Yesterday, we learned that Steven Spielberg was planning to hand over directing duties on Indiana Jones 5 to Ford v Ferrari director James Mangold. With Spielberg no longer in the director’s chair, that makes two of the three Indiana Jones principals vacating their original roles. The core team of Indiana Jones was George Lucas as a producer, Spielberg as director, and Harrison Ford as the star. For three movies in the 1980s, that worked out pretty well. Then that team reunited for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and it was bad for a variety of reasons. Still, with Lucasfilm now belonging to Disney, a continuation of the franchise was inevitable and has been in the works for years now except Lucas and Spielberg have already moved on. It’s time for Ford to follow suit.
To be clear: Harrison Ford is a living legend and can do whatever he wants. If a fifth Indiana Jones movie is going to make him happy, he should follow his bliss. But if we’re looking at Indiana Jones as a character in a franchise that Disney needs to continue because the shareholders demand it, then perhaps Ford should hand off the fedora and whip to a younger actor and leave well enough alone. I understand the need to go out on top, but is this really the character we fell in love with? If Indiana Jones takes place in our world and abides by our passage of time, then the next Indiana Jones movie will have to take place in the 1960s with a septuagenarian Dr. Jones cracking the whip. Fans want Ford to keep playing a character he was playing in his 40s and whose return when he was in his 60s was met with, at best, a lukewarm reception.
The central conflict here is what the character needs, what the studio wants, and the actor at the center of these two elements. On the one hand, I would love to see a Logan-style drama about an Indiana Jones at the end of his days seeing where all his chasing of “fortune and glory” got him. There is no way in hell Disney wants to make that movie. Disney wants to sell Indiana Jones merchandise and theme park rides and you don’t do that with an actor contemplating his mortality or his legacy. You do it by sending him on another adventure so that neither he nor the audience ever has to grow up but we can all coast on nostalgia.
Indiana Jones will continue in some way because it’s a valuable IP and Disney is in the valuable IP business (as opposed to creating new thing because it’s much easier to sell your childhood back to you), so if it must go on, isn’t it better to value the character rather than ask an actor to play the same role he did almost 40 years ago? Perhaps if Indiana Jones were a generational saga like Star Wars, you could get away with it like Ford coming back for Han Solo, but Indiana Jones has always been about an adventurous archeologist in the 1940s. If you want to fundamentally change what Indiana Jones is as a series, that’s fine, but you can’t go back to the way it was just by hiring Ford again and calling it a day.
What I love most about Indiana Jones is the spirit of adventure. The films were molded in the style of classic serials and adventure movies like Gunga Din, and I truly believe there’s still a space for those kinds of stories today even as our blockbusters become CGI-filled extravaganzas. But if we’ve already accepted that both Lucas and Spielberg have moved on, then perhaps it’s time for the series to have fresh blood all around, including the leading role. Yes, Ford helped to originate Indiana Jones and the role will always belong to him in some way. And yes, recasting the role will inevitably be contentious as fans argue about who could possibly live up to Ford’s legacy. But perhaps the better question is how can Indiana Jones make a fresh start? Do we love this character, or do we only love Ford’s portrayal of him? Is Indiana Jones limited to one actor? I understand it’s difficult to separate one’s affection for Ford from the affection for one of his most iconic roles, but I believe it’s more respectful to both the actor and the character if we acknowledge that neither is diminished just because the role gets played by another performer. Imagine the worst actor you can think of playing Indiana Jones. Now is Raiders of the Lost Ark a bad movie? Is Harrison Ford no longer a legendary actor? Is Indiana Jones “ruined”? Of course not.
The Indiana Jones movies are about adventure, but they now belong to a studio not known for taking chances. But I believe a compromise exists in finding movies that echo the strengths of the originals while bringing a younger actor who finds a new angle on the role. Harrison Ford will always be Indiana Jones just as his Last Crusade co-star Sean Connery will always be James Bond. That will never change, but Indiana Jones will need to if it’s going to continue.