There may be nothing that George Lucas enjoys more than watching someone's jaw drop in an expression of marvel. That explains the existence of this leafy 5,200-acre retreat, which has a hilltop observatory, a vineyard (the grapes are trucked over to Francis Ford Coppola's winery) and its own fire department, which presumably blares heroic scores by John Williams on its way to brush fires.
And then there's his stunning collection of pop-culture artifacts. The man who once aspired to be an anthropologist now has a personal Smithsonian of sorts here in Marin County. In the Victorian-style main house, for instance, you can find Charlie Chaplin's cane and slightly dimpled bowler sharing a bookcase with the badges worn by the Keystone Kops. Norman Rockwell paintings hang on the walls and Rudolph Valentino's whip is perched on a shelf near the parlor. Remember how hard it was for Indiana Jones to track down the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail? Now they're safe and sound here in an immaculate warehouse along with R2-D2 and C-3PO, all museum pieces in a museum that never opens to the public.
But the loneliest artifact of Skywalker Ranch -- or, to be more precise, the most underappreciated treasure that belongs to Lucas -- is the one that could be seen a few weeks ago flickering on the screen of the plush theater inside the main house. When Lucas spoke of it, he even sounded a bit like an archaeologist cradling a long-lost relic.
"We have another chance to let the world see it," he said, "and that's exciting for me."
The artifact in need of rescue is an early 1990s television series, "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," which is, by the stellar standards of the 63-year-old filmmaker's career, a beautiful loser. It was also, he says, "the single most fun I ever had with any project." For both of those reasons, he is back for more.
Over the past four years, Lucas and Paramount Home Video have pumped millions of dollars into reframing "Young Indiana" as a lavish, three-volume library of DVDs with a staggering number of extras, including 94 highly polished documentaries on famous people and moments in history. That grand content and the packaging and marketing commitment to the project are the sort you might expect for an anniversary reissue of "Gone With the Wind," not a show that was dropped by ABC after two seasons and moved on to the smaller stage of the Family Channel.
From a distance, the reverential treatment of "Young Indiana" might look like pure Lucas overkill. But to the filmmaker who changed the course of American cinema by creating his own universe, all of it is the logical conclusion of a project he considers one of his great achievements.
"Believe it or not, I've never been that involved in making commercial product, that is just not what I do," said Lucas, whose "Star Wars" films have a global box office gross of $4.3 billion. "What I do is get an idea of something I want to do, and I do it. It's about coming up with a great idea . . . in terms of the commercial [risks], I knew I was breaking all the rules."
Lucas said he won as soon as he persuaded Paramount and ABC to let him make "Young Indiana," which was filmed in unprecedented ways.
"They let me do it and do it in the way I wanted to do it," he said. "The main thing I was really after was to see how many shows I could get done before they woke up and said enough is enough. And, you know, we managed to get 44 hours of material out there. I felt grateful I got as much done as I did."
Critics and cultural observers were grateful too. "By far," the New York Times weighed in, "the most impressively mounted weekly show on television." Time said no show had "more ambition or style," and the Wall Street Journal said it raised the standards of television production to "the caliber of theatrical film." James Michener expressed awe and called the series a "daring venture," and Bill Moyers wistfully wished that the series would be "my grandson's companion far into the 21st century." Industry peers embraced it as well, handing the show 11 Emmy Awards. Looking back too, the show was a gathering point for an impressive amount of talent, both on-screen and off, with actors such as Max von Sydow, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Daniel Craig passing through its stories and directors such as Mike Newell working with writers like Frank Darabont.
But the ratings revealed that the show was more respected than loved. Lucas, always savvy to the desires of a mass audience, understood the problem; he had given the world the Indiana Jones he wanted, not the one they wanted. In 1993, talking to the The Times about the show's decline, he sounded weary. "It didn't matter how many times I said it was a coming-of-age series about a young boy's exploration of history," he said, "people still expected to see that rolling boulder."
Things 'you just can't do'
"Young INDIANA" alternately presented the hero as a boy of about 9 (portrayed by Corey Carrier) and a young man between 16 and 19 (Sean Patrick Flanery), which, Lucas said with a bit of pride, is another "thing you just can't do on television" if you're following the rules.
The pace and tone of the episodes jumped around in a jolting way too; some were funny, others scary, some action-packed and others wistful and at times a bit windy. In each episode, the hero meets a key historical figure and learns a valuable lesson. His travels put him next to Ernest Hemingway and Franz Kafka, Woodrow Wilson and Ho Chi Minh, Sidney Bechet and George Gershwin, Mata Hari and Al Capone. "He is," Lucas said, "sort of like Forrest Gump with a whip."
Lucas came to "Young Indiana" with a vision that was more heart-warming than it was heart-pounding. Like Walt Disney decades before, Lucas saw a chance to reach into the living rooms of America with something that aspired to be both wholesome and thoughtful and educational between the chase scenes.
That's one reason Lucas has always described "Young Indiana Jones" as an "old-fashioned television show," a term that must have landed with quite the thud during concept discussions at ABC. But "Young Indiana" also came with the promise of visual innovation (it was a pioneer in digital production for television) and an outlandish production plan that now seems like a mix between Phileas Fogg and "The Amazing Race."
Lucas basically sent a 29-member film crew across 35 countries to use exotic locales as backdrops, which put them at the mercy of armed bandits, snakes, storms, dysentery, customs agents and crocodiles. Meanwhile, like some old newspaper tycoon monitoring a distant war, the impresario waited in Marin, where he watched the fruits of their labor and answered with dispatches regarding the next day's story and mission.
The film crew was led by Rick McCallum (who would go on to be producer of the second trilogy of "Star Wars" films), who compares his hearty team to "the French Foreign Legion with camera equipment" and said their mission was "a great adventure none of them will ever forget, and one that ended a few marriages and started a few others."
Directors who worked on the series included Newell, Terry Jones, David Hare and Bille August.
On-screen, Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Lee were among the veterans who joined the expeditionary project, while a number of new faces appeared and later went on to bigger things, among them Zeta-Jones, who portrayed a belly-dancing spy when Indy meets T.E. Lawrence, and Tony winner Jeffrey Wright, who blows the horn as Bechet. McCallum said he especially remembers a performance by Elizabeth Hurley, who played the daughter of a London suffragette.
"She just lit up, it was amazing to see her in that performance," McCallum said during an interview at the ranch. "There were so many shows where we caught people at interesting points in their careers, and there was a sense that we were doing something very different and important."
And, at times, dangerous. While traveling in Kenya, a raiding party descended on the crew's encampment looking for the weapons they had heard firing. "They had real guns, ours were plastic," McCallum said. "But they didn't get it, they took them anyway. They thought there was just some new kind of American gun, real lightweight and made of plastic instead of metal. No one got hurt, that's the good news."
The show itself, though, didn't have that same knack for survival. The network likely contributed to the downfall by moving it around to different nights and, at one point, putting it opposite "Seinfeld." (Lucas said it was "common sense" that the show should have been on Sunday nights, like "Disney did it" years ago.)
The adult Indy is back too
In the films, which began with "Raiders" in 1981, Indiana Jones was, of course, portrayed by Harrison Ford, who as the adventurer-archeologist was a charming blend of minor scoundrel and major scholar. Ford is reprising his most famous role for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," the fourth film in the franchise, which just wrapped shooting in Los Angeles and is due in theaters next year. Lucas is executive producer and has a "story by" credit. The screenplay is by David Koepp; Steven Spielberg is directing.
"It went amazing, I'm thrilled with it and the look of it and what Steven was able to do to capture that time -- it's set in the 1950s -- and we were very happy with the story," Lucas said. "It had to be a great story or we weren't going to do the movie. I mean, nobody involved needed the money."
That may sound a bit brassy, but really it speaks to the patience of Lucas. It's been 18 years since the last Indiana Jones film, and Lucas was willing to bide his time. That seems to apply to the television show as well. He said the notion of creating a massive history lesson wrapped inside an adventure series was the plan all along for "Young Indiana Jones," it just took this long to deliver it in the way he deemed worthy. "That was actually the original idea when I started the whole thing, and it's just taken me this long to get it all done," he said with a chuckle. "It's a lot of hours of material, and it was expensive and hard and, of course, it was something that the industry wasn't interested in."
Lucas is his own industry, however, and his interest and budget appear to be boundless. Back in Modesto, young George had a solitary word printed next to his high school yearbook photo: "History." The avid scholar in him is still alive and well. Last week, he got "The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Volume 1" ($117.99, in stores Tuesday) and its 12 discs. The wizard of Skywalker Ranch was mightily pleased. "I can't wait to get the other volumes."
The best part of the DVD series may be the new documentaries (there are 38 in Volume 1), which were led by CBS News veteran David Schneider. They are replete with rare photos and footage, as well as new contextual interviews with notable names such as Henry Kissinger, Gloria Steinem, Martin Scorsese, Colin Powell and Deepak Chopra. In a Skywalker Ranch screening room, Schneider gave a preview of one documentary, a biography of Paul Robeson that gave a measured but poignant account of his rise in American consciousness as a star of stage and screen and the dismantling of his life after he became a target of the anti-communist movement in America.
"Our goal was to tell the stories of history but also capture the drama of these lives, which sometimes is missing from documentaries," Schneider said. He talked in awe about lives that zigzagged between triumph and ignominy and how moments of serendipity and awful luck changed the course of nations. "There's incredible drama if you treat these as stories waiting to be told."
One core mission that Lucas gave Schneider was to make sure the documentaries would have a shelf life, that they were constructed in a way that would make them hold the attention of a student sitting in a classroom in 2020 or beyond.
That makes sense for a man who knows artifacts don't become less valuable as the years pass, nor do they suffer if they were underappreciated at first. The filmmaker laughed out loud as he imitated one of the naysayer opinions that confronted his young fedora-wearing hero in the 1990s. "The show, well, it's about history," he said in a mock voice dripping with disdain, "and, you know, forget that."