Starring Harrison Ford in the title role, the latest (and reportedly last) in the series of Indiana Jones movies, ‘Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny’, arrived in UK cinemas this week.  We take a look at two larger-than-life explorers who bear more than a passing resemblance to his swashbuckling character.


Harrison Ford on an Indiana Jones movie set


William Montgomery McGovern


In February 1923, William Montgomery McGovern was feeling extremely pleased with himself.  Aged only 25, the American-born anthropologist had managed to get himself into Lhasa, Tibet’s ‘Forbidden City’, in disguise.  Since the withdrawal of Chinese forces in 1912, Tibet had closed its doors firmly in the face of all foreign visitors, which only acted as a goad to explorers like McGovern, who thrived on risk.      


William Montgomery McGovern (National Portrait Gallery)


McGovern was an extraordinarily intelligent young man who had studied at Oxford, Berlin, the Sorbonne, and a Buddhist monastery in Japan.  He spoke Chinese and Tibetan fluently, and longed to witness for himself the splendours of the Potala Palace and its enigmatic inhabitant, the Dalai Lama.  Taking little in the way of food except three tins of Quaker oats and five pounds of sugar because he had a very sweet tooth, McGovern hired some porters and started out from Darjeeling. 


With a logic understood only by himself, he chose to travel in January, which meant battling through snow-bound passes in the Himalayas.  The following weeks saw him sleeping on exposed hillsides, sometimes covered with thick snow, and nearly dying of starvation and hypothermia.  He was wearing the traditional, well-worn garb of a Tibetan traveller, but he went to extreme measures to change his personal appearance, squeezing lemon-juice into his blue eyes to darken them, dyeing his hair and beard black, and rubbing walnut juice into his skin. 


Despite all these efforts, McGovern’s prolonged absence from India had been noted and the news spread.  Soon, warrants were out for his arrest.  Suspecting as much, he went to great lengths to avoid discovery whenever his party passed through a village, either riding on ahead or walking quickly between the ponies and mules with his head down. 


Miraculously, McGovern and his companions got into Lhasa without arousing suspicion, but found that the Forbidden City was teeming with thousands of visitors celebrating the Tibetan New Year.  Lodgings were hard to come by as a result, so with breathtaking nonchalance McGovern hired a second-floor room in a house occupied by Government officials.    


Lhasa’s western gate, photographed in 1904

No one, as yet, had glanced twice at his appearance, but that was about to change.  Before he met his landlord in person, McGovern encountered his dog.  The animal took one look at him, and sensing something strange, started yapping incessantly.  In different circumstances it might have been comical, but McGovern realised that his game was well and truly up.  He had no choice but to reveal his true identity. 

Having achieved the nigh-impossible, McGovern was quite proud of himself and felt sure he could brazen out the consequences.  His bravado lasted until, minus his disguise, he went to meet his landlord and found that he was the very official who had issued orders to search for him and turn him back.  As McGovern gazed at the man’s astonished face, he realised that the fall-out could be very nasty.  With a grim sense of irony, he wrote:  ’What wild freaks the goddess Chance plays upon us at times!’

Perhaps the official, named Sonam, had a good sense of humour;  at any rate, he didn’t hand McGovern over to the authorities.  Instead, they smoked a couple of illicit cigarettes together, and within a short while Sonam had been so won over that he was arranging McGovern an audience with the Dalai Lama.  McGovern was under oath to keep the resulting discussion secret, but he described the spiritual leader as having ‘a great quietness, and even modesty, about his manner.’ 

But McGovern couldn’t meet the Dalai Lama without other people getting to know his identity.  An angry crowd gathered beneath the window of his lodgings, throwing stones and yelling for vengeance.  McGovern’s answer to this was to renew his disguise, slip out through a back entrance and join them in hurling abuse at his own window.  Eventually, his holiday of a lifetime came to an end and he was firmly escorted back to India.

This was just the first of McGovern’s adventures, which also took him to the Amazon Basin and Peru.  During the Second World War he was a military strategist and political advisor to the US Government;  he worked as Assistant Curator of the Anthropology Department at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and was appointed Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University in Illinois.  As a lecturer, his brilliance and eccentricity earned him a kind of cult status, and this has tempted comparisons with the movie portrayal of Dr Henry ‘Indiana’ Jones, a Professor of Archaeology at the fictional Marshall College. 

Newspaper cutting from November 1923, announcing a forthcoming RSGS lecture by George Knight in February 1924 (RSGS archives)

There’s no direct connection between McGovern and RSGS.  In February 1924, a talk was expected by George Knight, described as ‘leader of the Expedition on which Dr W M McGovern acted as Scientific Adviser.’   This is slightly misleading because (according to McGovern’s account, at least), Knight led a short and abortive attempt to get into Tibet, in which McGovern was included, and when this expedition was forcibly turned back McGovern decided to try again on his own.  In any case, the Scottish Geographical Magazine reported that Knight was unable to come and give the appointed lecture.  Meanwhile, The Scotsman ran a serialised account of McGovern’s story in September and October 1923, under the title ‘Through Tibet in Disguise’, which is preserved in RSGS archives.


Frederick Mitchell-Hedges


An explorer who came back from South America with a crystal skull must surely be a leading candidate as a real-life Indiana Jones.  Born in London in 1882, the young Frederick Mitchell-Hedges dreamed of going on daring adventures in exotic locations.   He was certainly not cut out to be a stockbroker in New York, as his father had hoped.  He got into serious trouble after making some dodgy financial deals and headed swiftly south to Texas, where he worked as a cowboy. 


Crossing into Mexico in 1913, Mitchell-Hedges was captured and imprisoned by bandits who were fighting under Pancho Villa, a Mexican revolutionary.  He only avoided being executed by firing squad when, on the spur of the moment, he sang an off-key rendition of ‘God Save the King’.  Villa spared his life but ordered him to fight for his cause, which he did for 10 months until he was shot twice in the leg. 


With the outbreak of the First World War, Mitchell-Hedges returned to Britain, intending to sign up for military service, but was rejected because of his injuries.  So he did what he had always wanted to do:  he went back to Central America and started to investigate lost civilisations.  In Honduras, he found artefacts that, he argued, could have originated in a fabled empire such as Atlantis.  Then, in the 1920s, he turned his attention to Lubaantun in Belize (then British Honduras), where a ruined Mayan city was being excavated. 


Mitchell-Hedges’ version of the story was that he discovered the site, which is not strictly true.  Although he may have helped to reveal some parts of it, the ruins had been known to archaeologists since at least 1903.  There were new discoveries still being made, however:  fascinating features and artefacts were being unearthed all the time, and Mitchell-Hedges claimed to have uncovered an area extending to about six square miles, with stone pyramids, terraces, burial mounds and an amphitheatre. 


Mayan ruins in Belize


Hundreds of treasures were sent back to museums in London and New York, but by far the most extraordinary item that Mitchell-Hedges laid his hands on was a crystal skull.  The item was skilfully carved out of clear quartz, and had a detachable jawbone.  This, he announced, was the Skull of Doom;  it was at least 3,600 years old and had been used by a high priest during the performance of esoteric rites. 

It sounds impressive, but the discovery of the skull is clouded with mystery.  There is an alternative version of the story, which tells how it was actually found by Mitchell-Hedges’ adopted daughter, Anna, who had accompanied him to Lubaantun and discovered it on her 17th birthday.  Much later, in an interview for an American newspaper, Anna recalled being lowered on ropes through a narrow tunnel infested with scorpions, to retrieve the skull.

It is impossible to know whether Mitchell-Hedges was living in a dream world of his own making.  His first reference to the crystal skull occurs some 20 years after he claimed to find it, and there is a suggestion that he may actually have purchased it from a London art dealer in the 1930s.  To complicate the situation still further, there are at least two crystal skulls in existence, one of which is in the British Museum, and one that was in the care of Anna Mitchell-Hedges throughout her life.  The former is believed to date from the 19th century;  the latter, in the varying opinions of experts who have examined it, may be anything from 90 to many thousands of years old. 


A crystal skull in the British Museum.  In the film script of ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’, Indy says that he and a friend were ‘obsessed’ with the Mitchell-Hedges skull when they were at college 


During a series of radio programmes aired in New York, Frederick Mitchell-Hedges described how he met little-known tribes in the Central American rainforest and had hair-raising encounters with dangerous animals.  He wrote books entitled ‘Danger, My Ally’ and ‘Battles with Giant Fish’.  On the island of Roatán in the Caribbean, he said that he had dug up three chests of pirate treasure.  Boredom was obviously not a familiar experience for him.  He wrote:  ‘Life which is lived without zest and adventure is not life at all.  It is a state of being half dead.’

When Mitchell-Hedges gave lectures for RSGS in November 1926, he described his excavations in Belize and tried to give an impression of the immense scale of the ancient ruins he had explored:  a building the size of St Paul’s Cathedral, and terraces comprising 20-ton blocks of stone built high on a hill, defying any explanation as to how they could have got there.  He also spoke about some of the huge and grotesque fish he had encountered in the ocean, and claimed to have caught a swordfish weighing two and a half tons.


RSGS lecture programme for 1926-27, showing Mitchell-Hedges as a guest lecturer in Aberdeen (RSGS archives)


Everything about Mitchell-Hedges’ life seems to have been flamboyant, and he must have given his listeners plenty to think about on the way home.  But a century or so after his crystal skull allegedly saw the light of day for the first time in thousands of years, audiences are looking forward to watching a strikingly similar character return to the big screen, whip-cracking his way through the kind of perils that no one ever knew existed in archaeology, and fighting off truck-loads of villains with a panache that Mitchell-Hedges would surely have admired very much.

It should be added that the original creators of the Indiana Jones movies, film-maker George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg, have never identified any specific people on whom the character was directly based.



Reference & quotes: 


William Montgomery McGovern, To Lhasa in Disguise (1924)

The Scotsman, Through Tibet in Disguise by W M McGovern, September and October 1923 (RSGS archives)

Frederick Mitchell-Hedges, Danger, My Ally (1954)

The Scotsman, 18th May 1926 (RSGS archives)