Saturday, November 14, 2009

Young Indiana Jones Chronicles- Ireland, Easter 1916

One of the great common archetypes of Empire-themed fiction (and reality) is the civilized white man who immerses himself in some alien culture, becoming involved in local affairs and generally having colourful adventures. The country he visits will, of course, be a Hollywoodized version of its real-life counterpart. Naturally, the exoticism of the country will be ramped up the max, and at every turn the hero will encounter interesting historical characters and events, despite the fact that they may not have been around at the same time. It's kind of like history as a theme-park, if you will. How exciting it is, so, to see Ireland finally portrayed in such a manner.

So Indiana Jones spent a little time on the old sod? According to the dubiously-canonical 1990’s TV show Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, he did. With unfortunate timing that Harry Flashman would be proud of, he arrives during Easter in 1916. Pulling into the port of Queenstown (now Cobh) bound for Europe and the Great War, he quickly leaves this writer's home county behind and heads for the capitol, where adventures await. Sean O’Casey, W. B. Yeats, the Abbey Theatre and the Easter Rising are all ahead of him. Ah well, at least there’s no snakes. Young Indy even finds time to romance the sister of future Taoiseach Sean Lemass (!).

As crazy as it sounds, this episode is actually one of the less cringe-inducing Hollywood versions of Ireland (or Diddely-Ireland, as Colin Murphy once called it). Because Young Indiana Jones Chronicles appeared to have been rather a big-budget show, they immediately trump 99% of movies set in Ireland by 1) actually filming on location, 2) actually getting Irish actors to play Irish characters, and 3) actually doing their homework regarding the history. Diddley-Ireland does occasionally raise its freckled face (there is a bar fight while stereotypical music plays), but its most conspicuous occurrence is rightly lambasted minutes afterwards.

When Indy first meets Lemass and his friends, the sister, who has no interest in nationalism, takes him to the music hall, where the audience sings along with a maudlin performance of ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’. It’s played dead straight. Indy thinks that this is grand, until he meets the frustrated socialist playright Sean O’Casey.

“Have ye been to the theatre?” asks O’Casey. Indy says yes, but O’Casey bitterly corrects him on the difference between the stage-Irish of the music hall and the reality portrayed in the plays that run in the Abbey Theatre. O’Casey is wonderfully played by John Lynch. Throughout, the show does bravely attempt to hint at the complexity of the situation, but it’s through the character of O’Casey that this really comes out. Having said this, my favourite line in the whole thing is still when he calls Yeats a bollox. Neil Jordan was never so brave.

When the rebellion does get underway, the show does not simplify the nationalists by making them unquestionably heroic. They are rightly portrayed as brave men who knowingly sacrificed their lives for what they believed in, though through the character of O’Casey the show also questions the necessity of their violent methods. Nor does it whitewash the anti-nationalist sentiment that was common amongst the populace of Dublin. When the proclamation is read from the front of the GPO by Padraig Pearse- a moment of Irish history made sacred by decades of Fianna Fail education, and one that still causes a twinge in this writer’s innards-randomers in the street express skepticism and grumble about not being able to collect their pension.

All exteriors appear to have been shot in Dublin, with the city’s many beautiful Georgian streets providing an easy period feel. The GPO, acting as itself, provides a dramatic focus for the action scenes during the Rising. It’s really stirring to see such a seminal event in Irish history portrayed with a decent budget in the actual locations. It’s great to place the Rising alongside other epic set pieces of the British Empire- Rorke’s Drift, Balaclava, the Indian Mutiny, etc. Each of them was tragic, epic, dramatic, sad, and not at all simple. But sometimes it helps to have a fictional portrayal to bring it all home.

While Young Indiana Jones Chronicles is naturally primarily concerned with the tribulations of its foppish title character (young Indy is quite likeable, actually), the research and care given to this episode make sure that the Ireland he encounters is more than just a colourful background.

Most of the episode is viewable on Youtube- check it out here.

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