Charlie Higson: Indiana Jones vs James Bond... the transatlantic tussle of the superheroes

On the day the new Spielberg film premieres in Cannes, our columnist inspects the archaeology of cinematic action and finds a cultural chasm

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In May of 1977 two friends who were well on their way to becoming the most successful film makers in the world were sitting together on a beach in Hawaii.

One of the friends was George Lucas. It was the opening weekend of Star Wars, and he was trying to escape all the hoo-ha. The other was Steven Spielberg, who had already made Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. As usual, they talked about movies, movies they had seen, movies they had loved, movies they wanted to make. "You know what would be really cool, George," said Spielberg (and I'm paraphrasing here, you understand). "What would be really cool, Steven?" said Lucas. "To make a James Bond movie," said Spielberg. "A proper one, with Sean Connery."

Lucas agreed that this would indeed be really cool, but it was never going to happen, not in the way they wanted. Cubby Broccoli had a firm grip on Bond and wasn't about to let two young movie brats in on the act. But Lucas had a better idea. "Why not just make our own?" he said, and he went on to tell Spielberg about this idea for a movie he had had knocking around in his head. "It's not James Bond. It's set in the 1930s and it's about an archeologist. It's a modern James Bond film. You'll love it."

Spielberg did indeed love the idea, and thus Indiana Jones was born, out of all the favourite bits from the movies, TV shows and Tintin books that Lucas and Spielberg had loved as kids. It's all there in the films: rope bridges across ravines, pilot-less planes, evil Nazis, death rays, runaway mining cars, tanks, poison darts, snakes ....

It's interesting that Bond was their starting point, though, and there is still a lot of Bond in the finished product, like the "film within a film" pre-credits sequence. Lucas's original idea was for Jones to be even closer to the Bond blueprint. He had envisaged a suave, sophisticated playboy type in a sharp dinner suit. Spielberg wasn't interested in that. He specialised in down-home, straight-talking, tough-but-tender, all-American types. He pictured a character much closer to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. That neither of these incarnations bore any resemblance to any real-life archaeologist was neither here nor there. James Bond, after all, never bore any resemblance to a real-life spy.

But you can see Bond and Jones as examples of two very different types of hero. Bond is the American idea of a typical European. Well-dressed, well-mannered, elegantly unruffled, supercilious, a womaniser but ever so slightly gay. Jones is the American idea of an American. Practically dressed, no-nonsense, rugged, downbeat, put-upon, but a winner. It's telling that all the villains in Raiders of The Lost Ark are Europeans – well-dressed, well-mannered, elegantly unruffled, supercilious, and so on. The Indiana Jones films are all about a proper American telling these fancy foreign ponces where to get off.

That's why Spielberg had only been interested in making a Sean Connery Bond. Back in the early days, Bond was a tough guy. By the late Seventies Bond had become a cartoon figure – the joke was that no matter what situation Roger Moore was in, no matter what beastliness had been done to him, he would remain immaculate. He would merely have to flick the dust off his lapels, make a witty quip and drive off in an expensive car. I don't remember ever seeing Roger Moore bleed. Indiana Jones on the other hand is always bleeding. He is battered, bruised, bloody and worn out. He faces each fresh challenge not with a witty quip but with a weary sigh.

The defining Indiana Jones moment came about almost by accident. It was six in the morning and an exhausted, dysentery-ridden, Harrison Ford couldn't face another fight. Spielberg had lined up a sadistic, foreign, sword-twirling maniac to confront him. Ford, who hadn't once unholstered his gun in the whole film, simply said to Spielberg: "Why don't I just shoot the fucker?" That was the moment when Indiana Jones arrived. The genuinely sick-and-tired Harrison Ford was the perfect man to embody him. He's good-looking but not too good-looking. He's well-built but no six-pack narcissist. With his scar and his lop-sided grin he looks as if he's been around the block. He doesn't go after the ladies, he's no lech, but they inevitably go after him. He can hold his drink, take a punch, fly a plane, save the world, but, like all American heroes, there's something of the big kid about him. This is made explicit in The Last Crusade, where he starts out as an actual kid (in the tragic shape of River Phoenix), and then, when his dad turns up (Spielberg at last got to work with Connery) he is reduced to being simply "Junior". This is why kids love him – they can identify with his boyishness.

How he will fare in the new movie, where he is, in his own words "old enough to play my own dad", remains to be seen. We can surely expect even more bone-crunching punches, back-breaking falls and stupendously weary sighs, before he once again rises miraculously from the dust and lives to fight another day.

Indy follows a pattern for heroes that goes right back to classical mythology. The ancient Greek hero was a young man usually carrying out a mission for an older man, often a king. Our hero would be sent off to slay a monster or two, and along the way would rescue a pretty girl. He would be aided by one of the Gods who would invariably give him a weapon, or a magical power, or a weapon with magical powers, which would more often than not have a fancy piece of armour to go with it – a helmet of invisibility or a pair of winged sandals for instance. He would sometimes have a special mount and travel with one or more companions, but would always face the enemy alone.

Nothing much has changed. From the Knights of the Round Table, through James Bond, Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter. In fact these elements were already a cliché in Cervantes' time, when he parodied the whole hero thing in Don Quixote. But Cervantes' attack on the idea of the romantic hero was as pointless as Quixote's tilting at windmills. The hero is still with us and Indiana Jones is just one of a long line of good guys who always get the girl.

The magic weapon is easy. Harry Potter has his wand, Luke his light-sabre, Bond his guns and gadgets, Arthur had Excalibur, Indy has his bullwhip. The bullwhip is a masterstroke. How I longed for a bullwhip when I was a kid. Indy's whip can be used to grab things, to swing from, to strike down his enemies. It can be seemingly any length he wants it to be and will hold the weight of two people yet be released with merely the flick of a wrist.

The outfit is simple, too. Bond has his tuxedo, Potter his robes and Indy his leather jacket and fedora (with utilitarian khaki shirt and pants). That hat is very important and, like the bullwhip, was there from the start when Lucas first pitched the idea on the beach in Hawaii. Indy would be powerless without his hat, and is always rescuing it from under sliding doors, or picking it up from the dust after a particularly nasty fight. Sometimes as a viewer you get quite anxious that he will lose it.

What about the special mount? (Think Pegasus, Aston Martin, broomstick, spaceship.) Well, Indy doesn't have a signature mount but he does get to ride a horse, a motorbike, a tank, even a submarine. After this it gets a little more complicated. He has companions; there is no M but there are older men to send him on his quests (Denholm Elliot and Julian Glover), but he doesn't really have a wizard figure – there is no Merlin, (or Obi-Wan Kenobi, Dumbledore, Q). There is magic there, though. Lots of it. Indy does have a God looking after him, and not just any god, but God. He saves his bacon in an orgy of special effects at the end of Raiders and he comes back to help out again in the Pythonesque finale to The Last Crusade.

Well, some of the Greek heroes carried on to a ripe old age, so I shall definitely be there when Harrison Ford dons his fedora and unfurls his bullwhip, and, with God on his side, sets out on his new adventure.

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