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.


  1. I guess it's inevitable for a show like this to cram in as many historical personages as it can, but I agree it bursts through the limits of believability into interstellar space, much like a freed Silver Surfer.

    It reminds me of the Adrian Paul Highlander series, but in reverse, sort of. In that show, if MacLeod met a strong, intriguing character, it was inevitable that said character was another immortal. It grew tiresome. So, unlike Indy, who met a wide spectrum of pivotal characters who were often very different from him, MacLeod was apparently fated to only truly interact with others who were fundamentally just like him.

    I also recall Quantum Leap doing something similar to the Indy show, though not as often - Sam seemed to run across a lot of historical figures, too. The worst, in my opinion, was when he inspired Buddy Holly with "piggy soo-ee!"

    We've discussed a similar subject in the past. I use Conan as a good example of how fictional characters often accumulate a staggering history behind them. So much is crammed in, it's difficult to see when they have a chance to just live their lives.

    I was in my late 20s when this show first aired, and I gave it a try early on, but had little use for it. Much of what I said above is why. I'd probably be more forgiving of it now, and if I get the chance, I may give it a viewing.

    1. Aw, I kind of like the Peggy Sue ep of Quantum Leap. Or specifically, the twist at the end where you realize it's Buddy Holly and that this was why he leaped into the body. It was an unexpected twist.

      Later, when he leapt into Elvis, tho? Not so much. Quantum Leap definitely had its own internal inconsistencies and what not, very true. It was a show where you couldn't help look a little too closely at its premise/ set-up and ask a dozen unanswerable questions.

      That's funny about the Highlander.

  2. Being a Spielberg/Lucas fan and a child of the eighties (not quite the same thing, though close...), I had much the same experience of it you had: I watched with rapt attention when the first episode aired, and then rapidly lost interest.

    I kept watching it for quite a while longer, though. I don't believe I saw every single episode, but I know I saw most of them. I just never could get into it. I tried; the show just kept being its typical combination of contrived and boring.

    There were a few exceptions, though, and these two trench-warfare episodes were among them. Some really good stuff there. If I've got the timeline correct in my memory, I was taking a history class on WW1 in college at around the same time, and read "All Quiet on the Western Front" either shortly before seeing these episodes or shortly after. Dadgum, what a novel. The '30s movie is great, too.

    Obviously, these episodes are not quite up to that standard. But they don't have to be to be worthwhile, and I'd say that of the entire series, these are arguably the highlight. I say that not remembering much about the series, granted.

    By the way, mark me down as a fan of that Buddy Holly episode of "Quantum Leap." It really IS kind of silly. But in a good way, for my money.

    1. All Quiet on the Western Front is a classic, absolutely - fantastic novel.

      Was your class just on WW1? I'd have taken the crap out of such a class had it been offered when I was in college. I did take one (20th Century Europe) that dealt with it in some depth, but a whole semester? Unturning every related stone around the world? Absofrigginlutely.

    2. To be honest, I can't remember exactly what the class was. It may have been some sort of more generalized course; Modern European History, or something, I dunno. It was fascinating stuff, that's for sure; I could be a real history buff if I didn't have all these James Bond movies to rewatch and all these Stephen King books to reread.

      Alas, it ain't to be.

  3. I've been wanting to watch something like this lately. Did you ever watch the Librarian movies?? I love those. I would think these would be similar to that so I want to check them out.

    1. They are sorta similar, you're right. I've seen one of those and I enjoyed it, but I confess I don't quite remember it all that well. It was a nice Sunday afternoon viewing, many moons ago - I should make a point to watch them all.

      By the way, I love the cheshire cat profile pic.