In anticipation of the newest instalment of the Indiana Jones series, I elected to view the original trilogy back to back last night, to fully remind myself of what a young me, and indeed several young others across the globe, had fallen so in love with, and whether they still stood as strong works.
It seemed strange that I cannot remember having seen an entire Indy film straight through in maybe 12 years, I would always be catching snippets when they were re-shown on the telly, but I never did seem to watch a whole Indy film through. So this was both an experiment and a long-overdue reunion of sorts.
There was some debate over what order to watch them in; their release order (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), or a chronological order (Temple being a prequel to Raiders). This opened up a whole can of worms such as what to do about the River Phoenix sequence from Crusade and how to avoid mentioning The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (which I seem to recall as being charming but then it has been a very long time). Release order was thus opted for.
Raiders requires no defence, it remains a perfect gem of fun. If anyone could be accused of over-acting in it, then everyone can; it’s too brilliantly silly to take seriously, yet the actors never betray their characters for a moment. What is perhaps most notable is that after the opening sequence there are in fact only two relatively brief action sequences; the streets of Cairo with the swordsman and the baskets, and the removal of the Ark by truck from the Egyptian city. Thus, for a blockbuster, Raiders of the Lost Ark must be almost one-in-a-kind in that there is no major action sequence in the final 20 minutes (albeit a major special effects sequence in which the Nazi stooges get their comeuppance). Indeed, for such an impressive heroic figure Indy doesn’t even do away with the villains – their arrogance undoes themselves. And yet from the moment the film ended in 1981 Indiana Jones was instantly considered one of the greatest screen heroes there ever was, based not just on his athleticism and bravery, but on his intelligence, wit, style and grouchy demeanour. These are the markings of a true popular hero.
Temple of Doom gets a lot of stick, being the weakest of the trilogy, and it deserves a lot of it. There seems to have been a misunderstanding over what made Indy so popular in Raiders; Lucas, Spielberg and co. went for the purely action adventure with comic asides and cut all the academics, a move that might have helped popularise Indy further, but rather made him appear more of a substandard 1930s James Bond, a mercenary boy scout who simply stumbles into adventures, each more daring, thrilling and sexy than the last. Adding insult to injury is some of the least subtle slapstick in the series (a ludicrous “bong” sound is heard when a villain is struck on the head with a mallet, for example), and two leads, Willie Scott and Short Round, who seem to showcase everything wrong with George Lucas characters, and in their own terrifying ways foreshadow Jar Jar Binks. The first half of Temple is inexcusably dull, but the second half features some terrific sets and sequences and should be lauded for that.
The third film, The Last Crusade, tends to challenge Raiders as people’s favourite. It is the most globe-trotting of all the Indy adventures, features the most subtle villains (including Hitler) and while it reduces Sallah to a smaller role than he had in Raiders (although Rhys-Davies continues to revel in it as he is known to do), it gives a lot more time to the wonderful Marcus Brody (to be one of Denholm Elliott’s last performances) while also introducing Connery’s Henry Jones Sr, a remarkable addition to the series that has alas been unavailable for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The finale, in which Indy tackles three progressively preposterous (though evidently progressively less potentially fatal) booby traps only to meet the most British of 12th Century Frenchmen is a terrific ending to the series. The disintegration of the villain after drinking from the wrong grail is followed by the borderline-droll comment by the knight, “He chose… poorly.” – one of the best lines in the entire trilogy.
So as we welcome the fourth film in the Indiana Jones franchise, what have we left behind us? Temple is an enigma in that the events told in it are neither mentioned ever again nor do any of the characters ever reappear. We can only hope Indy dumped Willie at the first opportune moment, though we can only fear that he sold Short Round into child slavery on reaching Delhi (wouldn’t you?). Aside from the charisma and bombast of the series (summarised utterly in John Williams’s main theme) what really stands out are the superb sets (particularly in the latter two films), the casting, and some great-for-the-time special effects. Yes, the deaths of the villains in Raiders and Last Crusade look terribly dated now, but that didn’t stop them from scarring the childhoods of thousands of young boys and girls! Mola Ram’s death in Temple is accompanied by the dire editing decision to intercut a leaping crocodile as he plummets off the cliff face. That said, the death of the body of Nazi extras in Raiders by Ark-induced lightning looks superb even by today’s standards, while a moment such as that in Last Crusade where Indy shoots three Nazis through with one bullet rivals the uber-stunts of today’s action films.
Regardless of the reception of Crystal Skull, which may reinvigorate or kill off the franchise for good, the series has earned its pop-culture status and quite frankly, when viewed as a whole, is a must-see in both cinematic exercise as well as being an important event in film history.
Indiana Jones may be the only human character in any blockbuster movie who alone was more of a crowd-pleaser than all the stunts, explosions and special effects that money could buy.