Harrison Ford is firmly established as the quintessential American screen hero. Rugged, individualistic, dependable. he can be relied upon to protect the Ark of the Covenant. defeat the forces of Darth Vadar and emerge unscathed from the Temple of Doom. Five out ofthe nine most popular films ofall time feature Ford in his guise as either maverick space cowboy Han Solo or bullwhip-totin‘ archaeologist IndianaJones.
Being so firmly associated with one type ofcharacter brings its financial rewards and concomitant artistic frustrations. It is not altogether surprising. although still disheartening, that the American viewing public have failed to accept Ford in his latest screen incarnation as the crazed. obsessive. fatally autocratic inventor Allie Fox in the film of Paul Theroux‘s The Mosquito Coast. An Indiana Jones film can count its audience in hundreds of millions ofdollars. Mosquito Coast has earned a comparatively insignificant $13 million in America since its release there last year.
Ford has always conveyed a sense of no-nonsense dedication to his craft and presents a courteous. friendly persona that banishes any possible tag ofan untouchable screen God. He has chosen to stay out of the limelight and always interspersed his ‘action‘ roles with laudable ifoften misguided attempts to broaden his range and test his mettle. For instance. between the original Star Wars and The Empire
Strikes Back he tried his hand at an old-fashioned romance (Hanover Street). a Western comedy (The Frisco Kid) and appeared in Francis C oppola‘s Apocalypse Now. However. it was his performance in Peter Weir‘s Witness that irrevocably endorsed his credentials as an actor of distinct merit.
It was in the wake ofthe commercial success of Witness and his first Oscar nomination that Ford contemplated his next career move. The third Indiana Jones film was some way off and he was being deluged with scripts. ‘I can‘t really remember what things I was offered because I wasn‘t interested enough in them to choose them or. in many cases. to finish the script.’ he told me at a London press conference earlier this year. ‘I was looking for something which would contrast with what I‘d done in Witness, something thatwould offer the audience something different and something with some ambition, some aspect ofuniqueness and I found it in this screenplay. It took me a year or more to find something. Most ofwhat I read I‘m not interested in and a lot of what‘s offered to me I never read on account of the fact that the subject matter doesn‘t interest me, but it‘s a combination of a role and its place in a story and the people who are involved with it that leads me to a final decision.‘
In The Mosquito Coast, Ford‘s self-righteous inventor has become thoroughly disenchanted with what he views as the decline ofwestern civilisation. Contemporary Americans are the overfed,
ARRISON FORD CHANGING GEAR
Exploring new territory in his latest film, Harrison Ford
undercultured descendants of a once
proud people; people who once led the world and have now reduced their aspirations to winning TV game shows and having a nice day. On the premise that if you can‘t stand the society. get out ofthe country. Fox gathers his family and heads off to establish his own untainted paradise in a remote jungle where he will bring ice to the no doubt eternally grateful natives. However. as his dream becomes an obsession, Fox descends into madness and his maniacal actions endanger the lives of his nearest and dearest.
Casting Ford as Fox was an inspired notion of working against the grain, and allowing a performer steeped in the heroic tradition to explore the darker side of leadership and supposed invulnerability. ‘I knew it was going to be controversial.‘ Ford says. ‘That is very much a part ofwhat the appeal is in the character. He is finally. I suppose. not sympathetic but what I hope is that he will arouse enough empathy for people to find a way into the story. I think that there‘s a lot of positive aspects to his nature. He‘s got great imagination. great energy,
explains his move to Allan Hunter.
great commitment to a moral contruction, albeit ofhis own.‘
The unpalatable side of Allie Fox would seem worlds removed from the gentlemanly Mr Ford, but it is part of his actor‘s instinct to discover affinities with the characters he plays. ‘I have a lot ofexperience of being a son. of being a father, of a relationship with a wife. I have been a working man. I am a working man. so I understand that about him. I‘m an American. so I understand his criticisms of America and where they come from. So, there‘s a lot we share — and quite a bit that we don‘t; I‘ve never had experiences like that. I have never behaved in that way. On the other hand I use as much of myselfas possible in a part and to censor those parts of myselfthat are not appropriate to the character and to invent where there is no overlap.‘
Another part of Ford‘s technique is to build up his private biography of the character and create a background that may remain unknown to the audience. ‘I always like to have a little something secret about a character. something you don‘t quite reveal in the work itself. I have two about Allie Fox: one was
that he came from a wealthy family and the other was that he did believe in God, in a way. He says he went to Harvard but that he left in order to get an education. Well, I wonder how he got to Harvard, that belies a certain background and also much of what we are we define in opposition to what we come from. I think you can‘t rail so much about God and his lack of. ifyou will. proper behaviour ifyou don’t believe in him to start with. You can‘t argue a premise that you won‘t grant.‘
A character with the sophistication of Allie Fox would seem to present an actor with a far more satisfying job ofinterpretation than say Indiana Jones or Han Solo. but Ford is quick to deny such a patronising notion. ‘In some ways its easier to play a character that has so much complexity. It‘s like trying to fill a big room with an accordion band or a large orchestra where you can bring up the violins and tinkle the brass. . . you‘ve a lot more to work with. That is not to say that I don‘t enjoy playing other less complicated characters. What I enjoy is the job ofwork itself, of taking a page ofscript and working with other people to make a movie out ofit. I enjoy that just as much when it‘s a different kind of film. I go through the same mental process.‘
Ford spends halfof the year in Los Angeles and the other half on his property in Wyoming with his wife Melissa Matheson. the Oscar-winning scriptwriter of E. T. He has now settled into a familiar routine of makingjust one film a year and has already finalised his choice for 1987 before commencing work on Indiana Jones 3 in January of 1988. He appears to hold no qualms about returning to his most famous characterisation once more. ‘It‘s an entertainment that gives pleasure to a lot of people and it gives me pleasure to work with Steven (Spielberg) and George (Lucas). As long as it doesn‘t limit my opportunities to do other kinds of films, I‘m happy to do it.‘
In his twenty-year career Ford has worked with an impressive roster of directorial talent and has forged mutually productive partnerships with both Spielberg and now Peter Weir. He finds it likely that there will be a further reunion with Weir in the wake of The Mosquito Coast. One possibility that he does rule out is the notion of taking over the directorial responsibilities himself. ‘It‘s a director‘s medium.‘ he asserts. ‘Once I‘ve had a say in the choice ofa director then he becomes the director. I don‘t produce the films I‘m in, I work in a collaborative way. Directing is too hard. It takes too long. It takes a year. a year and a half for a director to set up and bring a film to completion. I‘m on a project for three or four months. six months at most, and it allows me some time for my private life which is important to me. Also. I haven‘t developed those skills which are necessary to direct. I‘m still interested in becoming a better actor.‘
The Mosquito ( ‘oast opens at Odeons in Glasgow and Edinburgh on March 27. See Cinema Listings
4 The List 20 March — 2 April