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The History of Harrison Ford

He doesn’t want to fight, but he will

Ringer illustration

He really doesn’t want to fight. Crouched on the wing of a grounded fighter plane tracing figure eights in the sweltering desert sand, Indiana Jones is already bleeding after dispatching a Nazi mechanic who’d attacked him with a wrench. That guy was a middleweight; now the German’s shirtless coworker—exponentially bigger and balder, a Teutonic King Kong Bundy—wants a piece of the two-fisted archaeologist. Of course he does: The organizing principle of Raiders of the Lost Ark is that no matter how bad things get for its hero, they can always get worse. And of course Indy accepts the challenge, but not before hanging his head in a way that says, without putting the film’s PG rating in jeopardy, “Fuck this shit.”

Paradoxically, it is the tired, desultory side of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones—the part that hates snakes, can’t land planes, and expediently brings a gun to a sword fight—that makes him such an enduring figure. Case in point: After exhausting a pro-wrestling-heel-style bag of tricks and still getting pummeled by his towering rival, our distinguished hero’s finishing move is to duck and cover while the guy gets shredded by a fortunately placed airplane propeller. Later in the film, tied to a stake as the wrath of God swirls around him, Dr. Jones survives by having the peace of mind to just close his eyes and wait it out. The Indiana Jones series is filled with such set pieces, in which lucky breaks—or is it divine intervention?—spare a character whose strength and stamina are, comparatively speaking, nothing special. The reason we love Indy isn’t because he’s exceptional, or even because, like his ’80s franchise contemporary Rocky Balboa, he won’t stay down. It’s because he doesn’t want to get up. In turn, the real genius of Ford’s acting exists in the split second before he peels himself off of the canvas. Somewhere, Bruce Willis and a host of bone-weary, die-hard Gen-X action heroes were taking notes.

Writing about Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, Roger Ebert praised Indiana Jones for being “dry, fearless, and as indestructible as a cartoon coyote.” It’s a concise and persuasive summation that’s also arguable on every point. One could just as easily say that the character is a sweaty, eminently flappable bundle of nerves who spends as much time licking wounds as inflicting them. The comparison to Wile E. Coyote rings truest in that Indy is driven by an obsessive sense of purpose that hinges on fanatical mania, and also in the fact that he never gets to keep what he catches. (All together now: “It belongs in a museum!”) Where a smooth operator like James Bond exults in the license afforded by his gig, Indy’s tendency to exceed his job’s largely campus-bound parameters—sabbaticals spent penetrating forbidden tombs or infiltrating ancient death cults—is more of a curse than a gift. He can’t help himself, and he doesn’t really enjoy himself either; on the rare occasions when he smiles, it’s less a world-beating grin than a crumpled expression of relief.

The story goes that George Lucas didn’t want Ford for Raiders because he was worried that the actor was too familiar to audiences as Han Solo in Star Wars. The production almost cast a then-semi-unknown Tom Selleck in the part, only to be thwarted when CBS green-lit the debut season of Magnum, P.I. Duly outmaneuvered, Steven Spielberg and Lucas pivoted back to their sure thing. One interesting proviso in Ford’s three-picture deal with Paramount was that he had the right to rewrite his dialogue, a detail harkening back to the stories of him razzing Lucas on the set of Star Wars about the movie’s script. “George, you can type this shit, but you can’t say it,” he’d snarked. The jokes were all in good fun (supposedly), but watching him in Raiders, you can sense some of the same edgy skepticism, wielded as expertly and judiciously as a bullwhip. The only thing more consistent than Indy’s habit of stumbling into supernatural situations is his reluctance to believe his own eyes.

Steely reticence is Ford’s hallmark as an actor, and it’s a quality that extends beyond the screen. For decades now, journalists and profile writers have pointed out that Ford rarely, if ever, watches his own movies, usually as a preamble for contextualizing his reluctance to talk about (or even around) the work, to say nothing of his private life. “I could spend all day listening to Harrison Ford try to find ways to stop me from asking him things,” wrote Chris Heath in a 2017 GQ cover story that’s probably the most entertaining feature about Ford ever written because of the author’s willingness to play ball with his subject’s refusal to do the same. Rather than getting frustrated with Ford’s congenital side-stepping of anything like a direct question, Heath grants the icon—at that point midway through his 70s and walking off the effects of a much-publicized airplane crash—his personal space, and emerges with a portrait in which grouchiness is suffused by a kind of grace. “One key to understanding [Ford],” Heath offers sagely, “is that the face he often presents to the world, that no-nonsense pragmatism, hides not cynicism but its opposite.”

The Han Solo of the original Star Wars trilogy is probably the purest vessel for Ford’s brand of veiled optimism, with “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” serving as a marvelously double-edged catchphrase. With Han, who shoots first and asks questions later, bad feelings are the stuff that dreams are made of. And, with apologies to Raiders, The Empire Strikes Back contains his best blockbuster-scaled performance, subsuming rascally arrogance into irresistible gestures of self-sacrificial heroism, whether venturing out in the snow to rescue a frostbitten Luke or putting on a brave face for Leia before getting frozen in carbonite—an indelibly creepy image that temporarily transforms the series’ most vital, red-blooded character into his own tragic monument, as if anticipating the anxieties around entrapment and typecasting that plagued the Star Wars ensemble at the height of their popularity.

Symbolically, the release of Raiders in between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi gave Ford a chance to shed his Han Solo persona while the character stayed in stasis, while Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner manifested as its own formidable sort of actorly challenge: After spending so much time bouncing off of lovable androids in the Star Wars movies, now Ford was playing a character bent on asserting his own humanity by killing them off. Or was he? If it’s possible for a great movie to be an uncertain one—or for its greatness to be a by-product of that same intractability—Blade Runner fits the bill. Depending on which cut of the movie you’re watching, Ford’s Deckard either is or isn’t the very thing he’s hunting—Schrödinger’s replicant—and for years, stories circulated that the actor and his director didn’t agree on the answer to that particular question.

The greatest compliment that one could give to Ford’s performance in Blade Runner is that he internalized the script’s mysteries and honored them, regardless of his personal feelings about the character’s biology (or lack thereof). Deckard’s muted, enervated presence allows for both possibilities while also connecting to a larger legacy of rumpled, self-divided noir heroes. Crucially, in the movie’s mano-a-mano climax, Ford—who at that point was the biggest box office draw in Hollywood—permits himself to take a dive against Rutger Hauer’s pumped-up Roy Batty, riffing on Indiana Jones’s vulnerability in a movie notably light on Spielbergian exuberance.

Throughout the 1980s, Ford never ventured too far from his lucrative contractual obligations. By the decade’s end, his twin trilogies had made him the highest-grossing movie star of all time. As such, he had the freedom to team up with the unpredictable Australian director Peter Weir on a pair of dramas that pushed his skill set in subtle and unexpected directions. (“I always thought that the idea of commercial success was simply to allow you the option to do things that you wanted to do,” Ford told The Ringer earlier this year). At a glance, 1985’s Witness was pure genre formula, a big-city cop investigating the murder of an undercover colleague; the twist that Ford’s incorruptible John Book (as in “by the”) ends up waylaid during his investigation in Pennsylvanian Amish country allows Weir to push reset on the plot and Ford to activate a different kind of leading-man charisma, no longer pushing the story forward but recalibrating his own rhythms.

What sells Witness is John’s slow-burning, eventually protective curiosity for a placid, self-contained lifestyle that both pales beside and exceeds his seen-it-all adventures. (“I’m learning a lot about manure,” he cracks at one point. “Very interesting.”) In a different way than the Star Wars or Raiders films, with their stunts and fight sequences, Witness offered Ford an outdoorsy, physical role, and he drew on his own background in carpentry to help hammer home John’s immersion in simple, hands-on pleasures. The film scored Ford his first and only Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and it was deserved; staring down a gawking tourist who’s out to embarrass his adoptive community, John turns the other cheek as far as it’ll go before a little Indiana Jones slips out. Once a crowd-pleaser, always a crowd-pleaser.

In The Mosquito Coast, Ford produces an even more beguiling variation on the idea of a man who finds himself by retreating from society—this time, dragging others along on the path toward self-actualization. His Allie Fox is an alienated, impossibly gifted inventor who moves his family to Belize and attempts—with a mixture of hubris and humility—to erect a utopian civilization free of the corrupting influences of industrial capitalism and missionary Christianity; a paradise in his own libertarian image. The spine of the film lies in Allie’s stubborn, symbolically coded relationship with his son, Charlie, brilliantly played by River Phoenix, who, a few years later, would incarnate the young Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade. Playing a self-willed social outcast took Ford outside his comfort zone. His acting in The Mosquito Coast tiptoes along a voluble fault line of contempt, but even when Allie isn’t likable, he’s so convinced of his own righteousness that he’s magnetic: It’s not only believable that he’d draw people to his cause, but also that they’d stick.

The commercial failure of The Mosquito Coast was both predictable and disheartening, and by the ’90s, Ford had made a home inside some other franchises, playing CIA crack shot Jack Ryan in a pair of Tom Clancy adaptations and helping to turn Andrew Davis’s adaptation of the ’60s television series The Fugitive into an unexpected box office smash. Despite the film’s aspirations to credible, everyday realism, Ford’s Dr. Richard Kimble is as cartoonishly indestructible as Indiana Jones, and also oddly self-effacing considering how his trajectory from wrongfully accused wife-killer to high-profile man on the lam drives the movie forward. On the level of performance, the film is much more of a showcase for Tommy Lee Jones, whose dogged federal marshal Samuel Gerard dominates the scenes he’s in and even the ones he isn’t (you can always feel him somewhere just beyond the frame, steadily encroaching). Ford even cedes Jones the movie’s signature line (that deadpan, hands-up “I don’t care”) during a drain-pipe showdown that once again proves that Ford is at his best when taking a dive.

Released opposite The Last Action Hero, The Fugitive was the sleeker and more agile blockbuster; while Arnold Schwarzenegger strained to spoof his self-image, Ford slipped effortlessly into a role proving his box office power beyond signature parts. But it also prefigured a period of badly chosen or indifferently received projects that spilled over into the next millennium. With the exception of Wolfgang Petersen’s gloriously stupid Air Force One—which paid due reverence to its star’s status by casting him as the president of the United States—the late ’90s and early 2000s were a dead zone for Ford. The grumpy charm he’d flashed as a corporate raider seduced by status-climber Melanie Griffith in Working Girl failed to spark in either Sabrina or Six Days, Seven Nights, misbegotten screwball throwbacks without commercial traction; as a Russian submarine commander in Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19: The Widowmaker, the actor seemed to be chasing Rocky and Bullwinkle. Only Robert Zemeckis’s What Lies Beneath, which dared to use him as a villain—like Richard Kimble if he really had tried to kill his wife—generated halfway interesting work; Ford’s semi-hiatus in the mid-2000s until the production of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull suggested an actor tired of cashing checks.

Unfortunately, the same goes for his performance in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which, with the exception of its surreal, Indy-gets-fridged set piece, is a weirdly convictionless movie. Even with John Williams’s theme blaring in the background, it plays the notes and not the music. Ford seems none too chuffed to be there, nor to hand the prospective torch to Shia LaBeouf, a less credible heir to the character than River Phoenix. This time around, the jokes about Dr. Jones’s fatigue with running through jungles and chasing otherworldly artifacts felt more like a veiled confession of the filmmakers’ boredom.

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull kick-started what might be called the victory lap segment of Ford’s career, as his status as one of the only American actors with multiple Hall of Fame alter egos intersected with Hollywood’s increasing reliance on reupholstering old intellectual properties. In both Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Blade Runner 2049, Ford made ceremonial appearances designed to bridge the narrative and actual gaps between past and present—an ambassador of nostalgic goodwill uniting skeptical diehards and eager initiates.

If Ford seemed out of it in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Force Awakens finds him in fine, wide-awake form—now perfectly happy to say the shit that George Lucas’s protege, J.J. Abrams, typed for him, and to die the hero’s death that Han escaped way back in Empire. Meanwhile, Blade Runner 2049 draws gravitas from his slumped, sweaty physicality opposite ramrod Ryan Gosling.

It takes a long time for Ford to show up in Blade Runner 2049, but it’s worth the wait, with director Denis Villeneuve juxtaposing his septuagenarian star against images of a ruined, fallen Las Vegas—a relic among relics, contemplating his own durability and potential obsolescence. “I had your job once,” Deckard tells Gosling’s K. “I was good at it.” The movie-star subtext is unmistakable, but the point of the scene—and the performance—is that when he wants to be, Ford is still good at his job. If the prospect of a fifth, as-yet-untitled Indiana Jones movie is wearying to contemplate, it’ll be worth it if we get one more moment as good as Indy putting up his dukes one more time, in spite of himself. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.