After playing a space smuggler and an adventurous archaeologist, viewers of the drama Witness (1985) saw Harrison Ford outside franchise entertainment in a steadfast Oscar-nominated performance as John Book, an undercover cop laying low in an Amish town.
“You know carpentry?” asks co-star Kelly McGillis.
“Yeah,” growls Ford, in his usual laconic way, “a bit…”
Nearly 40 years on, his comment raises a smile.
Ford’s time as a carpenter between acting jobs in the early days of his career is almost as well-known as some of his and cinema’s most memorable characters that have helped form an unrivaled filmography and have set the precedent for all blockbuster-heroes since. But who could have known that before Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Rick Deckard, Richard Kimble, Jack Ryan, and the many other iconic screen heroes that will stand the test of time as immortal paragons in the Hollywood canon, that this subsidiary occupation of wood-work would be Ford’s greatest asset in creating characters that will live and be loved forever.
Ford’s approach to acting is all about “humanity.” And like any artful carpenter or skilled craftsperson, he constructs with care from the humanity within, always with authenticity.
But starting out in the late 1960s, when Ford was a television actor, heroes in Hollywood appeared very different. His supporting guest roles in shows like The Virginian (1966) or Gunsmoke (1972) were there to prop up the one-note ranch hands and cowboys of their day, with the shadow of the faithful-yet-formulaic Western falling large over genre entertainment and its leading men. It would take a post-war baby-boom generation of talent in the likes of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola — dissatisfied with the cut-out characters coming from their predecessors and disgusted by the likes of the Vietnam War, that would help usher in a new vanguard into entertainment — one that seemed truer, realer and more dimensional.
It was Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) about a lost young generation that gave Ford his breakthrough moment as the sardonic racer Bob Falfa, whose flashing smile at the traffic lights, despite his small screen time, promised overflowing stardom yet to be tapped into.
Afterwards Ford became the screen-testing line-feeder when it came to auditions for a strange space caper called Star Wars (1977) but it must have been the actor’s insouciant charisma and smoldering devil-may-care presence in his speed demon turn as Falfa that proved to Lucas as the precursor to the first of Ford’s many iconic roles. With Han Solo, the former carpenter brought the rough with the smooth in the creation of a galaxy weary spice smuggler whose cynical snarky attitude was the carapace around a heart of gold. In some ways, he was the cowboy of yesteryear, shooting down scurvy scoundrels in cantinas to riding to the rescue in the last act of a story about good vs. evil; only this time Ford brought to life a Cambellian dimension as the reluctant hero who was unwilling to rise to the occasion of heroism. Paired with Luke’s dreamy earnestness in the mystical force and Leia’s diplomatic designs, Solo was a guy just trying to get by, in it for the credits before discovering his innate goodness.
The eldest among him, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher, Ford brought an adult level of gravitas as the straight man in a surreal world, becoming an anchor for audiences to clinch to when believing in a galaxy far far away. His salt-of-the-earth charm and cocksure charisma – a smirk here, a shrug there – paired with the risible galaxy he found himself in, filled with seven-foot dogs to strange samurai space wizards – is the perfectly pitched performance of an actor bringing a lived-in verisimilitude to life in the high-flying whiz bang adventure of Star Wars. Solo’s humanity was only capitalized in the sequel to the smash hit phenomenon of George Lucas’s space opera with its acclaimed episode five, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) where Ford’s witty Bogey-Bacall-like banter with Fisher’s Leia reached heart fluttering heights. His freezing in carbonite was not only the emotional lynchpin of that film’s cliff-hanger ending, but his eventual thawing in Return of the Jedi (1983) the third in the original trilogy, embraced a softer, somewhat sillier side to the smuggler turned Rebellion general…
After three films, Solo had finally wrestled with his reluctance to embrace humanity.
It is that reluctance, however, that makes Solo the most human of the trio and is the winning trademark to Ford’s interpretation of what modern cinematic heroism should be. One that is imperfect, challenged and tested at all times. Though this may seem obvious now, Ford’s interpretation was novel from the majority of flat hieratic leading men of the early 80s, from the steroidal meathead of Rambo to the cold, impregnable Terminator, both of whom seemed all to sure and invulnerable on their judicial crusades. Indeed, this integral quality of reluctance can be found in Ford’s other iconic role as Indiana Jones, the adventuring archaeologist whose first outing in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) shows him unwilling to believe in the mystical hocus pocus that surrounds the ark of the covenant. It is Ford’s worldly screen presence as an actor, his tactile knack that comes from being a carpenter, that helps to concretize these globe-trotting serials. Like the dexterous piloting skills of Solo in the millennium falcon, Ford as Indy is exceptionally hands on, cracking a whip, throwing a punch, but also being punched and pummeled himself. He was a fallible hero who would sweat and bleed and bruise, but would still get up and fight till the job of getting that sought-after MacGuffin was rightly in a museum, where it belonged. It was these visceral showdowns between rival archaeologists, deranged cultists and closet Nazis that delivered genuine peril for Ford, who helped to sell it, suspending the audience’s disbelief – from doing much of his own stunts while still managing to give the audience a good time by playing up the visual splendor that Steven Spielberg brought to these films with the slapstick Buster Keaton-esque skits in the series, from fleeing a rumbling boulder to rag-tag fights on charging trucks and tanks.
These two tent-pole franchises where Ford was front and center made him the bankable name he is today. It allowed him to push his craft into smaller, edgier art-house territory.
In cult classic neo-noir Blade Runner (1982) Ford molded the gum-shoe private eye archetype of a replicant hunter into a substantial, stoic man of sensitivity whose resistance to sensual intimacy and companionship through his illicit relationship with replicant Rachel (Sean Young) erodes into an into-the-sunset splendor. Once again Ford is the palpable human touchstone, the third in his three most iconic roles. In consecutive years you had Empire Strikes Back (1980) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Blade Runner (1982) – perhaps the greatest home run in the history of Hollywood. From each hero in this holy trinity Ford captures an idealized version of an everyman, one who isn’t necessarily who we know we are but who we wish we were – like us he can be grumpy, aloof, fallible and vulnerable, but the Ford screen persona is also cool-head, quick-witted, self-sufficient and reliable. Without his trademark finger points, curmudgeon front and handsome lopsided grin that is marvelously meta in suggesting to the audience that his characters know just as well as you do as to how bizarre the situations he finds himself in, the pinnacles of fantasy filmmaking would come crumbling down without Ford as their reluctant good-doing harbinger, forever the audience’s entry point, allowing us to retreat into the finest escapist films imaginable.
But Ford is an actor who likes to keep things fresh, as his intuitional talent at improvisation will attest, from his loaded “I know” to Fisher’s Leia in Empire (1980) to his simple shooting at a sword-twirling bandit in Raiders (1981). Indeed, there has always been an independent sigma-minded quality to Ford’s roles as there is to the man himself, and it should be said there is a host of compelling non-franchise performances in his career that deliver equal amounts of pathos and well-rounded humanity in interesting and inspired choices of projects, from Eco drama The Mosquito Coast (1986) to Euro Thriller Frantic (1988) and The Fugitive (1993) from heart-breaking vulnerability in Regarding Henry (1991) to the heart-racing darker psychological side of humanity in Presumed Innocent (1990) and What Lies Beneath (2000) to comedic roles from Working Girl (1988) and later on in Morning Glory (2010).
But it is Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Blade Runner that continue to grip generational imaginations, that speak to us all the most. Both actor and his fans are currently enjoying a renaissance, or – to use a unique coinage from this writer’s mind — a “Fordnaissance” with the reprise of his three iconic characters in long-awaited sequels to Ford’s gold tier franchises. His recent presence back in our cinemas is not only a comfort to generation x that first grew up with his screen adventures but a delight to new fans alike, no doubt ensorcelled by each character’s on-going substantial human struggle to embrace their hidden heroism, a journey which made these characters so iconic in the first place – refreshing in an age of Marvel’s meretricious splurge of invulnerable superheroes who, like the vacuous cowboys of yesteryear, have no time to struggle for anything, too busy off to their next team-up movie.
One suspects Ford’s return is partly motivated in bringing back the lost art of humanity to cinema’s marquee entertainment, along with acknowledging his unique legacy that has spoken to millions of fans over the years, as euphoric tearful responses to the “Chewie, we’re home” trailer for The Force Awakens (2015) suggests, where audiences first glimpsed Ford’s older silver-haired Solo over 30 years on since Return of Jedi (1983). Looking just as cool, scruffy-looking and galaxy weary as ever, Solo was back to his old smuggling tricks; he hadn’t stagnated in the eternal galactic triumph some fans might have presumed (or hoped for) at the end of the original trilogy, but had lived a life to the full, honoring all the necessary highs and lows. What followed in the film was the scoundrel going on a final journey of maturation, consoling with Leia, fighting the good fight and begrudgingly taking on the responsibility of helping a new generation of heroes before cinema’s lovable nerf header took a final bow in his confrontation with his dark-side son Ben Solo/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Yes, much to Ford’s pleasure, Solo would die for a good narrative cause, hammering in his corporeal intentions as a performer. But the greatest scene in Rise of Skywalker (2019) shows how impactful Ford was on the recent Star Wars sequels. His cheek touch with Driver’s Ben cements Solo’s relatable journey of overcoming reluctance and embracing humanity. It is this gesture of love that ultimately saves the galaxy.
Blade Runner 2045 (2017) doubled down on Ford’s artistic philosophy of humanizing heroes, with the reclusive grizzled Deckard finding the gall and hotspur to deny the offered clone of his dearly departed Rachel. His prizing of truth and authenticity is the small bright spot of hope in this nihilistic future, forgoing the superficial simulacrum that K (Ryan Gosling) is only too happy to partake in with holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) — Deckard would rather suffer the fallout of Rachel’s demise, drinking whisky and listening to Sinatra to soothe his pains. He himself seems like a stranded saloon singer hauled up in Las Vegas without enough fire to spark his torch song to life. His reasoning is bittersweet but truthful, cutting right to the viewer’s soul: “Sometimes, to love someone, you gotta be a stranger”. All of this reaches the most touching and rewarding of dénouements in recent cinema with Ford playing out years of emotional turbulence, relief and parental pride in seconds as he sees his adult daughter for the first time, ending the film on this final image of belonging and connection…
And now we have the long-awaited Indiana Jones 5 to look forward to — the role that would probably come closest to being Ford’s favorite in his franchise oeuvre. There was of course an Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) that perhaps started this Fordnaissance. The film isn’t as bad as some would have you believe, with the actor tethering a gloriously entertaining B-movie with his earnest take as the seasoned, older archaeologist, no matter how many aliens and go-fers try to take it into dizzyingly outré heights. There are rumors its follow-up could be Ford’s final film before unimaginable retirement. It is certain to be his last Indy film and the closure of this Fordnaissance. He’ll be edging 81 when Indy 5 releases, but, to bring some Solo pluck to the conversation: never tell us the odds…
Safe to say Ford will be brilliant in his last crack of the whip – another heroic hurrah for the silver screen. For now, let’s celebrate this Fordnaissance, the fruits of a superlative legacy unlike any other that continues to ripen in new interesting directions: currently Ford is set to star in a Yellowstone prequel alongside Mosquito Coast (1986) co-star Helen Mirren – a fitting choice, it seems – returning to the world of the TV cowboy, where it all began. Only this time the carpenter in him will no doubt be rebuilding that archetype from the ground up with his usual aptitude for the human condition, in all its conflicted capabilities and idealized heroic authenticity. Happy birthday Harrison Ford. From all your fans, please remember:
“It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.”