Before the World Discovered Indiana, Indiana Discovered the World...
Part One in a Three Part Retrospective Celebrating the
30th Anniversary of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles
Thirty years ago this month, at 8:00 pm on March 4th, 1992, I was sitting on the couch in my small apartment, a first year history teacher eagerly glued to the television, as I watched the backstory of one my childhood heroes unfold during the premier of the new ABC series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.
As the name suggests, this show was about a different Indiana Jones than the one I'd known. This wasn't a series that featured the grown-up exploits of the daring professor of archaeology I’d come to love who sought out lost treasures and mixed it up with the Nazis. Instead, this premier episode, a two-hour feature film entitled Young Indiana Jones and the Curse of the Jackal, was the story of a mischievous, highly intelligent ten year-old boy setting out on his first great adventure, accompanied by his doting mother, Anna, his professorial father, Henry Sr. and his fastidious private tutor, Ms. Helen Seymour. And what an adventure it was! We watched as Young Indy traveled to Egypt and scales The Great Pyramid of Giza, befriends a young archaeologist by the name of T.E. Lawrence and then explores his first ancient tomb with famed Egyptologist, Howard Carter. Later in the show, we see a seventeen year-old Indy get swept up in the Mexican Revolution and then join forces with the notorious revolutionary, Pancho Villa before heading off to Europe to join the Belgian army and fight in the Great War with his new friend Remy Baudouin. It was an incredible introduction to a groundbreaking television series and a moment in time that changed my professional life; and in many ways my personal life as well.
As I watched that night, I began to imagine how I could teach my students by using this TV series, jotting down notes and ideas along the way. Two weeks later I taught my first lesson with Young Indy, and from there, I never looked back. Looking back, that was the beginning of my own marvelous adventure.
This was no ordinary television show. It was intentionally created to be more than that. It was, in many ways, a history teacher’s dream. Much like another famous fictional character, Forrest Gump, young Indiana Jones interacted with real, historical figures and often found himself caught up in many landmark events of the early 20th Century. The adventures of this famous fictional character were the hook to get people, particularly students, to watch, and learn, about history.
In fact, George Lucas had dreamed for years of creating a series that could make history exciting for young viewers. “I wanted young people to realize that history is really about people more than it’s about events,” said Lucas. “I wanted to show that those people are just like we are, regardless of their impact on philosophy, music, religion and culture. And Indy’ childhood was a natural vehicle for the kinds of stories I had envisioned.”
The producer of this massive, globetrotting series was Rick McCallum, who was tasked with organizing and managing an impressive array of international actors, writers and directors. To make the stories feel as authentic as possible, Lucas insisted that all principal photography take place on location in over 35 countries.
“It was important to George that audiences experience the countries where the actual events took place,” said McCallum. “He didn’t want the stories to have an American point of view, so we hired directors from all over the world. And although the network objected to subtitles on television, George insisted that young Indy speak the native language of each country he visited. We really wanted to intrigue young people with the notion that the world is made up of all kinds of different cultures and viewpoints.”
Each week, as new episodes aired, I watched and recorded them on VHS tapes (yes, this was a long time ago), carefully pausing the recording during commercial breaks (no, we didn’t like commercials back then either), then later I’d create lesson plans for each one as I watched them again and again. Whenever the show featured topics or events that were appropriate to what I was teaching, I would use that episode in class. As a teacher, I loved it. But more importantly, my students did too, and were more engaged in the content they were learning because of it.
While the series was a critical success, ABC cancelled the series in July 1993 after only 24, hour-long episodes had aired. The following year, The Family Channel released the first of four feature-length films with the last film, Young Indiana Jones: Travels with Father, airing in June of 1996. The future of the series, and its ability to be used in classrooms as Lucas had hoped, seemed uncertain.
It was just prior to that, in May of 1996 that I first wrote to George Lucas.
I thanked him for the series, explained how I’d been using it with my students and inquired as to any potential plans for the series’ official release on VHS. I was particularly interested in a video release since I was still teaching with my “taped from TV” copies and was somewhat concerned about possibly violating performance rights. Actually, I was probably more concerned that a bad VHS player would eventually chew up my tapes and I’d lose forever whichever episode happened to be on it. With all this in mind, I mailed off my letter and hoped for the best.
A few weeks later, I was completely surprised to find an envelope with a return address of “Lucasfilm Ltd” waiting in my mailbox at school. The letter it contained was from Anne Merrifield, George Lucas’ secretary, who thanked me for writing and assured me that, while he wasn’t able to respond personally because of the volume of mail he received, George did review my letter and greatly appreciated my very kind comments about Young Indy. I was beyond excited! To think, George Lucas had read my letter and his personal secretary cared enough to respond.
This was my first experience, but would not be my last, with the genuine kindness of the Lucasfilm staff.
The following year (1997), with no news of an official release of the series, I wrote Mr. Lucas once more asking if there were any updates and letting him know that I was still teaching with Young Indy and my students were enjoying it as much as ever. This time I received a response from Jeanne Cole, the head of Public Relations for Lucasfilm, who, once more, assured me that George had reviewed my letter and appreciated my continued interest in the series. She went on to add that, “We are so happy to know that you are continuing to incorporate Young Indy into your curriculum,” and that, while a video release had not been set, they would contact me as soon as a date was confirmed. However, to assist with my lessons, Ms. Cole was kind enough to copy and send along the study guides that accompanied the series when it initially aired on ABC. Having never seen this material, I was thrilled and did indeed use several parts of the guides in my lessons.
It wasn’t until October of 1999 that Young Indy finally received an official release on VHS, along with a rebranding of the series from The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles to The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones. The original hour-long television episodes were repackaged and paired together into feature-length films. I quickly snatched them all and began to write new lessons to use with the stories in their new format. For the next several years, I continued to use and promote Young Indy with colleagues in my own school and others in our district, even when I left the classroom to become an assistant principal in 2000.
After spending four years as an administrator, I realized just how much I missed teaching and returned to the classroom in 2004 to teach Advanced Placement United States History, Military History and Ancient World History, three courses that allowed me to greatly utilize the Young Indy films, particularly those related to World War I. In fact, it was the many Young Indy films that dealt with that topic that inspired me to dive deeper into studying what the world at that time called The Great War. I became so intrigued by this era that, in 2006, I was inspired to apply for (and received) a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities that allowed me to spend four weeks in London, France and Belgium studying the war in depth as a participant in a graduate course entitled History and Memory: The Great War in British Culture.
As part of this grant, I was able to visit and conduct research at such incredible institutions as the British Library, the Imperial War Museum, and the National Army Museum, as well as spend a week exploring the battlefields and cemeteries of the Western Front, all at the time of the commemoration of the 90th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme during the month of July. It was a history teacher’s dream and an incredible learning experience. I mention all of this because I would never have sought this opportunity had it not been for the passion that I developed for this era of history, cultivated through George Lucas’ portrayal of World War I as seen through the eyes of Young Indiana Jones.
The following year, in 2007, I left the classroom once more as I became the Social Studies coordinator for Greenville County Schools, a position that allowed me to provide guidance and assistance to Social Studies teachers across our district of 70,000 students. This was a position that I’d worked toward and dreamed of for many years. That summer, as I entered my new role, I learned that the Young Indy series that had only been available on VHS was now going to be released in a massive three volume set of DVDs that not only included all 22 feature-length films, but also more than 90 documentaries that were specially created to support the teaching of each film, a lecture by noted historian H.W. Brands on the historical setting for the films of each volume, an interactive timeline for the entire series, and a nifty Young Indy CD-ROM video game. For me, the timing couldn’t have been better. As the new Social Studies coordinator, I would be able to share what I knew to be an incredible educational resource with teachers in all of our schools.
With this in mind, I developed a plan for a district-wide program that would allow middle and high school students to explore the past with Young Indy as their guide while also creating an interactive museum-style exhibit based on the real historical events experienced by our favorite fictional archaeologist. Once I’d worked out the details, I wrote to Lucasfilm’s head of licensing, Howard Roffman, and informed him of my plans for rolling out the Young Indy DVD series in schools across our district along with our plans for the student-created Indiana Jones exhibit. I really wasn't certain what the response from Lucasfilm would be, or if I'd even receive a response at all.
So, I sent off the letter and I waited.
Sometimes you have to roll the hard six. And when you do, the payoff can be fantastic.
But that’s a story for our next blog post, Walking through Time with Indiana Jones....