Growing up in the 1970s and 80s was a wonderful time to be a kid that loved science fiction and action movies, and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas created some of the greatest movies of all time. In 1977, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were both in Hawaii. Steven told George that he was interested in making a James Bond film, George replied that he had an idea which was “better than James Bond”. In 1973, George had written The Adventures of Indiana Smith. Steven loved the idea calling it “a James Bond film without the hardware” but changed the characters name to Jones. And the rest is history. The films have captivated audiences for 40 years now, with four movies and a fifth on the way, TV shows, books, comics, and video games. The franchise is firmly embedded in pop culture. The films are meant to pay homage to the classic serials that Lucas grew up watching.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the first film in the series, takes place in 1936. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), an archeology professor and tomb raider, is hired by the US Government to locate the Ark of the Covenant, before the Nazis find it. The Ark is a biblical artifact that is rumored to make any army that carries it invincible. With the help of his ex-lover, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) and friend Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), they recover the Ark, but it is stolen from them by the Nazis. Indiana and Marion are captured and bound while the Ark is open, but the power it unleashed kills everyone but Indiana and Marion as they realize that if they do not look then they will remain safe. Surviving the ceremony, the Ark is given to the government and hidden away in a huge warehouse along with other artifacts that need to be forgotten.
I was twelve when Raiders of the Lost Ark came out and I remember seeing it in the theatre with my childhood best friend and his family. I remember being amazed and in awe of the film. It was a non-stop roller coaster ride of adventure and intrigue. Just like most boys of that age, I wanted to be Indiana. It is a movie I have watched repeatedly, and it still captivates me. The globe-trotting script is wonderfully reminiscent of the old serials of the 1940s, the story flawlessly flows smoothly from one locale to the next and the scenes are laced intricately together and the actors were all perfect in their portrayals. Although it is interesting that none of them were the initial actors that were intended to be cast. For Marion, Lucas wanted Debra Winger, but she was uninterested, and Spielberg wanted to cast girlfriend, Amy Irving, but she was unavailable, so the part went to Allen. Danny DeVito was originally offered the role of Sallah, but he was unable to commit due to his filming schedule for his series Taxi, Rhys-Davies was cast based on his performance in the 1980 miniseries Shogun. For the lead, Lucas wanted a relatively unknown actor to play the part of Indiana. The casting director wanted Jeff Bridges, but Lucas’ wife thought Tom Selleck would be better. Tom was contractually obligated to play Magnum P.I. if the series got picked up. Tom was still set to play Indiana, but when CBS greenlit Magnum, Raiders of the Lost Ark lost its lead, just weeks before filming was to start. Spielberg thought Harrison Ford would be perfect, Lucas agreed, but was worried he would seem reliant on Ford, he also didn’t think Ford would do it, as he would be contracted into a 3 picture deal. Harrison on the other hand, thought it would be fun and agreed. How different would the movie had been with a cast of Tom Selleck, Amy Irving and Dany DeVito? Who knows if it would have had the same impact?
Raiders is now considered one of the greatest films of all time and has been entered into the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) is the only film in the series to not show Indiana at his university or any antagonistic political entity. It was less focused on archeology with a darker plot, including human sacrifices and torture. The second movie in the series is actually a prequel, taking place in 1935, one year before Raiders. Indiana escapes Chinese gangsters with the help of Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) and his sidekick, Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan), but they end up getting stranded in an Indian village where all the children have been kidnapped by the Thuggee led by Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) who has also stolen the sacred Sankara Stones, whose power will help them take over the world.
This film is much darker, and it is speculated that it mirrors the mood of its creators. Both Lucas and Spielberg were going through bitter divorces at the time. I was in my teens when the movie came out and I remember leaving the theatre a bit disappointed. It didn’t have what I call the “woo woo” feeling. That amazing feeling you get when you see a movie that reaches deep into you and touches your soul. The movie is not bad and in retrospection, I really like it. But there was a subtly that was lost in the script and replaced with a darker more violent tone, and the story didn’t flow as well as the first film. It is interesting to note that this and Gremlins are the films that prompted Spielberg to suggest an adjustment to Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system, which it did, two months after this films release, added the new PG-13 rating.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) is the third film and returns back to Nazis and biblical artifacts. Indiana is enlisted by philanthropist, Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) to find the Holy Grail, Indiana’s father, an expert on the Grail, goes missing. The Grail is the legendary chalice used by Jesus during the last supper and is rumored to grant immortality to anyone who drinks from it. Indiana is joined by Sallah (John Rhys-Davies reprising his role) museum curator Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) and Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) as they travel the world once again to rescue Henry Jones (Sean Connery).
The movie brought back the lighter tones with less gore and violence, and for me, it brought back that “Woo Woo” feeling. It had the perfect mix of comedy, drama and action. With Sean Connery playing the perfect foil to Harrison’s Indiana. The story flowed beautifully from location to location and the movie is just a joy to watch. We also get to see why Indiana is the way that he is, and much of his past is explained.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) diverges from the biblical artifacts again and into a new realm, quite literally, with the story focused on trans dimensional aliens. The film takes place in 1957, 19 years after The Last Crusade. Battling Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) Soviet agent during the start of the “Cold War”, Indiana journeys across Nevada, Connecticut, Peru and Amazon rain forest with his best friend Mac (Ray Winstone) and new comer, Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) as they try to help Professor Harold Oxley and Mutt’s mother, Marion, who have been kidnapped by the Soviets in an attempt to obtain the secrets of the “Crystal Skull”. An alien skull believed to have psychic powers. Mutt’s mother Marion (Karen Allen reprising her role from the first film) turns out to be ex-lover Marion Ravenwood and Mutt is Indiana’s son.
The fourth movie is the weakest of the four, in my opinion. The performances are all very good, and there are some definite moments that are fun and exciting. My main problem is, they treated Indiana as if he had not gotten any older. He looked older, but they had him doing the same type of stunts he was doing 19 years earlier. There were many stunts where it was beyond obvious that it was a stunt double. The script was a bit more absurd and not as subtle as the first three movies. The best part of the movie is seeing Marion and Indiana reunite and the playful banter reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A fun movie and not bad on its own, just weaker than its predecessors, at least in my opinion. I know many people who disagree and really love this movie.
One of the things that links all the movies is the incredible musical score done by John Williams. The beautifully crafted music so reminiscent of the old serials added so much to the series. You can hardly think of Indian Jones without the theme music popping into your head. The amazing John Williams is a master at using music to heighten the emotional impact of a scene, causing your heart to race in action sequences and helping you fall in love when characters lovingly look into each other’s eyes or bring tears to your eyes during the tenderest of moments. Many modern movies opt for pop songs, but I believe that nothing can replace music that is actually crafter for a movie and specifically for the exact moment it is being used for. John Williams is a national treasure.
This is one of those amazing film series that every time I watch it instantly takes me back to my childhood and early adult years. It is hard for me to fathom that Raiders of the Lost Ark turned 40 this past June. I remember it so vividly and it really seems like just yesterday I was a 12 year old boy on the edge of my seat in a theatre watching a movie that would become a pop culture sensation. The magic of the perfect cast and an amazing creative team helped make something that defined a generation and gave so many like me, the very needed escape and a hero to look up to, even if that hero is a bit flawed.
I know there is an untitled fifth movie planned for 2022 with what looks to be an amazing cast. I sincerely hope that they give Indiana the sense and respect his age deserves.
Indiana Jones: 40th Anniversary Retrospective
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