Before jumping into thinking about the four Indiana Jones movies again, I should say that these movies as a collective mean as much to me as any movie out there. More than the first Star Wars trilogy? Maybe. There is certainly an argument to be made. The first two movies especially made a dent in my imagination, as I was probably the perfect age to absorb Indy and his adventures (9 for Raiders, 12 for Temple of Doom). I know those two movies as well as I know… anything, probably. The action beats, the dialogue, the various facial tics of the actors are all as familiar to me as breathing. When I used to have trouble falling asleep, I would recreate the entire movie of Temple of Doom scene after scene, from the opening at Club Obi Wan until I fell asleep (usually before Dan Aykroyd made his cameo).
So I just got this new Blu-Ray set, and yesterday I sat down and watched the first two Indiana Jones adventures. They both look great, but I’m not the guy to knowledgeably discuss the sound or the picture. As I said, they looked good to my eye. But how does 39 year old me feel about these movies that I love so much?
Raiders of the Lost Ark
First off, none of this Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark nonsense. The opening credits still list it as simply Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that’s good enough for me. As for the movie as a whole, yeah, it holds up.
Raiders belongs on a short list of perfect movies. There is no flaw that I can find. Sure, there are some effects stuff that looks dated, and you can still see the pole that makes that one truck flip over in Marion’s “death” scene, but story-wise, character-wise, momentum-wise… there are simply no competitors to Raiders. Feel however you want about the other three movies in the series, but each has (at least) one deficit that prevents it from breathing that rarified “perfect movie” air.
The way that it is put together seems effortless, which is probably why watching it is the fastest two hours you can spend with a movie. You hear about action moving the story forward? Here is that idea done about as well as you can do it. That opening scene, which is remembered (rightly) as the best of the series, not only introduces the hero in the coolest way possible (close-ups, silhouettes, and bullwhips), but it also finds a way to introduce the main villain of the movie and establish a backstory with him and Indy, all in maybe three lines of dialogue. Oh, and it also provides one of the most iconic images in film, that of a giant boulder rolling after Indy, dialogue that has been absorbed into pop culture (“Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip”), AND it establishes the hero’s Achilles Heel, his fear of snakes. The fact that this is all done in less than 15 minutes continues to amaze.
That economy of storytelling continues through the entire movie. The scene in which the two government officials task Indiana with finding the Ark is an incredible piece of exposition, giving the audience everything they need to know about the Ark’s history and power, why Hitler wants it, and what will happen if he gets it. Established in this scene are the story beats for the rest of the film: the stop in Nepal for the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra which will lead to the Map Room of Tanis which will lead to the Well of Souls, where the Ark is supposedly hidden. So plot-wise, this scene plants a bunch of seeds that come to fruition later. Not to mention that we also find about Indy’s history with Marion Ravenswood and her father, Abner, all in a scene that lasts less than three minutes.
I keep mentioning time and how little of it Raiders needs to get the job done. As I said, I think it is a perfect movie and that has a lot to do with how little fat this movie has on its bones. In terms of directing and editing, Raiders is something to behold.
One of the themes that I remembered but never really gave much thought is that of Belloq and Indiana being two sides of the same archeologist coin. Belloq states that he is “a shadowy reflection” of Indy, and that it would only take a slight nudge to push our hero into the darkness. Watching this again, he kind of has a point.
The Indiana Jones of the first movie is an obsessive in terms of the artifacts in which he pursues. Take the golden idol that he loses to Belloq in the opening scene- the first thing that he says to Marcus Brody upon his return to the US is how he can get it in Marrakesh and that all he needs is a little more money. Harrison Ford’s delivery here is almost like an alcoholic in need of a drink. But notice also how his obsession with the lost idol shifts as soon as the government officials dangle something more valuable, the Ark, in his face.
Indy is so obsessed with finding the Ark, in fact, that he leaves his lady tied up in the desert so as not to ruin his chances of getting to it. Yeah, he says he’ll come back for her, but the guy just found his girlfriend after thinking she was dead in a tent, only to gag her and leave her to Nazis. Later in the movie, he has the chance to destroy the Ark (along with the entire cast of the movie), ensuring Hitler will not get it. His respect for antiquities and a speech from Belloq prevents him from doing so, leading to the Wrath of God face-melter of an ending to the movie.
But consider that for a moment. Indiana had to believe that he was allowing the Nazis to take the Ark back to Germany after the opening ceremony, as he had no way of knowing that by opening it every Nazi would die. In fact, he would have to at least consider the possibility that he and Marion would be killed as well, as he had some culpability in the fact that the Ark was no longer in its resting spot in the Well of Souls. So by this logic, Indy is allowing Hitler that Ark, all because he can’t bring himself to destroy an ancient artifact.
I don’t consider this to be a plot hole; in fact, I think it says a lot about who Indiana Jones is in the original movie. As the series went on (aside from Temple of Doom), the tone got lighter and Indy got softer. But here, in Raiders, we got my favorite version of Indiana Jones: improvisational, determined, and just a bit ruthless.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Say what you want about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but at least it took the heat off of Temple of Doom as the worst entry in the series. In fact, I think that fourth movie really helped people to appreciate what was once the definite black sheep of the Indy series.
Now, that is an opinion that I have never shared; I loved and continue to love Temple of Doom. I find it to almost work as a (very) physical comedy on the grandest of scales, with the laughs coming from the ingenuity and invention of the amazing action set pieces that pile upon one another rather than attempts at “ha ha” from the filmmakers.
See, that is something about the movie that hardly gets mentioned. The action in this is pretty insane, with the last 35 minutes or so achieving some sort of fever pitch of rising action, the stakes escalating as Indy and the gang try to escape the Thuggee cult. I would say that Temple of Doom, more than any other entry in the Indy series, delivers best on the relentless action for which the movies are famous. The mine car sequence is the ultimate rollercoaster ride, I would assume intentionally, but my favorite moment on this rewatch was when Indy and Short Round were trapped in the collapsing room with the spiked ceiling. The way that plays out is so well edited, that even now I find myself laughing at its timing and character beats.
There are, uh, problems with the movie. What is mentioned often is how dark and violent the whole affair is. This is true; you probably don’t want to show this movie to anyone under 10 or 11. But I’m not sure why Raiders gets off so easy in this regard; it is no picnic in terms of violence. Aside from the face-melting and exploding heads of the finale, you have a close-up of Alfred Molina impaled through the forehead and throat, a man being shot point blank in the face, and a dude chopped up in a plane propeller.
Sure, Temple of Doom takes it a bit further, what with the hearts being ripped from the chest and so forth, but I think the main problem was that the main victims in the second one were kids. Maybe parents didn’t want a summer movie where a child actively prays for death to Indy. Still, I don’t think anyone should have been too surprised that Steven Spielberg was capable of this sort of thing. Didn’t anyone remember Poltergeist two summers earlier?
So there is the violence. But perhaps a bigger problem is the character of Willie Scott, “American female vocalist” and all-around whiny pain in the ass. To be fair, I think she was written that way and I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job with the role than Kate Capshaw could, but man… I think Indy said it best: “Biggest problem with her is the noise.”
I suppose another criticism could be that the Sankara Stones, the McGuffin that fueled the plot of Temple of Doom, was not as compelling as the Lost Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail in Last Crusade. I’ve got no argument there either. But Temple of Doom deserves more respect than it gets, and here is why: It is the only movie of the four that doesn’t follow the same beats as the original. It goes its own way and tries something different, right down to the opening credits. Temple of Doom is the only one of the series that veers in terms of the typeface used (and I love the title-jump, with Willie literally blocking some of the letters of the movie’s name).
I love the originality of it, and while there are things to love about Last Crusade, my feelings were always that if it tried a bit too hard to be Raiders. Temple of Doom has no interest in being anything like the first one, and that is something to be admired.
Check back for a re-look at Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull!