“It’s not the years, it’s the mileage,” a weary Indiana Jones famously bemoaned in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
In the upcoming fifth film in the saga, The Dial of Destiny, it’s the years and the mileage.
Star Harrison Ford is now 80 years old, which makes him almost certainly the only octogenarian to ever lead a wall-to-wall action film from a major Hollywood studio.
For director James Mangold (Ford v Ferrari) — who has known Ford for years and previously worked with him on The Call of the Wild — Ford/Indy’s age presented challenges and opportunities to tell a different kind of adventure in the saga’s eagerly awaited fifth film coming June 30, which sees Indiana teaming up with his goddaughter (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) on a new quest.
“We can’t hide from where we are in our lives — none of us can — and neither can Indiana Jones,” says Mangold (in a spoiler-free interview conducted for last week’s Hollywood Reporter cover story on Ford, where a few of the below comments previously appeared). “I wanted to follow Harrison’s own lead and simply deal with it straight on. It’s not just a movie about a hero in his twilight years who is called back into action. It’s more than just that his bones might ache, it’s that his soul might ache, or that some of his optimism or sense fitting into the world might have evaporated. The mistake you can make in movies — and we’ve all seen movies like this — is where someone is of a ripe age, but the entire movie is continuing this charade along with them that they’re not that old.”
Crucial to this approach, Mangold says, was going beyond making Indy older (the character is actually a bit younger than Ford in the film — 70, which Ford can easily pass as). But it’s also showing how everything around Indy has moved on. It’s a challenge that also faced the last film in the franchise, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
“The first three Indiana Jones movies took place in roughly the same period,” Mangold notes. “They all easily fit with the serialized, theatrical, almost screwball-action style of the movies that were being released in the period they’re set in. The challenge for [director Steven Spielberg] on [Crystal Skull], and for me on this one, is: How do you move forward into new decades where the world is no longer seen in such clear demarcations of black and white and good and evil? Where the whole concept of raiding tombs and fighting over relics is looked at in a different way? It’s not about changing the story but allowing the character to experience how the world has changed around him.”
Most of the film is set in 1969, when, Mangold notes, America’s heroes were figures such as astronauts rather than soldiers of fortune. “And our perception of politics is more gray,” he adds. “Who’s a villain? Who are we working with? Who are we fighting against? Proxy wars, all of that. It’s not as simple as the era around World War II. What happens to a hero built for a black-and-white world, when he finds himself in one that is gray? It’s a problem that produces humor, produces contradictions, produces adjustments that this character’s going have to make.”
Yet as fans already know, the film’s opening sequence is set back in Indy’s glory days. Ford was de-aged using AI technology and the Lucasfilm’s library of footage from his previous work. Mangold says the sequence isn’t just a fun throwback but provides more meaningful context to the character for the rest of the film.
“It reminds the audience of the contrast between a hero in his physical prime and a hero at 70,” Mangold says. “We’re not relying solely on the audience’s memory of the previous films. It reminds everyone what he’s done, what he’s survived, what he’s accomplished. By showing him in his most hearty and then finding him at 70 in New York City, it produces for the audience a kind of wonderful whiplash of how they’re going to have to readjust and retool their brains for this guy. His past is a live memory for the audience, hanging over a man who is now living with anonymity in a world that no longer cares or recognizes the things he felt so deeply about. You’re left with a multilayered perception of his character, both what he was and what he is, and how the world is different between the first 20 minutes of the movie.”
Ford recently revealed that obvious age jokes were taken out of the Dial of Destiny script, preferring to show versus tell. “There is a moment where he observes himself in this situation and says, ‘What the fuck am I doing in here?’” Ford says. “But I hate what I call ‘talking about the story.’ I want to see circumstances in which the audience gets a chance to experience the story, not to be led through the nose with highlights pointed out to them. I’d rather create behavior that is the joke of age rather than talk about it.”
Still, Mangold also had to deliver the sort of elaborate, physically intensive action sequences that the saga’s fans expect. Indy’s pragmatic cleverness came in handy here — he is, after all, the guy who simply shot the swordsman in Raiders rather than fight him.
“Indy’s always looked to find the easy way out of a conflict,” Mangold says. “He uses his brain to solve a puzzle in the midst of something threatening his life. He’s not a character who was built on being a gunslinger or a Marvel-style brawny, muscle hero. He’s always looked for the quickest way out of a situation, and that only increases when you’re 70. So his need to find ingenious ways out of a problem increases.”
But when it came time to get physical, Mangold says Ford was able to rise to the challenge.
“Harrison was up for anything,” Mangold says. “If anything, he was the one who was fighting to do things, and then I would be like, ‘No, not this one.’ His attitude was tenacious and enthusiastic about all the aspects of the role, including the physical.”
After a while, even Ford eventually got a bit worn down, like when he was tossed around over and over again.
“When you’re 79 years old, just getting thrown to the ground is its own trauma,” Mangold says. “Harrison is not unlike Indy in the sense he’s carrying with him the scars of all the films he’s made — as well as his own private calamities. He is literally this embodiment of all those bruises, broken bones and being bounced off walls and being thrown to the floor over so many years. As any actor or stuntman will tell you, this stuff takes its toll — especially when the director keeps going, ‘One more time!’ Harrison turned to me at one point and he said, ‘That’s the last time I’m falling down for you!’”
What was equally impressive to the director was the way Ford processed the day-to-day elements of filmmaking and thought deeply about his character and how Indy would react to the situations he’d found himself in.
“You recognize what profound instincts he has — not just as an actor, but also his understanding of how to use the camera,” he says. “Movie acting is like 3D chess. There’s so much more than just the truth of the performance but also tailoring it to the frame and knowing what’s going to work. What I thought was most refreshing was — and I can’t say I found this surprising because his body of work represents this so fully — is you sense he’s working every moment to undermine the bullshit of the scene. He looks for ways to make it more like life, mess up the false moments and to take the piss out of his own character. He’s got this great sense of how to be a hero and how to undermine the tropes of heroism at the same time. How to walk on that tightrope is something you see him thinking about all day long; how to kind of play against the obvious grain in the scene. Also, how to kind of find humor where you might not think there would be humor. These gifts are a hallmark of his work.”