The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones – Oganga, the Giver and Taker of Life
Written by Frank Darabont (Story by George Lucas)
Directed by Simon Wincer
Edited by T.M. Christopher from Episodes 6 (“German East Africa, December 1916”) and 7 (“Congo, January 1917”)
Formats Available: VHS and DVD as Chapter 11, Disc 4, The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Volume Two – The War Years
December 1916: As World War I enters its third year with no end in sight to the slaughter of millions in Europe, Henry Walton Jones, Jr. (Sean Patrick Flannery), also known as Indiana Jones, is a young and brash officer in the Belgian Army. Because America was still neutral when the then 16-year-old boy enlisted, Indy is known by most of his comrades and his commanders as Lt. Henri Defense.
After some harrowing experiences in the trenches of the Western Front, Indy and his Belgian friend Remy Baudouin (Ronny Coutteure) have been transferred to Africa, where the European powers have established colonies. And even though the variety of terrain, vast expanses and dangers of all sorts of the “Dark Continent” limits the fighting from being as massively bloody as the “main war” in Europe, the effects of the global conflict are felt even in the thickest, hottest and disease ridden jungles of German East Africa and the Belgian Congo.
With their temporary sojourn with Frederick Selous and his 25th Frontiersman Battalion, Royal Fusiliers behind them, Indy and Remy have joined up with a Belgian Army unit commanded by Major Boucher (Michel Duchaussoy), an overbearing martinet of an officer who is more interested in dishing out strict discipline to his mostly-black soldiers than he is in demonstrating inspired leadership.
Boucher is not only a typically tyrannical colonial army officer who cares more about his personal prestige as a commander than the welfare of the Ubangi tribesmen who have been conscripted into the Army, but he also doesn’t like Lt. “Defense” very much. He thinks Indy is too reckless, insolent toward his superiors (especially Major Boucher) and isn’t ruthless enough to think like a real soldier.
His dislike for the young lieutenant comes to the fore when, during an attack on a German strongpoint in German East Africa, Indy ignores Boucher’s order to retreat and attacks a machine gun nest in an almost suicidal headlong rush. (Indy, who has been a soldier for more than a year, noticed the machine gun had jammed and saw a rare opportunity to lead a furious but successful attack on the German position.)
Boucher wants Lt. Defense to be court-martialed, but news of the young man’s daring actions have flowed up the chain of command and Indy receives a battlefield promotion to captain.
As the furious Boucher is digesting this bit of unwelcome news, his superiors order him to travel down the Ogooué River to a French outpost near the Atlantic coast of Africa to retrieve a shipment of badly-needed guns from Britain. Indy and Remy, who is a lieutenant, are also part of Boucher’s command, which consists of a company of African enlisted men and NCOs, with a handful of Belgian (white) field officers to lead them on the trek to the port city of Port-Gentil in French Equatorial Africa.
For Indy, this mission into Africa’s heart of darkness will be a dangerous challenge unlike any other he has faced before. Not only must he deal with the resentful and cruel demeanor of Maj. Boucher, but he also has to contend with the actions of one of his Ubangi NCOs, Sgt. Barthelmy (Isaach De Bankolé) when the latter disobeys an order from Boucher and takes under his care a young toddler (Mark Kaigwa), the sole survivor of a plague which decimated an entire Ubangi village.
Naturally, this act of insubordination enrages Boucher, who wants Barthelmy strongly disciplined. Indy, however, sides with the sergeant and ends up relieving Boucher of his command in what amounts to be a mutiny.
Now, even as the deposed major fumes furiously, Indy still has to lead the unit to Port-Gentil and the precious cargo of guns. The mission still needs to be carried out, but the young captain faces many dangers, including the tropical heat, the rough terrain, hungry crocodiles and a deadly plague which is decimating his new command. Will Capt. Defense overcome all these obstacles? Or will the African jungle and its many dangers consume him…and his men?
My Take: Although I vaguely remembered seeing at least one of the two episodes from which Oganga, The Giver and Taker of Life was crafted, I did not see the whole story until I purchased the The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Volume Two – The War Years box set in 2007.
When I watched this 11th Chapter in the Indiana Jones saga, the first thing I noticed was that both halves had the same writer-director team of Frank Darabont and Simon Wincer; many of the other chapters have different writers and directors due to the way in which The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones had been revamped by T.M. Christopher back in 1996, but this movie actually flows seamlessly and coherently, helped, in some measure, by the fact that the two episodes had originally aired on ABC one week apart in April of 1993.
Though Darabont’s script (based on a story by George Lucas) is an original teleplay, it draws a lot of inspiration from two sources: Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella, and John Huston’s 1951 The African Queen. Both of these are set in colonial Africa, and savvy viewers will probably recognize themes and situations that have been cleverly adapted to fit into the Indiana Jones mythology.
As in all the Young Indiana Jones stories, our future archaeologist/soldier of fortune meets a historical figure relevant to the time, setting and theme of the movie. Here, German actors Friedrich von Thun (Schindler’s List) and Isolde Barth (The Marriage of Maria Braun) play Dr. Albert Schweitzer and his wife Helene.
The Schweitzers run a hospital on the banks of the Ogooué River; its sole purpose is to offer humanitarian and medical assistance to a region which lacks most of the basic sanitary and health care services available to Europeans and Americans in their home countries. Dr. Schweitzer, who would later be honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, nurses Indiana Jones back to health after the young man falls gravely ill during his trek to Port-Gentil.
Along the way, the physician/author/religious thinker/musician and humanitarian teaches Indy his “Reverence for Life” philosophy and its basic tenets to do what helps, not hurts, human life and dignity.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this could have easily been a didactic and overlong TV-movie. Stories about “doing the right thing” and “coping with prejudices and hatred” are a dime a dozen in films aimed at young viewers. These life-lesson flicks tend to be told in a simplistic, cloying and cliché-ridden fashion.
Fortunately, Frank Darabont is a skilled storyteller who writes character-driven tales in a naturalistic, believable fashion. Yes, when Schweitzer talks to Indy about choosing actions that benefit his fellow humans it sounds like a homily. Yet, it’s not one of those dull, mind-numbing and half-hearted ones given to a student by a boring instructor. Here, Schweitzer is like a second father to Indy, whose very difficult relationship with Prof. Henry Jones, Sr. has been further strained by the boy’s decision to forego college and join the Belgian Army.
Of the 22 chapters in The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones series, Oganga, The Giver and Taker of Life is one of my favorites. Sean Patrick Flannery gives a bravura performance as a young man forced to grow in maturity and wisdom by undergoing a hero’s set of trials in his adolescence. Flannery’s Indy bears a strong resemblance, character-wise, to Harrison Ford’s, and it’s easy to see why executive producer cast him in the role after the late River Phoenix declined to reprise the role he had played in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.