The prime-time Pancho Villa is a dashing figure. The Mexican revolutionary hero, who shows up in the first episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, battles gringos, champions the poor and makes inspiring speeches about the land. Yet his followers are an unsavory bunch who steal food from the peasants they are fighting to protect. "In a revolution, it's people who suffer," sighs a toothless old man whose chicken has been snatched. "All over the world, revolutions come and go. Presidents rise and fall. They all steal your chickens."
Indiana Jones, George Lucas' whip-wielding superhero, battled just about everything from giant boulders to sinister Nazis in three hugely successful movies. But those exploits pale beside Lucas' daring in bringing his popular character to television. His new ABC series, which begins next week, follows the exploits of young Indy as he travels the world with his father, a college professor, and encounters some of the most famous people and events of the early 20th century. Indy serves as a courier at the Battle of Verdun, meets the young Picasso in Paris, goes big-game hunting with Teddy Roosevelt, matches wits with Sigmund Freud and even has a hot romance with Mata Hari. There are thrills and chills, but also -- here's where the derring-do comes in -- a dose of history, philosophy and social commentary. As young Indy might put it, "Holy smokes!"
Chances are The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles wouldn't be allowed near a network prime-time schedule if it weren't for the name above the title. Lucas, who also created the Star Wars movie trilogy, is one of a growing cadre of ! top-drawer film directors who are dabbling in the long-scorned medium of television. Oliver Stone, fresh from eight Oscar nominations for his conspiracy drama JFK, is creating a six-hour series for ABC; Stone will disclose no details, but describes the series as "Twin Peaksy." Steven Spielberg is working on Class of '61 (also for ABC), a two-hour movie about the graduating class at West Point in 1861, which is the pilot for a potential series. Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Bugsy) is developing a TV movie about Baltimore cops for NBC. David Lynch, whose Twin Peaks helped launch the current wave of filmmakers experimenting in TV, is producing a new comedy series for ABC, On the Air, about a TV station in the 1950s.
The barrier that once separated feature films and TV has been crumbling for several years. Directors like Walter Hill (48 Hours) and Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) have done episodes for HBO's Tales from the Crypt. John Sayles (Eight Men Out) created Shannon's Deal, a lawyer series for NBC, and Spielberg ventured into series TV several years ago with his fantasy anthology Amazing Stories. Yet many filmmakers of the first rank still regard TV as a second-class medium. The chief drawbacks: less time to work, less money to spend and more restrictions on style and subject matter.