Dec 18, 2007

Spies On DVD Today: Young Indiana Jones Volume Two

The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones Vol. 2: The War Years (slimmer and more attractive than Vol. 1) is simply packed with espionage adventure. Though they feature a younger version of a hero best known for his swashbuckling archaeological exploits, in this series we discover that Indy cut his teeth as a secret agent for (wait for it) French and Belgian Intelligence during WWI. Not every episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles featured a spy plot, but most of those included in Vol. 2 (here re-edited into feature length "movies") do.

One need look no further than Disc 2, "Demons of Deception," for a fantastic example of this. Not only is the feature, one of the best in the series, a gripping and adult spy drama, but the truly fantastic extras take the form of documentaries like "Reading the Enemy’s Mind - Espionage in World War I." The feature itself is cobbled (rather successfully for once) out of two TV episodes. The first depicts bloody and brutal action on the front when Indy finds himself at the Battle of Verdun in 1916. He serves first as a motorcycle courier, zooming important messages between the horrors of the front and the luxury of the officers’ lives. The epic scope and impressive budget of the series are well demonstrated by a spectacular chase in which Indy, on his motorcycle, is pursued by a German biplane armed with machine guns and bombs, while the show’s intimacy and artfulness are visible in a well-cut montage at a moment when Indy must make a crucial decision. We also see Indy’s first spy work when he’s assigned to crawl across No Man’s Land and listen at the wall of the German bunker.

The second half of this feature may be the series’ finest moment. Directed by the great Nicholas Roeg (The Man Who Fell To Earth) from a script by Carrie Fisher and story by George Lucas, it depicts Indy’s brief involvement with Mata Hari while on furlough from the front. It’s very risque for 90s TV, with typically Roeg-ish slow motion shots of Indy and Mata in bed together (yes, the famous adventurer loses his virginity to the notorious spy) and even some full frontal nudity of models in an art class. The episode isn’t just adult in content, however, but in themes as well. Fisher scripts Mata as a very three-dimensional character (fleshed out beautifully by actress Domiziana Giordano), and weaves a complex May-December relationship between her and Indy, bringing out an especially good performance from series star Sean Patrick Flannery. Their final scene together, a shouting match that ends tenderly in which he denounces her as nothing more than a prostitute and she calls him out for what he is: a child pretending to be a man, is as good as any you’ll find on TV of that decade. Despite its admirable educational mandate, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles was not just a kids’ show.

Lucasfilm’s exemplary extras are equally adult. "Flirting With Danger - The Fantasy of Mata Hari" treats its subject very seriously, and doesn’t skirt around her central skill set. "I like making comparisons between diverse nations," they quote Hari as saying about sleeping with the officers and diplomats of varied European countries. The documentary portrays Hari as the victim of a witch hunt by men suspicious of a successful and promiscuous woman more than of a legitimate espionage trial. Various experts point out that spies convicted on far more tangible evidence than her managed to escape the firing squad, and that the only evidence that Hari was a spy at all is the fact that she accepted money from both the French and German intelligence services. Then again, they argue, that’s what she did. She accepted money from men.

"Reading the Enemy’s Mind - Espionage in World War I" is a shorter but no less fascinating or informative documentary. "What you’re seeing in a way with intelligence during the first world war is how modern intelligence is born," says one expert, and indeed we do see it. The featurette conveys how ill-prepared all nations were for espionage going into WWI (especially the United States), and covers subjects I’ve always found captivating, like German sabotage in America and the notorious "Zimmerman Telegram" sent by Germany seeking Mexico’s help against the US. There are twenty-seven more such documentaries on this set, as well as seven more feature-length films, each comprised of two TV episodes. I can’t wait to delve further into revisiting this childhood favorite, and most spy fans should be delighted to find this set underneath the tree come Christmas. In addition to the espionage content, this volume also features some familiar faces, such as Christopher Lee and some blond guy named Daniel Craig, exhibiting even then (albeit briefly!) the swagger that would one day make him famous.

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