The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: Phantom Train of Doom

The TV Tomb of Mystery is an ongoing attempt to stave off acquisition of any more impulse-buy DVDs by taking better inventory of the ones already in hand.  

Today we return to the world of:

Season Two, Episode Eleven. (June, 1993.)
All previous caveats apply. Particularly the "How would this square with Movies Indy if this was the only Young Indy prequel ever made?" one. (Answer: pretty well.)

Once again we find ourselves immersed in the wartime adventures of Indy and Remy in the Belgian army, which has sent them to Southeast Africa, bound for the Congo.

Round round get around I get around
The African theater of World War One is fascinating stuff, but it can be a bit hard to keep straight in your head. I mean, look at this:

And that's just the southeast part of it. Enlarge for a better view - and several days worth of reading.
It's not necessary to know all the ins and outs of it to appreciate "Phantom Train of Doom." But familiarity with the major players and layout of the land probably turns an enjoyable story with fantastic production value into a slightly-more-enjoyable story with fantastic production value.

If it's not your expertise or interest, though, fret not; I'll add any info we need as we go along. Not that I'm to be trusted. But I'll try not to tell you any deliberate falsehoods.

As always, all punches sound like cannonballs fired into piles of dry leaves, Indy interacts with real historical personages, all of whom immediately see his potential and take it upon themselves to nurture his self-actualization, and Remy gets to play second fiddle and remind Indy that this time, mon dieu, he's gone too far.

"I should have my head examined for trusting you" and such.
Remy is an interesting case. On one hand he's as enamored of Indy as anyone else, ready to follow him around the world or into the lungs of Hell. On the other there's at least a nod towards the unreality of a man in his thirties (though Ronny Coutteure was in his forties) placing himself so entirely under a teenager's oversight. Not a very sophisticated nod, but I do get a kick out of Remy's endless exasperation.

Most of which is justified. Indy is always getting him into scrapes he'd otherwise avoid.

Here, within minutes of their arrival, Indy has them on the wrong train.
Then traipsing through the bush, completely lost.

They end up more or less stumbling into the camp of the 25th Royal Fusiliers, a very real organization operating in British East Africa. They call themselves the Old and the Bold and are led by Frederick Selous, someone Indy knows from an earlier episode, "Passion for Life." That's the one where he and his Dad pal around with Teddy Roosevelt and Kermit Roosevelt. And if you want to know how "Passion for Life" measures against my "How does this work as background for Movies Indy?" rubric, it doesn't fare very well. 

There's a certain playing-with-history-dolls feel to most of Young Indy but perhaps moreso in "Phantom Train" than anywhere. Selous is played by Paul Freeman as a cunning and bemused commander.

Next time Dr. Jones it will take more than children to save you.
Of the others, here's the wiki of the battalion: "The battalion was largely composed of older men who hailed from diverse backgrounds and varied occupations: (...) English big-game hunters, a British millionaire, several American cowboys, a Scottish light-house keeper, a naturalist, a circus clown, an Arctic explorer, an opera singer, a famous photographer, and a lion tamer. There were also French Foreign Legionaries and Russians (reportedly prison escapees from Siberia)." 

The episode does a pretty good job of getting across the hodge-podge nature of the group.

Mr. Golo, whose one line is "Hakuna matata." Though he is an integral part of proceedings throughout - a man of few words, I suppose.
I had absolutely no idea what to make of this guy in clown's make-up at the battalion's camp.
But it does get across visually, I suppose, the fact that this guy was a circus performer, which sets up this tightrope stunt from later in the story.
And the American, who says things like "I'd mount that sucker on a flat-car and ride the rails like a hobo out of Hell. YEEEEE-HOOOO!"
Or "Well, boys, we just hi-jacked ourselves a train. YEEEEE-HOOOO!"
What I think happened was Lucas and the gang made a list of all the interesting people active in East Africa of the time and then sent it to the writer (in this case Frank Darabont) and said "Make some kind of story out of it." Which he did. It doesn't reinvent the wheel or anything, but it works: in exchange for ferrying Indy and Remy back to the Belgian army and protecting them from being shot for desertion, they have to help the Fusiliers accomplish two missions.

Mission the First - seek and destroy the Phantom Train of Doom.

"I'm not going on some suicide mission with a bunch of crazy old geezers who belong in a retirement home," says Indy, directly before going on said mission.
An historical aside: the Königsberg, a light cruiser of the Imperial German Navy, was in the Indian Ocean when World War One broke out. After wreaking some havoc, it was eventually sunk in the river delta where it had been hiding. The Germans salvaged its heavy guns, though, and mounted them on flat-cars that the British had much difficulty finding. (This was due primarily to the ceaseless efforts of the subject of Mission the Second.)

The Fusiliers really did perform such operations during the War, though their success here is amplified for dramatic purposes.
In reality - and any WW1 scholars can correct me if I'm wrong - I don't believe the Fusiliers ever successfully destroyed any of the Königsberg's guns.

In case you're wondering how someone could conceal a damn train, it's a reasonable question. The Germans hid the train in a concealed cave and covered the tracks leading to it. The fortuitous capture of rolls of toilet paper from one of the Schutztruppe camps leads to the Old and Bold (and Indy)'s discovering the cave. And if you're wondering how the capture of toilet paper could accomplish this, this is likewise a reasonable question; the Germans re-used any paper they had for their toilet paper, including their supply receipts. By studying these, they discover the existence of telegraph lines along one of the German railways and follow them to the concealed cave.

The episode does a good job with teasing out the mysteries of the above and as can be expected from just about any Young Indy episode, an even better job with the action sequences.

Mission the Second - find and capture The Phantom.

The Fusiliers have to deceive Indy to go along with this one.
Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away.
"I'm not a Frenchie - I'm a Belgie!" Nice Murder by Death reference, Mr. Darabont.
Who is the Phantom, you ask? Not Kit Walker, in case you got your hopes up, but Paul Emil Von-Lettow-Vorbeck, easily the most bad-ass German general you've (perhaps) never heard of. 

A very amusing Badass write-up can be enjoyed here.
Von Lettow was so respected by the British commander assigned to kill him (Jan Smuts, actually an Afrikaner of Dutch descent, played in this episode by Norman Rodway) that when word of Von Lettow's post-WW2 destitution reached him, he settled all of his old enemy's debts and invited him to Tanzania, where he was greeted by former foes and friends alike as a returning hero. He died in 1964 - the same year the German government finally awarded back-pay and full honors to the Askaris (native Africa troops) under his command.

Apparently, the Allies reached out to Von Lettow directly before the assassination plot on Hitler to determine whether or not they should throw some assistance the conspirators way. They weren't sure how credible their intelligence was about it. Von Lettow, himself an anti-Nazi (and the only German of his era to tell Hitler to "go fuck himself," direct quote, and live, albeit under virtual house arrest and impoverished) told them bluntly that the Allies should lend absolutely no assistance and that the "German people should pay the maximum price for loosing the Nazi beast on the world." Ouch. Possibly as a result of this, the Allies never did much to encourage the conspirators, who certainly could have used the help. This is perhaps only legend, but both his anti-Nazi stance (and the considerable damage it caused him) and the high regard in which he was held by the Allies are well-established.

Part of the reason I chose this episode to re-watch is because I just finished reading Von Lettow's memoirs of fighting the British, My Reminiscences of East Africa. If your taste runs to military history, I highly recommend it.

One I do not recommend? This one:

I got this at the same time I got Reminiscences and brother, it stinks like six-day-old fish. I wouldn't say it's the worst book I ever read, but it's stunningly incompetent on just about every level of reading you can think of. Just terrible.

Anyway, back to the episode. Disguised as Boer settlers, the Fusiliers make their way into German-held territory and allow themselves to be captured.

Before this happens, though, we meet the last of our real-life larger-than-life figures, Margaret Trappe.

Played by Lynsey Baxter.
Trappe is distinguished as not only the continent's only female aviator but also (after the war) its only female professional white hunter. (Actual job title of yesteryear.) She had an affair with the real life Selous and maybe even Von Lettow. (You'll find from reading about this era of colonial Africa, all the white people slept with one another.) During the war, she served as a scout for the Germans, hence her appearance here. If you've ever seen the movie Hatari with John Wayne, it was filmed at her old farm in Tanzania, where she died in 1957.

Despite being introduced to primarily provide a little romantic chemistry for Indy, she comes across pretty bad-assed-ly.
Once established in the brig of Von Lettow's camp, the Fusiliers spring their trap, and Indy makes off with Remy and Von Lettow in a hot air balloon.

The rest of the episode is devoted mainly to the Germans chasing it.

Some stunning photography in all of these sequences. In the whole episode in general - the veldt is pretty photogenic.

The episode ends with a thwarted lion attack, a Mexican standoff, and some life lessons imparted on young Mr. Jones by Von Lettow. (Naturally.)

All in all, this is one of the more enjoyable episodes of the series for me, primarily due to Darabont's tidy script and my abiding interest in the era and personalities. I'd watch the crap out of a show that detailed Von Lettow's escapades 1914-1918. Or the Royal Fusiliers. Or Margaret Trappe's. So, maybe I'm biased, as this is likely as close as I'll ever get. But beyond that, there's good humor, action, scenery, and performances.

As always, the DVD special features are exceptional - particularly the documentaries on Smuts and Von Lettow - as is this business with the end credits:

I refer to the show's montage of memorable images from the story-just-completed, slowly rendered black-and-white and crackly, like old newsreel footage.

Final verdict: If this (and the prologue to The Last Crusade, of course, though as mentioned last time, I do agree with this piece by Quint about how the River Phoenix stuff neuters somewhat the important character work done in Temple of Doom) was the only prequel we got for Indy, it would dovetail with Movies Indy quite well.