Adventure movies, at least as they used to be known and loved on a mass scale, dried up sometime in the 1950s. That seems like the last gasp of the classic types: swashbucklers, Viking films, Italian sword-and-sandal epics, the first widescreen Biblical films in Technicolour.
The documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies (co-director Michael Henry Wilson, 1995) shows how fond the director of Kundun (1997) remains of this last great period of epic adventure films – especially the Biblical epics made by Cecil B. DeMille and Anthony Mann. These films are another, lost world.
There's another key type of adventure film that Scorsese didn't mention: the jungle picture, the film of expeditions and explorations in savage, foreign lands. I don't think that there could possibly be a more politically incorrect genre of popular film these days. Film historians go rather pale when they have to discuss hoary old adventure movies like Sanders of the River (Zoltan Korda, 1935). When I looked up my copy of Leonard Maltin's Movie and TV Guide for a refresher on the plot of this old movie, I found that even Maltin was moved to a political critique – he calls it a "relic of the sun-never-sets school of British imperialism". And imperialism is indeed the operative word here.
I'm thinking of all those adventure movies set in Africa or India, where explorers cut a dashing figure in the wild, as hundreds of savage natives pound tom-toms, dance a voodoo dance, and bow before the Great White Hope. There's often an extremely sinister violence which underwrites this bold, adventuring imperialism. Faced with the fierce animals of the wild, with all those mysterious, lurking natives, these dark national continents and their unfathomable, ancient cultures steeped in magic and myth and ritual, the heroes of the old adventure films found it easy to speak the famous words that appear in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: "Exterminate the brutes!" (The phrase finds its echo in the unlikeliest places, such as a Three Stooges cartoon where a cowpoke announces he will unfussily "kill all Indians".)
Even movies we still want to like nowadays – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1946), or the Elizabeth Taylor vehicle Elephant Walk (William Dieterle, 1954) – can make us cringe and cover our eyes as soon as the white guys start organising their native slaves and servants and obedient pals to harvest their crops better, or avert some natural disaster. King Kong (Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933) belongs to this genre, too, but that's a rather more palatable film for us these days – because Kong at least gets to exact some fine revenge on Western civilisation for all the grief it gives him. And it's King Kong that sets the pattern for the revisionist adventure epics of the '70s and '80s – films like Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), where the great white explorer is a demented fool, or The Emerald Forest (1985), probably John Boorman's worst film. These are ecologically minded films, pro the rainforests and the oppressed peoples of the Third World. In these films, if nature or the wilderness or even the savage natives are trampled upon, they take their implacable revenge in no uncertain terms.
At the start of the '80s, however, something else happened that completely changed our relation to adventure movies. That was the release of the monumentally successful Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, which began the Indiana Jones series of films, books and TV shows. Spielberg and Lucas couldn't really care less about the politics of imperialism. They didn't want to mount a critique of the old empire-building ideology, but they didn't want to fall foul of it either. They just wanted the thrills, the spectacle, the heroic derring-do of the old adventure-action films – particularly the kind that used to appear in serial form before the main cinema attractions. So they hit upon a simple but devastating solution: they treated the adventure genre as a big joke, an elaborate exercise in nostalgia.
Spielberg and Lucas were not into irony or subversion when they did the Indiana Jones films; they aimed to undercut the old clichés and stereotypes just enough so that everything in the story seemed suddenly light, harmless, cornball, unserious to the nth degree. The problem for them, and for everyone after them who has tried to keep this adventure revival going, is that it's actually not that easy to tell the old imperialist stories while sidestepping everything that they once meant and said. In these films, you sense a kind of retrograde, long buried desire for imperial power showing itself once more, but this time under the hip guise of knowing entertainment. There is a very American taste for militarism, for gung-ho heroics, and violent solutions to dangerous situations, that ends up expressing itself in these adventure epics of the '80s.
I'm not one to reflexively have a go at everything American, and I become very dubious when people start talking about 'Reaganite entertainment' – as if these absurdly broad sociological platitudes actually fully account for what is going on in a complex popular art form. But the Indiana Jones films were indeed a kind of Reaganite entertainment, because they so viciously expressed this longing for a balance of world power the way it used to be in the good old days.
Spielberg's associate Frank Marshall gives us Congo. It's not an unbelievably offensive film – in fact, it's a pretty entertaining effort all up – but it does exhibit all the nervous, evasive problems of adventure movies in the '90s. Congo begins in the grand old style. We're in "darkest Africa", a mythic continent identified by the spectacular proliferation of jungle drums, old wise men and growling tigers. There'll be plenty more of this later in the film, particularly in a scene where natives do a primitive, magical dance over the fast-dying body of an unfortunate white explorer. But the makers of this film know they have to put the brakes on this somewhere, and start furiously back-pedaling. So we get a scene where a white guy reveals his shocking ignorance of contemporary African culture, and his reward is that his native guide leaves him alone, completely defenseless before the righteous revenge of savage nature.
On every possible topic, Congo is a film of crazily mixed messages. The main plot of the film concerns an expedition into the Congo. The explorers are after a diamond and a lost team of scientists, but what they stumble upon is King Solomon's lost mine. The biggest obstacle in this story is the gorillas. Is Solomon's treasure guarded by a vicious gang of killer gorillas? The enlightened scientist of the team says no: nature is not inherently aggressive like that. The ruthless Rumanian mercenary along for the ride disagrees: it may be politically incorrect, he says, but the King Kong myth has a basis in truth. Its par for the course in these modern, hip adventure movies that the characters talk like they're film critics, or diligent students of cultural studies. We discover finally that there is indeed an ancient band of killer gorillas guarding Solomon's mine. But what do the hieroglyphics on the stone walls tell us? Why of course, that it was man, cruel man, who taught these gorillas to kill by torturing them mercilessly! And, after all, haven't we already seen at great length the highest form of nice gorilla, Amy the talking gorilla – so civilised and sentimental she's almost already to host her own TV talk show.
And so the film goes, around and around, proposing something conservative, then arguing over it, contradicting it, retracting it, and finally slipping it back in under another guise. Feminism is a topic treated like this in the film. There's a lot of stuff about strong women, independent women, politically conscious and caring women. But at the big climax, it's the main female scientist of the piece who gets to gleefully blast the bad gorillas to pieces with her super-sonic laser gun, exclaiming Indiana Jones-type quips like "here's the latest in communications technology" and "quick, put these gorillas on the endangered species list!"
In a totally bizarre way, I suspect the film thinks it's being enlightened and progressive when it puts this laser in the arms of a sassy woman, just in the nick of time.
© Adrian Martin July 1995