Like Star Wars, and again the brainchild of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the Indiana Jones trilogy is a classic and highly-regarded set of films harking back to old-fashioned pulp magazines and serials, and referencing the likes of King Solomon’s Mines and adventuring hero Doc Savage. It wears its influences on its sleeve and a self-aware nostalgia runs throughout the series (sometimes to its detriment).
But unlike Star Wars, the story is not one continuous line with constantly evolving recurring characters. Rather, it’s more like a trio of episodes, not even presented in chronological order. This makes it easy to pick up without having watched previous films, but perhaps denies the characters their full potential and feels like less of a complete journey. Continuity is presented with self-referential jokes, and occasional recurring bit characters, such as Marcus Brody and Sallah. It is our title character, and his ideals, alone that link all the films.
Modestly titled Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first Indiana Jones film was released in 1981 and went on to win five oscars and spawned two further films. AND ONLY TWO.
Raiders of the Lost Ark – “It’s not the years; it’s the mileage.”Any good Action-Adventure film relies on its tight set pieces to keep us on the edge of our seats and the Indy films are some of the finest examples in cinema. It’s fitting then, that the opening sequence of Raiders is one of the most iconic. The special effects, stunts and make-up lends all three films, but Indy’s tomb raiding in Peru especially, a viscerality (yeh, that’s a word) that still holds up today. There’s a surprising amount of gore throughout, considering its PG, family-friendly reputation, whilst an emphasis is also placed on real creatures, real stunts and visibly real effects. Real tarantulas crawling over Alfred Molina’s back; real snakes in the Well of the Souls; real fire in Marion’s bar; real ghosts escaping from the ark; real peoples’ faces melting, etc. Perhaps it is in a modern context that these special effects seem so charming and old-school “authentic”, but even the revealing of the seams, as it were (such as the stone bouncing down from the pyramid), add to its modern appeal while tying it to its pulp influences.The reveal of Dr. Jones is wonderfully camp, but very apt for the mood of the film. Having the faceless hero for the first five minutes is effective tension-building, whilst enhancing the character’s importance (although let’s be honest, everyone knew it was Han Solo with a bit of stubble beforehand anyway). It’s this straight-faced campness that provides the general feel of not only Raiders (other examples being Toht’s coathanger of doom and Indy’s infamous shooting of the Cairo swordsman), but the whole series. It feels as if it’s the negotiation of this that decides the quality of the films. Whilst we’ll talk about Temple of Doom later, it is here that this campness often descends into silliness.Despite the tongue-in-cheek tone, the characters, and therefore their relationships, are highly plausible. This is most notable between Indy and Marion. Their initial frustration with each other and their eventual tryst upon Catanga’s boat feel appropriate and believable, despite the ridiculous nature of their surroundings. This is due in most part to good chemistry and good writing. Marion herself is a strong character independent of our archaeologist hero: she wins a drinking contest; hits people over the head with a frying pan; and single-handedly outwits Belloq to name but a few instances.The cinematography and use of lighting is often actually quite Noir, which reinforces the 1930/40s influences and general feel. The use of shadows, interesting angles and close-ups is most notable in the Cairo scene between Indy and Belloq, with the extreme out-of-focus close up of Indy’s side profile during their heated conversation. This intense filming style coupled with the spectacular set pieces (the car chase in particular comes to mind) gives Raiders its diverse and yet well-paced arcs.
Raiders of the Lost Arcs.
In the face of all this action and romance and general “rompiness”, there is actually quite a strong cerebral theme running through not only Raiders, but the whole series: Reason vs. Faith. Indiana Jones at the beginning represents Enlightenment and Reason. By the end, thanks to his experiences, he has Faith and, ultimately, is God-fearing. Just before the Ark is locked away in the warehouse we hear him say: “They don’t know what they’ve got there.” He isn’t just referring to the Ark’s historical significance, but also its religious power. He, despite himself, believes.
To our minds, Raiders of the Lost Ark is definitely the best of the three films. It’s Indiana Jones in its purest form. It aims, simply, to entertain and succeeds with flying colours.
1) Jock Lindsey, the pilot with pet snake Reggie.
2) Marion Ravenwood
3) Marcus Brody
4) Indiana Jones
5) Simon Katanga, for also being Kingsley Shacklebolt in Harry Potter.
6) Sallah, for also being Gimli.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – “SHUT UP, WILLIE!”
Temple of Doom is a prequel to Raiders and, as such, there’s no character continuity for Indy (and none of the supporting cast from Raiders). Although there are self-references in terms of visual jokes or tropes, such as reaching for the his gun when greeted by intimating swordsmen (referencing the Cairo gag in Raiders) and tipping his hat down while on a flight, these barely add up to much consistency with the previous film. And the consistency of quality is also lacking.
Temple opens with such promise – a snazzy Shanghai speakeasy (the Obi Wan Café), shady deals with criminals, a shoot-out, a car chase, and a great visual joke at the end of the set piece: this feels like classic Indy.
We’d also like to take a moment to talk about Wu Han, Indy’s Chinese adventuring partner who dies in the first few minutes. His appearance is short and, seemingly inconsequential were it not for his vital role in the 2003 video game Indiana Jones and The Emperor’s Tomb as well as the extended literature of the Indy franchise. He is one of Dr. Jones’s oldest friends (reputedly meeting him for the first time in 1914) and his death, and the epic quote that comes with it (see caption below), feels like a climax to a film we’ve not seen. It’s a shame that the film we do get to see doesn’t involve David Yip’s phenomenal portrayal of Wu Han.
What we do get is the worst character ever: Willie. It’s rare that most of the faults of a film can be put down to one character and one performance, but Temple achieves this in spades. From the off, there’s no chemistry between Indy and Willie, she provides nothing to the story or the cause, rather gets in the way, embarrasses, and complains. This is such a shame after Karen Allen’s wonderful performance as Marion in Raiders. To have Indy’s female companion reduce to simple (unfunny) comic relief is lazy and dramatically lessens the quality and depth of the film. One can’t help but feel that Kate Capshaw’s relationship (and eventual marriage) with director Steven Spielberg went some way to her continued inclusion and extensive screen time.As well as Willie, we also get Short Round. Rather unfairly maligned by most people, Short Round isn’t that bad. A bit like the Ewoks. The character itself is fine, but the writing around him is rather flimsy. His declaration of love for Indy is just a bit…. what?… why?… In fact, during the 10 minutes or so when Indy is under Mola Ram’s evil spell, we are basically watching Short Round and the Temple of Doom, which is slightly strange for the audience to have no real main character. And that fucking theme tune. You have three years to come up with some good new motifs Williams, and that’s what you have to show for it? The overarching mission in Temple places far less emphasis on “the journey”; there is less globe-trotting or a real sense of direction, more a “let’s travel this way and hope we come across these scared village stones and then perhaps free the children who are mining for some reason”.
It is also in Temple where the old-school adventure serial homages verge on flat-out racism, with its colonial undertones with the British cavalry saving the day, evil turban-wearing people and funny, gross-out foreign food gags for the benefit of white people. In the other two films, the antagonists are Nazis (you know, those racist guys), which makes them unquestionably hatable.This is not to say that Temple is all bad. As said, the opening sequence is excellent; the sets and the general aesthetic are good; Harrison Ford’s performance continues to be strong, at times carrying the entire film; Wu Han is a genius for crying out loud; and with scenes such as the mine cart chase being a major influence for some of the external franchise (video games, graphic novels, lego, etc). Weirdly, Temple of Doom is arguably the most influential in this regard.
The main flaw of Temple is its aforementioned negotiation of tongue-in-cheek vs. serious. It deals too much the extremes, jarring between lighthearted Willie and Short Round moments and heart-ripping, child enslaving lava pits.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: “Does anybody here speak English?”The Last Crusade is the third and FINAL Indiana Jones film, and a return to form: Nazis, Christian mythology, starting in Barnett College, and an iconic soundtrack.
We start in a flashback, in Utah in 1912. This opener is just the sort of departure Temple of Doom strived to give us, but here Young Indy’s adventures have resonances with the previous films and the story to come in a way that feels consistent but not over-wrought. River Phoenix’s performance is solid as Young Indy. The chase along The Train of Destiny (where all of Indiana Jones’s tropes, from the whip to the fear of snakes, are established) is silly, as it all happens at once, but strangely suitable. The relationship between the tongue-in-cheek and the serious has been resolved. The nameless fedora-wearing hero after whom Indy models himself is representative of what Indiana Jones the franchise owes to retro western and adventure serials. The handing over of the hat could be seen as a symbolic handing over of the genre’s mantle.The whole film is more focused. The concept of the Holy Grail is presented early on, and the link with Indy’s father provides further solidification. Using an object like the Holy Grail, which already has an established mythology surrounding it, means less work has to be done to draw us in, unlike Temple where the main focus is on the Shankara Stones and we’re all like… yeah…. them….
Again, we return to globe-hopping and with it, the “red line on a map”. Travelling to familiar places such as Venice, Berlin, and Petra, gives the whole thing that aspirational adventure novel feel. The use of recurring characters from Raiders, namely Marcus Brody and Sallah, confirms the desire to hark back to the first film. It’s excellent to see more of these characters, having understood what they and Indy have already been through. That consistency of relationships is something the whole series has been lacking up to this point, and it’s great to finally get it. Also, they provide well-tempered comic relief. Indy’s speech (in the video below), followed by Marcus’s response remains the funniest moment in the trilogy.
Our antagonists are complex and well-written. Firstly, Elsa “blonde-but-definitely-not-a-Nazi” Schneider has great chemistry with Indy and her motives (and their arc) stretch across the whole film and feel believable and almost comparable with both Indy and Belloq from Raiders. Equally, The Brotherhood of Cruciform Sword are shady and effective providing not only people to have a boat chase with, but progression of the story and deepening of the Grail myth. Much like Elsa, Walter Donovan presents a hubristic alternative to Indy’s philosophy. In fact, it’s the similarities between our villains and our hero which make them interesting.The casting choice of Sean Connery is inspired. This introduction to the father/son relationship establishes a history and fleshes out Indy’s character into more than simply a pastiche (you find out his actual name!). Last Crusade is definitely where the franchise becomes more self-defining. And as such, the characters become deeper, more interesting and more real. So, Indy’s Scottish? However, once again, Indy’s belief in holy power, despite the events of Raiders, seem to have been reset. And the ark only nodded to in a side joke within the Venetian catacombs. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and adds to episodic nature of the entire series.
1) Marcus Brody, for everything he’s given us.
2) The Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword
3) Garth “Fedora”, for being Indy’s role model and for dressing in clothes that will still be fashionable in twenty years.
THE FINAL WINNERS
Plath No. 1: Indiana Jones
It’s something of a rarity that Number One Plath goes to the main character (or indeed anyone within the main supporting cast) but Indiana Jones is one of the most successful protagonists in a franchise. He is consistently entertaining, being both funny and heroic. His straight man act in Temple of Doom is the only thing to get the audience through the badly written and performed comic moments with Willie and even in his more ridiculous moments (being possessed by Mola Ram, and scuppering a whole ship in twenty seconds at the beginning of Last Crusade), Harrison Ford’s performance is so straight-faced and believable that he carries us through all the lunacy and extreme action. He is the heart and soul of these films and, really, the reason they’re so good.
Honourable Mention: Guy Changing Tyre.
Well that was short. Round.
Shit No. 1: Willie Scott
Well, Temple of Doom is pretty much dominating these overall lists. Willie, as much as we love her… oh wait. If she was replaced with Marion, Temple would be a vastly better film. But it’s not. As Willie Scott is in it.
And we couldn’t be bothered to get another picture. She’s taken up enough space already.
The Indiana Jones trilogy is two thirds successful. Temple of Doom is a good idea in terms of a departure within the trilogy, but in practice, falls flat. In fact, if it weren’t for Last Crusade to redeem the trilogy, Temple (and the franchise as a whole), may have been regarded in an even more negative light.
But, thanks to the first and third films, Indiana Jones is a phenomenal set of movies and sets the standard for Action-Adventure to this day. Most notable are the stunts and special effects which, in today’s era of CGI and green screen, are a welcome slice of reality. Indy has gone on to inspire a whole generation of films and games, with the likes of Tomb Raider and the Uncharted games, as well as The Mummy and National Treasure films (for better or worse).
The good, most definitely, outweighs the bad and these films MOST CERTAINLY DON’T BELONG IN A MUSEUM. HAHAHAHAHAHA.
SEE YOU TOMORROW, INDIANA BLOG.
Trilogy Rating: ★★★★