The War Years by his Belgian buddy Remy, played by actor Ronny Coutteure. He's the guy who says things to Indy like "Indy, you cannot be serious!" or "This time you've gone too far, TOO FAR!" or "Mais non! Not this time, Indy!" All in his (the actor's) Belgian accent. It's all good fun, though, and I'd argue every good action hero needs a pal to remind him (and the audience) how singular and out-of-the-box his actions are. Coutteure and Flanery have good chemistry.

1951 - 2000, RIP.

Speaking of Flanery, he does a commendable job at portraying a younger version of the guy we see in Raiders and beyond. He's also a rather garden variety Hollywood protagonist of the era; the 80s and the 90s meet pretty comfortably in his cocky-but-righteous-liberal swagger. I appreciate his performance despite my overall disavowal of how the events we see in Young Indy square with movie-Indy's backstory.

And again, the hair:

I should mention Corey Carrier, as well, who plays ages 8-10 Indy in the earlier episodes. This kid annoyed the crap out of me at the time.

In fact, I honestly can't even recall getting to the Sean Patrick Flanery episodes back then, because I couldn't get past the young bratty Indy.

But in hindsight, Carrier's pretty good. How would Indy be as a kid? High IQ, penchant for adventure and sarcasm, speaking eight or nine languages? Probably a bit superior and precocious. Perhaps it was the truest note to strike. Still, it requires a little parental patience to watch him in action, making Teddy Roosevelt laugh, sniping at Tolstoy like a lost princeling, getting a pat on the head from Albert Schweitzer, and teaching Jiddu Krishnamurti how to play baseball.

The end of "Trenches of Hell" features a great action sequence where Indy separates himself from his pursuer by cutting in front of a speeding train.  

The Great Escape allusions are pretty overt during the story's third act, but this one works pretty well.

There's a nice effect for the end credits, not just for this episode but throughout the series. Things are slowly rendered black-and-white and crackly, like the story-just-concluded has faded into old newsreel footage, and then memorable images from the preceding story accompany the rest of the credits.

Just a couple of examples:

In closing: "Trenches of Hell" is one of the better representations of the whole series. Combining the two episodes the way they did for '99 and beyond makes it a little top-heavy; you get all the action in part one and only the countdown-to-inevitable-escape in the second and third acts. But it's still a lot of bang for your buck. As is the case with most of the best episodes of Young Indy, if this alone was used as prequel fodder, it'd mesh perfectly well with Raiders and beyond. At least as well as any of the Find Your Fate novels.

I used to love these things. I still have all of mine.
When they're older, I'll give these things to my daughters to show them how their Pop roughed it, imagination-wise, back in the 80s.

The special features on the DVD deserve specific praise. Each story is accompanied by four or five half-hour documentaries on a variety of subjects. I consider myself fairly well-versed in twentieth century personages and events, but I learned quite a few things I never knew before. Hell, don't take my word for it; here's Bill Moyers, speaking of both the stories and the special features: "History's never been told more vividly or more engagingly for the young and old alike. May Young Indy be my grandson's companion far into the 21st Century."

Moyers may be overstating it, but it is a fun series and certainly educational.

"Trenches of Hell" was directed by Simon Wincer and written by George Lucas and Jonathan Hensleigh.

The Closet of Mystery is an ongoing catalog of one man's attempt to stave off the acquisition of any more impulse-buy DVDs until he can take better inventory of the ones already in his possession.


The Ray Bradbury Theater: The Town Where No One Got Off

Superman has his Fortress of Solitude; I have the TV Tomb of Mystery. Speak, friend, and enter. You are not imagining this.

Today's excursion:

The fourth episode of the first season of:

These days naming an episode "The Town Where No One Got Off" might give rise to a few snickers from the audience. It did at the time, too, at least for me. I first saw this some Saturday afternoon in the late 80s and though it cast a long shadow in my imagination, at the time and for years afterward I had no idea what show it was. (Insert long digression on no cable guide at the time and no TV Guide handy.)

Incidentally, one of the first things I ever looked up at imdb, within days of first getting an AOL account, was Jeff Goldblum, just to finally put a name to the "That one story with the train where he's walking around that small town."
The 80s were the last great age of anthology shows. The Ray Bradbury Theater, which ran on HBO for two seasons and on the USA Network for four additional seasons, premiered in an era that had revivals of both The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents and original content anthologies like Freddy's Nightmares and Amazing Stories.

What separated TRBT from all of them - and any other show that has ever been produced, to my knowledge - was that not only was every episode based on the work of a single author but also that the author himself wrote every episode. (And like all anthology shows, you need a distinctive opening.)

Bradbury was reluctant to return to television when Larry Wilcox (yes of CHiPS fame) approached him with the idea of the show: "I had been spoiled by my experiences with Hitchcock and after he left TV more than twenty years ago, I did very little... [Wilcox] assured me he would be very protective. I would be in on casting, editing, and could write whatever I wanted to write."

In addition to his many years as a playwright and theater director, Bradbury had a considerable background in television and film, having written Moby Dick for John Huston, so he brought a lot of experience to the table both with adapting an author's work and working with actors. Which worked pretty well for the show in my opinion. More often than not, an author's involvement in the realization of his or her work in another medium works against it. Not so here. The Bradbury of the page is transferred pretty faithfully to the screen.

Your own take on things will likely depend on one of two things: your opinion of Bradbury's work itself and your tolerance for deteriorated film stock. A proper transfer - if still actually possible; who knows the state of the original film - would probably enhance the show's reputation. Production value decreased from season to season, sometimes from episode to episode. This sometimes helps more than hurts as it focuses attention on the prose or the theme, but to be sure, sometimes it's distracting.

The opening credits were trimmed over the years until they just basically just flashed the title onscreen with barely any of the original narration. And while the old intro definitely went on too long, it was not without its charms.

The different mementos of Bradbury's office are of if nothing else anthropological interest.
And they made a big deal of Bradbury looking around the room "Now-let-me-see-here"-ing things, before the camera settled on an object, which would fade into the opening of the episode itself.
Or in the case of "The Town Where No One Got Off" into a whole 'nother preamble.
This one with a cameo from Disney legend Ward Kimball.
He and Bradbury were friends of longstanding.
Onto the episode itself. I've read a fair bit of Bradbury but never this particular short story, so I can't weigh in on whether or not it's a successful transition from page to screen. I love what we see, though. The atmosphere of this one - from the synth scoring to the wind blowing the autumn leaves down unfriendly, empty small town streets - is top notch.

The plot is simple enough. Cogswell, an unpublished writer, looks dreamily out the train window at the small town beyond.

Sounding a little like the protagonist of the Twilight Zone episode "A Stop at Willoughby," he sees the town as a representation of a less hurried, less manic way of life. The passenger sitting across from him teases him for being overly idealistic. ("Bleeding hearts and their heads buried in the past...") He dares Cogswell to get off at the town and see for himself whether or not his romantic ideas live up to reality.

Which he does, rather impulsively.
Old Man played by Ed McNamara.
From the station, he walks around town, looking for a room and finding only unfriendly locals and deserted streets.

The location scout deserves a shout-out; the town is perfect. (And perfectly photographed.)
He suddenly realizes the Old Man from the station is tailing him.

The heart of the episode is the ensuing conversation between the Old Man and Cogswell. It slowly dawns on Cogswell, as the Old Man talks about having murder in his heart and how he's been waiting for an opportunity to kill someone - a drifter, say, whom no one knows, who just happened to get off the train - that he might be in physical danger.

This does not stop him - somewhat improbably - from following the Old Man into his murderin' lair some kind of abandoned structure. 

"I've got a bottle in there," he provides as explanation.

Just as the Old Man seems to be working to the climax of his "And now I will murder you, random stranger" speech, Cogswell turns the tables by declaring how remarkable it is to meet someone with whom he has so much in common. He, too, has dreamed of murdering someone and thought perhaps if he could only get off in a town where no one knows him, he might happen upon a stranger, himself, and get him alone so he could shoot him with "this revolver in my pocket."

The Old Man - showing the same sort of gullibility as Cogswell did, following him into the shack - accepts his assurance that he has a revolver and they leave in an uneasy stalemate.
The episode ends with each of them back where they started:
Cogswell looking out the window  -
- and the Old Man waiting - probably in vain - outside of it.
At least one viewer decried the difference in tone between the original prose and this adaptation. As discussed here:

"Bradbury's original ending makes it clear that the town represents a state of mind for our hero: Now the darkness that had brought us together stood between. The old man, the station, the town, the forest, were lost in the night. For an hour I stood in the roaring blast staring back at all that darkness."

"Although this is an effective little shocker, and appealing for its almost reverential attempt to dramatize the central dialogue between Cogswell and the old man, it disappointingly takes away any role for the imagination, or for psychological explanations of the hero's behavior."

Reverential is a good word for the overall Bradbury approach. It's probably more interesting to wonder at story's end whether or not Cogswell is or is not a killer himself, but I also like the disillusioned but quick-thinking Cogswell of the episode.

I don't love every episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater - which makes sense as I don't love every story I've read by him, either - but the ones I do, like this one, are a successful blend of dreamscape and verisimilitude. No one quite sounds like anyone you've ever met yet they're all familiar; no one's actions or motivations are traditionally explainable yet their inner worlds are easy to see and well-described.

Bradbury once wrote that "you have to stay drunk on writing so reality won't destroy you." This explains to my satisfaction why I often find his stories to be somewhat disorienting. But usually worth it and always unique. Alternately nostalgic and eccentric, with unexpected darkness, it's tempting to see his work as an intoxicating hedge against reality's war of attrition against your childhood sense of wonder.

"The Town Where No One Got Off" was directed by Don McBrearty and adapted by Ray Bradbury from his original short story.

The Closet of Mystery is an ongoing catalog of one man's attempt to stave off the acquisition of any more impulse-buy DVDs until he can take better inventory of the ones already in his possession.