Imitation of Life

Most Memorial Day moviegoers flocking to their local theaters to catch the latest Indiana Jones flick did so without realizing that the movie adventurer portrayed by Harrison Ford hero was in all likelihood modeled on a once-famous American explorer who today is all but forgotten.

Few Americans today even remember Roy Chapman Andrews, whom many believe to have been the real-life model for the movie adventurer, but his was once a household name in this country. He was so famous, in fact, that when his dog died, The New York Times ran an obituary on the dog. Andrews was a legend to boys like me from southern Wisconsin back in the ’50s because as a boy, he too roamed, fished and hunted the shores of the Rock River.

Later, Andrews graduated from Beloit College just down the road and went on to become perhaps the most famous paleontologist not only of his era, but of all time. He led armed expeditions to the largely unexplored Gobi desert in Mongolia in the ’20s, unearthed the remains of hundreds of dinosaurs and had to shoot his way out of numerous scrapes with warlords and bandits as he searched for more.

Andrews knew from childhood just what he wanted to do with his life. He became an accomplished self-taught taxidermist even before entering high school, and after graduating college famously made his way to New York City seeking a position at the American Museum of Natural History. He was granted the courtesy of an interview, but informed that the museum had no openings.

Andrews politely disagreed, pointing to a “help wanted” ad that had appeared in that morning’s New York Times classifieds. The museum was seeking a janitor and if that was all that was available, he was their man. His shocked interviewer pointed out that the young paleontologist was “overqualified” and wouldn’t be very happy pushing a broom, but Andrews insisted, got the job and before he finished was running the show as the most famous director in the museum’s distinguished history.

In the interim, he led expeditions that would make Indiana Jones proud, worked as a spy for the government during the Great War, wrote dozens of books, including books on dinosaurs for children that were gobbled by kids like me who couldn’t get to New York, but ogled the exhibits at Chicago’s Field Museum wondering what it must have been like out in Mongolia.

In the ’20s and early ’30s, Andrews led expeditions discovered the first nests of dinosaur eggs and dozens of new species of dinosaur and uncovered fields of remains that are still being processed today. During one of these expeditions, Chapman and his fellow adventurers awoke to discover nearly 50 of the world’s most poisonous vipers in their tents and at various times had to contend with sandstorms, wild dogs and the bands of armed bandits that roamed the region in those days.

Chapman, like the movie character, was deathly afraid of snakes, fearless and, most of all, lucky. He nearly drowned as a child, survived typhoons at sea and a lifetime of harrowing experiences. Even before being beset by dozens of vipers, he was almost done in by a jungle python that measured more than 20 feet in length. He was moving through a jungle when his guide told him to stop as the python was hanging from a tree just a few feet in front of him. Andrews quickly drew his gun, fired wildly and the gigantic snake fell at his feet with a bullet in the head. When he wrote his memoirs, he titled the book Born under a Lucky Star.

When the first Indiana Jones movie opened, I realized that no matter what the producers might say, Harrison Ford was playing Andrews. Andrews was often pictured in life wearing what could have been the very jacket and hat Ford wore in the movie and was rarely without the rifle he carried on his numerous expeditions. In addition, like Ford’s character, Andrews led a life that mixed the sedate and, one assumes, relatively boring existence of a desk-bound museum administrator and writer with the rip-roaring adventures of a man who would go anywhere and take any risk to uncover secrets. Who else could it have been?

They say that life imitates art, but watching Harrison Ford in these movies and remembering my boyhood admiration of Anderson, I’ve always believed that sometimes it’s the other way around.


Keene is chairman of The American Conservative Union, whose website can be accessed here.