So where the hell is Boris?
George Lucas struck another blow for international relations with his depiction of the Soviet villain, Irna Spalko – clearly modeled, not after a real Soviet, but the 1950s cartoon character Natasha from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.
Lucas has a way of wasting the talents of very gifted actors like Cate Blanchett and Ray Winstone, by assigning them to one-dimensional characterizations such as those we find in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
This is partly what spoiled the Star Wars prequel as well.
Lucas relies on stereotypes, not characters, for his stage plays, and this saps strength from the mythological tales he is trying to tell.
The character Mac (George) McHale is a shadowy shape characterized mostly by his British access since little else about him is consistent enough for him to take any real form on the screen.
We never really get what he is: a double agent, a greedy capitalist or the one-time partner of Indy during their spy years in the 1940s.
“This ain’t gonna be easy,” he says in his opening lines after he and Indy are dumped in front of a top secret warehouse in Nevada
“Not as easy as it used to be,” Indy replies.
Then in example of false cheer, Mac says, “Well, we’ve been through worse.”
“Yeah, when?” Indy asks.
Mac recalls a time when they faced twice as many. Indy says, “We were younger.”
When Mac raises another case, Indy responds that they had guns, then tells Mac to put his hands down, “You’re embarrassing us.”
This characterization as an Indy’s side kick evaporates a short time later when Mac turns his gun on Indy, and claims to be a capitalist who isn’t going to go home empty handed this time.
The idea that Mac is working for the Soviets as a capitalist is intriguing but never really developed as Mac reappears in Peru to help the Soviets retrieve the skull that Indy and Mutt just recovered from a grave.
Mac’s character – meant to be intriguing – suffers another blow when he and Indy are alone in the tent and Mac drops clues Indy, and certainly not the audience, gets. Mac again serves the purposes of the Soviets to recapture Indy just after Indy gets out of the quick sand.
Mac, of course, convinces the remarkably gullible Indy that he really is a double agent during a jeep chase through the jungle so that Indy once more lets him go.
Later, Mac returns in the temple on the side of the soviets to the snide remark from Indy, who said, “What does this make you, a triple agent.”
Mac is a weak attempt to repeat the exploits of Dr. Schneider in The Last Crusade, but goes through too many changes for us to believe him or believe that the world-wise Indy believes him either.
Irna Spalko has even more problems as a character because the film relies on her to fill in the large shoes of past Indy villains. She is expected to do too much with too little. In the Raiders of the Lost Ark, her role was broken up as villain between characters – the Nazi sadist, the fallen archeologist, even the German General. We get a similar structure in The Last Crusade where the female village is part of a group of villains. While we get a similar structure in Crystal Skull with Mac, Spalko and a Soviet soldier (who looks like the German soldier in Saving Private Ryan), most of the burden falls on Spalko’s shoulders – and she is simply not up to the task.
In some ways, her character is as offensive to the Eastern Europeans as Jarjar’s was in the Star Wars series, depicting a particular race in with a negative or silly stereotype.
It is not that Lucas has any bias, but simply lacks imagination. All of his characters are basically stick figures based on questionable models. Spalko is Natasha from a cartoon developed during the heat of the Cold War when artists could still get away with making fund of the nation’s enemies.
The problem is times change and one-time enemies become if not pals, then uncomfortable allies, and depicting a people as evil becomes more difficult.
This was less of a problem for Lucas when Indy was confronting Nazis since even the German’s have disowned the Nazis.
But while Stalin may have been as evil as Hitler, many of those who follow in Stalin’s footsteps do not see themselves that way, and the Soviet society of the Cold War still largely exists, making Lucas’ presentation a bit offensive.
Irna Spalko becomes symbolic of a self-deluded society which pursues questionable science in order to dominate the world.
In her society, Spalko -- Stalin’s fair haired girl who doesn’t have fair hair – believes she has psychic power but each attempt to use it has the same result as when Doc Brown tries it in Back to the Future.
Indy, in fact, seems to be more intuitive than she is.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” he asks when still prisoner in front of the warehouse.
“Where would you imagine I am from, Dr. Jones?” Spalko asks in her heavy accent.
“From the way you’re sinking your teeth into those wubby U’s, I should think maybe Eastern Ukraine.
“Highest marks,” she says, then introduces herself and her resume of accomplishments. “And why? Because I know things. I know them before anyone else. And what I do not know, I find out.”
The problem is that each time she attempts to use her so-called powers, she fails.
In early scene, she seeks to read Indy’s brain for the information she needs.
“What I need to know now is in here,” she says and points to his forehead as she stares into his eyes until Indy laughs and she slaps his checks lightly.
“You’re a hard man to read, Dr. Jones,” she says.
He mockingly says, “Ouch.”
“So,” she says, putting back on her long rubber glove, “we will do this – what is the expression? – the old fashion way.”
Indy does lead her to what she wants, after Mac betrays him – although for the most part the whole episode really was pointless since the crystal skull she seeks isn’t there, only one of the Roswell aliens Indy helped find in 1947.
Although we see Soviet agents later, Spalko doesn’t reappear until Peru where she once again is aided by Mac in collecting the crystal skull.
She also needs Indy because she lacks some necessary psychic ability to communicate with the skull.
“The skull – it appears – doesn’t not speak to everybody,” she says.
Lucas has turned Indy’s professor buddy Harold Oxley into another Yoda, someone whose communication with the skull has forced into speaking in riddles. Indy must communicate with the skull in order to communicate with Oxley so that Spalko can find the Lost City where she expects to tap the powers of the skull so that the soviets can control the world.
“Imagine to peer across the world and know the enemy’s secrets, to place our thoughts into the minds of your leaders, make your teachers teach the true version of history, your soldiers attack on our command,” she said after she forced Indy to look into the skull, imagining the Soviets as everywhere at once and all powerful, invading their enemies dreams, thinking their enemies thoughts for them while they sleep. “We will change you, Dr. Jones – all of you – from the inside. We will turn you into us. And the best part you won’t even know it’s happening.”
Oddly enough this speech highlights one of the film’s significant inconsistencies. While the film seems to mock the anti-communist crusade that ruined the careers of so many talented people in the 1950s, Lucas paints a picture that suggests the anti-communists were right, perhaps believing the hype Ronald Reagan later gave Lucas’ Star Wars when comparing the Soviet Union to the Evil Empire.
Indy proves more of a visionary by warning Spalko that she might get what she wishes for, and as typical in the Indy films, she does, ending up not much differently from the fallen archeologist of the first Indy film.
Spalko doesn’t evoke the same regret we get from Balock in the first film because she isn’t as real. We only get hints of her need to make the connection with the other world, and the film would have been much better had she shown other sides of her character the way Balock does in the tavern scene where he tries to convince Indy to come to the dark side of the force.
In the end, she gets what we expect. We don’t cheer. We don’t feel any more regret at her passing than we would for one of the red ants she crushes between her knees. Had she been better characterized, or had a Boris to help her take on some of the role as villain, the film would have been much better. Mac just doesn’t cut the mustard the way supporting villain characters had in the other Indy films.