In an odd twist of fate I got to experience a bit of evolution. I saw how adventure films have endured through the ages, and it got me thinking – where are the great adventure films of this generation?
Yes, I’m old. I’m going to gripe and grouse about how things were better in my time, when we had Spielberg in his prime and he knew how to make a good adventure movie. There have been a few good adventure films since then, and there were a ton before Spielberg got around to creating Indiana Jones (with some help from George Lucas).
Let me define adventure film here. I’m talking about something set in our world, maybe in the past, but a past where heroes still use their fists and their smart mouths to get out of trouble. The hero is usually on a quest of some kind, and there are obstacles to overcome and a girl to win over. While these movies have action, they are more about the exotic locations, overcoming the obstacles and getting away alive and with some kind of loot. You could throw the James Bond series in there if you wanted, but I always considered those films to be a different beast. I readily admit that Bond did move from the spy thriller into adventure territory – especially during the Roger Moore years.
The granddaddy of adventure movies would probably be King Kong from 1933. Sure there were safari and jungle movies before this. But Kong has all the elements of a great adventure movie and does them so well that many films have imitated (or remade it) You could argue about who the hero is. But I think John Driscoll is supposed to be our guy. He fits all the standard tropes, talks tough, fights tough and is after the girl. Kong is one hell of an obstacle, but he’s also the loot for Carl Denham. The movie twists the adventure frame more than a few times as it goes along, but the ending is what really makes it stand out. The final obstacle is conquered, but how come we feel bad about it.
One year before, we met one of the most famous adventure characters of all time. But ironically the movie featured him as a combination of loot and obstacle. His name was Tarzan, and swimmer Johnny Weissmuller became a star based on the film. The irony is that Jane is the hero of Tarzan the Ape Man. She’s the one that goes on a search for her father, encounters the jungle man and spends the rest of the film avoiding dangers and helping her father find the elephant graveyard. Like King Kong, Tarzan is in the way, but is also Jane’s prize. She wins him in the end.
1934 brought us Tarzan and his Mate, and here we get into classic adventure mode. Jane and Tarzan are both our heroes, and the white hunters and crazed tribes are the villains. There are all kinds of dangers in this movie, and one of the most impressive finales I’ve seen in any adventure film. It runs a little long, but the journey of the safari is a big part of the film. We start with the white hunters and at first we think they may be the heroes. But very quickly we see that Martin (Paul Cavanagh) is a true cad. Sure enough Tarzan and Jane become the center of the film and from that point on its jungle adventures with crazed lions, enraged natives and a whole lot of stomping elephants.
The same day I caught Tarzan the Ape Man, Raiders of the Lost Ark was on television. I was struck by how similar the 1981 film was to the Tarzan movie. Many of the same tropes and ideas were brought over, reworked to fit the era of Indiana Jones. Sure Lucas and Spielberg were more inspired by the adventure serials of the 40’s and 50’s. But the spirit of adventure is back and in full bloom in this film. Posters for the film touted “Indiana Jones – the new hero” and “The Return of the great Adventure”. To me, as a kid, this is what a good time at the movies was all about. Indy would continue through the 80s with Temple of Doom in 1984 and Last Crusade in 1989. While there were countless imitators, few were able to really capture the right ingredients at the right moment.
Once we hit the 2000s things shift. Heroes become more serious and more troubled. The spirit of adventure is still around in some films, but it’s tinged with a darkness that saps the fun away. Some may say that films like Raiders and The Mummy are too old-fashioned and lack appeal. If you are targeting teenage boys, they probably do want a healthy dose of angst in their films.
Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong in 2005 is probably the closest I’ve seen to a film that continues the tradition. This time Jackson made Kong the obvious hero of the film. The movie is a bit on the bloated side, but its still entertaining. Then there was the return of Indiana Jones in 2008 with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This got such mixed reactions that I do wonder if this genre is dead. I admit that I found Crystal Skull to be lacking, getting a little too cute a little too often. But after watching the evolution of the Tarzan movies and knowing how much George Lucas LOVES those films, I can see where the inspiration came from. There was some fun stuff in the film and the music is great.
So am I lamenting a lost genre? Or is it just going dormant for a while until another director picks up the reins and starts up the adventure coaster again? Hard to say. These types of movies all but vanished in the grim and dower film-making world of the 70s. So maybe this is just a decade of hibernation. But I’m beginning to wonder if we need to look to animation to keep that spirit alive. Both Up by Pixar, and How to Train Your Dragon by Dreamworks had elements of the classic adventure films in them. Spielberg’s upcoming animated film The Adventures of Tintin looks like it has a similar feel. Maybe that’s the future.